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Empathy for Long Term Relationships

There are a lot of relationships you can walk away from in life, but the relationship with your mom is always there. Sometimes it's a sanctuary of support and sometimes it's a tangled knot of stress. How can you create more support and connection with mom?

My mom and I use to have a relationship that was more a tangled knot than anything else. We talked about once a month for fifteen minutes before ending the conversation in frustration. When I learned Nonviolent Communication (NVC) I decided this was the place to really put it into practice. I realized that empathy for mom was the only place to start.  I decided that I wouldn't get on the phone with my mom unless I had the patience to hear the feelings and needs behind all she said.  Phone call after phone call I just gave empathy, often to the very same statements or questions:

Mom: "You are supposed to take care of your little sister. Did you go check on her yet?"

Me: "You're really worried about her"

Mom: "Yes, are you going to go check on her?"

Me: "It's frustrating not have communication with her and not knowing how she's doing. It hurts when she doesn't call."

Mom: "Yes, why doesn't she call me?!"

(I did let her know when I would get a chance to check on my sister, but not until I had really heard her feelings and needs.)

And then there were the "shoulds":

Mom: "Why don't you go back to working as a school psychologist? You're wasting your education."

Me: "Sounds like you're worried about me and want to know that I have the money I need to support myself."

Mom: "I don't know why you are doing what you're doing, you should get your old job back."

Me: "It's confusing for you, hard to understand why I wouldn't want that stable income."

The conversation went on like that for a half hour or more - for six months. And then something loosened and there was a space in her for me that hadn't been there before. I remember clearly the first time she asked with genuine interest and openness: "Are you happy with your life?"

"Yea, mom, I am." "Okay," she said. Through my acceptance of her she found trust and acceptance for me.

After this shift I was able to use honest expression to let her know what was and wasn't connecting for me in our conversations and she could hear and honor my requests.

My mom and I talk every week now and we really enjoy each other.

Take a moment now to reflect on the relationships in your life in which you are devoted to creating more connection.  Is there someone for whom you would be willing to meet with empathy every time you interact?  Would you be willing to stay committed to empathy in the midst of criticism or challenges?  If yes, remember to interact with this person only when you really have the physical and emotional resources to respond with empathy.

click here for a list of feelings and universal needs and an empathy guide.

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1 Response

  1. Jan 28, 2010
    Mark Hashizume

    I find that I do not want to make the long term effort to create such a connection. It is emotionally easier to avoid even with permanent people in my life such as my brothers. This is what I grew up with. This is what I am use to.

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