The Role of Empathy in DBT WorkReading Time: 5 minutes
by Leigh McInnis, LPC, Newport Executive Director
The nature of a healthy, harmonious relationship is that it is mutually beneficial. Both individuals feel assured that they are worthy of being heard, voicing their opinions, and having their wants and needs considered. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) offers the tools to allow this ideal to become a reality, through ongoing practice.
DBT provides essential skills and guidance to reinforce harmony within all of a young adult’s relationships—with family members, friends, and romantic partners as well as colleagues or classmates. Woven throughout this approach is the role of empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
DBT Skills for Reconciling Opposing Viewpoints
DBT teaches three primary sets of Interpersonal Effectiveness skills, and empathy plays a role in all of these skills.
- DEARMAN (Don’t Let Your Emotions Run Your Life) is a helpful script with reminders of what to say when you are requesting a want or need. The DEARMAN approach encourages individuals to consider mutual benefits as opposed to just the benefit to oneself.
- GIVE (Gentle – Interested – Validate – Easy) provides guidance on how to engage in a conflict with someone, with the intention of maintaining the relationship. The entire premise of GIVE is to speak in a way that invites the other person to want to engage with you. This involves demonstrating interest in their side of the conflict, and working to understand and validate their experience.
- FAST (Fair – Apologies – Stick to Values – Truthful) reinforces self-respect by encouraging you to remember your values, to be truthful, and to not have double standards. Fairness is reinforced in FAST—and putting yourself in another’s shoes allows you to have realistic expectations for them, and to engage compassionately with them.
Ultimately, sharing our viewpoints connects us to others, even if they don’t agree with us. Practicing empathy supports us to foster relationships in which it is safe to have and express opposing viewpoints.
5 DBT Tools for Practicing Empathy
Whether you’re having a difficult conversation with someone who doesn’t share your views, or working through a conflict within an intimate relationship, DBT skills can help. Here are three Interpersonal Effectiveness tools for enhancing empathy and connection that can be used in everyday interactions.
- Consider what will be gained and lost on each side. What are the wants and needs of the other person in the relationship? What is the impact of what you’re requesting on that person? Would the fulfillment of your request benefit both of you, or just you?
- Validate the other person’s perspective. Demonstrate your willingness and desire to understand their point of view, without an ulterior motive. Invite them to express their perspective, and communicate your respect and understanding, regardless of whether your viewpoints align.
- Hold yourself to the same standards you expect from them. That means giving the other person the same opportunity to share their beliefs and opinions as you expect from them. If you believe you should be treated fairly and spoken to with respect, offer this to the other person as well.
- Balance give and take. Are you pushing forward your opinions and beliefs more than the other person, or do you feel there’s not enough space in the relationship for you to express yourself? Be mindful of how much you are sharing rather than listening, and work toward a more equal exchange.
- See what you can let go. Some topics may cause so much stress and divisiveness that you may have to decide whether it’s more important to you to maintain the relationship, or to continue expressing your opinion or beliefs. Can you move forward by focusing on your shared values and experiences, even if you’re coming from opposite sides of the spectrum?
Effective Communication Involves Both Emotions and Logic
DBT teaches that both the emotional mind and the logical mind are essential to engaging in everyday life and responding to problems. The goal is to use the two minds to think and act wisely. Both are essential: Tapping into the emotional mind allows each person to better understand their emotional needs in the situation, and supports them to connect with each other on that level and empathize with what the other is going through. Activating the logical, rational mind helps to effectively communicate those needs.
“Once I better understand the source of my emotion, I can use my logical mind to consider whether my anger is justified, the best way to effectively communicate that anger, and my desired outcomes once I do.”
For example, if I am angry and I lash out at someone before stopping to think about it, I’m likely to feel guilty and remorseful. Instead, I can use my emotional mind to recognize and label what I’m feeling (anger, in this case) and then to look deeper to consider what is beneath the emotion. What about the other person’s viewpoint is making me angry? Does it threaten my belief in or attachment to my own perspective on the situation? Am I feeling imposed on or taken advantage of? Is this feeling based in truth?
Once I better understand the source of my emotion, I can use my logical mind to consider whether my anger is justified, the best way to effectively communicate that anger, and my desired outcomes once I do. As a result, I’m more likely to communicate what I’m feeling in a way that people will hear and respond to, and thus more likely to feel understood and fulfilled. Utilizing our wise mind—both emotional and logical—allows us to make the most effective response to a situation, enhancing self-knowledge and strengthening relationships in the process.
How Cultivating Empathy Supports Mental Health
One of the most painful and detrimental aspects of trauma, depression, substance abuse disorder, and other mental health issues is a deep sense of isolation. Furthermore, loneliness and the feeling of being unseen and misunderstood can catalyze or exacerbate mental health issues. Healing this isolation is key to recovery. As journalist Johann Hari puts it in his TED Talk “Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong,” “The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. It is connection.”
Empathy is a tool for that connection—it communicates a willingness to step outside of yourself and to consider the impact of your words and behaviors on others. In this way, we cultivate community and mutual understanding not just with the people we agree with, but with all humans. Practicing empathy with the support of DBT empowers young adults to strengthen their relationships and build self-respect, as they learn to treat others as they wish to be treated, and to understand them as they want to be understood.