Empathy and Interpersonal Relationships 

Students in Courtney Putnam’s integrated learning course that links English 101 and College 101 participated in small group “empathy projects,” which involved both primary and secondary research at Cascadia. Here, students in the “Empathy in Interpersonal Relationships” group present and interpret their research findings.

By Cascadia students Nick Bray, Gracie Gasca, Michelle Johnson, Chandler Pelk, & Jake Strieb

From our encounters with strangers to our closest bonds, empathy is intertwined in many aspects of our daily lives. A lack of empathy is a dangerous deficiency in any relationship, whether it be romantic or platonic, and it is a crucial quality for mending any conflict which may come up. Looking at how empathy makes up the interpersonal relationships of the people here at Cascadia, we conducted several interviews with different students, staff, and faculty members.

Empathy Defined in Interpersonal Terms

In their article, “Empathy in Intimate Relationships: The Role of Positive Illusions,” Dijikstra et al define empathy as “…an emotional response of compassion and concern caused by witnessing someone else in need…Empathy also plays an essential role in the development and maintenance of pair bonds…the main reasons for this is that empathy forms a key aspect of emotional support, a strong correlate of relationship satisfaction…” (Dijikstra, et al 477).

Literature Review

We then found a few different studies that helped us create the hypothesis and interview questions. The studies that we have chosen found that empathy is a key factor in any successful relationship, whether it is a romantic relationship, a friendship, or a familial relationship. Through every relationship there is conflict at some point. Individuals with higher levels of empathy have been shown to be able to resolve the conflict in their relationships more successfully than others. In romantic relationships, this often led the men to avoiding discussion of the conflicting issue until absolutely necessary. In conflict, Susan Whitbourne describes the three pathways to “empathic understanding” (Whitebourne) These are the “Bias” pathway, which involves you assuming that the way you feel is how your partner feels, the “Truth” pathway, which involves you digging deep into the clues your partner provides to truly understand how they are feeling, and the “Conflict” pathway, which involves a better understanding of your partner’s feelings through the conflict itself. Conflict seems almost necessary to close interpersonal relationships, as the “Conflict” pathway results in the deepest emphatic reactions in people. (Whitbourne). An interesting result from our research is when Lam speaks about the development of empathy, after many research attempts, they were unable to find a clear factor in the development of empathy in children. Some children showed marked growth in empathy during puberty stages, some showed none, and some even showed a drop in empathy (1658).                                                   

Hypothesis

Looking at the information these studies have brought us helped us decide on a hypothesis: The greater the level of empathy in our interpersonal relationships, the more effective and strong the relationship will be and the more constructive the conflict in our relationships will be.

Research Methods

After we decided on a hypothesis regarding empathy in interpersonal relationships, we decided to conduct six interviews containing six different questions pertaining to empathy and interpersonal relationships. For the interviewees, we had one student, two administrators, two faculty, and one staff. We conducted all of the interviews over email towards the end of February 2017.

Results

To begin our research, we asked each of our interviewees how they defined empathy. This allowed us to be sure they came to the interview with the correct understanding of the concept. All six participants accurately defined empathy. Two out of the six interviewees directly explained how empathy differs from sympathy, one stating that empathy is a “step beyond sympathy.” Next we asked them to state some of the positive and negative impacts that empathy has on their interpersonal relationships. Both the student and faculty member mentioned growth (both as an individual and relationally) to be a positive result of empathy. Half of the participants expressed that having empathy in their interpersonal relationships leads to efficient conflict resolution and less instances of conflict altogether. One faculty member believed, “It is harder to fight when you understand or experience what the other person is feeling.” Two out of the six also explained how good communication is a positive result of having empathy. When asked how empathy could have a negative impact on their interpersonal relationship, all participants seemed to have an understanding that any negative impact can also be seen in a positive light because it shows growth in that particular relationship. Empathizing when it is not reciprocated was also seen as a challenge from two of the participants.

To understand how our participants came to understand empathy, we asked each of them to explain how they were taught this concept growing up or if it was displayed for them. All six participants could not declare that empathy was explicitly taught or even defined. Three out of the six remembered their mother’s being the main model or teacher of empathy for them. The phrases like “there are two sides to every story” and “the world does not revolve around you” were given. The other half of the participants shared that it was mainly modeled by love in their family and empathy was a natural result of this love. One faculty member also shared that her experiences involving music, art, and going to museums growing up might have had an impact on her “willingness, often eagerness, to see things from a view other than [her] own.”

When asked how their empathy differs from their familial to personal relationships all members saw the correlation between greater levels of empathy with people they are closer with. Three out of six participants believed they have greater levels of empathy when interacting with their family versus with their friends. One administrator explained that she came from a family that lacked in their communication skills, which led her to better empathize with her friends. She also tends to make assumptions about her family members because she knows them so well but these assumptions often prove to be inaccurate. The remaining two participants believe the type of interpersonal relationship has no impact on their level of empathy. To one staff member, “Empathy is empathy.”

Half of the interviewees claim to be consciously aware of empathy on a daily basis. The student who was interviewed professed that she is always aware of her empathy because of the conflict she has experienced in the past. One faculty member considers herself to be consciously aware of empathy but this ability came with age and is something she is continually working on. The other two out of six explained how they make attempts to be a “supportive listener” and try to be aware of their actions but are not conscious empathizers.

Interpretation and Next Steps

Based on the sampling we did on the six members of the Cascadia community, our hypothesis that interpersonal relationships that actively practice empathy tend to be stronger and have constructive conflict was proven. Each of participants seemed to have a solid understanding of what empathy is and the benefit of enhanced communication and smoother conflict resolution it brings when put into practice in their interpersonal relationships. Although it is important to note that none of the participants can remember being exclusively taught empathy growing up, which could of had a weakening effect on their full understanding of it today. The interviewees all agreed that empathy comes more easily with those you have close interactions with. One response given suggested that when this person experienced past conflict in a relationship they were readily able to empathize when conflict arose again which links back to some of the findings in our research, that people who had previously been in conflict exhibited higher levels of empathy for the people they had been in conflict with. Additionally, only fifty percent of the participants can confidently profess that they are consciously aware of their levels of empathy in regards to their interpersonal relationships on a day-to-day basis. With these findings, we can assume that our community is on an upward path to becoming active empathizers but more awareness needs to be made on how to properly empathize with people we may not be in constant communication with.

The Cascadia community understands how important empathy is and the value it brings to interpersonal relationships in solving and even sometimes avoiding conflict. However, more practice needs to be implemented into their daily lives. The majority of the participants interviewed could easily remember a time in their past when they made assumptions about one’s feelings that matched their which created conflict in the relationship. As Susan Whitbourne pointed out, this is the biased pathway and is not an indicator of empathy (Whitbourne). We think it is important to actively think about empathy when interacting with those closest to you. When both members of the relationship not only continually assess the other person’s feelings and experiences but also go the extra step to consider how it would make them feel: conflict will be avoided or diffused. The tool you can use to practice or deepen your level of empathy in your interpersonal relationships is to never assume that the other person’s feelings and experiences match your own (Whitbourne).

In the future, more research needs to be to explore the role of sibling relationships and overall family dynamic in relation to empathy. As our secondary research suggested, siblings closer in age tend to have higher levels of empathy than only children or siblings further apart in age (Lam et. al). Unfortunately our limited research format did not allow for us to completely dissect this aspect of interpersonal empathy but it would be interesting to see how this truth could impact future romantic relationships.

Bibliography

Dijkstra, Pieternel, Dick P.H. Barelds, Hinke A.K. Groothof, and Marnix Van Bruggen. “Empathy in Intimate Relationships: The Role of Positive Illusions.” Scandinavian Journal of Psychology 55.5 (2014): 477-82. Web.

Lam, Chun Bun, Solmeyer, Anna R., and McHale, Susan M. “Sibling Relationships and Empathy across the Transition to Adolescence.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 41.12 (2012): 1657-670. Web.

Pinkus, Rebecca T., Penelope Lockwood, Tara C. Marshall, and Hyea Min Yoon. “Responses to Comparisons in Romantic Relationships: Empathy, Shared Fate, and Contrast.” Personal Relationships 19.1 (2012): 182-201. Web.

Sened, Haran, Iftah Yovel, Eran Bar-Kalifa, Reuma Gadassi, and Eshkol Rafaeli. “Now You Have My Attention: Empathic Accuracy Pathways in Couples and the Role of Conflict.” Emotion (2016): Emotion, 2016. Web.

Whitbourne, Susan Krauss, Ph.D. “The 3 Pathways to Empathy in Close Relationships.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, 7 Feb 2017. Web. 22 Feb 2017.

 

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