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Dr. David Fawcett

In my previous post to this site, we discussed the fact that most addicts lose at least part of their ability to feel and display empathy. The good news is that this loss is not permanent. Empathy can be reestablished with a bit of time and effort. The following skills are useful to practice when strengthening empathic abilities.

Learning to Recognize Feelings in Others

People communicate their feelings in many ways. The most obvious is through verbal language. When really trying to connect with what someone is saying, it is necessary to put aside any distractions. Put down your phone, stop looking around at other people, quiet your mind from distractions, and really focus on the person speaking with you.

Many partners report frustration and hurt at trying to speak to the addict, only to see the addict’s eyes moving around the room, obviously distracted by something or someone. For important conversations, I ask couples to set aside dedicated time to speak. If it’s not convenient in the moment, ask to schedule a time in the near future when you can sit down and have a discussion. It can be helpful to face each other, hold hands, and make direct eye contact.

Focusing on Body Language

It is important to pay attention to non-verbal communication, as well as what is spoken. Be aware of the other person’s body language, as well as your own. Norms for body language and communication tend to be cultural, so the meaning of waving, nodding, pointing, or gestures may vary. Direct eye contact can also vary across cultures. Facial expressions, however, tend to be universal across cultures. No matter what the setting, be sensitive to the appearance, words, and feelings you get while communicating with the other person.

Dr. David Fawcett is the author of Lust, Men, and Meth. He is currently writing an accompanying workbook and a more general book on the interplay of substances and sexual behavior.

You can also learn to express yourself through body language. You can let the person know you are attending to their words and feelings with your body language. Lean in to listen carefully, nod your head when something makes sense.

Recognizing Body Sensations

We have more emotional neurons in our gut and around our heart than in our brain. So pay attention to what your body is telling you. Most addicts learn to ignore their body sensations and have to re-learn this skill.

Understanding Conversation Guidelines

There are some guidelines that can improve your ability to experience empathy in conversations. First and foremost, refrain from giving unsolicited advice. In most cases, people just want to be heard and witnessed; they do not want feedback or for you to provide a solution. They just want to be heard. Try not to hijack the situation with statements such as, “Let me tell you about a time that happened to me.” Instead, convey nonjudgmental kindness while listening to their words and, if it seems appropriate, ask if they would like feedback from you.

Identifying Touch Boundaries

As you work on building empathy, you must be sensitive to touch. Some people, especially those with a history of sexual abuse, may not want a hug or any touch, even if it is meant as a gesture of kindness and support.

Using Imago Principles

Imago couples therapy[i] has a very useful communication dialogue that improves the quality of communication by slowing the process down. There are three main steps to this:

  • Mirroring
  • Validating
  • Feeling/expressing empathy

The purpose of mirroring is to be certain that the speaker’s (sender) words have been accurately received by the listener (receiver). In conversations, especially where it has become heated, people don’t often hear what the other person said because they are in a reactive mode. When mirroring, the listener repeats what they just heard and asks something like, “Did I get that right?” Once the speaker indicates the message was accurately heard, the listener can ask, “Is there more?”

The second step in the Imago dialogue process is to validate what you just heard. In this step, the listener conveys that what was said makes logical sense by saying, “I can see how you would feel that way,” or, “That makes sense to me because….” If the statement does not make sense to the listener, it’s fine to share what doesn’t make sense and to ask for more details or clarification.

The third and final step is to empathize. With this, the receiver takes a guess as to what they imagine the sender might be feeling. If this has already been stated, the receiver can reflect that back or add something else that they think the sender might be feeling. Empathy can be conveyed with a statement such as, “I can imagine you feel…,” with words such as happy, excited, scared, frustrated, not cared for, etc.

Once the Imago cycle is complete, the roles reverse and the receiver/listener becomes the speaker/sender. At first, the process can seem frustratingly slow, but as it is practiced, couples typically find that it reduces both communication errors and the distractions that can quickly derail a serious conversation.


[i] Hendrix, H. and Hunt, H.L. (1988). Getting the love you want: A guide for couples. New York: St. Martin’s.