One of my most beloved of teachers during my training had a saying that has stayed with me throughout the years. He used to talk about how, in terms of human interactions, the problem wasn’t what he called “getting into trouble.” The problem was more how “to get out of trouble.”
What my teacher was referring to, of course, was the myriad of relational problems any two people can, and will, experience. There are countless ways that misunderstandings occur. One person says something and those words can sometimes convey an entirely different meaning to the other person. A client described to me how he attempted to be helpful to his girlfriend, tried to say something encouraging to her. However, the effect was anything but helpful or encouraging. It’s not that either person was wrong. It’s just that there are so many multiple understandings possible, and people hear and speak through so many lenses of past experience. As my teacher was saying, it’s easy to get into trouble.
So the focus is more on getting out of trouble. And that is where empathy comes in. I have found that the best way to heal such interactions is through the use of empathy: for each person to understand the other. In the example I cited above, for my client’s girlfriend to understand his intention. He thought that he was being helpful; he was trying. And for my client to understand the effect of what he said on his girlfriend: she felt unsupported, criticized. In this way they are understanding how they got into trouble and paving the path for getting out of it.
I find this basic concept so helpful when working with both individuals and couples. People often feel irritated, frustrated and hurt from such interactions. And certainly we need to focus on those feelings. (There can be too much trouble in a relationship; that is a different problem.) But if we can understand what happened, and have a perspective that takes into account that such misunderstanding do happen, it’s the nature of human relations, then we can focus on the task of getting out of trouble, or repair and healing.