Your Curiosity Barometer
How do you know if you’re ready to give empathy or, instead, you need empathy?!?
Before answering that question, let me first recap what empathy is and why it matters in relationships.
Empathy is a warm, curious desire to be present for another person and to make best efforts to understand what it is like to be them. Sounds simple, right? And it is so powerful. Empathy is like relationship glue. It makes us feel connected, understood, and that we matter.
But you’re not always ready to give empathy. And sometimes you need empathy.
How do you know?
In my experience, one of the best ways, and one that I use over and over in my relationship coaching, is your ‘Curiosity Barometer.’ Just like a physical barometer, your internal curiosity barometer allows a quick check-in to assess “how are things for me right now?”.
It goes like this: Silently to yourself, you ask “How curious am I about the other person’s experience right now?” And then you answer it. If the answer comes back quickly and forcefully that “I don’t care” , then that reading on your curiosity barometer indicates that you may need empathy and probably not the time to offer it to someone else. On the other end of the spectrum, your response might sound something like “I want to know what it’s like to be them right now. How are they feeling? What is motivating them to show up this way?” That reading indicates that you’re probably ready to give empathy. Of course, there is a spectrum of responses in between.
I have tried and use a variety of other techniques too, but this is the quickest, easiest, and accurate way that I know to check in with yourself.
But what do you do when you check your barometer and your curiosity is low even after receiving empathy? There are multiple options to reconnect to your curiosity as a foundation for re-connecting with the other person:
- Pause and remember that the other person is making choices and acting in ways to get their needs met. Similar to you. You don’t do things for no reason, right? They might sometimes be unskillful or impulsive choices or actions, but there are still reasonable needs as the motivation.
- If it’s someone with whom you have a longstanding relationship, pause to recall the goodwill between the two of you. Intentionally remember times with this person when they contributed to your needs for support, care, and understanding. The relationship is much bigger than this one situation now.
So ready to give it a try today? Some options:
- Maybe start with a stranger who is doing something that is confusing to you
- A friend who does something that stimulates mild to moderate irritation
- When your romantic partner does something that stimulates some low-level frustration
What you’ll notice as you use the curiosity barometer over and again is it is not just a matter of the event that is happening. Your curiosity towards the other person’s experience will vary based on how resourced you are, including how much energy you have, how stressful your day has been so far, how supported you feel, how enlivened you feel, if you are experiencing upset, et cetera. And it will vary based on your past experiences with the respective person (e.g., goodwill, resentment, grudges).
If it speaks to you, give it some tries and make it your own. It is a wonderful tool in your relationship toolbox. And when you feel skilled with it, you can use it when you are upset with your partner to see how ready you are to be a source of empathy.
And if your reading on the curiosity barometer indicates a need for empathy, what do you do? It may be a need for rest or recharging, if it is a matter of being resourced. Self-empathy is an option that is available to you many times. Or asking a loved one that you trust for empathy. With the latter, it is very important to be clear and direct about what you are needing, such as “I am requesting that you to listen to me and really try your best to understand what it is like to be me. I need your care and presence right now. I want to be heard by you. In this conversation, I don’t need your advice or for you to fix anything for me.”