Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

The Case for Mindfulness-Based Approaches in the Cultivation of Empathy: Does Nonjudgmental, Present-Moment Awareness Increase Capacity for Perspective-Taking and Empathic Concern?

Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

The Case for Mindfulness-Based Approaches in the Cultivation of Empathy: Does Nonjudgmental, Present-Moment Awareness Increase Capacity for Perspective-Taking and Empathic Concern?

Article excerpt

Empathic responding, most notably perspective-taking and empathic concern, has important implications for interpersonal functioning. While empathy training approaches have received some support for a variety of populations, few extant interventions have targeted empathic responding in couples. Mindfulness- and acceptance-based behavioral approaches, for couples as a unit and/or for individual family members/partners, are proposed as an adjunct to empathy training interventions. Preliminary findings suggest that the viability of these interventions for increasing empathic responding should be further investigated, and specific suggestions for this line of research are offered.

The case for mindfulness-based approaches in the cultivation of empathy: Does nonjudgmental, present-moment awareness increase capacity for perspective-taking and empathic concern?

Consider two scenarios. In the first, "Megan" returns home after a busy day at work. She has at least several hours of work to do to prepare for an important meeting the next day. She has also been fighting a bad cold and spent many hours the previous night worrying about a close family member's health. Her husband, "Michael," is already at home and, as soon as she walks through the door, Michael launches into a story about how stressful his day was and how inappreciative his boss is of the time and energy he has been putting into his projects. Megan immediately recoils, and as she is seemingly listening to the ins and outs of Michael's complaints about his boss, she experiences an internal dialogue along the lines of, "I've heard this so many times. Doesn't he get that I have my own stress to deal with? Besides all the work I have to do for the meeting tomorrow, I have three reports due Thursday and on top of that, I must call to make appointments for the boys to get physicals for spring sports. I wanted to stop at the supermarket to pick up some pasta to make with dinner, but I ran out of time. Oh well, dinner is not the most important thing. I really hope everything is okay with Mom. I am concerned that she hasn't called." The next thing Megan knows, she is staring at Michael talking animatedly about an unexpected encounter with a friend and she has no idea how he moved to that topic or about anything else he said during the past 5 min. She knows that when she questions him about some of the details, things will escalate into a fight and, as usual, they will both end up feeling hurt and not heard.

Scenario two: Megan returns home after the same busy day at work with the same stressors and concerns on her mind and Michael greets her with the same needs. However, as Megan begins to listen to Michael's story, she first takes a moment to observe her current emotional and physical state. She notices that she is especially tired, and that she is having a somewhat typical thought process related to the fact that Michael's greeting suggests that he does not understand that she has her own stressors to contend with. She brings awareness to these thoughts with an "oh, there I go again," and, reminding herself of her values to really listen to those she is closest to and to share her own needs and concerns, she refocuses her attention on Michael's story. Megan notes that Michael seems unusually wary and that his facial expressions and the tone of his voice indicate that something might really be upsetting him. She quickly considers several options and decides to say, "Honey, it sounds like this is really important. Would you give me a few minutes to go get changed and to decompress and then we can talk while we pull dinner together? I have a lot of work to do tonight, but I want to make sure that we get a chance to catch up for at least a few minutes. It sounds like you had a rough day and I would like to hear about it. I have some things on my mind I would like to share with you as well."

We can easily imagine the probable differences in reactions on Michael's part to the first and second scenarios. …

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