When you are upset, you likely yearn for someone who will listen without judging or trying to fix you, and perhaps responses that gently nudge you in the direction of restoring your sense of belief and hope in yourself or others, perhaps life. Everyone needs this from time to time. Its like the refresh button on the computer.

What word describes this feeling? Empathy.

Empathy is what helps you connect to your compassion in ways that can turn problems into joy-filled great relationships.

According to Dr. Al Kasziniak, empathy is:

  • Feeling what another person is feeling.
  • Knowing what another person is feeling.
  • Responding compassionately when another is in distress.

The amazing work of neuroscientists such as Marco Iacoboni reveals human beings are neurologically wired for empathy and — an innate moral nature. The same brain circuits are mobilized whether feeling ones own pain and others, and merely observing someone performing a certain action activates the same areas of the brain in the observer.

The special neurons that make this possible are known as mirror neurons are linked with the experience of empathy, compassion and learning.

Not surprisingly, the ability to remain empathically connected, especially in challenging moments when you are triggered, is a key attribute of partners in strong, healthy marriages.

In contrast, the absence of an empathic connection is what underlies arguments and distressed relationships. Without empathy, fears and anxieties about human drives for love and recognition in your relationships, etc., activate defensive reactions. It disturbs your sense of safety and trust when the empathic connection in your relationships is thrown off balance.

And, when it comes to anger, guess what? Conflict is healthy for the brain. Whereas overwhelming emotional stress has a reverse effect on the development of brain cells, it appears that low levels of stress — and yes, even conflict — stimulate new cell growth. In one study of young children during periods of conflict, noted neuroscientist Allen N. Schore found more development occurred at this time.

Here are five steps to calm anger with empathy. Whether youre angry or just annoyed, these steps help you to remain calm, present, connected with what is going on inside of you (i.e., thoughts, feelings), so that you can listen empathically to what underlies your own or anothers anger or pain.

PROBLEM: Your partner gets upset and yells, Youre never serious and Youre always fooling around! How would you stay empathically connected to self and him/her so that you remain calm, confident present?

1. Stop. Breathe. Set an Intention. The first step, to pause and take several deep breaths, helps to center your attention in the present moment. It also gives you an opportunity to use the power of your imagination to set an intention for what you optimally want in the situation, at minimum, be sure to set an intention to empathically listen, understand and connect from start to finish. Imagine that you feel great about the rapport you maintained at the end of the communication.

2. Notice your self-talk. Observe what you are telling yourself inside your head. Look for judging or blaming thoughts, such as What a jerk he/she is and, setting these aside, refocus on your set intention to empathically listen, connect, remain a calm presence. Remind yourself that what your partner said has more to do with what is going on inside of them than you (so choose to never take anything personally)!

3. Connect with your feelings and needs. Connect with your feelings and needs to validate your experience. What are you feeling? Where do you feel these feelings in your body? What do you need in this situation? Remind yourself that if your inner talk blames, judges, negatively labels the other, i.e., “What a jerk,” this risks that you will get triggered.

Use the following format to connect to what is going on inside you:

When I __ (observation), I (feeling) __ because (need) __.

For example:

When my partner said Youre always fooling around, I felt hurt because I was just being funny to help him/her lighten up and I want him/her to see and recognize my good intentions.

4. Connect with the others feelings and needs. Now connect with what is going on inside the other by guessing what they may be feeling or needing emotionally in the situation to feel safe. One possibility may be that he/she felt frustrated because in that moment he/she wanted to be taken seriously, and thus interpreted your humor as not caring about his/her feelings. (You wont know for sure until you check by verbalizing your guess.)

Use the following format to guess inside what the other may be feeling.

I wonder if he/she feels _____ because (need) _____?

For example:

I wonder if he/she feels upset because he/she wanted me to recognize how important this issue was to him/her.

5. Verbalize your guess. Check your understanding of others feelings and emotional needs with a question.

“Are you feeling upset because you wanted understanding of how important this issue is to you, and really wish I would stop joking?

Its a simple choice between looking at and shifting your thoughts and emotions inside to calm your body and mind, or allowing defensive programs take control. Is it easy? No, yet when you realize the power of empathy, you realize how infinitely capable you are to create positive shifts in your relationships.

It can feel great, in a comfortable, confident and calming way.


Iacoboni, M. (2007) “Neuroscience Will Change Society,” EDGE, The World Question Center. Retrieved January 20, 2011, from the World Wide Web: http://www.edge.org/q2007/q07_8.html.

Schore A. N. (2003). Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self. NY: W. W. Norton.