Column: Empathy vs. efficiency

Ted Wiard


This weekly column seeks to help educate our community about emotional healing through grief. People may write questions to Golden Willow Retreat and they will be answered privately to you and possibly as a future article for others. List a first name that grants permission for printing.

Dear Dr. Ted:

I continue to try to work with communication within my relationships and especially in my relationship with my partner as we find ourselves together so much more with this pandemic. I see how important it is to have communication and yet it seems, sometimes, we are speaking different languages. Sometimes when my wife is talking to me, she seems upset with my response, even though I listened and came up with solutions. This leads to high levels of grief! Please give me something to ponder pertaining to relationships.

Thanks, Arron

Dear Arron,

During this pandemic time and spending more and more time together, it makes sense that there may be a need to increase tools for communication within our intimate relationships as well as communication in general.

In healthy relationships, there will be times that you disagree or bump into challenges of how you navigate one another. This is where true intimacy happens as you learn how to honor different ways to do things with the outcome being a win-win.

If each person gets stuck in their own way and is not open to other ideas, there is a wedge built that can grow into a canyon of disconnect. Or the differences are ignored, but anger and resentments grow, building stagnation, isolation and the impossible job of trying to read each other's minds.

There may be a deafening silence as these issues are ignored, causing stagnation in the relationship. This stubbornness and lack of willingness to communicate is similar to Dr. Seuss's north-going Zax and south-going Zax, in which the two run into each other and neither one will budge from their path, so life leaves them behind due to their lack of communication and flexibility!

Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor in psychology and author of "How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain," talks about how to communicate with partners. She says the most important element of healthy communication is to know what the partner is needing or looking for from the conversation. Two areas of discernment are if they are looking for empathy or solutions.

Quite often, a partner is asking to be seen, heard and valued and is not looking for a solution, only a safe place to process, share, connect and be valued for the feelings and experiences they are sharing. Other times communication is for efficiency and being task-oriented in which solutions are the goal.

The best way to know the difference is to ask you partner if you are listening for efficiency and solution or for empathy and emotional support. If your partner states they are tired, they may want you to just listen and hear why they are feeling tired and not an answer of, "Well, then go to bed earlier."

It takes a level of vulnerability when communicating and reaching out for a discussion or being heard. When you dismiss someone in that vulnerability, it will feel like violent communication and the partner will have a tendency of shutting down and decrease their initiation to share their world with you.

Checking with your partner if they are listening from a solution-focused lens, an empathy lens or just a sharing of thoughts back and forth can help build intimacy. Being efficient in communication may be more important than the most efficient solution.

Thank you for the question. I wish you well. Until next week, take care.

Golden Willow Retreat is a nonprofit organization focused on emotional healing and recovery from any type of loss. Direct any questions to Dr. Ted Wiard, EdD, LPCC, CGC, founder of Golden Willow Retreat, at

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