Trading Places: The Art of Expressing Empathy


“The boy’s bedrooms are freezing,” I snapped loudly.

“I know, I’m trying to figure out this new thermostat,” Les replied as he fiddled with the gizmo on the wall.

We’d just moved into a new home, after two years of planning and building.

“I liked our old thermostat where you just set the temperature and that was it,” I said sharply as Les was trying to figure out our new fangled heating system.

“I understand but this one’s better,” Les responded.  “We’re just going to need to figure it out.”  

“Well, I’m not having my boys sleep in those cold rooms tonight,” I said with intense urgency.  “They’ll both wake up with pneumonia.”

Les looked at me, as if to say, really? Don’t you think you might be exaggerating just a bit? 

“I mean it,” I continued, “this is crazy!”

“Leslie, take a deep breath,” Les said in a calm but stern voice.  “Nobody’s getting pneumonia.” 

“It’s like a freezer in there! Seriously!”

“I know,” Les said with mounting frustration. “That’s why I’m working on it but we’ve got to give it time to heat up.”

“I don’t even know why you had to have this fancy thing.”

“What?!  You think I had to have this?” Les asked incredulously.  “We were both there when the guy said it worked great.  You and I agreed on it.”

“All I know is that my little boy’s rooms are ice-cold.” 

With that, I turned on my heels and walked away.

“Where are you going?”

“To find more blankets.”

Truth is, those boys’ rooms weren’t nearly as chilly as our interaction.  And why is that?  Could it be that what I was really upset about was not the newfangled thermostat?  Could it be that my emotions were running high because they were being fueled by another concern that wasn’t being voiced? 


Ever had one of these interactions?  Silly question, I know.  We all have conversations that seem to be more emotionally charged than necessary.  We all have interactions that misstep and hiccup and turn sideways for reasons that aren’t necessarily plain to see.  They aren’t technically “fights.”  They’re just an interpersonal rough spot - a patch of marital road that seems bumpier than the rest. 

Not only that, every marriage has occasional off-kilter interactions that have seemingly nothing to do with the current verbal exchange. You know the feeling.  It’s when you are simply off.  Out of sync.  You feel like you’re suddenly on different pages. You couldn’t tell it if you read a transcript of the conversation between you and your partner, but you can feel it if you are in the room. 

These unpleasant interactions, which pepper most marriages, are rarely explained by what’s apparent on the surface. The cause – which can remedy the situation and get you both back on the same page – is found at a deeper level.  And it can always be rooted out by “trading places,” by stepping into each other’s shoes, changing the interaction in an instant. 

There’s a catch, however.  Empathy can never do its invaluable work unless it’s predicated on emotional intelligence. 

Are You Emotionally Intelligent?

In 1990 Yale psychologist Peter Salovey coined the phrase “emotional intelligence” to describe qualities that bring human interactions to their peak of performance.  Harvard psychologist Daniel Goleman brought the phrase into the national conversation with his groundbreaking book on the subject.  He calls empathy our “social radar” and believes at the very least, empathy enables us to read another’s emotions.  And at the highest levels, empathy understands the concerns that lie behind the person’s feelings. 

The key to identifying and understanding your spouse’s emotional terrain, experts agree, is an intimate familiarity with your own.  Robert Levenson at the University of California demonstrates this clearly.  Levenson brings married couples into his lab for two discussions: a neutral talk about their day and a second fifteen-minute emotionally charged discussion concerning a disagreement.

Levenson records the husband’s and wife’s heart rate, muscle tension, changes in facial expressions, and so on.  After the disagreement, one partner leaves.  A replay of the talk is then narrated by the other partner, noting feelings on their end that were not expressed.  Then the roles are reversed and that partner leaves, allowing the other person to narrate the same scene from their partner’s perspective.

This is where researchers found something extraordinary.  Partners adept at empathizing were seen to mimic their partner’s body while they empathize.  If the heart rate of the partner in the videotape went up, so did the heart rate of the partner who was empathizing; if the heart rate slowed down, so did that of the empathic spouse.

This phenomenon demands we put aside our own emotional agendas for the time being to clearly receive the other person’s signals. For as Goldman says, "When we are caught up in our own strong emotions, we are off on a different physiological vector, impervious to the more subtle cues that allow rapport." The point is that if we don’t know what we are feeling, we can’t set our own emotions aside temporarily, to enter the emotional world of our spouse.  That’s why emotional self-awareness is the prerequisite for trading places. 

Opening the Door to Empathy

In our crabby conversation about the thermostat, the main issue for me was not getting my boys’ rooms instantly warmed up.  Any sane person knows it will take a while for a furnace to do its work.  I also knew Les was working hard to improve the situation.  That was obvious.  I had no right to blame Les.  So why was I being so emotional?  Why was I making my husband my adversary instead of my teammate? 

I can tell you, now.  And so can Les.  The answer was found just beneath the surface of my outward emotions.  In fact, as I was rummaging through our moving boxes to find our blankets, Les, very gently, came to me for a little emotional excavation. 

“I wish we could put our hands on that Hudson Bay blanket we got in Calgary last year,” he said.

I didn’t respond, immediately.

“And I wish Jackson didn’t have an ear infection,” Les continued.

“I know,” I piped up.  “That’s what’s really concerning me.”  

“I know it is,” Les said in a comforting voice.  “Not to mention the fact that it’s a week before Christmas and we don’t have a tree, let alone groceries, and my parents are flying in tomorrow.”

“Exactly,” I said with relief (he understands).  “This is the craziest timing ever.” 

“It’s not a Norman Rockwell Christmas, that’s for sure,” Les quipped as he gently put his hands on my shoulders.  

“Nope,” I replied with a smile, “but if we’re lucky it might snow in our boy’s rooms tonight.”

“We can only hope” Les said deadpan, without missing a beat.

That was it.  A brief moment of empathy from my husband turned our off-kilter mood around.  Within a minute’s time we were back on the same page, feeling connected.

Now I can almost hear you saying, “What moment of empathy?”  Did you miss it?  Were you expecting something more psychologically sophisticated?  Empathy doesn’t necessarily require anything more than letting your spouse know, with compassion, that you recognize what’s going on inside of them.  And that’s exactly what Les did for me. Rather than trying to reason with me on the technicalities of how an HVAC system works, he revealed my true concerns about our family and Christmas in a caring tone.  That’s all it took to get me back on track. 

But here’s the thing.  Les could have never done this if he was not aware of his own emotional terrain.  He would have been unable to reflect back to me my concerns if he wasn’t aware of feeling stressed out about the move himself.  If he’d lacked emotional self-awareness in that moment, what would he have said instead? 

Here are a few options that come to mind … 

“Do you realize how irrational and emotional you’re being?”

“If you want to pick up the manual and figure this out yourself, be my guest.”

“I’m happy to have this conversation when you’re not being insane.”

Take your pick.  If you’re like a lot of married couples, you probably already have.  Most everyone is guilty of these kinds of caustic statements at one time or another.  And Les could have certainly responded with one of them.  And if he did, the result would have sent our emotions to yet another level of intensity and probably brought us into the realm of a true fight.  Instead, he was self-aware enough to monitor his own uneasy feelings and that served as a pathway to mine.  In other words, his self-awareness allowed him to set his own emotional agenda aside and thus opened the door to empathy.

Adapted from the new book from Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott's new book Trading Places: The Best Move You’ll Ever Make in Your Marriage (Zondervan, May 2008) 

Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott are founders of and co-directors of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University.  Their books include Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts, Love Talk, and Trading Places, from which this article was adapted.  Visit for their speaking schedule and to take the Trading Places Assessment.