Beyond Listening Skills: Developing Compassion and Empathy

So, after several months of us working with a single session with Tom and Vicky, I am now posting the final section of this transcript. Before reading it you might want to review last month’s post and some of the insightful comments by your colleagues about the process of developing compassion and empathy.

We begin this section with only about 10 minutes left in the session. Until this point, much of the focus has been on Tom. Now, I want to check in and work with Vicky before the session ends.

I step partially out of the Initiator-Inquirer framework. I don’t know Vicky very well yet and I want to understand her more completely.

•    How does she respond to Tom’s attack?
•    Is she afraid or angry?
•    How rigid are her defenses?
As I learn about her feeling frozen, I work to see if I can decrease her fear and increase her capacity for compassion and empathy.

Ellyn: (to Vicky) I noticed how soft your voice sounded when you were surprised that Tom went to the hospital.

Vicky: Yes. I was surprised. I felt for him.

Ellyn: I also noticed that when Tom said, “I don’t need an intellectualizing lecture from you right now” that you seemed to retreat.

Vicky: I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to give back. I feel frozen.

Ellyn: Is it that you don’t know what to say or how to persist in saying it?

Vicky: It is both. I am not sure what to say. I am scared and he doesn’t accept anything tender.

Ellyn: If you reflect on all Tom said today, what are you feeling right now?

Vicky: I’m still frozen. I want to reach out and I can’t.

Ellyn: Why do you believe you can’t?

Vicky: I am so afraid of his anger. He can be so sarcastic. When I hear that voice, I just freeze in my tracks. I know he won’t accept anything tender.

Ellyn: And when you encounter that part of him, you become very self-protective. The tender part of you goes into hiding and you freeze in your tracks. In that way you won’t get hurt anymore. Does that describe it?

Vicky: That sounds exactly right.

Ellyn: I am wondering if you’d like to bounce back quicker after feeling bitten by Tom? Maybe even sidestep his attack and hold onto your caring.

Vicky: I think so. It does feel very dangerous.

Ellyn: Today’s session has revealed a lot. Any feeling of being controlled triggers Tom easily. He gets angry and attacks you. He does not want to feel the grief and the pain he experienced here today. Over time he will be better able to separate you from his father. And over time you will be better able to show him your tenderness and compassion. Would you like to take a small risk today?

Vicky: Maybe. I am not sure. What is it?

Ellyn: Will you say this to Tom? “There are things in my past that get in the way of me being as tender with you as I’d like to be.”

Vicky: I can do that. “Tom, You know how my dad was. Sometimes I freeze with you like I did with him.”

Ellyn: And if it is true, will you say this to him? “ I’d like to stay with my tender feelings longer, even if you are angry with me.”

Vicky: (Laughs) Wow, that would be amazing, but I’d really like that. I don’t want to be cold with you.

Tom: I see you being tender with others. I know I bite you and push you away.

Ellyn: Let’s take one last risk today. In whatever way feels right to you Vicky, will you let the tender part of you peak out for just a few seconds and show herself to Tom?

Vicky: Gets up from her chair and gives him a hug. (The hug between them is stiff but a warm smile goes back and forth between them as they experience a brief moment of connection.)

When Vicky was paralyzed by fear, she could not risk reaching out and being compassionate. Past experiences with both her father and Tom signaled danger. In this session, she started to risk. As I said to them earlier in the session, “Feelings of being controlled will trigger Tom easily. His first response is to get angry, lash out and attack. He protects himself from feeling the grief and pain he experienced as a child and in the session.”  Over time he will be better able to separate Vicky from his father. And over time Vicky will be better able to expose and express her tenderness and compassion.  It will take both of them to shift this pattern.

I hope this sequence of transcripts has demonstrated some ways to use the Initiator-Inquirer process in sessions with couples. You can expect each partner to hit their limitations and break down somewhere in their own role. The breakdown provides you with a clear path to intervene. You can then use a variety of therapeutic methods to strengthen the clients’ capacity for differentiation and increased intimacy.

I also hope this series has provided some insight into working with the very familiar dynamic of control struggles.

Again I hope you will write your reactions, learning and responses. Couples therapy is complex. It requires the integration of many skills.  Your comments not only help me, but you also give each other valuable ideas!
You are not alone. And by the next time I write to you, I will have reflections and updates for you from three conferences:

  1. Anatomy of Intimacy in Irvine, CA, Nov 13-14
  2. NICABM in Hilton Head, SC, December 5-11
  3. Brief Therapy Conference Orlando, FL, December 8-11

Have something to say?

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ümit Çetin
Ümit Çetin

Ellyn, thank you very much for sharing this final part. What is striking for me here is that, while you prepare Vicki to risk to be empathic with him, you also prepare Tom vicariously. That is to say, through your conversation with Vicki, he actually learns about his core issues, about his confusing being shown tenderness with being controlled, and his undifferentiating his wife from his father. While you focus your comments on Vicki , Tom is simultaneously provided some kind of feedback as to the effect of his behaviours on his wife.

Another point drawing my attention is that, you try to complete the cycle of experience within the context of their I-I roles. In other words, you do not put on the table the Inquirer’s core issues in terms of family-of-origin. You just pinpoint her resistance_which you frame as self-protectiveness_ to show some compassion and encouraged her to “take a risk” to transcend it.

I’ve admired the sentence, I am wondering if you’d like to bounce back quicker after feeling bitten by Tom? You teach the Inquirer to be resilient and expect her to show accountability in her responses.

Also, before going one step further with respect to having her take a small risk, you prepare her by summarizing the session, pointing out the cycle of contact between them.

Finally, what impresses me is the beauty of your work, your style of doing couple therapy as both spouses are able to learn from each other, while you are individually working with each partner. The effect is increased differentiation and intimacy, as you indicated.


Nancy St.John
Nancy St.John

What an amazing session! I imagine it marked a watershed in Tom & Vicki’s relationship.

You made them aware of their pattern of conflict and helped them link:
1. Painful emotions felt in the past
2. Negative emotions experienced with each other
3. Transference of unresolved issues from their childhoods
4. Ineffective reactions to each other’s pain
5. Self protective hurtful behaviors

I love how you kept Vicki on board. You created a safe environment for her to strengthen her resilience and comfort Tom under your supervision.

Thank you for sharing these transcripts. I have learned a lot from them also from the comments from other participants, especially Umit – I really admire her analysis and clarity of thought.


Ümit Çetin
Ümit Çetin
Reply to  Nancy St.John

Hi Nancy,
Thank you very much for your encouraging feedback. This is the real benefit of these blogs that we, as colleagues, stimulate each other by sharing our comments, and giving and receiving feedbacks.

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy. Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

Read Other Popular Articles

Here are the Zoom Details to Join the Call Live:

One tap mobile :

US: +16465588656, 82302466709# or +16469313860, 82302466709#

Telephone (US):

+1 301 715 8592
+1 312 626 6799
+1 346 248 7799
+1 646 558 8656
+1 669 900 6833
+1 253 215 8782

Webinar ID: 82302466709

International numbers available

We will send out an email reminder on the day of the call.
There will be a replay available within 24 hours.

Learn from a pioneer and leader in couples therapy training as she shares exactly what to say in difficult therapy sessions.
We respect your privacy.
We won't sell or rent your infomation to 3rd party marketers.
Msg & data rates may apply for text messages.