Empathic Curiosity: How DBT Builds Better Relationships

Women talking on front porchDialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is generally described as a skills-based treatment, a type of cognitive behavioral therapy, and an intensive team-based approach to help people who have severe difficulties with emotion regulation. It has helped many people to manage their emotions, have better relationships, and create fulfilling lives.

When you look a bit deeper, though, at what the DBT skills actually do, they can be seen as opening the mind to curiosity and empathy. This empathic curiosity is the key to better relationships and increased positive emotional experiences. Curiosity—wanting to know—is paired with, and supports, the capacity to imagine the emotional experiences of other people.

So often—and this is reinforced by our social context—we make assumptions rather than being curious. In conversations with others, we think ahead to what we are going to say next, or we make interpretations about the meaning of what the other person is saying.

What if, rather than interpreting or analyzing another person’s words or actions, we were to remain curious about the many possibilities for what the person may be thinking or feeling?

As children, we were naturally curious. We were constantly asking, “Why?”

Over time, many people lose that natural curiosity because it is often not reinforced by the environment. We are taught to be obedient, to not question, to do what we are “supposed” to do and leave it at that.

From a dialectical behavior therapy perspective, this stifling of curiosity is a part of an invalidating environment. We all experience invalidation in various ways, but people with difficulty managing intense emotions often come from social environments they have experienced as especially invalidating. If curiosity is ignored, judged, or criticized, you learn to stop expressing curiosity because it is not reinforced.

Why be curious? To start with, curiosity makes it possible for us to empathize with others. We wonder how another person may be feeling, what he or she may be thinking, and how he or she may be experiencing us. This allows us to tailor our responses based on this relational context.

Why be curious? To start with, curiosity makes it possible for us to empathize with others. We wonder how another person may be feeling, what he or she may be thinking, and how he or she may be experiencing us. This allows us to tailor our responses based on this relational context. Others experience us as empathic, and this leads to better-functioning relationships.

DBT’s mindfulness skills support this curiosity. It starts with observing—not judging, not evaluating, but simply using our five senses to take in the present moment. Then we put words to our experience by describing what we have observed. Mindfulness requires participating in the moment—just throwing yourself in—and letting go of whatever judgmental thoughts or distractions come up.

In a relational context, mindfulness takes an even deeper form. So often in our interactions with others, we become so lost in intense emotional reactions that we forget the importance of this person and the relationship in our lives. We may be focused on being right, even if that does not get us the outcome we are looking for. The mindfulness skills in DBT teach us to focus on being effective—on doing what works.

When communicating with another person, relationship mindfulness requires being present, holding in mind an imagination of the other person’s experience, and focusing on effectiveness (both short- and long-term). It requires a willingness to do what is needed, even if it’s uncomfortable or difficult. Most of all, relationship mindfulness requires not forgetting the authentic, valid experience of the other person as well as of yourself. Even if the other person has said or done something you do not like, his or her experiences, needs, and desires are valid. Even if your own emotional responses are difficult to tolerate, they are valid.

Empathic curiosity requires a conscious decision—to turn yourself toward the present moment and to open your mind to want to know that which is not always obvious or clear. Such a decision can change your relationships and your life.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jeremy Schwartz, LCSW, Dialectical Behavior Therapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Jennifer

    June 17th, 2015 at 7:42 AM

    An opening to empathy sounds like a skill that far too many of us need to hone and work on!

  • Renee

    June 17th, 2015 at 2:38 PM

    Oops I admit that this is one of my downfalls- I already thinking of a response before I give another person the chance to fully speak what is on their mind.

  • tyler

    June 22nd, 2015 at 3:27 PM

    Sounds as if this is focused a great deal on allowing the person in therapy to grow and become an adult, and to learn to handle even the toughest situations in a way that gets you closure, but lets you remain focused on the right things and not just the things that let yu say that you were right.

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