The Empathy Reflex

As we work together to read each other‘s words and body language to figure out each other‘s needs, it can be useful to think about what Dr. John Medina calls the empathy reflex. In his book Brain Rules for Baby, he describes what he calls the empathy reflex. The empathy reflex is a habit that we can build to identify how the other person feels and make a guess about why they might feel that way. This can help us to bridge the gap between the behaviors that we can see in the other person and the intentions that we can’t see. According to Dr. Medina, this gap is one of the most common causes of conflict in relationships. We know our own intentions but we don’t always know the intentions of others.


So the next time you find yourself in an emotional situation, try these two steps: 1)  use the other person’s body language to guess (out loud) how you think they are feeling, and 2) make a statement about why they might be feeling that way. 


 Try it and let me know how it goes!  

Source: http://brain-rules-for-baby-practical-tips...

Step 2: Respond to bids mindfully

The next step in this challenge is to slow down, breathe, recognize bids, and RESPOND MINDFULLY.

In the Bringing Baby Home class, Dr. Gottman talks about the importance of recognizing bids and responding to them intentionally.  The motto of the workshop is "small things often."  

When we notice that our partner or our child is making a bid for connection, we have several ways that we can respond.

1.  We can turn towards. This means that we respond to their request for connection by connecting with them.  If our partner asks "Do we have any more laundry detergent?" we respond by putting some laundry detergent in the cart or add it to the shopping list.  If our baby is crying for attention, we respond by looking at them, talking or singing to them, and maybe by picking them up.  If the bid was that the person looked at us, we might simply smile at them.  Turning towards adds deposits to our emotional bank account.  

2.  We can turn away. This means that the bid is ignored.  Maybe we are too busy with our work at the moment.  Maybe we are focused on something else or on "automatic pilot."  Maybe we are busy on our phone. Usually we aren't intentionally being mean, but we are deep in thought or preoccupied with something else.  Turning away has a negative effect on our relationship's emotional bank account. It is a withdrawal from our emotional bank account. 

3.  We can turn against. This means that the other person responds to the bid in a negative way.  The response might be critical or contemptuous.  It is being intentionally negative to the other person.  Turning against is a withdrawal from our emotional bank account. It leads to increased conflict and puts emotional distance between you. 

In order to put deposits into our emotional bank account, we need to be mindful.  We need to slow down and breathe.  We need to recognize the other person's bid, and we need to be intentional to make the other person to feel heard and respected and important.  "Mindful responses increase the positive perspective in the relationship, and over time, increase relationship satisfaction... These small acts will add points to your emotional bank account (deposits) and over time will have a significant impact on your relationship" (Bringing Baby Home workbook, p. 77).

For more information:


Step 1: Recognizing bids

The first step in this challenge is to slow down, breathe, and then RECOGNIZE BIDS.

As I mentioned in this month's newsletter, a bid is defined as the way that a person expresses what they need at the moment.  

Some examples of bids that our partner might make include:
- A bid for our attention, such as calling our name or saying "Look at this"
- A bid for conversation: "How was your day today?"
- A bid for relief: "I'm so tired. Could you take care of the baby for a while so that I can take a nap?"
- A bid for humor: "I just heard a new joke"
- A bid for affection: "Can I have a hug?"
- A bid for sex: "You are really turning me on right now"
- A bid for dreaming: "What would you like your life to be like in 10 years?"
- A bid for play: Playfully tickling, dancing, wrestling, or a gentle bump or shove.
- A bid for excitement: "At the party the other day, I was talking to a neighbor about a cool trip that would be awesome to take together."
- A bid for emotional support or empathy: "I feel sad" or "I had a hard day at work today"
- A bid for discussing shared meaning, goals, or purpose in life: "What is the most important legacy that you want to give to the baby?"

Some examples of bids that our child might make include:
- A bid for our attention, such as making sounds or gestures or crying for attention
- A bid to show us something, such as pointing or looking at the object and then looking at us
- A bid for a nap: a yawn; slow motion blinks; drowsiness; hyperactivity; staring off into space; rubbing eyes, ears or hair; losing interest in play; interest in sucking
- A bid for laughter: starting a game of peekaboo
- A bid for affection: rubbing up against us or giving a hug or kiss
- A bid for play: Playfully tickling, dancing, wrestling, or a gentle bump or shove.
- A bid for excitement: initiating an exciting game
- A bid for emotional support or empathy: a pouty face or cry

Next Monday we will look at different ways that we respond to other people's bids.  

More resources:

Helping kids to slow down and breathe...

Let's take a look at different ways that we can slow down with our kids to savor the moment together.

  • I recently discovered a book called "Breathe Like a Bear" by Kira Willey.  It is full of ideas for ways to teach little ones to breathe!  Kira is also a songwriter.  Check out her music on your favorite music player!  I've been enjoying "Bunny Breath" and others!  A few of her strategies include:
    • Pretending that we are drinking hot chocolate, taking sips and saying a long "mmmm" or slowly blowing it to cool it down.
    • Pretending that we are hibernating bears taking long, slow, sleepy breaths.  
  •  David Kisor also has some great songs like "Breathe" and "Smell the Flower, Blow the Candle Out"
  • I like to teach little ones to breathe by blowing bubbles and trying to see how big we can blow them!  

The "Slow down and breathe" challenge part 3: The benefits

When we do manage to slow down and have dedicated time to just breathe and observe our children, we may find that we can be intentional to think about what we enjoy, we can savor the moments as children grow so quickly, and we might even learn something new about the way that our children grow.

For example:  once upon a time there was a baby who was struggling to sleep. His mama was so tired and frustrated, because no matter what she did, he woke up after just a 30-40 minute nap. But she trusted her baby and new that there must be a reason why he kept waking up. One day, she decided that even though she was so very tired, she would stay up and watch her son sleep. She watched and waited to see if there was a clue about what was waking him up. She noticed that when he started to get into a lighter sleep, his arms flailed out and he startled himself awake. It seemed that his baby reflexes made him feel like he was falling, since he was sleeping on his back.  He startled and woke himself up! This mama started to swaddle her baby for his naps, and he started to sleep better!  When this mama was able to slow down and breathe, she noticed what was going on, and she was able to respond to her baby appropriately. 

Slowing down

As I mentioned in my newsletter this week, the challenge this month is to slow down and breathe. 

If you watch the Gottman Institute's "What's Baby Saying?" video, Dr. Gottman explains that "it is important to realize that babies operate on a much, much slower time scale than adults.  You may remember when you were a child, a summer seemed to last forever. Now as you get older, summers go by very, very quickly.  Because the world is so much slower for children, it takes time for a baby to react to things. Newborns, for example, will imitate you, but it's a great deal of effort for them to do this. It will take them 10-40 seconds before that imitation really happens. But as busy adults, we are often out of the room doing ten other things by the time the baby has gotten around to imitating us. So one of the first things you have to do is slow way, way down. It will add a lot to your life if you can turn off the television, not answer the phone, and really spend a lot of time in sustained play with your baby, learning how to read your baby's signals. Every baby is different, so you need to get to know your baby as an individual. You don't have to devote 95% of your time to playing with your baby. Just be fully present and engaged when you are playing with your baby. That's another thing that's special about babies. They are fully engaged in the moment!"

Speaking of newborns imitating, I love this video of a newborn imitating his dad! 

A tool for remembering to increase positives


I found an app called “Lasting.” It is not by the Gottman Institute, but they say it is research tested strategies. I haven’t paid for the app, but by creating an account and doing the assessment it let me use their reminders. So multiple times a day, the app reminds me to check in with my hubby with fondness, affection, gratitude, etc. So far even without paying for the best of the content, this app is having a positive impact on my marriage. Check it out.  

The importance of repair

“Even in relationships that are working well and in families that are working well, there’s a lot of mistakes that people make, and people sort of stumble through life together. And one of the most important things that psychologists have discovered about parenting and also about couples’ relationships is that the most important thing is repair, because everybody messes up in relationships. So... communication is not really about being perfect. It’s really about noticing that you’re not perfect—that you’re really messing up and trying to make it better... In very good relationships, people don’t communicate perfectly. They don’t say things the right way. They’re not really always in a good mood. They’re not really always emotionally available. But they can talk about it and they fix it.” (Source: presentation by Dr. John Gottman)

Vulnerability and repair

As I reflect on increasing the 5:1 ratio in my life, I find myself really drawn to Brené Brown's audiobook "The Power of Vulnerability" (on the iBooks store) because it is helping me to deal with the struggle of trying to increase positives and decrease negatives in my relationships while being real that I'm not perfect and I'm not going to do it perfectly.