By Lyndi Jenkins
Human beings are profoundly social creatures, driven by fundamental needs for connection, acceptance, and belonging. When such needs are not met, people suffer both physically and emotionally. This is especially true in marriage and other core relationships where the pitfalls of disconnection are particularly jarring.
In a recent address to university students, renowned New York Times columnist, David Brooks commented on the underpinnings of disconnection when he observed that “many of our society’s great problems flow from people not feeling seen and known.” He went on to suggest that “[there] is a core … trait that we all have to get … better at [,and that] is the trait of seeing each other deeply and being deeply seen.”
So what does it mean to see other people, including your spouse, deeply? And how does one develop such a trait?
Seeing someone deeply involves sincerely investing in that person so they feel genuinely heard and understood. It requires a considerable amount of self-discipline and attentional focus because seeing others deeply demands that you be fully present in your interactions with them. It requires mindfulness—a skill that eludes many people in this age of continuous partial attention. But, just as mindfulness can be learned through practices like meditation, so can the art of seeing others deeply be learned through practicing. Here are three suggestions.
Overcome Partial Attention
One of the best ways to start seeing the people in your life deeply is to avoid the distractions that lead to continuous partial attention. Social science researchers use this term to describe the behavior of simultaneously paying attention to multiple sources of information—but at a superficial level. At any given moment, your attention on the person in front of you can be whisked away by another task, activity, or notification. This state of perpetual interruption can prevent you from truly connecting with and seeing someone deeply.
An obvious contributor to this plague of continuous partial attention is distracting technology use. “Technoference” limits true connection in relationships because frequent interruptions from texts, emails, games, and social media notifications send implicit messages to whoever you are with about what you value most. (Hint: It isn’t them.)
Of course, technology alone is not to blame for this problem. Partial attention is still “partial” no matter how or why it is divided. But, when you allow technology or other distractions to interfere with conversations or activities with another individual—even when those interruptions are brief and unintentional—it communicates to them that there are other things that are more important, relevant, and worthy of your attention than they are. This message, whether relayed implicitly or explicitly, often leaves the other person feeling rejected to some degree, and this can be very painful considering that the brain responds to rejection the same way it does to physical pain.
On the other hand, when you consciously choose to give the person you are with the gift of your full attention by putting away your phone and other distractions when you are with them, they will likely feel more valued, understood, and seen.
Another important step in developing the ability to see people deeply is to practice empathy. Empathy differs from sympathy in that it requires more advanced perspective taking skills and a willingness to feel an emotion that is really more appropriate for the other person’s situation rather than necessarily for your own. While sympathy describes the tender or concerned feelings you may have for someone else’s distress, empathy is actually feeling that distress with them. It is a willingness to sit with someone in their pain without offering advice or silver linings.
Marriage provides an excellent context for practicing this empathic skill. Perhaps your spouse comes home after a tiring day of work and shares with you a frustrating interaction they had had with a coworker that day. A sympathetic response in this situation might look like trying to lighten the mood by changing the subject or offering possible solutions to their problem, but that may be frustrating to your spouse who wasn’t in the mood for your joke or doesn’t resonate with your well-intentioned advice. A spouse providing an empathetic response would instead listen intently to their situation and feelings, ask some follow-up questions to better understand, and then validate them by saying something like, “Wow, that sounds rough. I can see why you are frustrated and am glad that you told me about it. Is there any way I can help?”
An empathic response helps people to feel seen because it demonstrates that in their most vulnerable and painful moments, they are worthy of sincere notice and support, whereas a sympathetic response can sometimes feel dismissive or insincere because it lacks shared perspective and emotions.8
Sometimes, people shy away from giving a truly empathic response because they feel intimidated and don’t know how to react. It is often hard to know the exact right thing to do or say in a difficult or vulnerable situation, so some people avoid doing or saying anything at all. When stunted by these kinds of fears, it may be freeing to think of what relationship scholar Brene Brown said when she explained that “rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.” The people in your life don’t need your solutions and advice as much as they just need you. So be there with them. Feel with them. Validate them. Remember the sage advice that often the best way to talk is to listen; then take comfort in the fact that people will rarely remember the exact things you say, but they will always remember how you made them feel.
Care More about Being Interested than Interesting
If you were to think back on an instance in your own life when you have felt truly seen, you are likely to recall an interaction with someone who took a sincere interest in you—someone who was more concerned with understanding your perspective and experience than they were with any personal agenda. Perhaps this is what drew you to your spouse in the first place. This ability to be focused on others is a quality of people who see others deeply: they care more about being interested than they do about being interesting. This simply means that in their interactions with others, they focus more on understanding and connecting with the person they are with than they do on thoughts about how they themselves are being perceived.
It is human nature to want to be seen favorably in the eyes of others, especially by your loved ones. We all want to be considered interesting and funny and attractive, along with any number of other positive attributes. However, when you allow yourself to become preoccupied with thoughts of how you are being perceived, you can experience a psychological divide between you and the person you are with. Feelings of self-consciousness, anxiety, and comparisons start to creep in with this kind of self-focus, and these feelings tend to prevent you from fully engaging in your interactions with others and creating meaningful and memorable times together.
In contrast, when you let go of self-evaluative tendencies and instead invest that energy into being fully present and focused on the person you are with, a genuine warmth and authenticity takes over. Both they and you will feel the difference from this shift in your thinking and energy. Much of the anxiety and insecurity that comes from seeking to be interesting and likeable melts away when you engage in this other-oriented focus. The people you interact with will be able to feel that you are looking at them not to try and gauge their reaction to you, but rather to truly and deeply see them.
Human beings are wired for so much more than the artificial and shallow connections we often engage in. In an age that is increasingly characterized by loneliness, we need now more than ever the renewed sense of hope and true connection that comes from learning to deeply see people and allowing ourselves to be seen in return.
Lyndi Jenkins is a recent graduate with a degree in Human Development from Brigham Young University where she also served as a member of the Student Editorial Board for the School of Family Life.
 Cleveland Clinic. (2018, February 23). What happens in your body when you’re lonely? Cleveland Clinic: Health Essentials. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-happens-in-your-body-when-youre-lonely/
 Ali, S. (2018, July 12). What you need to know about the loneliness epidemic. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/modern-mentality/201807/what-you-need-know-about-the-loneliness-epidemic
 Brooks, D. (2019, October 22). Finding the road to character. BYU Speeches. https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/david-brooks/finding-the-road-to-character/
 Misner, I. (2014, November 26). The danger of continuous partial attention. Entrepreneur. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/240254
 McDaniel, B.T. & Coyne, S.M. (2016). “Technoference”: The interference of technology in couple relationships and implications for women’s personal and relational well-being. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 5(1), 85-98. https://doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000065
 Kross, E. et al., (2011, March 28). Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2011/03/22/1102693108.abstract
 Psychology Today (n.d.). Empathy. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/empathy
 Burton, N. (2015, May 22). Empathy vs. sympathy. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201505/empathy-vs-sympathy
 Thieda, K. (2014, August 12) Brene Brown on empathy vs. sympathy. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/partnering-in-mental-health/201408/bren-brown-empathy-vs-sympathy-0
 Henriques, G. (2014, March 21). Are you “other-oriented”? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/theory-knowledge/201403/are-you-other-oriented
 Warnick, M. (2020). Loneliness: The shadow pandemic. BYU Magazine. https://magazine.byu.edu/article/loneliness-the-shadow-pandemic/