NVC 5: The Power of Empathy

NVC 2, 3 and 4 focused on what we ourselves are observing, feeling, needing and requesting from other people. That’s the first half of the process of non-violent communication (NVC). The second half involves applying those components when we receive messages from other people, regardless of their communication style. This allows us to make an empathic connection with what’s alive in the other person and what would make life better for them.

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There

Marshall Rosenberg (the creator of NVC, featured in the videos in this post) defines empathy as a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing. In Speak Peace in a World of Conflict: What You Say Next Will Change Your World, he distinguishes empathy from other practices:

“The goal isn’t intellectually understanding it, the goal is empathically connecting with it. It doesn’t mean we have to feel the same feelings as the other person. That’s sympathy, when we feel sad that another person is upset. It doesn’t mean we have to have the same feelings; it means we are with the other person. This quality of understanding requires one of the most precious gifts one human being can give to another: our presence in the moment.”

“Notice this doesn’t require that we agree with the other person. It doesn’t mean we have to like what they’re saying. It means that we give them the precious gift of our presence, to be present at this moment to what’s alive in them, that we are interested, sincerely interested in that. We don’t do it as a psychological technique but because we want to connect to the beauty in the person at this moment.”

Too often, we fail to connect empathically with people who are in pain and instead respond in one of the following ways:

  • Advising (“I think you should….”)
  • One-upping (“I had something even worse happen.…”)
  • Educating (“What you can learn from this is….”)
  • Consoling (“It’s not your fault….”)
  • Shutting down (“Don’t feel so bad….”)
  • Interrogating (“How long have you felt this way….”)
  • Sympathizing (“OMG, you poor thing….”)
  • Story telling (“That reminds me of the time….”)

When someone responds to me that way, I feel frustrated because I don’t think they’re really listening. Empathy requires focusing our full attention on the person, and giving them the time and space they need to express themselves and feel understood. There’s a wonderful Buddhist saying that describes this ability: “Don’t just do something, stand there.”

Reflecting Back

So how do we provide people with a sense that we’ve heard and understood them? It starts with listening for their observations, feelings, needs and requests, regardless of the words they use. This enables us to shift from perceiving what people say as an attack on us to an expression of what’s going on inside of them.

After we’ve listened to the person fully expressed herself, we may want to paraphrase or reflect back our understanding of what we’ve heard. In NVC, this takes the form of questions that show our understanding of what’s going on in the other person while eliciting their feedback. The questions might focus on what the person observed (e.g., “Are you reacting to …?”); their feelings and needs (e.g., “Are you feeling [guess their feeling] because you’re needing [guess their need]?”); or their requests (e.g., “Are you wanting me to …?”).

If our understanding is correct, the person will know we’ve heard them. And as Rosenberg explains in Speak Peace in a World of Conflict, our paraphrasing doesn’t have to be perfect to make the situation better:

“Even if we’re wrong, if we are sincerely trying to connect with the divine energy in another human being – their feelings, their needs at that moment – that shows the other person that no matter how they communicate with us, we care about what’s alive in them. When a person trusts that, we’re well on our way to making a connection in which everybody’s needs can be met.”

How do we know when we’ve done enough empathizing with the person? Usually they (and we) will experience a sense of relief at having been understood. And they may stop talking! But if we’re not sure, we can always ask (e.g., “Is there something more you want to say?”).

Silent Empathy

Even if we don’t reflect back our understanding to the other person in words, empathy can be a powerful presence in a conversation. Silent empathy impacts our intention toward others, and it shows  in our eyes and body language when we’re hearing what’s in a person’s heart. In What We Say Matters: Practicing Nonviolent Communication, authors Judith Hanson Lasater and Ike Lasater explain the practice of silent empathy:

“To give silent empathy is to intuit or guess what the other person might be feeling or needing in the moment. Be sure to start with observation language. Your inner dialogue might go something like this: ‘When I hear her say ________, I am guessing that she was feeling _________ and needing ___________.’ It does not matter if you are correct about what is ‘true’ for her. Rather, it is the process of considering the other person after having empathized with your own needs that fuels the shift. When you make this shift to compassion, you will have a greater potential to actually say what you want to say.”

NVC Resources

Although this series on NVC only scratched the surface, I hope it piqued your interest in nonviolent communication and the amazing benefits it can bring. If you’d like to learn more, I recommend the three books I’ve referenced throughout the series: Nonviolent Communication: A Language of LifeSpeak Peace in a World of Conflict: What You Say Next Will Change Your World; and What We Say Matters: Practicing Nonviolent Communication. In addition to covering the basics of NVC, they address advanced subjects such as dealing with anger, expressing and receiving gratitude, and practicing NVC at the workplace and in talking to our parents, children and significant others. Also, the Center for Nonviolent Communication offers a variety of books and resources on its website, in addition to NVC training.

Now for some parting words from Marshall Rosenberg:

“As NVC replaces our old patterns of defending, withdrawing, or attacking in the face of judgment and criticism, we come to perceive ourselves and others, as well as our intentions and relationships, in a new light. Resistance, defensiveness, and violent reactions are minimized. When we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion. Through its emphasis on deep listening — to ourselves as well as others — NVC fosters respect, attentiveness and empathy, and engenders a mutual desire to give from the heart.”

2 thoughts on “NVC 5: The Power of Empathy

  1. Pingback: Understanding Conflict « tina7serrano's Blog

  2. Pingback: Listen with Empathy « Life is Mysterious

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