Giving empathy

“Empathy, I would say, is presence – presence to what is alive in a person in this moment, bringing nothing in from the past. The more you know a person, the harder empathy is. The more you have studied psychology, the harder empathy really is. Because you can bring no thinking in from the past. If you surf, you’d be better at empathy, because you’ll have built into your body what it’s about. It’s not a mental understanding”.   Marshall Rosenberg

Giving empathy is basically deep listening. Being open to the other person, being with them, and no more – not fixing them, nor going to where they are, just being by their side. Some rare people have the knack or skill of offering total presence right from the first moment of an encounter. For the rest of us, there can be a journey towards connection and inner peace which still involves quite a few words, and that is OK too. That’s who these guidelines are intended for.

As with the other modes of NVC, there is a learnable process to follow in empathic listening, based on the classic four step model. And then there is the magic of throwing the rule book away. Silent empathy is the goal; or, rather, when you have each said what you need to say in order to know where the other person is really at, you can be silently present, and that is the moment of true empathy.

“Don’t just do something, be there!” Marshall Rosenberg

Listening empathically to a non-NVC speaker may well involve translating expressions which include elements of judging or self-criticism into the language of needs and feelings. Listening in silence is vital, but it’s not the only thing or even the main thing which makes us feel heard. Often we also want to have some confirmation that we’ve been heard – some echoing. And especially if there are a lot of judgments, it can be counter-productive to listen silently, as silence can easily be confused with complicity with those judgments. What we listen for as NVC empaths are the feelings and needs behind the judgments, because this connects on a deeper level with what is alive in the other person. Hence the value of translating and then reflecting back the deeper levels of whatever is presented on the surface. Of course you don’t have to translate out loud everything you hear; in fact it’s usually best not to. But in my book there is definitely a place, depending on the situation, for identifying several or all of the four classical NVC components and reflecting them back to the speaker.

Taking that step by step, if the person you are trying to support empathically starts off by getting involved in a long back-story or lots of interpretations, you may want to try and isolate an observation in order to give them some clarity and focus.  Don’t collect more information, though: a single jumping-off point is all we need.  Avoid getting into any exploration of the whys and wherefores.

“Intellectual understanding blocks empathy”.  Marshall Rosenberg .

As soon as the person has settled a little, you want to be hearing feelings; if they are already obvious, you probably want to start there. Sometimes people will say right out loud that they are frustrated or upset, in which case you can echo that directly, but often they will not, either because they’re not yet aware of their feelings – or perhaps because they’re ashamed of them. You can ease the path by suggesting a moderate form of the feeling, for example if they seem to be very angry, you might ask if they’re annoyed’, and leave it up to them to agree or perhaps to say, Annoyed? No, I’m FURIOUS!“. Very often our feelings are entangled with our judgments, though, so the empathic listener may want to do some digging to help the person connect. Either way we don’t assume we know what the person is feeling, we guess and ask. And the great thing is, if we’re wrong it rarely matters, as we have at least asked, and almost everyone appreciates that, and is willing to correct our guesses if necessary. Any sincere guess will help to put the person in the track of her feelings and will let her know that you are trying to connect on a deeper level.

The same applies to the needs, and you can even start there if the feelings are too sensitive to be mentioned. The needs are always the heart of the matter. Also, most people are not at all conscious of their needs, so it can be quite a revelation if your suggestion guides them towards a whole area of their being which they haven’t been considering previously. As before, the very process they have to follow, of going inside to check whether your suggestion fits, will likely lead them to their actual need, even if your guess was wide of the mark. If you say nothing else when giving empathy, I suggest you echo or name the needs you hear!

Connecting with the inner needs leads inevitably to an impulse towards action to satisfy those needs more fully. In giving empathy – as opposed to NVC dialogue or empathic coaching – there is no need to look for a request or action step, but if one is expressed, the non-speaker of NVC may need help to make it a do-able one. If s/he is making a request of you, it’s important to show that you have heard the request, at the same time as not taking on any obligation for meeting it – unless you want to of course!

Finally, outside the practice environment, try not to get too hung up on following any procedures such as I have outlined here! If you are having to think about “What should I ask next?”, you are not listening. Until any prompting you can give flows naturally, it may be better to say less and listen more.

‘Not being heard’ is one of the commonest complaints (read: unmet needs) in relationships, families, schools, workplaces and society in general. It is rare enough that anyone even listens to us without being forced to by some power structure or being obliged to by social conventions. But to be heard as well as listened to is something really special: to be seen and acknowledged for our secret hopes and fears, our longings and desires, our shame and our exultation – it doesn’t happen often in our daily lives, and it’s very powerful when it does. The NVC process puts the healing gift of empathy within the reach of anyone who is prepared to learn these simple steps.

When a person realizes he has been deeply heard, his eyes moisten. I think in some real sense he is weeping for joy. It is as though he were saying, “Thank God, somebody heard me. Someone knows what it’s like to be me”.                                                                                               

Carl Rogers,  Experiences in Communication (1964)

The catch? Well, while we’re still building up our ’empathy muscles’ we’re likely to fall into old habits. Since most of us were not taught about empathy, or haven’t had the resources to develop empathic skills, we have other ways of reacting to the distress of our friends and loved ones already in place. An important part of the process of learning to give empathy is recognising our own ways of not giving empathy – and decommissioning them!