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 silence which still involves quite a few words, and that is OK too. That’s who these guidelines are intended for, actually.

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. When you have heard enough to know what is really alive in the other person, and they know that you have heard this, then you can be silently present, and perhaps that is the moment of true empathy.

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

Listening empathically to a non-NVC speaker is likely to involve translating expressions which include elements of judging or self-criticism into the language of needs and feelings. Listening 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 fully heard. 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. That way the speaker is encouraged to stay on that superficial level. So it’s enough to echo any such ‘unprocessed’ expressions once or twice. “I hear you’re telling yourself that (he’s a selfish bastard, etc).” What we are more interested in as NVC empaths, though, are the feelings and needs behind the judgments, because this connects on a deeper level with what is alive in the other person. So I suggest moving on from this acknowledgement of the surface expression  to translate and then reflect back the deeper levels of whatever is presented on the surface. “Is it that you wanting some consideration for your own and others’ needs, perhaps?”. 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.

Let’s take those steps one at a time. 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 unnecessary information, though: a single jumping-off point is all we need.  Avoid getting into any discussion of the whys and wherefores. It’s just a place to anchor the exploration to.

“Intellectual understanding blocks empathy”.  Marshall Rosenberg .

As soon as the person has settled a little, you’ll 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, for example, 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 you suspect; if they seem to be very angry, for example, you might ask if they’re annoyed’, and leave it up to them to concur, or perhaps to retort, Annoyed? No, I’m FURIOUS!“. Very often our feelings are entangled with our judgments, though, so the empathic listener may want to do some gentle digging to help the person connect with the true feelings. 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 that level.

The same applies to the needs, and you can even start there, for example if the feelings are too sensitive to be mentioned or the person is already very clear about her feelings. 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 with feelings, 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!

Becoming aware of 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 yourself – unless you want to, of course, out of your own needs!

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!