Empathy Guessing Demystified

When I was new to Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and first experienced empathy, I was awed. How could someone understand so deeply what I was experiencing? Empathy was so simple and powerful it seemed like magic — or at least telepathy.

However, because it seemed magical, that meant it was beyond my comprehension. I recall thinking after one workshop I attended, “I don’t think I’ll ever know what I’m feeling and needing!”

Empathy Magic
Photo by VisionPic .net from Pexels

Today, nearly 20 years on and a Certified Trainer with the Center for Nonviolent Communication since 2005, I am grateful to see this “magic” at work daily for individuals, groups, and organizations that I work with.

Yet while still powerful, empathy is no longer a mystery — I “cracked the code” and want to share with you some precepts (based on the consciousness and mindset of NVC) and some basic steps (based on what I call the “semantics of empathy”) that can help make empathy guessing second nature.

First Principle: Intention

NVC is about placing our focus on what we want to experience (what will make life more wonderful, as the founder, Marshall Rosenberg put it). This is very different from what we usually get with judgments or blame, which is a focus on what’s wrong or what we don’t want.

For example, if someone says, “You never listen to me!” they probably have a need to be heard. If they say, “You’re so pig-headed and stubborn,” they’re probably wanting openness, flexibility, and mutuality. If you tell yourself, “I never follow through on things!” you may desire integrity for your words and actions or completion and effectiveness (what “following through” might give you).

In each case, the empathy guess is the opposite of the judgment — it’s the positive form of a negative assessment regarding what is “wrong” or “lacking.” The next time someone is complaining or critical, see if you can listen with your “empathy ears” for what they are wanting — this will help you guess their feelings and needs.

Second Principle: Form

Another concept that helps to de-mystify empathy guessing is that needs are universal and so, by definition, abstract. Look at any word on the needs list — love, support, interdependence, choice, rest, etc. — none of these can you pick up in your hands or hold. They are all experiences and, in terms of grammar, are abstract nouns. Judgments, thoughts, and evaluations are descriptive and so are in the form of adverbs and adjectives (modifiers).

Both principles can help with empathy guessing, since what we’re doing is looking for the positive (the opposite of the negative), and a quality on an abstract level.

Applying these Principles

Let’s see what this might look like in action. For instance, someone says, “He’s needy and dependent.” What would be the opposite, positive assessment? Probably that the person is self-sufficient, independent, autonomous, resourceful, or responsible. If we make these characteristics abstract, we come up with needs: self-sufficiency, independence, autonomy, resourcefulness, and responsibility.

Let’s look at a few more examples:

Formula: If you tell yourself that someone or something is, “__________,” you probably need → ____________.

“inconsiderate” → consideration

“incompetent” → competency

“difficult” → ease

“inflexible” → flexibility

“impossible” → hope/confidence or ease

Photo by Richard Doran from Unsplash

Some judgments have very little actual meaning. For example, “you’re a jerk,” or, “that’s cool!” Words of this kind have a high level of moral judgment and are more expressions of intensity of feeling than the needs that are at play. Often, though, they come along with content words that do have needs in them.

For example, if someone says, “You’re impossible,” they might give next a more specific complaint (or imply in context): “You never take responsibility for your actions!” You might then empathically guess, “It sounds like you’re really frustrated and impatient—and wanting responsibility and awareness?” “Impossible” in this content could also be expressing exhaustion, and a desire for simplicity, flow and ease — or hope about change — in the relationship.

I hope that these tips help you to demystify empathy guessing and more easily share the “magic” of empathy with all those you meet! Remember that in practicing this semantic-based form of empathy guessing — as in all communication — context is key. Regardless of the words you use, what really matters in your intention to listen to others — bringing your heart, as well as your head, into how you understand and connect with others.


If you find this approach to empathy guessing helpful, you may wish to check out Chapter 3 in the second edition of Connecting Across Differences, where this practice of semantic-based empathy guessing — based on the roots of words and their oppositions — is discussed in detail.

In addition, there are exercises that support you in practicing empathy guessing. You can practice hearing what is beneath positive and negative assessments, i.e. taking note of which values may animate both empathic (emotive) expressions and the more content laden ones.

For more, check out page 93 of the book, titled the “roots and oppositions” exercise, which depicts how to decode the needs underlying judgments (see pages 91-92, “Enjoy the Talking Head Show.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s