Empathy with Strangers

When giving NVC intros, I often suggest that those new to the model start out by practicing it silently, connecting with your own feelings and needs (self-empathy) or silently empathy guessing with others. I also suggest that when you do practice out loud, to start out with complete strangers. There’s lower stakes and less pressure, as less history or “baggage” to navigate with those you don’t know.

Beyond this being a practical way to get your courage up to start practicing NVC, as someone who’s been practicing NVC for years, I continue to be amazed with what can happen and how things end up differently when practicing NVC with complete strangers, often in unexpected ways. In the last few months, it’s led to a complicated billing situation being resolved with the phone company, getting a change in a ticket (with no additional cost) with an airline, and getting a free ticket from a concert venue. While all of these “wins” are superficial on one level—involving cost-saving and enjoying greater convenience, it’s the positive outcome–the quality of connection—that really left my heart warm (and my day happier). I also think the lives of others involved was also positively impacted.

A few weeks ago, I decided to go catch Patti Smith’s birthday show in NYC. It was sold out so I went early to see if anyone had a spare ticket. I’ve done this about a dozen times over the years, and every time have gotten into a show.

This time, someone stopped me at the corner and asked if I needed a ticket. This had never happened before—in the past, I’ve stood outside the theater and asked people as they’ve gone in, or asked people waiting in line. In hindsight, this could have led me to pause… but I was excited about getting a ticket, and it looked legit, so bought one.  It wasn’t till I got to the entrance that I saw a big sign advising, “Scalpers selling fake tickets.”

I was directed to see the manager. I asked him, given my error and that the ticket looked so real, and since it was general admission and standing room only, if he could let me in. I knew it was a long shot, and one thing I’ve learned from NVC is to make requests for what you want. He explained they could do nothing to help me, and that he had to keep the fake ticket, for security purposes.

Here’s where my NVC skills came in, with my practicing a lot of self-empathy. Nursing my own disappointment and shock about being “had,” and now missing the show, which I really wanted to see, my next default (after self-empathy) then kicked in: focused in effect on another form of request (mostly for myself): I wondered what I could do differently next time. So I asked the manager if he could tell me what to look for, to know if a ticket was fake or not.  He then showed me how the quality of paper is different, and how the code was wrong on the fake one. While clearly it was not his responsibility that I’d bought a fake ticket, my sense was that he appreciated how calm I was, and that I didn’t blame or “dump” on him regarding my bad luck, or his refusal to let me in. I then thanked him for his time, and, with my tail between my legs, left the theater, making my way back to Brooklyn. I didn’t have the heart or budget to buy a second ticket that night, even if I could find one.

It was then that the little miracle happened. Heading down the street, back almost to the corner where I’d bought the bum ticket and where the scalper was now gone, I heard the theater manager’s voice call after me. Not knowing what was up, I turned back to the theater to see him smiling. “Someone just gave me an extra ticket,” he explained. “And I want you to have it!” After thanking him with delight, I went in to enjoy one of the best shows of my life—Patti was inspiring and empowering for me to see. That show was just what I needed on that cold January night! And if not for the scalper and the ticket manager, I also would not have such a unique opportunity to see the benefits again of self-empathy and making requests.

What’s compelling for me–and, I own, this is my interpretation of events—is that it’s the combination of requests that made the difference. I asked to be let in, he said no, and I was gracious (i.e. self-connected and in choice in how I responded) about it. The second request (to be educated about how to spot a fake ticket) also made a difference, since if I’d not taken the extra 5-10 minutes speaking with him, I would not have still been in the vicinity when the extra ticket became available. I know this is pure coincidence. And, at the same time, it offers me another powerful example about how making requests—focusing in this case on what I can learn and do differently next time (rather than berating myself or blaming someone else for what’s gone down already) can be transformative and lead to very different results. I was happy, the manager was happy, and, I imagine, the scalper was happy too (after all, he’d made at least $50 that night)…. talk about “win-win” outcomes! 🙂


Have you found it helpful practicing NVC with strangers, especially in the service industry or with those working for a government agency? Let me know your success stories!

And here’s a simple exercise you can try: the next time you’re going into a challenging situation regarding a bill or service that was not provided the way you’d like, take a moment to connect with your intentions (your needs). Stay connected with those intentions (such as for completion, resolution, understanding, respect) throughout your conversation. How do you think staying connected with those needs made a difference in the outcome—in terms of your response, and to the situation being resolved?

2 thoughts on “Empathy with Strangers

  1. Hello
    I came upon your site while looking for information about conflict resolution. I found the CNVC and was very excited until I found out there were no groups in the NYC area. Then I found a link to your site. I love your Patti Smith story (and I love her music). I had a similar experience with a ticket magically appearing to a sold out concert by a band I love. At least it felt like magic, but it was probably patience and being polite. I’m going to read more about your work, and see what I can learn. Thank you!

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