Empathy is a basic human need. Being heard and understood can be deeply healing, clarifying, restorative, and liberating. Not surprisingly, empathy is the powerhouse behind all Collaborative Communication-based processes and applications including mediation, meeting facilitation, restorative justice, coaching, and deep healing work. Yet what is empathy? Why is it so powerful?
These questions are compelling for me, especially as I recently blogged about listening as a radical intervention in scary times and also about the value of creating a restorative process in the U.S. to address economic and social disparities about systemic racism (both historically and currently). Marshall Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist, created Nonviolent Communication as a form of social change. If it can be a form of social change, it is largely due to the transformational power of empathy.
So what is empathy and how can it make a difference for us — in how we relate to others, and in the lives of others?
A standard definition of empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” The term originated in the 1800s from the German word, “Einfühlung” that was originally used by art critics and historians to describe our ability to project our feelings onto an object (a work of art). The term was later adopted by psychologists.
But regardless of the term’s origin or original meaning, repeated research has documented how empathy is our birthright as mammals and human beings. We see it at play in our everyday lives, even in simple but profound ways: when one baby in a room cries then other babies start to cry. Or, if in a public space, on a bus or subway, and another person is having a stressful conversation on their phone, others in the space (even although not directly involved) will also start to become tense. Empathy is our inherent capacity for deep connection and concern with/for others, and related even, in my view, to our capacity as humans for interdependence, connection with nature, and communion.
In Nonviolent Communication (NVC), when we talk about empathy, we are being very specific: it is our capacity to put our attention on the other and be fully present to what is alive at that moment for the person, with full presence and acceptance. Empathy stands in stark contrast to other common ways that we respond to people every day in “normal” conversation: agreement, disagreement, comparison, one-upping, advice, fixing, or sympathy (which in my experience often has a quality of pity to it). If you think about it, these non-empathic responses actually function to bring the attention back to you, the listener, and your perspective/needs, rather than maintaining your focus on the person who is speaking and who you are (supposedly) listening to.
In addition to this particular stance and intention (of listening fully and being fully present, with full acceptance), in NVC we have developed very specific empathy practices to support our natural empathy birthright. We often start with recapping (also known as mirroring or reflecting), so the person knows that we have heard them on a content level (the level of thoughts and ideas; the actual words). This is the first step of NVC: giving an observation and letting the other person know that “message delivered is message received.”
We then also make “empathy guesses” about feelings and needs. We are guessing not to direct or influence a person, but rather, our to support the other person in self-connecting and identifying their own feelings and needs. I often refer to this as being an empathy “midwife.” In effect, making empathy guesses supports the empathic stance or mindset of being fully present.
By making empathy guesses, we are:
- extending ourselves to another human being
- putting ourselves in their shoes
- doing our best to aid them through our feelings and needs guesses
- identify what is driving their experience on a core level
While recapping “gets” the person on the content level, empathy guessing “gets” the person on a gut or heart level. This makes for an experience of being completely heard.
Active empathy, then, means holding a space free of judging, agreeing, disagreeing, fixing, comparing, or giving advice or sympathy. We are choosing instead to be fully present to what is, trusting that the speaker, when they’re ready, can find their own solutions and/or make their own requests.
People can access extraordinary creativity and possibility once they have been fully heard. It is also not the time or space to discuss, debate, or share our opinions. We are making a conscious and mindful choice to be present to another human being and during that time to put our cognitive and dissonant thoughts aside.
While listening in this way you may not agree with everything that you hear the other person say. You may not like it and you might even get triggered yourself (and want/need empathy in response). Yet when choosing to actively listen empathically, we are choosing to listen to the person who is in the empathy “seat;” we are listening—free of judgment or reaction, or, at least, managing internally our own reactions so we can continue to be present and listen. We agree to keep our focus and attention on the person speaking. Whatever the other person is expressing, it is not about you or any other person; it’s their experience and about their feelings and needs.
Empathic listening can be done with or without words; empathic presence in itself is powerful and transformative. Even if you are not recapping or making empathy guesses aloud, you can hold an internal focus of seeking to understand and empathize with the person speaking. You can do this by silently guessing feelings and needs and/or holding an intention around being fully attentive and present. I like to think about this intention as listening with my full body, including every pore and cell! It is a gift to listen–and for someone to be heard–in this way.
And this leads to why empathy, especially how we practice in NVC, in my experience is so powerful! Presence, care, mattering, companionship, attention, self-connection, and connection with others, and being heard are all core human needs. These needs are all profoundly met via being heard or “met” empathically. More, as a result of being heard empathically, I find that space is opened up for curiosity, acceptance, learning, awareness, clarity, growth, and movement forward. There also is usually a quality of restoration, peace, and harmony—a return to equilibrium and balance. A lot of needs–and all being met at once!
Perhaps most profoundly, I find empathy supports a deep integration in our bodies. Often we can be stuck in our heads while having a somatic response that we are not fully aware of or connected to. To use the proverbial expression, our minds might be telling us one thing, and our hearts another. Needs, as we mean and use them in NVC, are universal and primal. I actually believe they came out of evolutionary survival. Our hearts and minds “get” them as much as our bodies do. And because needs are primal, when they are met or even heard and honored, our bodies can breathe and relax. It’s like that feeling on a hot, humid day of drinking a cool glass of water. Our whole bodies can relax in getting that need met–for coolness, rest, and hydration.
At workshops, where participants get to experience first hand this power of empathy, I often ask them how they feel in their bodies after they’ve been heard and have identified their core needs. Almost without exception, people report feeling more relaxed, happy, and open. Then I ask, “When will you have conversations that are more effective, connecting, and forward-moving? When you feel the way you do now, or when you were focused on the judgments, pain, and stories you were holding?”
Everyone who I have asked so far (and I have asked many hundreds!) agrees that the more effective conversation will occur from this state of empathy. The blood is flowing in their bodies. They are free of fight or flight. They are not in tunnel vision. They are calmer and therefore have more perspective and are less likely to trigger others with their own previously unresolved anxiety. This is why empathy is powerful for ourselves and also in how we relate and communicate with others.
In future blogs, I plan to explore what I see as the evolutionary survival aspect of needs and also how empathy can be leveraged on a large scale. For the moment, I hope what I’ve written today helps you connect more deeply with empathy and its impact and power for you, both on an individual basis and in how you relate and communicate with others. Feel free to share in the comments your experiences as well. How has empathy made a difference for you?