Somatic-Based Empathy – Part I


This past spring, I offered a six week course on Somatic-Based Empathy (a practice I developed based on NVC) via the NVC Academy (NVCA). After the NVCA program, one of the participants, Thierry Dewandre, asked me to write about Somatic-Based Empathy so he could share more about it in Belgium. Curious about his experiences in the course and what he had learned and taken from it (and valuing collaboration), I suggested that we collaborate and write a piece together. What follows is Part One of a multi-part series on Somatic-Based Empathy based on both our insights and experience.

(Note: If you’re interested in doing a live workshop on Somatic-Based Empathy, I’ll be offering a weekend program 19th-20th February, 2020 in Hamburg, Germany and also offering sessions on this topic as part of the upcoming Ireland IIT). 

Photo by Jay Castor on Unsplash

Somatic-Based Empathy (Part One) 

By Thierry Dewandre (guest blogger) and Dian Killian

Many of us engage in behavioral responses that we are frustrated or feel “stuck” about. This could be, for example, around turning up more assertive and direct than we would like in some situations or perhaps more quiet and passive in others. Or getting angry too easily, or, on the contrary bottling up one’s anger and keeping it inside or shutting down (like a “deer in headlights”).  For many, these behavioral “habits” are related to how we hold our own needs with care in relation to others, how we treat and respond to ourselves internally, and how we shut down or go numb (“flight” rather than fight) in the face of conflict and/or discomfort.  Often these habitual behaviors are “tragic” in that we take a particular strategy to meet a need (such as holding back one’s anger to maintain connection) when, in fact, that very strategy gets in the way of meeting that need (as well as other needs, such as authenticity, honesty, intimacy, empowerment, and integrity). 

Such responses, because they are habitual,  often seem natural, obvious or assumed; they are as familiar and automatic as the air we breathe. They are emotional responses and, as such, are visceral, reactive, automatic and unconscious. As such, we often are not able to anticipate or recognize them immediately when they happen. Afterwards, when we see we’ve again “gone down the same path” and recognize the pattern, we can be especially frustrated, irritated or impatient with ourselves. “How could I have done that again?!” or “Will I ever learn!” Because these habitual responses are difficult to anticipate or see, they also can be challenging to change. These habits or patterns are almost always related to past trauma or incomplete or unresolved past experiences, which often took place during childhood, and live just beneath the level of consciousness. In effect, these experiences caused particular needs to become “stuck” or “fossilized.” 

Since these fossilized or stuck needs are not in full consciousness and occur via an emotional/body-based response, a body-based (or somatic) approach can be especially helpful in identifying, seeing, and increasingly, addressing and resolving them. While it’s not possible to erase or eliminate traumatic experiences, we can over time enable these parts of ourselves that got stuck or were left unheard to express themselves in a new way: a way where they experience being witnessed, held, and listened to — and recognized — as they are. These parts will then no longer “feel alone” and as a consequence no longer take “uncontrolled” actions on their own in order to be heard. The past no longer holds the present (or the person) hostage.

Instead of using our brain’s thoughts, the approach which is well developed in our dominant occidental culture, Somatic-Based Empathy attunes to our body’s sensations with curiosity, presence, and care. Because sensations are the language of the body (sensations are how the body communicates to us, and expresses its needs), once we are present to what is (in as much detail and attention as we can) we then explore what the sensations might be “saying” to us, and empathize with the sensations and the body in a similar way to how in NVC we usually empathize with a person’s thoughts, identifying their feelings, needs and ultimately their requests. 

Often at first, our sensations might be too subtle to notice or stay present with.  It may take some time to practice being still, paying attention, and developing the vocabulary to describe in detail what we are noticing in our bodies. For others,  the somatic response is so strong,  it can be overwhelming (like music with the volume too high) and they try to push their thoughts and somatic responses away, to suppress them, because it’s uncomfortable or maybe even anxiety provoking (to notice such strong sensations).  When practicing Somatic-Based Empathy, we learn to develop resilience in paying attention to our body’s sensations and progressively learn to stay with them, dialog with them, and discover “who” they are, and what these sensations (and our body) are attempting to communicate to us. Once our bodies experience being listened to and heard, our whole systems can relax and settle. 

Marshall Rosenberg talked about how the more someone has needs that go unheard and/or unmet, the louder and more violent a person may become. The “loudness” and even violence is a tragic attempt to be heard. Other people of course, after going unheard or experiencing their needs not mattering, can also shut down or go silent. Similarly, in our bodies, if we have not been listening or paying attention, it can be hard to “hear” our sensations at first because they are so quiet since they have become perhaps resigned to not being heard. Other times, and for some people, the sensations are “shouting.” In both cases, the more we listen to the body, the more confidence and ease develops in listening and the body being heard.  

This “body” or somatic awareness is not always taught or developed in Nonviolent Communication (NVC). This is unfortunate because leaving out the body we miss access to a very significant part of ourselves, with valuable insights that we cannot often access on a cognitive level. More, from the perspective of Somatic-Based Empathy, leaving out the body furthers a power-over relationship in relation to ourselves, where the mind is “master” and listened to and heeded, and the body must follow. In effect, this power-over relationship within ourselves (of mind over body) reflects the larger power-over relationships in the dominant culture, indicative of how we also often relate to other species and the natural world. By listening to and respecting the body, we begin to shift in a powerful way centuries of this power-over culture which categorized the body (and the natural world) in an objective way as unintelligent, mute, and to be driven and manipulated. NVC can be seen as an integrative approach, via noticing what we are experiencing (observations) and our feelings and needs (what’s alive in us and what matters to us). Noticing sensations in this context can be seen as the missing step in NVC, as another vital form of observation, self-connection, and noticing what’s alive.

Note: In Part Two, we will go into more detail about how to actually practice Somatic-Based Empathy. 

Leave a Reply

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

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s