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Listening with Empathy

Empathy is a basic skill in Compassionate Communication that is facilitated by one's own self-empathy practice -- it's hard to give empathy without having it for oneself. Listening with empathy is about caring and curiosity for the experience of another person.

"Empathy is a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing." - Marshall Rosenberg [NVC Chapter Seven: Receiving Empathically, p. 91]

The listening can be aided by familiarity in navigating the Heart-Canvas. Are they mourning or celebrating? What's the intensity of their experience? What needs are present for them? Empathy can also be aided by intuition; by listening to our own embodied responses, we can feel into what might be happening with the other person. Of course, we don't know exactly what their experience is, so we state our intuitive guess in the form of a question.

"When you said <something>, were you <InsertFeeling>?"

"Are you longing for <InsertNeed>?"

"So, you value <InsertNeed>?"

"Empathy requires focusing full attention on the other person's message" - Marshall Rosenberg [NVC Chapter Seven: Receiving Empathically, p.92

Empathy is not about "getting it perfect." Empathy can be helpful even when it isn't quite on target; the person receiving the empathy has the chance to describe their experience more accurately. The important part of giving empathy are the intentions of caring, curiosity and compassion. Empathy is often confused with the following Non-Empathy responses:

Non-Empathy Responses

Here's a list of non-empathy responses with examples. Notice how these responses are not about the speaker, but about meeting some of the listener's needs (which are shown below in parentheses).

  • Advice, Fixing: "I think you should..." (about listener's need to contribute?)
  • Minimizing, Shutting down: "That's nothing. Don't feel bad..." (listener's need for caring?)
  • Educating: "This could be good for you..." (listener's need for caring?)
  • Interrogating: "When did it start?" (listener's need for information)
  • Consoling: "It wasn't your fault..." (listener's need for peace?)
  • Correcting, Defending, Explaining: "This is not how it happened..." (listener's need for protection?)
  • Story telling: "This reminds me of the time..." (listener's need to be heard)
  • Sympathy: "You poor thing..." (listener's need for harmony?)

These responses aren't "wrong," they just aren't empathy. There's a time and place for all of the responses. What's important is to be aware of the differences, and to make conscious choices that maximize meeting needs. Empathy skills are enhanced by a self-empathy practice, and through community interactions in a Compassionate Communication practice group.

"Empathy is about emptying the mind and listening with our whole being" - Marshall Rosenberg [NVC Chapter Seven: Receiving Empathically, p.91]