Don’t Just Do Something. Stand There!
Empathy is emptying our mind and listening with our whole being.
The presence that empathy requires is not easy to maintain.
Ask before offering advice or reassurance.
If your daughter is looking in the mirror and says “I’m as ugly as a pig!”, don’t assure her of her beauty. Instead, ask “Are you feeling disappointed with your appearance today?”
Reassuring is not empathizing.
The following are examples of not being present:
- Advising: Did you try…
- One-upping: This includes relating how your situation was worse.
- Education: You can turn this around if you…
- Consoling: It wasn’t your fault. You did your best.
- Story-telling: That reminds me of the time…
- Shutting Down: Cheer up. Don’t feel so bad.
- Sympathizing: Oh, you poor thing!
- Interrogating: When did this begin?
- Explaining: I would have called but…
- Correcting: That’s not how it happened.
When you lose your family member and people send condolences, they often say the above. It adds to the pain.
Believing we can/have to fix situations and make others feel better gets in the way of being present. Mental health professionals fall into this trap.
Intellectual understanding blocks empathy.
Listening For Feelings and Needs
In NVC, no matter what others say, we only hear what they are:
Some of these items may not be obvious so you need to tease them out.
Listen to what people are needing rather than what they are thinking.
Paraphrase their statements back to them. Keep doing it till they agree. It is preferred to do so by asking questions. Phrase them in a way that invites a response.
Examples of inviting a response:
- Observing: Are you reacting to how many evenings I was gone last week?
- Feelings and needs: Are you feeling hurt because you would have liked more appreciation for your efforts?
- Requests: Are you wanting me to tell you…
- What did I do that you are referring to?
- How are you feeling? Why are you feeling that way?
- What do you want me to do about it?
These three questions don’t signal you understand their reality. However, if you preface them with your own feelings and needs, they are more likely to work.
When asking for information, first express our own feelings and needs.
Paraphrase for understanding even if we are 100% sure we understood them - because they don’t know you did! Especially if they ask: Is that clear? (Don’t say “yes” - paraphrase back).
Always reflect back messages that are emotionally charged.
(But be wary that in some cultures this is impolite).
Paraphrase only when it contributes to greater understanding and compassion.
Be careful with your tone when reflecting back. People will be on guard and sensitive. They will look for criticism or sarcasm. A declarative tone will make it sound like you are telling them how they feel. Ensure a curious tone. Doing it in a mechanistic way without clear consciousness of purpose may fail. This occurs in the beginning when we are too concerned about the process.
When you focus on hearing the feelings and needs, we stop hearing the attacks, insults, criticisms, etc. Behind all the nasty messages we hear are merely people with unmet needs appealing to us to contribute to their well being. We stop feeling dehumanized. This comes with practice.
Behind intimidating messages are merely people appealing to us to meet their needs.
A difficult message becomes an opportunity to enrich someone’s life.
Paraphrasing saves time in a difficult conversation.
(It is not overhead).
It is tempting to rush into problem solving. Don’t! Let the other side fully express themselves first. Otherwise they may feel we are in a hurry. Additionally, it is often the case that the initial message is not the problem. Paraphrasing makes the other person dig deeper within themselves.
Even if they seem to have sorted it out, stick to paraphrasing until the person has nothing more to say. Or until there is a visible relief in tension.
When we stay with empathy, we allow speakers to touch deeper levels of themselves.
If unsure about whether they are done, ask “Is there anything more you wanted to say?”
When The Pain Blocks Our Ability to Empathize
Sometimes we don’t feel like giving empathy or don’t want to. This can be a sign that we need empathy.
We need empathy to give empathy.
First, we can try giving ourselves empathy. Listen to what’s going on in you. If that doesn’t work, then vent aloud - nonviolently. If that doesn’t work, physically remove yourself from the situation.
Using “good” or “bad” for feelings does not help others connect with you. Be more specific!
Remember: Paraphrasing/reflection is OK when even when you guess wrong. Guessing incorrectly continues the conversation. It doesn’t impede.
And if you fail to guess after a few times, express your feelings and needs: “Now I’m puzzled at what’s bothering you …”