Demonstrating understanding and connection

Empathy flower, Bee Balm

Balm Flower, the symbol for empathy


em⋅pa⋅thy [on-uh-stee] From Dictionary.com
1. the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
2. the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself: By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a mirror of the self.

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The way empathy is used in Nonviolent Communication is to just be present for another person. Emapthy is not trying to fix the person or situation. We can let someone know we understand him or her by demonstrating empathy. Marshall uses the phrase, what's alive in you. Empathy is the complement to honesty. Demonstrating empathy is acknowledging what the other person is observing, feeling, needing and requesting. Because of how powerful empathy is at creating connection sometimes empathy is given priority over honesty. I find honesty is just as important as empathy. Without the honesty the other party may not understand what is going on for us. When we are communicating in NVC we are either speaking honesty or demonstrating empathy.

Sympathy is often confused with empathy. Sympathetic vibration is commonly illustrated with two tuning forks set to the same frequency. Striking one will induce sympathetic vibrations in the other. With people sympathy is feeling the same emotion as another person. So if I was sad and you started interacting with me and became sad also that is sympathy. With empathy you might feel a slight emotional drop, however it is not to the same emotional state as the speaker. Instead the empathizer stays centered and connected to self. If you get sucked in to the negative emotions of the speaker you benefit neither the speaker or yourself.

I have found the ability to demonstrate empathy to be quite challenging for most people to learn. In my culture (U.S.) most people want to help. Usually the way they help is by trying to fix things by offering advice. Even when this is done with the best intentions it is usually annoying to the person receiving the advice or being fixed. Only broken things can be fixed and I know I don't like to think I am broken and in need of repair. I recommend practicing demonstrating empathy in a safe place before trying it in stressful situation.

What Empathy is: What Empathy is not:
  1. Presence Just being there, not doing anything from the list of nots
  2. Understanding
  3. Demonstrating Empathy - Saying the Observations, Feelings, Needs and Requests (OFNR)
  4. Unconditional love
  5. Self connected
  1. Reassurance: It's not that bad, it could have been worse.
  2. Advice: This is what you should have done …
  3. One upping: Wait till you hear what happened to me …
  4. Educating: If you could just learn to …
  5. Consoling: You did your best!
  6. Story telling: When I was a kid …
  7. Sympathizing: I feel awful for you.
  8. Shutting Down: Just get over it. It's not that bad.
  9. Interrogating: What, where, when, why and how did …
  10. Explaining/Justifying: I was only …
  11. Correcting: That's not true!
  12. Fixing: You are a wonderful person. (After someone puts themselves down.)
  13. Analyzing (psychiatrist):When do you feel this way? Perhaps this is from childhood trauma.
  14. Using but: But, that's not what I meant.

Never put your BUT, in an angry person's face! May be followed by ass chewing.


Have you ever been in the position of the characters on the bottom half in the comic above? When I find myself in a similar situation, I often have trouble being in a place of empathy. How can I be compassionate under these circumstances? First and foremost is being aware of what's alive in me. This means being aware of my observations, feelings, needs and requests. What I find most helpful is using the emotions to identify the needs. Once I am connected to my needs then I will be emotionally available and able to look at the other person's needs.

Empathy vs Reassurance, Advice, One upping, Educating etc.

Notice in the responses below how when the emotion or need is obvious, the empathy is in the from of a statement. If the speaker is not clearly identifying a need or emotion, it is in the form of a question, like the TV show Jeopardy. If you tell someone that hasn't said what emotion they are feeling, this is the emotion you are feeling, you could be putting yourself in jeopardy. This is another tricky part of demonstrating empathy.

An Expression of Pain or Distress Response Demonstrating Empathy
You are always late. That's rude, when will you show up on time.
You make me so angry when you are disrespectful.
Living with you is like living with a brick wall, I don't know what you are feeling.
You were lazy and left the dishes you promised to do in the sink.
I'm tired of living with a slob.

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