Explanation of the skill

This skill involves working with the challenge of another person feeling heard, understood, and in connection with themselves and others. It is about being fully present with a person's experience (following vs. leading).

Intentions of Empathy

  • Empathy vs. Expression: I want to maintain clarity of where my focus of attention in the conversation is, and do I wish to offer empathy or self- expression to create the quality of connection I am wanting and to contribute to myself and the other person. When I am choosing empathy I want to maintain my focus of attention on what is going on in that person, what is "alive" in them, in the present moment of their speaking/being with me, rather than sharing what is going on in me.
  • Following rather than leading: When empathizing I want to follow what the person says is going on for them rather than lead or direct the flow of the conversation towards what I think is going on or is important.
  • Connection before outcome: I am in what I would call empathy when I am meeting my needs to understand and connect with the life in this person, rather than out of wanting to help them feel better or to contribute to anything changing or being different than the way it is in that moment.

Elements of empathy

  • Presence: This element of empathy is about conscious awareness that transcends thought/thinking, and listening from the heart, from the place in me that feels unconditional care and regard for all human beings and all life. In empathy, I am placing my pure, witnessing attention on the other person, gently and effortlessly resting my awareness on what I'm receiving from them without thinking about or trying to understand what they are saying. In doing this I am also frequently shifting my attention very briefly back to what is happening inside me, to maintain my own self-connection, and then returning my attention back to being fully with the other person.
  • Understanding/Meaning: This element of empathy is about attempting to understand someone in the way they would most like to be heard, in the language that best reflects what they are trying to communicate about what is true for them, in their world, their reality. It is the attempt to receive someone exactly where they are in terms of the meaning to them of their experience, going with the language that they feel is best connecting/resonating to the life within them.

    This is not agreement. You may not agree with what someone is saying or even perceive the same reality they do. It is about demonstrating understanding and acceptance of another's subjective frame of reference, focusing our attention toward another and attempting to articulate back to them what is true for them in their subjective world. This may involve reflecting back to the person some of their judgmental thoughts and their story, but to do this in a way that does not support the idea of an external truth or reality but rather maintaining the focus on this person's internal frame and what would help them feel heard and understood as they would like.
  • Need Language & Deepening into Needs: This element is about focusing our listening attention and verbal reflection on the needs alive in this person as they are speaking, and connecting their needs to their observations, thoughts, feelings and specific wants. It may be a matter of reflecting back the needs we are hearing in what the person is already expressing, or we as listener may want to attempt to translate their thoughts and guess the needs we are sensing.

    Once we have connected with the person's needs, we may wish to linger a bit on those needs, pausing to "savor" them with the person, either in silence or continuing to reflect the needs back, perhaps in slightly different aspects or nuances of the words that seem to resonate most strongly and deeply with the person. This is a way of making the space for ourselves and the other person to more deeply connect with the life within them.

Empathy quotes

Empathy as Presence

"The Chinese philosopher Chuang-Tzu stated that true empathy requires listening with the whole being: 'The hearing that is only in the ears is one thing. The hearing of the understanding is another. But the hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear, or to the mind. Hence it demands the emptiness of all the faculties. And when the faculties are empty, then the whole being listens. There is then a direct grasp of what is right there before you that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind.'"

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life

Empathic listening

"Seek first to understand" involves a very deep shift in paradigm. We typically seek first to be understood. Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They're either speaking or preparing to speak. They're filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people's lives....

...When I say empathic listening, I mean listening with intent to understand. I mean seeking first to understand, to really understand. It's an entirely different paradigm.

...In empathic listening, you listen with your ears, but you also, and more importantly, listen with your eyes and with your heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behavior. You use your right brain as well as your left. You sense, you intuit, you feel.

Empathic listening is so powerful because it gives you accurate data to work with. Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts feelings, motives and interpretation, you're dealing with the reality inside another person's head and heart. You're listening to understand. You're focused on receiving the deep communication of another human soul.

Steven Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People


I do not know if you have ever examined how you listen, it doesn't matter to what, whether to a bird, to the wind in the leaves, to the rushing waters, or how you listen in a dialogue with yourself, to your conversation in various relationships with your intimate friends, your wife or husband....

If we try to listen we find it extraordinarily difficult, because we are always projecting our opinions and ideas, our prejudices, our backgrounds, our inclinations, our impulses; when they dominate we hardly listen at all to what is being said....

In that state there is no value at all. One listens and therefore learns, only in a state of attention, a state of silence, in which this whole background is in abeyance, is quiet; then, it seems to me, it is possible to communicate.

....real communication can only take place where there is silence.

- Krishnamurti

Surfing Life Energy & Watching the Magic Show

Have you ever been surfing? Imagine you're on your surfboard now, waiting for the big one to come. Get ready to get carried with that energy. Now, here it comes. Are you with that energy right now? That's empathy. No words - just being with that energy. When I connect with what's alive in another person, I have feelings similar to when I'm surfing.

To do this, you can bring in nothing from the past. So the more psychology you have studied, the harder it will be to empathize. The more you know the person, the harder it will be to empathize. Diagnoses and past experiences can instantly knock you off the board. This doesn't mean denying the past. Past experiences can stimulate what's alive in this moment. But are you present to what was alive then or what the person is feeling and needing in this moment?

If you think ahead to what to say next - like how to fix it or make the person feel better - BOOM! Off the board. You're into the future. Empathy requires staying with the energy that's here right now. Not using any technique. Just being present. When I have really connected to this energy, it's like I wasn't there. I call this "watching the magic show." In this presence, a very precious energy works through us that can heal anything, and this relieves me from my "fix-it" tendencies.

- Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D.