Tip #319: Nonviolent Communication #10: Receiving With Empathy

In last week’s Tip, we posed a test of your ability to identify statements that pose clear, positive, action-oriented requests. The statements in bold print are requests rather than demands. The remaining statements do not clearly express a request for a specific action.

1. “I want you to care about me.”

2. “I’d like you to tell me one reason why you think I would do well in that job.”

3. “I’d like you to act more serious about this project.”

4. “I’d like you to stop yelling at me.”

5. “I’d like you to let her be herself.”

6. I’d like you to be honest with me.”

7. “I would like you to stay on the highway.”

8. “I’d like to get to know your parents better.”

9. “I would like you to show respect for my privacy.”

10.”I’d like you to get home early more often.”

Tip #319: Nonviolent Communication #10: Receiving With Empathy

“The key ingredient of empathy is presence: we are wholly present with the other party and what they are experiencing.” Dr. Marshall Rosenberg

In previous Tips, we have explored the four components of honest expression: what we are observing, feeling and needing, and what we would like to request. There is another side to nonviolent communication, which is hearing what others are observing, feeling, needing and requesting.

In Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, Dr. Marshall Rosenberg refers to this aspect of nonviolent communication as “receiving empathically.”

Empathy is a respectful understanding of what others are feeling or experiencing. It begins with what many of us have learned as active listening: holding our own thoughts and feelings in abeyance as we listen without judgment to someone else.

This is not easy to do. We are problem solvers. As a result, rather than simply listening, we often want to jump right in with suggestions or advice, or to tell our own stories or feelings.

Holley Humphrey identifies ten common behaviors that prevent us from actively listening: advising, one-upping, educating, consoling, story-telling, shutting down, sympathizing, interrogating, explaining, and correcting.

According to Dr. Rosenberg, “believing we have to ‘fix’ situations and make others feel better prevents us from being present…intellectual understanding of a problem blocks the kind of presence that empathy requires.”

“When we are thinking about people’s words and listening to how they connect to our theories, we are looking at people- we are not with them. [And] while we may choose at times to sympathize with others by feeling their feelings, it’s helpful to be aware that during the moment we are offering sympathy, we are not empathizing.”

In this part of nonviolent communication, no matter what other people say, our job is to only hear what they are (1) observing, (2) feeling, (3) needing, and (4) requesting.

We start this process by paraphrasing what we have heard, to check our understanding. Paraphrasing is a well-known component of active listening. However, it takes a more sophisticated form in nonviolent communication.

First, it is specifically focused on what others are observing, feeling and needing, or requesting. Second, we may need to express our own feelings and needs before we ask for information.

For example:

“Instead of asking someone, “What did I do?” we might say, “I’m frustrated because I’d like to be clearer about what you are referring to. Would you be willing to tell me what I’ve done that leads you to see me in this way?”

Dr. Rosenberg acknowledges that this second step may neither be needed or helpful in some situations, but he strongly recommends reflecting back messages that are emotionally charged.

We may choose to paraphrase and reflect people’s messages back to them if we are unclear about their message- or if we sense that they would like confirmation that their message has been accurately received.

Interestingly enough, Dr. Rosenberg says that paraphrasing tends to save, rather than waste, time. “Studies in labor-management negotiations demonstrate that the time required to reach conflict resolution is cut in half when each negotiator agrees, before responding, to accurately repeat what the previous speaker has said.” !

We will know that a speaker has received sufficient empathy when tension decreases or the flow of words comes to an end. And if we start to feel defensive or unable to give empathy, we need to stop, breathe, and give ourselves empathy- because we can’t give to others what we don’t give to ourselves.

Let’s check if we can recognize verbal expressions of empathy. Keep in mind that:

(1) paraphrasing reflects back what the other person has said, without interpretation or indication of what we think or feel about it; and

(2) we can connect on a deeper level if we receive the feelings and needs being expressed rather than just the thoughts.

Please circle the number in front of each statement in which Person B is responding empathically to what is going on within Person A:

1. Person A: “How could I do something so stupid?”
Person B: “Nobody is perfect; you’re too hard on yourself.”

2. Person A: “If you ask me, we ought to ship all these immigrants back to
where they came from.”
Person B: “Do you really think that would solve anything?”

3. Person A: “You aren’t God!”
Person B: “Are you feeling frustrated because you would like me to admit
that there can be other ways of interpreting this matter?”

4. Person A: “I think that you take me for granted. I wonder how you would
manage without me.”
Person B: “That’s not true! I don’t take you for granted!”

5. Person A: “How could you say a thing like that to me?”
Person B: “Are you feeling hurt because I said this?”

6. Person A: “I’m furious with my husband. He’s never around when I need
Person B: “You think he should be around more than he is?”

7. Person A: “I’m disgusted with how heavy I’m getting.”
Person B: “Perhaps jogging would help.”

8. Person A: “I’ve been a nervous wreck planning for my daughter’s wedding.
Her fiance’s family is not helping. About every day they
change their minds about the kind of wedding they would like.”

Person B: “So you’re feeling nervous about how to make arrangements and
would appreciate it if your future in-laws could be more
aware of the complications their indecision creates for you?”

9. Person A: “When my relatives come without letting me know ahead of time,
I feel invaded. It reminds me of how my parents used to
disregard my needs and would plan things for me.”

Person B: “I know just how you feel. I used to feel that way, too.”

10.Person A: “I’m disappointed with your performance. I would have liked
your department to double your production last month.”

Person B: “I understand that you are disappointed, but we have had many
absences due to illness.”

In the next Tip, we will discuss the power of empathy.

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