Nonviolent communication

by Anna Finlayson and Daren DeWitt

NVC and empathy

I often say we’ve got a budget deficit that’s important, we’ve got a trade deficit that’s critical, but what I worry about most is our empathy deficit. When I speak to students, I tell them that one of the most important things we can do is to look through somebody else’s eyes.’ (Our italics)

Barack Obama

What is empathy and why is it important in human communication? Empathy is one of the deepest needs that we have as human beings. To give empathy to someone over how they are experiencing a situation is one of the most powerful things we can do to build trust and understanding between us. The more intense the conflict or degree of upset, the stronger will be the individual’s need for empathy.

Essentially, the giving of empathy to another human being is about listening to another with what we call ‘presence’, by which we mean the ability in the listener to focus their awareness and keep it focused on the other person. This requires a degree of inner stillness in the listener, so that their focus doesn’t switch to themselves while they are empathising. Giving empathy means that you allow the other person the space to fully feel and express what they’re experiencing, and that you sense their Feelings and Needs.

We recommend verbally expressing what you have understood the person’s feelings and needs to be:

‘Are you feeling upset because you need understanding of the situation?’

In NVC, we call this part of the process ‘empathic connection’.

To truly listen empathically to another requires us to have shed all preconceived ideas and judgments about them. The person being empathised with is likely to feel a sense of relief and gratitude for being understood in such a way. This is because your intention is to empathically connect, not to judge, blame or gather evidence against them.

Empathic connection

Empathic connection comes before education.

Marshall Rosenberg

A common mistake that is often made in communication is attempting to tell other people what they need to do differently, which often includes telling them what they have done wrong, before we have actually listened to them empathically first.

The consequence of this is that the other person either resists what we are saying, zones out and doesn’t listen to us, or doesn’t fully respect and understand what our needs might be. So we suggest you follow the order of the principle given in the following quote:

If I were to summarise in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. [author’s italics]

Stephen Covey

This can be quite a challenge for most of us, because we have been educated to think that people need to hear what they’ve done wrong in order to change their behaviour. However, it doesn’t seem to work that way. People are more motivated to change their behaviour when they have been understood themselves, without being judged and blamed, and when they have understood what needs would be met by their changing.

Example

So let’s say that someone in your office has spoken to a client in a way that you consider to be unhelpful and worrying. You are also aware this person has been looking strained recently. Before you launch into telling them what you didn’t like about their behaviour and issuing a warning to them (informally or formally) we suggest you try to seek first to understand.

For example: ‘I’ve noticed you’ve been looking a bit strained recently and I’m wondering if you are feeling under pressure – would that be the reason you raised your voice to our client yesterday?’ This will have the effect of helping the person to feel understood and to feel like they can open up and explain some more, therefore helping them feel more relaxed and, we predict, therefore more open to hearing your concern. A way of avoiding the problem happening again is more likely to be identified from this kind of dialogue.

Giving empathy is not the same as agreeing

Lastly, we want to make an important distinction between giving someone empathy and agreeing with what the other person is saying and/or agreeing to do anything. Sometimes, people are afraid to give another person empathy or understanding because they think it means giving up on their own needs or that they are agreeing with the person. This is not so. Let’s see why.

Example

Let’s say you have difficulty with a team member who is not completing the work they are allocated to do within the time frame they have been set. When you approach this person, they say that they already have too much work and have been feeling stressed. You may feel worried or annoyed at hearing this, which could result in you reacting defensively and saying to them something like: ‘You just have to do it! It’s got to be done!’

But to empathise would be different and may look something like this: ‘So are you saying you are feeling overwhelmed and that you need some understanding of this from me?’

This does not mean that you have to give up your need for completion of the task within the time frame allocated, but it does mean you have attempted to respectfully understand their situation and we predict that they will then be more open to your concerns and to participate in the solving the problem.

The rewards of empathic connection in the workplace

To show empathic understanding toward other human beings can result in many positive consequences. One example is that you may feel a sense of fulfilment at having met your own need to contribute to the well being of another person. You may get a deeper understanding of that person and so find it easier to talk or work with them. The other person is also more likely to be ready to listen to you and hear what your needs may be. Empathic connection can dissipate resentful and angry feelings among colleagues and staff. We have found, therefore, that in a workplace context, working cooperatively can become a much more frequent reality.

Empathy, the basics

Level 1 – emergency empathy

Level 2 – the journey

Level 1

People often remark that they are too busy at work to give empathy to others. Perhaps they imagine a long, complicated dialogue that they simply don’t have time for. However, in busy, pressurised environments, you can use empathic connection in a fast way. In NVC, we call this emergency empathy.

When empathising with another person in this way we suggest that you keep your focus on the two ingredients in nonviolent communication of feelings and needs. Sometimes, you may simply go straight to the need: if a colleague comes up to you and is frustrated and saying you didn’t talk to her about a decision you made, you could quickly empathise by saying ‘Would you have liked more consultation?’

This will immediately diffuse the other’s frustration and lead them to feel more understood than they had been and have an effect of calming them down.

Level 2

This way of giving empathy involves time and energy and we suggest you do this when you have made a conscious decision to meet with the other and really explore their concerns, feelings and needs. This would be because you think that this investment of time and energy is worthwhile, perhaps to prevent more formal action being taken by someone else or even by yourself, if you are concerned about someone’s performance/behaviour.

This kind of empathy is like going on a journey with the other person, a journey where neither of you knows where you are heading and where you will arrive. You simply keep your attention focused on the feeling and need being expressed in the words they are speaking at any moment. When each need becomes conscious between you, a new need will ‘pop up’ from underneath it. During this process, you may have to resist the temptation to ‘jump ahead’ to a need that you think you’ve spotted deeper within them. If you stay with the need that is present in them in each moment, you may eventually arrive at the need you had spotted, but when you do so they will be connected to it fully, as it emerges from within them rather than as it is pointed out intellectually by you.

There are four ingredients of NVC: observations, feelings, needs and requests. At this level we suggest you may want to use all four instead of purely focusing on the feelings and needs that we suggested in level one.

Observations

At different points in your journey with the other it may be necessary for you to clarify the facts of what happened. You would want to do this only if you sensed that it would help the other to separate out the facts of what happened from their interpretation, or if it would help you to guess more accurately their feelings and needs. You should avoid asking for information simply to satisfy your own curiosity.

Eventually, you will arrive at a point when they go silent. They may even sigh deeply. No more needs emerge and you have touched ‘base’ with what is alive in them. Such moments of empathy are deeply centring and affirming for the person receiving empathy. When you have reached this point, and only then, you are ready to explore solutions or strategies to meet their unmet needs.

Supporting others to find strategies to get their needs met

As much as possible, you should aim to support the other person to come up with their own strategy to meet their need. If it comes from them, it is more likely to be something that they will do. Again, you want to avoid giving advice, and instead ask questions that get them thinking for themselves:

‘Is there anything you can think of that would help resolve this for you?’ ‘What could you do to get your need for... met?’ or, if the problem involves you and the work task, you might say ‘I have a suggestion for something we might do. Could we discuss this now?’

Common listening pitfalls

Below are some common patterns that occur in listeners when their focus switches from the other person to themselves and they therefore lose the empathic connection:

  • Advising – ‘Why don’t you...?’, ‘You should have... !’
  • Storytelling – ‘That reminds me of the time...’
  • Sympathising – ‘Oh... you poor thing... that must have felt so bad!’

Different contexts for using empathic connection:

  • Empathic connection with another who is unhappy about someone else
  • Empathic connection with another who is unhappy with me
  • Empathically connecting with two individuals in a mediation context