Connecting with Empathy

I wrote earlier about my telephone conversation with my friend Steve, and how I thought he got upset and hung up on me. So I went through this process of NVC with Steve, observed my Feelings and Needs and made the Request, “What are you feeling?” And Steve tells me, “Dude, look, it’s not about you. I was at work on Friday night. My boss comes over and says, that project of yours is two weeks overdue. You’ve got the weekend to get it done or you’re fired.”

Now what do I know about Steve’s headspace? I told him that I was feeling hurt and annoyed and I needed understanding. What’s Steve probably feeling? I can guess the feeling would be anxiety or fear and the Need would be financial security. 

Financial security, because he didn’t want to lose his job. This process is called Empathy. This is the definition of empathy. Understanding what a person is feeling and needing. Notice that I don’t have to feel Steve’s anxiety. I don’t have to feel his fear, but I can understand it because at some point in my life I have had the same need and had similar feelings. So it’s about understanding what he’s Feeling and Needing. 

Make sense?  I want to be empathetic, but not sympathetic. How I define sympathy is that I am feeling what Steve is feeling. If he’s feeling scared then I’m also scared.  That matching I think of as sympathy, where I’m aligning with his feeling. Whereas empathy is just understanding his feelings, but not actually feeling them. By the way, I put Empathy in a heart, because in Nonviolent Communication groups, classes and workshops, we call this process the Language of the Heart or the more fun name is called Giraffe Language. It’s called giraffe language because a giraffe is a land animal with the largest heart.

The average heart for a giraffe is 26 pounds. That’s a big heart.  

If you go to a nonviolent communication workshop, you’ll be talking about these processes and this style. Here they invite you to use Giraffe language and they have this giraffe puppet, that’s talking in the giraffe language and going through the steps. And the person who’s doing it the old-fashioned way, they call this Jackal language. They have a jackal puppet and they’ll associate the two and have them talking to each other. They even have little headbands with Jackal and Giraffe ears that you can put on so that you’re listening in Giraffe. So it just makes it kind of silly fun as a way to learn. In Germany, they don’t call the opposite of Giraffe as Jackal. They call it Wolf language.. And this is a whole new language, a new way of speaking and thinking. And it takes a while. I tell people, honestly, it takes a couple of years of practice to get this mastered, because we’re so used to evaluating, telling a person what we’re thinking, telling them how they should act and then making a demand. That’s how most of us are raised. 

What is the difference between Requests and Demands?   Separated by the ability to say that without getting in trouble, without a negative consequence, needs and behavior, Needs would be universal and behavior would be an action. You’re trying to achieve. Yes, the action. What’s the separation line between feelings and thoughts? 

A feeling is an internal emotion and thought is an intellectual evaluation or judgment. So a thought is something I am I am placing on someone else. Yeah, projection.  And a feeling is something I’m having happen internally. experiencing internally. 

There is also a distinction regarding observations.   A behavioral observation is just the facts without any evaluation.  Steve was on the phone talking to me, and then he hung up. Probably. But if I don’t know that he hung up.  That’s an interpretation. That’s a really difficult distinction, that we not to jump to interpreting something that is not in evidence. It takes practice. So the evaluation is an assumption rather than fact.

You can be in integrity and say “no” and understand clearly that you are operating based on your needs. You can’t be responsible for how the other person is going to react.  

 Well, first of all, I’m not responsible for how they’re going to react. I’m responsible for me and my actions and reactions. So how I do know that I am clean about my part of it? If someone requests me and I want to say no, I identify my feelings and how the request doesn’t meet my need. Interestingly, in nonviolent communication, “No”, by itself, is a violent word because it doesn’t let the person that was happening inside of me. So how we do a “No” when you ask me to go dancing with you might look like,,” I feel scared and uncomfortable and a little annoyed because I told you that I don’t like dancing.

“I have a need for space; I would enjoy respect(the Need, space and respect) for my feelings about dancing. Would you be willing to go by yourself or find someone to go with? ”(Request”)  I’m saying no. and I’m saying it while the same time I’m telling them what’s happening inside of me, how I’m feeling about the request and what my need is. You also didn’t make a clean-cut No. You were asking how if they could find a different way to meet their need. 

I am saying a clear cut “No”.  But I’m just not using the word. I might say “When you asked me to go to a movie, I’m not willing to go to that particular kind of movie. I hate those kinds of movies. If I go to a movie, it needs to be a lot more relaxing, a lot more comfortable. And I want to walk out feeling fun, so we can either go to a different kind of movie or you could find someone else to go.”  I’ve actually had that almost exact conversation in my relationship. Is that compromising then? It’s not at all. No, it’s negotiating. In fact, in the case of a movie, sometimes I’ll go to a romantic comedy and then we will go to an action movie as a way of sharing, doing it together.

But there are times when one or the other will just say, “I’m going to this movie, and it would be fun for you to come along., I’ve taken my wife to several chorals and concerts. She loves acapella music. She loves choir and choral and things like that. And I’ve been to probably four or five. And then she says, “Let’s buy season tickets. And I’m saying, not no. Hell no, internally.  So how do I use this model?  I might say “I’m feeling uncomfortable doing that because I don’t enjoy the music. (my Feeling of discomfort” and say “Why don’t you find somebody else to go with? (Request) Tell you what I’ll do. I’ll even buy a pair of tickets. Season tickets. I’ll pay for them. You find somebody that likes the stuff and you go with them”  Notice that my “no” is identifying my reasons for saying “no” by identifying my feelings and needs.  I’m respecting her need for culture and diversity. And I’m also saying that for me, it doesn’t work.  That’s checking in, internally and being true to my feelings and needs. 

If I were to say to myself, I really should go with her because I have an obligation as a partner to support her. So I go to this piano concerto or whatever, and I’m sitting there in the theater with her, looking at my watch and wondering if it’s stopped because it’s just moving really slow. A little light comes on and then I pull out my phone, figuring I check my e-mail or play a game.

And she nudges me because the light comes on and I put my phone away. I’m clearly not enjoying myself. Is she enjoying herself? No, probably not, because I’m fidgeting. I’m restless. I’m uncomfortable. She’s probably not enjoying herself. The people sitting around us are probably not enjoying themselves because I’m fidgety and the lights coming on and I’m whispering. 

When you go against your feelings and needs, everybody suffers. Because there’s going to be some kind of passive-aggressive resentment, discomfort, unhappiness. So it becomes the art of paying attention to your needs and being able to communicate in a way that’s not about the other person. 

“When you ask me to go to a concert, I love the fact that you’re thinking about getting season tickets because you will save money and you could do it on a regular basis. But it also feels uncomfortable for me because I don’t like that stuff. ” (I honor your need for culture and I require some space. )  So the request I make is. “How about if I buy tickets for you and a friend?”

 She did that. She went out and connected with a friend that she hadn’t seen very often. They get together every other month to go to dinner. They go to the concert. They stop by for dessert and tea afterward. They have a fun night out and I get to do what I want. That is truly a win-win situation.

Internally, what I do is ask myself “Does it feel better to you, is it representing your needs or what doesn’t meet your needs?”  If you have that ability to somehow build a healthy boundary, then it gives you a better barometer of whether you are compromising or whether you’re creating resentment.  

Because you don’t want that resentment coming in.  Resentment arises because you’re no longer honoring your needs. You’re not authentic.. 

Okay. Final exam. I’ve gone through my process with Steve about  how I’m feeling, what I’m needing and I ask Steve what’s going on for him.   Steve tells me that he’s terrified of losing his job.

What’s the very next thing to do, from my side? Now, I want to tell you, be careful. This is a trick question. The question again, he just told me what he’s feeling and needing that he’s terrified of losing his job. What’s the very next thing I should do? 

 Think about it for a minute. Some people are going to say, well, I should help Steve. Did you catch the swear word? “Should”? 

I should help Steve.  

The reason this is a trick question is  because people think, what’s my next behavior? But before you do a behavior, you have to check in with your Feelings and Needs. What’s my Need right now?  If my Need is supporting Steve, I’ll say, “Can I come over and help you with your project?”

 But in this instance, my Need was play. I wanted to go to the movie, and if I “should” on myself, there is a danger that I’m going to be resentful. So I say, “Dude, that sounds really horrible.  I understand you’re upset.. I’ll check in with you tomorrow.” Then I hang up and call somebody else to go play with because I’m honoring my Need. If I have the belief that is my “duty” as a friend, that I “have to” help Steve. I run the risk of resenting Steve later. 

Imagine; I go out and buy a couple of pizzas and I buy a couple of 6-packs coke and I go over to his house and I get there and he is watching football.

Already the resentment is coming up because I’ve given up my movie and he’s not working on his project. He “should” be working on his project. That’s why he’s two weeks behind. The point is, my resentment is because I “should” on myself. I set up an artificial “have to” instead of honoring my needs.  People can do this to you or you can do it to yourself if you don’t pay attention to what your Needs are in each moment.

Now you could probably get, this is kind of transformative for the brain. Your brain might fritzing out right now, because it’s nothing like we’ve ever understood or heard. But my experience with most groups I introduce to that it quickly begins to make sense.

This is the way I want to have relationships. Where communication and respect is given mutually, not using emotional blackmail with demands. Then when somebody gives you something, you know that it is integrous. They’re doing it because they had fun doing it. They’re doing it out of joy not out of a sense of: “I have to”.  

My process of learning about NVC started when I went to a two-hour training and liked it. That weekend they did an all-day Saturday training. Two months later, I did a 10-day intensive and I came back excited and pumped and could already begin to figure out how I was going to use it at work. And I tried it at home and the poop hit the fan. My wife said something about  “I’m feeling abandoned.” And instead of listening and being empathetic, I went to “Well, that isn’t really a feeling.  Abandoned isn’t a feeling, it’s a thought.” And then it got worse. It got ugly because I tried to educate her rather than being empathetic. And so my experience was that it was easier to do it with friends and work than it is to do in your personal relationships. It takes more practice. I have about a four-hour presentation with PowerPoint, and my very last PowerPoint slide, tongue in cheek said, “don’t try this at home.” And then I would explain how I tried to do it at home and got my head bit off?  Because I was new to this language, I didn’t empathize. I skipped a step.

You want to try it out on your outer circle friends and workmates, and then, once you get better, you can get to the inner circle. That tends to be the best way to learn how to do it. And in fact, NVC is taught all over the world. 

Here in Portland, we have 10 or 12-week groups you can go and you’re practicing on each other.  You can bring something from your work environment, or your home environment, and role-play the issue. Somebody plays your boss and you give them the script, suggest the kind of words that your boss would normally say. And then you practice putting on your giraffe ears and not hearing it as a demand, but hearing it as a request., is the local website and they have 2- and 3-day training groups, and they have ten-week groups and twelve-week groups, all fairly inexpensive. 

There are many books on NVC, but there are two books I recommend most.  One is the original book where this comes from, Nonviolent Communication, by Marshall Rosenberg.  The other one is a workbook taking each chapter in this book and having assignments and exercises. That one is by Lucy Leu.[1]  Some of the group leaders who run the 12-week groups use the workbook as it gives you something to work with at home.  

In the 12-week group they go through the workbook, each week practicing another step. So you’ll spend a whole week reading and practicing the distinctions between Observing vs Evaluating. And then you’ll do a couple of weeks on Feelings vs Thoughts, then Needs vs Behavior and then Requests vs Demands.

There’s even a chapter on how you express gratitude. Using this model, it’s really fun to say thank you to someone because, instead of just saying “That was a great group,”  you make a clear statement about what you got out of it. When someone just says “great group” I, as the receiver don’t have any information. I don’t know what I’m going to do to continue making it a great group. But if they come up to me and say, “When you talked about the connection between partners, I felt really clear and excited because it met my need for understanding.   And you use stories which helped me to make sense of it.”  

Now I have some data to use in future workshops; more stories, more visual pictures. ” I know specifically what the person found valuable.  You can use this model for gratitude and you can also use it for grieving. “When you say that you were scared because I came home an hour late, I’m really sad. I don’t want you to feel scared. My need is for you to feel safe and heard. And so please let me know or even call me if you start to worry,”  I’m using the same model in communicating.  My sadness is that I scared my partner because I came home late.

For more on Nonviolent Communication check out:

[1] NVC Companion Workbook: A Practical Guide for Individual, Group or Classroom Study by Lucy Leu.

Published by Jim Hussey

I am a licensed professional counselor, working in a hospital setting. I have been a meditator and teacher for 47 years, a therapist for 28 years and married for 29 years. My secret vice is golf.

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