Empathy is a respectful understanding of another person’s experience. Since I’ve been learning how to empathize, I’ve often got it ‘wrong’. What I mean is that the person I was listening to told me, either by a shake of the head or by a ‘No’, that my empathy guess hadn’t landed. I had the sense of firing arrows towards a distant target, and most of them falling short or going wide. At those moments, I felt discouraged and unhopeful of mastering the skill of empathy. However, I just kept going. I must have made thousands of empathy guesses. By learning from people’s feedback, I’ve gradually got more accurate.
I learned from Marshall Rosenberg (the founder of Nonviolent Communication) to put my attention on the speaker’s feelings and needs. However, most of the time I wasn’t specifically focusing on these; I was getting a fuzzier, more general sense of what was going on for the speaker. So I drew a target with two rings — ‘needs’ and ‘feelings’ — and started to think how I could expand it to include this fuzzier focus. I added two outer rings, which I called ‘sensing what’s important’ and ‘summarizing’.
To my relief, empathizing got easier. I found I could relax my attention to include these other aspects of empathy, whilst keeping feelings and needs at the centre. In the end I added a further ring, ‘listening in silence’. This ring clarifies that words are very much secondary, and reminds me that most of the time I’m silently sensing rather than searching for words. The arrows came later. The question marks remind me that empathy is sensing what’s going on for the other person, rather than a judgement. And it’s coming from the heart.
So what do I actually do in each ring? Recently a friend showed me a letter they had received from HMRC. It was a penalty notice for late filing of their tax return.
- Listening in silence is empathy as presence. There are no words. I simply gave my full attention to my friend, with the intention to connect with them.
- Summarizing: when there was a pause, I summarized in one or two sentences the content of what I’d heard, and checked if it was accurate, “What I heard is that you’ve received penalty notice despite two attempts to file a return. Is that what you meant?” They nodded and said yes.
- Sensing what’s important: in this ring I sensed more the heart of the matter. “Is it important to you that you tried your best?” or “Would you like to be done with this?” More nods.
- Sensing feelings: Later in the conversation, I sensed more specifically what my friend might be feeling at the moment, “Are you feeling discouraged and a little scared?”
- Sensing needs: At the centre of the target, I sensed the need behind the words, “And is that because you’d like ease, and acknowledgement of your efforts?”
I’ll Meet You There: a practical guide to empathy, mindfulness and communication is out now. You can read the first chapter and buy it on the Windhorse Publications website. Join Shantigarbha on one of Seed of Peace’s Nonviolent Communication trainings in Bristol and the South-West of England.