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Empathy Cribsheet

I was helping some people at a workshop in the United States to empathize with another person, where I was saying that empathy is about presence — being with the other person. And when they chose to use words to convey this, I was encouraging them to guess what’s alive in the other person by asking, “Are you feeling […] because you are needing […]?” i.e. guessing what the other person is feeling, and linking it to what they might be needing at the moment. And putting that in the positive, rather than guessing what they might be trying to avoid.

I gave them an exercise in pairs to help them practise this skill. Then one of them — Katie — said to me, “You must have a kind of map inside you, from all the times you’ve empathized with people. Do you know what would be really helpful — cribsheet of which feelings go with which needs?

I replied that I was doubtful that there was such a cribsheet, because a person’s need varies depending on what they bring to the situation. And I said I would mull it over.

A few minutes later I interrupted what I was doing and turned to Katie. “You know,” I said, “There is one I can think of: when somebody is feeling surprised or shocked, it’s usually because they are needing some kind of awareness that such things happen. So awareness is the need.” I left it there, because it didn’t seem like an easy example. But at least we had one item on the cribsheet!

Over the next few days more came to me, until I had a list of nine. By that time I was on the other side of the States, in San Francisco, so I decided to put them in this article, and email it to Katie!

So here they are, Katie. To protect both our skins, I’d like you to know that they are guesses — i.e. not definitive correlations. Sometimes I guess them silently. Sometimes I put them into words as a way to invite the other person to check in with what’s alive in them.

When I use words, I end the sentence with a question mark to make it clear that it’s a guess.

  • When somebody says that they are feeling tense or fearful (or I guess this is what they are feeling from their tone of voice or body language), I’ll guess like this: “Are you scared because you need safety?” (or it could be security).
  • When somebody says that they are feeling relieved (or I guess this from their tone or body language), I’ll guess: “Are you relieved because your need for ease is met?” or “Are you relieved because you have a sense of ease?”
  • If somebody says they are feeling excited or joyful (or I guess this from their tone or body language), I’ll guess, “Are you excited because you want to celebrate?”
  • If somebody says they are feeling sad (or I guess this from their tone or body language), I’ll guess, “Are you feeling sad because you need to mourn?” or “Are you sad because you’re mourning?”
  • If somebody says they are tired or exhausted (or I guess this from their tone or body language), I’ll guess, “Are you tired because you need rest?” (it could also be a sense of vitality or freshness that’s missing, or again, connection).
  • If somebody says they are eager or interested (or I guess this from their tone or body language), I’ll guess, “Are you eager because this really engages you?” (the need I’m guessing is engagement).
  • If somebody says they are confused or puzzled (or I guess this from their tone or body language), I’ll guess, “Are you confused because you need clarity?”
  • If somebody says that they are feeling lonely (or I guess this from their tone or body language), I’ll guess, “Are you lonely because you need company?” (the need I’m guessing is connection).
  • And finally, the one it all started with: If somebody says that they are feeling surprised or shocked (or I guess this from their tone or body language), I’ll guess, “Are you feeling shocked because you need awareness that such things happen?” or “Do you need space to catch up with yourself?”

Here’s the exercise I suggest for using this cribsheet (every cribsheet needs an exercise!): The next three times you hear somebody express one of these feelings (or you’re guessing this from their tone or body language), try connecting the feeling with a need by guessing in the way I’ve suggested above.

Happy guessing, Katie and everybody. I hope it brings you the deep connections I’m guessing you’re longing for.


© Shantigarbha

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