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The Healing Power of Empathy

Previously, We looked at Four ways of listening. Here, I’d like to talk about the time I was doing my training in Nonviolent Communication (NVC), when I worked at the city’s local psychiatric hospital. As a Nursing Assistant, depending on which ward I was assigned to, I could be cleaning, serving food, talking with the ‘clients’, playing Pool or watching television.

One day I had been assigned to the ‘secure’ ward – locked doors, fences, and specific times for the different activities of the day. I was sitting in the Common Area looking through a newspaper. A young man – I’ll call him Eric – was walking back and forth nearby saying, “I’m not sick! Look, it’s the drugs that are making me ill. I’ve got a degree to finish – why won’t they let me go back and finish?”

Eric was speaking in a voice that could be heard above the music, by everybody in the Common Area. He was clenching his fists and looking from side to side as he spoke. His face looked changed from how I remembered it from my previous visit, when we’d chatted and walked in the garden area together. Eric was in the secure ward because the people who knew him, including the doctors, were afraid for his safety (and the safety of the people around him.) They said that he had ‘schizophrenic episodes’.

I felt sad, because the time before I had enjoyed the contact with Eric, and now, he didn’t look at me as he went past, and I doubted I knew how to reach him. While I was feeling sad, and reading the paper, he came past, and he seemed to recognise me, because he repeated to me in the same tone of voice, “It’s the drugs that are making me ill. I’ve got a degree to finish,”.

I’d been learning to empathize on a workshop a few days before, so I decided to take the plunge and try it for real. In a voice that could be heard throughout the Common Area, I asked, “Are you pissed off because you want to get on with your life?” “Yes!” he said, louder than before. “And the fuckers are holding me down and injecting the drugs into my bum!” He went off again, repeating this.

I felt disappointed – it looked like I’d tried, and got a moment of connection, then lost it again. I went back to reading the newspaper. To my surprise, over the next five minutes, Eric slowed down walking, talking and gesturing, and his voice became softer, till he came and stood in front of me again.

“You know,” he said, loud enough for everybody in the room to hear, “We need more people like you in here – people who seem to understand what’s going on.”

I felt elated that I’d found a way to keep the connection with him, even in what the people around were calling his ‘schizophrenic’ state.

So what did I do differently? First of all, I didn’t sympathize with him (“I’d be angry if I was in your situation”), or try to console him (“Things will get better”), or ask questions for my own benefit (“How are the drugs making you feel?”). I’d learned from Nonviolent Communication that these are unlikely to make a connection.

Secondly, I didn’t try to put my side of things (“When I hear your voice, and see you walking and gesturing like that, I’m fearful for your safety and the people around you”). I was guessing that Eric didn’t have the space to hear this.

Thirdly, because I wanted to keep my connection with him, I tried to guess what Eric was feeling and needing. I guessed that he was angry because he wanted the freedom to live his life in the way he chose. And that’s what I asked him, “Are you pissed off because you want to get on with your life?”

In hindsight, I could also have guessed that he needed understanding – that he had a different idea of psychological ‘sickness’ and ‘health’, and that he was confident in his psychological ‘health’. So I guessed what he was feeling and what he was needing, and I’m still delighted with how I kept my connection with him on that day. And it helped me to realise the healing power of empathy. It’s a power I’ve used every day since, with myself and with others.

Here’s my suggestion for you to experience the power of empathy. Next time you find yourself facing a person you assess to be ‘angry’, or find yourself in a disagreement, I suggest you take the following steps. One: give yourself space, find out what you’re needing, give this space. Two: when making contact with the other person is the most important thing to you, bring your attention to what they are feeling and needing in the situation. Three: guess. Here are some examples I’ve used: “Are you angry because you need respect?”, “Are you tense because you need space at the moment?”, “Are you irritated because you would have liked to have been consulted?”, “Are you curious because you’d like to understand?”, “Are you disappointed because you’d like to contribute?”, “Are you scared because you want to be safe?”, “Are you frustrated because you’d like to be understood?” and so on.

Questions like this have brought a richness and depth to my life that I didn’t imagine before learning Nonviolent Communication.

Next, Empathy cribsheet.


© Shantigarbha 2005. This article first appeared in Funky Raw magazine. It has been lightly edited for context.

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