I have been studying on a Non-Violent Communication course for a while now, learning to relate to others with deeper understanding.
Empathy is the very essence of this practice for without it communication remains a mere superficial chitchat.
I would like to share an excerpt from one of the lessons that helps find an answer to the key question:
What is empathy and what is not empathy?
Do any of these responses sound familiar?
“Sometimes I just hate my job. My boss is such a control freak.”
Comparing and One-upping
“Yeah, mine too. MY boss is the worst. She makes going to work a living hell. I remember a time when…”
Often, when people share what’s going on for them, it reminds us about our situation. We may, without thinking about it, share that experience. So think about it… Did we just change the subject? Are they telling us this to elicit our experience? Probably not.
Educating and Advising
“Oh yeah, I know what you mean. You know there’s this great book called How to Love a Boss that Stinks”… or “Yeah, when my boss does that, I’ve learned to …” or “Have you ever tried speaking to the HR department?”
When we hear of someone’s pain, we may assume they want us to tell them how to deal with the situation. And of course, we don’t like to see people we care about in pain, so we want to help them. Are we doing this to understand what is alive in them or are we working on a fix? Do we expect them to take our advice? And if they don’t, are we OK with that? Are we being present to their experience? Probably not.
My friend Marshall Rosenberg told me he only gives advice when it is asked for in writing, notarized and in triplicate. It helps him stay more present. And of course, advice has a place in life… It’s just not empathy.
“That’s nothing. In this economy, you should be thankful you even have a job.”
We may have a “knee-jerk” reaction to try to draw someone’s attention to something else in an attempt to “make them feel better”. Can you recall a time when you received this kind of response and you thought to yourself, “Oh yeah, that’s so true. Thanks for that. I feel better now”. I can’t.
Fixing and Counseling
“OK. Calm down. Don’t worry. We’re gonna get through this. I know it feels bad now, but I’m sure it will get better. These things always have a way of working themselves out.”
When we hear someone else’s pain, we can feel uncomfortable ourselves and want to somehow fix things. If we check in with ourselves… whose need is that about?
“Oh, you poor thing. I’m so upset when I hear about that. I just hate that boss of yours.”
Sympathy (the sharing of a feeling through an imagined shared experience) is different than empathy. It’s kind of like responding to a drowning person by jumping into the water and drowning with them. Yes, it may let them know that you get what is going on for them. It’s just not empathy.
Data Gathering and Interrogating
“So tell me, exactly what did he do? Has he done this before? Have you noticed a pattern here?”
Data gathering is often a precursor to advising, the warm up to fixing it all. It may come from a sense of OUR curiosity or our discomfort with their pain. We may have a genuine interest, to be sure. It’s just not empathy.
Explaining and Defending
“Well, as a boss myself, I know sometimes we just need to crack the whip. He’s probably under a lot of stress and doesn’t really mean anything by it. It’s really hard to be a boss with all that responsibility.”
Sometimes WE are triggered by someone else’s pain. This can be especially true in situations when we think we are “to blame” or “responsible”. In these moments, we can become more concerned with our side of the story… OUR need to be understood. This often results in what I call TTNRS: “two transmitters, no receivers syndrome”. Sometimes we call it “a fight”. It’s certainly not empathy.
“So where else in your life does this show up? Have you ever considered that this is a pattern for you? Perhaps it’s because of your unfulfilled relationship with your father.”
Sometimes we are so interested in “getting to the bottom of things” that we forget about the top. Our urge to understand in order to fix or our discomfort with someone’s pain can have us rushing to our brains for answers. Or maybe we have dealt with our own pain this way. No doubt, there are places in life where analyzing is important. It’s just not empathy.
So What Then? Perhaps Empathy
“Hmmm. I imagine that’s really frustrating.
I’m guessing you’d love more freedom of choice… more self-expression maybe?”
“The hearing that is only in the ears is one thing. The hearing of understanding is another. But the hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear or the mind. Hence it demands emptiness of all of the faculties. And when the faculties are empty, the whole being listens. There is then a direct grasp of what is right there before you that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind.”