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Thinking About Empathy…

At a recent intensive weekend-long training for mediation here in New York City, my colleagues and I spent time discussing the subject of empathy. Marshall B. Rosenberg writes about this topic in his book entitled “Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Life.” Empathy is a subject which I think deserves attention, as it’s an important part of successful relationships.

To begin, it’s important to first think about what empathy means. Rosenberg defines empathy as “…a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing.”Empathy requires us to listen with all of our selves.

The Chinese philosopher Chuang-Tzu stated that true empathy entails many things…”The hearing that is only in the ears is one thing. The hearing of the understanding is another. But the hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear, or to the mind. Hence it demands the emptiness of all the faculties. And when the faculties are empty, then the whole being listens. Then there is a direct grasp of what is right there before you that can never be understood or heard with the mind.” (Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Life, page 91).

During our training, we discussed that when relating to others around you, empathy can only truly take place when we are able to successfully let go of all preconceived notions and judgments about those around us. As human beings, maintaining a presence of empathy in our lives and relationships is no easy task. It is difficult for us to step outside of ourselves and give over all of our attention to another individual who may be in pain.

When working with many of my couples therapy clients, I often hear individuals in the room tell me that they feel they are not “heard” by their partner..but rather are offered “quick fix” advice. One client told a story of coming home from a long day at work, feeling exhausted and burned out. When he told his wife of these feelings, she quickly responded with advice (“why don’t you just quit your job and find another one that has better hours?”). Although he knew that she was trying to make him feel better, he felt that his need to be heard and supported was not met. His wife was trying to “fix” the problem for him…but he simply wanted her to be there to hear him out.

Many of us have a strong need to immediately give advice or guide others, or shift the attention/focus back to ourselves. Empathy requires us to do the opposite…to stop our reflex to find solutions/give advice/explain our position or feelings in a given situation. Empathy requires us to focus our full attention on the message of the other person.

Rosenberg gives us some wonderful examples of common behaviors which prevent us from being fully present to connect in an empathic way with those around us. The following are examples of such obstacles:

  • Advising: “I think you should…” or “How come you didn’t…”
  • One-upping: “That’s nothing, wait until you hear what happened to me today…”
  • Educating: “This could turn into a very good experience for you if you would just…”
  • Story-Telling: “That reminds me of the time…”
  • Shutting Down: “Just cheer up! Don’t feel so upset.”
  • Sympathizing: “Oh, I feel so sorry for you…”
  • Interrogating: “So, when did this all begin?”

Rosenberg explains that although we may have the best intentions by doing the things above, trying to “fix” situations and make others feel instantly happier, this prevents us from being fully present…the foundation of empathy. It is important to really try to listen to what people around you are needing, as opposed to what they might be thinking about us. When we practice empathy, we allow others around us the chance to fully express their feelings before we quickly jump to solutions or place the focus back on ourselves. Try practicing empathy in your relationships…



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