How to Offer Empathy

By Lisa Gottlieb

(The CWCJ interviewed Lisa Gottlieb on Nonviolent Communication for our September through December 2015 issue. In the post below Lisa expands more on NVC and how we can offer empathy in our communications with others.) 

In my recent interview about Nonviolent Communication, I shared the importance of empathy as a key factor in effective Nonviolent Communication (NVC). It makes sense: if we want to create connection between ourselves and others with whom we have conflict or disagreement, or deepen our connection with family and friends, understanding their experience and view of the world is imperative, yet often deeply challenging. 

In simple terms, the practice of empathy is understanding and being with our own or other’s experiences with care and respect -- to be present to what may be unfolding in the moment, or with something shared that happened previously. Although it’s a simple concept, it isn’t always easy in practice. There are many things that may block us from utilizing an empathetic response. Sometimes the communication aggravates our own fears and worries, or creates deep pain and sadness for us, which often makes it difficult to have the emotional space to avoid getting reactive or anxious. 

Certified NVC trainer Francois Beausoleil describes this capacity, or lack of, as “headroom”. Sometimes we have the emotional capacity to hold empathy because we have enough headroom -- enough spaciousness -- in our own emotional life to hold the empathetic space with more ease. Sometimes, however, our headroom is so limited that we aren’t able to spare any for someone else, and often, not even enough for ourselves. 

Ironically, it’s the time when we have the least amount of headroom that we can benefit the most from empathetic self-talk. It is when we can offer others our empathetic attention that it becomes a gift and comes back to us in the form of true connection with another.   
Let’s start by exploring empathy with a low level of intrinsic reactivity: giving empathy to friends, family and loved ones around issues that don’t relate directly to an issue that may have to do with us. 

“Remember, you do not have to agree or believe what they are saying is true in order to practice empathy!”

Below is a road map of how to begin to offer empathy, gleaned from certified NVC trainers John Kinyon and Ike Lasater. They start from a subtle approach, to a more overt form of empathy practice. 

Presence: without speaking, fully bring your awareness and listening attention to the speaker, rather than formulating a reply in your head, or becoming caught up in problem solving. Notice your body, and move toward relaxed attention and calm breathing. Let your intention be to gently hold their communication as they share. Remember, you do not have to agree or believe what they are saying is true in order to practice empathy!

Silent Empathy: quietly attend to the feelings and needs you are hearing from the speaker. Without speaking, show through your body language, focused attention and other non-verbal expressions that you are listening and understanding (perhaps with head nodding, calm breathing or an open posture).

Understanding and Meaning: Reflect back to the speaker what you are hearing them share, using language that is non-evaluative and free of judgment. Instead, focus on what you guess they may be feeling, and the needs associated with those feelings based on what you are hearing. HERE are links to a “feelings and needs inventory” that may help you connect to the speaker’s experience. Although this can take some practice, there are certain needs that are frequent and common among most of us. Some examples are a need for acceptance, appreciation, autonomy, cooperation, effectiveness, equality, honesty, inclusion, love, joy, purpose, safety, and security. Many of us also have a deep longing to be seen and received by others. 

Here is a brief example to help you get started:

Speaker: (agitated, tense and loud) My boss thinks I’m incompetent! She called me out yesterday in front of my co-workers! I hate her. She is such a control freak, and doesn’t have a clue about what I do everyday!

Empathy response: Wow, that’s rough! Sounds like you’re furious and embarrassed, and maybe even worried because of what your boss did. I can imagine you really want your boss to show you more respect, and to appreciate you for all that you do everyday. Is that right?

Speaker: Yeah! You’re right -- and I am worried. The company is down-sizing, and I want to keep this job!

Empathy response: Ugh, it’s so hard to have that uncertainty about work. It would help you feel more relaxed and confident if you knew your job was secure, yeah?

Speaker: (quietly, more at ease) Yes. It’s really upsetting not knowing if I’ll be able to keep my job. 

Notice that the empathy response does not agree or disagree with the speaker’s comments about their boss, and does not use blaming, name calling or evaluative comments to connect with the speaker. In this case, the empathy guesses are accurate, and the needs associated with the feelings are correct. Yet, even if the responses weren’t accurate, this method gives the speaker understanding and empathy, while offering an opportunity to get more in touch with what the speaker is feeling and needing. When we move away from what someone else does or doesn’t do to us (which we cannot control) and instead attend to what we feel and want, we take back the ability to make effective choices for our actions and behaviors. 

More importantly than what is said, or the accuracy of the empathy guesses, the key to utilizing empathy in communication is to focus more on the deep listening and heart opening nature of holding a space for another person, and less on getting the words just right. If the heart isn’t in it, the words and empathy guesses likely won’t ring true.

Lisa is offering a free NVC workshop for beginners or those who want to practice their skills. Follow this LINK for more information and to pre-register. 

Stay tuned for more NVC blog posts in the future. Curious about learning more about NVC? Contact Lisa at for upcoming trainings and coaching, or check out Compassionate Communication of Ann Arbor on Facebook. 

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Posted on October 1, 2015 .