She looked at me with an appearance that many would interpret as annoyed. With her arms crossed, she leaned back frowning and waited for me to continue talking. We were both participants of EuroLife (a two year programme led by Robert Gonzales) and a small group had gathered in the evening for some exercises. As usual when it comes to NVC practitioners, it was about feelings and needs.
I had just told her that I thought she was annoyed with me (a perfect example of a self-fulfilling prophecy). Her reaction was an expression that she did not recognize herself in my story. But when she heard what was behind my interpretations, everything changed. I remember how her gaze softened and the annoyed look shifted into warmth, compassion and empathy. As fast as her attitude and facial expression changed, my own body and inner state changed. From being nervous and tense, I became calm and relaxed. When she heard my feelings and needs, my world changed.
Feelings and needs
The basic way to respond to someone with empathy in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is to pay attention to their needs by sensing their feelings. In our lives, we are constantly bombarded by impressions, both from the environment but also from ourselves. Everything that happens triggers body sensations that, when we are aware and have a vocabulary, we describe as feelings. Feelings we enjoy indicate fulfilled needs and feelings we do not enjoy indicate unmet needs.
The effect of empathy
Empathy helps us process what is happening in us. It is a fantastic transforming force. No matter what state I’m in – angry, frustrated, nervous, sad or happy and excited – it’s great to be received with empathy. Especially when I experience emotions linked to unmet needs – emotions I don’t enjoy – it is incredibly nice to be listened to with empathy. Even if the external circumstances do not change, with the help of empathy I get support in getting more clarity and sometimes even changing my perception.
When my needs are not met, I experience various forms of stress. My body and my senses are exposed to pressure so that I feel and perform worse than otherwise. When someone has the ability to listen to me with empathy, I get the opportunity to process what I have been exposed to. I open up and I find it easier to be with and eventually deal with what has stressed me in different ways.
My understanding of empathy
My understanding of what Marshall Rosenberg – the founder of NVC – wanted to convey regarding receiving someone with empathy is as follows. Whether I know the person I am listening to or not, I release my assumptions and opinions about them. By emptying my mind I become completely present with the other person’s feelings and needs. I listen not only to the words, but also to what the person conveys behind the words; to the person’s body language, facial expressions, tone of voice…
I follow, like a shadow or a surfer on a wave, without trying to control or influence. If it seems to benefit the person I’m listening to, I can reflect what they say. Or I can guess the feelings and needs that are alive right now in the person. I’m completely there for the other.
Empathy and influence
One of the paradoxes I have struggled with in recent years is the dynamic between empathy and influence. I often want to influence people in my surroundings to take my needs into consideration. This can apply to everything from individuals to organisations, potentially all the way up to national and transnational level. And the best way I know for sustainable influence is encouraging people to change their behaviour, in a way that better meets their own needs (and by extension, the needs of others).
With this knowledge, I know that if I first listen to others with empathy, it’s more likely that they in return will be open to listening to me. A willingness to listen to me leads to an increased potential that they are influenced by what I have to say. However, I do not think I can genuinely listen to someone with empathy, if I have a hidden agenda of wanting to influence. My intentions will be consciously or unconsciously noticed by others. At the same time, I can not let go of the knowledge of this ability of empathy to open our minds.
A complex ability
Finally, I want to say that empathy is a complex skill (which luckily can be developed). Not all people are able to listen with empathy. And not everyone who has the ability is willing to. Some are able and willing to listen to those who are part of their circle of concern, while at the same time they may be unable or unwilling to listen to people outside this circle. I hope and believe that you, who read this, want to expand your care and be able to listen to those whom you initially neither understand nor identify with. And this last sentence is also directed at myself.
When there are enough of us with this ability, I think we can change our culture. A change that leads to more and more people’s needs being taken into account.
When do you find it easiest to listen to people with empathy? Are there any occasions you have a harder time listening with empathy?
Leave a comment below or, if you are a Premium subscriber of “The Needs’ Year”, at the online platform: https://empathiceurope.com/online/courses/the-needs-year/modules/week-18/
Joachim Berggren (CNVC Certified Trainer)
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On 6 May at 20:00-20:45 CEST, you can participate in a Zoom Talk with me and Melanie Sears. We will talk about the need for empathy.
Sign up for the Needs’ Year and you will receive a link to Zoom.
If you read this afterwards, you can watch the recording when you become a premium subscriber. Check the details HERE.