Week Four - Empathy and Self Empathy
Thoughts and Intentions for the Week
This week's work focuses on using our "needs consciousness". We will be learning the basics of how we can connect with our needs and other people's needs through empathy.
Reading and Discussion
"What Empathy Is"... And What It's Not
"Hearing that is in the ears is one thing. The hearing of understanding is another. 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."
Empathy is the basic practice that brings me to compassion. It is ultimately quite simple, and quite challenging.
As a child growing up, and for most of my adulthood, I learned to listen with my mind... often with a purpose other than connecting to the person I was with. As I listened to people, I would focus on the future... "What can I say back?" or "What can I think of to fix this?" ... Other times I would go to the past, "What does that remind me of?"
When I thought these things I became distracted from the moment, more disconnected and I less able to understand what the other person was experiencing. Then I discovered empathy.
Empathy is the exploration of our human experience... our feelings... our needs... our life energy trying to emerge and guide us. It is the mindful questioning, the wondering and the genuine curiosity about what we or someone else are going through.
I have witnessed over and over again, that this search, or wondering, is the stuff of connection on a deeper plane and sometimes, even an opening of spiritual space.
The ability to be present in this way challenges many of us 21st century humans, highly trained in thought... as opposed to simply listening. Often when we are trying to be empathic (even in situations where we are feeling a sense of compassion), we may say things that do not connect us with the other person as well as empathy might.
We may choose to have "non-empathic" forms of communication as part of our lives... and of course, many can serve us wonderfully. They're just NOT empathy. They tend to fill the space; they do not tend to open it up. Becoming aware of these "non-empathic" forms of communication can help us make choices that engender a deeper connection when we want it.
To illustrate, below is a quote... something we may hear from a friend, followed by some examples of habitual, "non-empathic" responses that can prevent us from moving to a deeper connection. This is not to say these forms of communication are "wrong". They're just 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. It's true, 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. 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 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 another'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 on some level. 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 has 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
I'm sure none of us has ever said anything like these examples (heheheh *wry smile*). OK, I know I have, and likely will again. The difference now is that when I have the awareness of what I'm doing, I have the choice to do something else... if I want to.
I can recall times, before I developed my empathic skills and my trust in the power of empathy, when the experience of wanting to connect and not knowing how left me frustrated, confused and disconnected against my will.
This is where empathy comes in. In the beginning it can be SOOOO hard to refrain from these habitual ways of thinking and speaking. Our "robot" kicks in and away we go, like always.
Now we have a chance to add a new way of being to our lives... a new skill to create a new level of connection... empathy. Shifting to this new focus on feelings and needs is rarely easy. I know for me, it is a life work... one that has given me some of the most beautiful moments of my life.
Exercise #1 - Empathy Non-Empathy Exercise
Part A - Non-Empathy
" Often when we are trying to be empathic (even in situations where we are feeling compassionate), we say things that may not connect with the other person as well as others. This includes comparing, educating, discounting, fixing, etc. (see above).
In this part of the exercise, we will work in groups of 2, 3 or 4. First, write down something you might say when you would want some empathy, like " I hate my boss, she is a slave driver" or "I'm feeling upset about the finances." Have the person on your left (or your partner if you're in diads) read their quote to you. Respond with "Non-Empathy" language that disconnects us from our feelings and needs). Something like, Comparing..."oh you think your boss is bad? My boss…." or Advising... "the way I see it , there's a lesson in this for you." Or discounting, like "just relax, you'll be fine." Or intellectualizing, like "tell me exactly what happened."
Move around the group (or switch if you're working in diads) until everyone has had a turn to speak and respond.
Part B - Empathic Response
" NVC empathy is a process of guessing another person's feelings and needs in order help us understand one another. "Accuracy" is not necessary for empathy to take place. If the person does not connect with our guess, he or she will let us know and we can then make another guess based on this new information.
Keep yourself out of the empathy guess, making sure to connect the person's feelings to his or her own needs, not to you or yours, even when their feelings seem very much about you. Example: Instead of saying: "Are you frustrated at me because you want me to understand you?" you could say: "Are you frustrated because you're needing understanding?" Keeping yourself out of the empathy guess will help both of you to remain connected to the source of feelings and give more room to express those feelings.
In this part of the exercise we will take turns hearing and saying empathic responses. Work with the same quotes. Each person in the group will then, try giving an empathic response like "so are you really frustrated because you want more freedom?" Go around until all the group members have read their statement and received an empathic response.
Remember for this exercise we are using the simplest form, "are you feeling _____________________ (Feeling from sheet) because you need ______________________(need from sheet)." If you need to, get coaching from your group leader. Then move to the next person for their turn.
Exercise #2 - Silent and Chimed Empathy
a. NVC empathy is a process of guessing another person’s feelings. “Accuracy” is not necessary for empathy to take place. If the person does not connect with our guess, he or she will let us know and we can then make another guess based on this new information.
b. Keep yourself out of the empathy guess, making sure to connect the person’s feelings to his or her own needs, not to you, even when their feelings seem very much about you. Example: Instead of saying: “Are you frustrated at me because you want me to understand you?” you could say: “Are you frustrated because you’re needing understanding?” Keeping yourself out of the empathy guess will help both of you to remain clear about the source of feelings and give you more room to hear those feelings without either “defending” yourself or “attacking” the other person.
c. This exercise is designed for the same Diads as used above. The purpose of this exercise is to practice giving and receiving empathy. Have your partner tell you about an interaction or situation that is alive for them. Something incomplete or stimulating. NOTE: It is very important to become good at identifying and remembering these situations. Each person will have 5 minutes each to give/receive empathy.
Part A - Silent Empathy
Give your partner silent empathy for 5 minutes. Listen for their feelings and needs while your partner speaks about something that is alive for them. After 5 minutes, switch.
Part B - Chimed Empathy
Give your partner silent empathy for 5 minutes. At the 1.5 minute mark, the facilitator will prompt you to make an empathy guess in the form of "Are you feeling...? Are you needing...?" Your partner will then pause for a moment to "try on" the empathy guess and see if it resonates for them. Spend the rest of the time in silent empathy as your partner continues. After 5 minutes, switch.
Part C - Chimed Empathy
Give your partner silent empathy for 5 minutes. At the 1.5 minute mark, the facilitator will prompt you to make an empathy guess in the form of "Are you feeling...? Are you needing...?" Your partner will then pause for a moment to "try on" the empathy guess and see if it resonate for them. Then at the 3 minute mark, the facilitator will prompt you to make an empathy guess in the form of "Are you feeling...? Are you needing...?" Spend the rest of the time in silent empathy as your partner continues. After 5 minutes, switch.
Part D - Empathy Pairs
This time give your partner empathy and make guesses whenever you notice a natural pause in the person's story. Play with your timing and start to build a rhythm of making guesses with your partner. Remember, this may differ with each empathy partner. After 5 minutes, switch.
Exercise #3 - Empathy Circle
This exercise is designed for Diads. In this exercise have your partner tell you about an interaction or situation that is alive for them. Something incomplete or stimulating. NOTE: It is very important to become good at identifying and remembering these situations. Respond "empathically by guessing a feeling and a need. Do this for 10 minutes. Facilitators should model the process for the group and check in to diads for quality of connection and coaching if possible. After 10-20 minutes switch and repeat.
1. “My girlfriend doesn’t care about how I feel.”
Are you feeling: Sad?
Because you’re needing: Connection?
2. "She just talks right over me."
Are you feeling: Frustrated?
Because you value: Care and consideration?
3. " I guess I would like to think she cares, but it's so hard when she treats me like this.."
Are you feeling: Puzzled or scared?
Because you’re needing: some clarity?
4. "Puzzled, hmmm. I know she loves me I just wish I was a bigger part of the picture.”
Are you feeling: Disheartened?
Because you really want more Trust and Care in your life?
At the end of the exercise, in the large group, write down the needs you have identified and read them slowly to yourself, close your eyes, and feel what it would be like to have them met.
Harvest: Share experiences with an emphasis on body sensation and focus (i.e. our "natural habit of thinking about something other than your partner's feelings and needs). You might also want to talk about "Colloquial" versus "Classical" Giraffe.
1) Self-Empathy - Needs Assessment - Print a Needs Sheet from theexercise.org and write a number between 1 and 10 next to each need to express how well that need is met in your life. 1 would be not met hardly at all and 10 would mean it was completely met.
2) This exercise is aimed at increasing our awareness. Throughout the week, see if you can notice when you use any of the mentioned "nonempathic", habitual forms of communication. Later, when you have some time and space, see if you can imagine what an "empathic" response would be. What was that person feeling? What was that person needing, wanting to have more of, or yearning to experience? You can also try to guess what needs you are trying to meet by using the aforementioned habitual form of communication.
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