Saturday, April 02, 2011

The Power of Empathy

PHOTO CAPTION: "Photo Courtesy of Flickr."


"Cultivate a sense of empathy - to put yourself in other people's shoes - to see the world from their eyes. Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world." - Barack Obama

Marshall Rosenberg, the founder and director of educational services for the Center for Nonviolent Communication, an international peacemaking organization, states that "empathy is a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing."

Rosenberg, who is the 2006 recipient of the Global Village Foundation’s Bridge of Peace Award and has traveled all over the world helping others resolve conflicts, says that "instead of offering empathy, we often have a strong urge to give advice or reassurance and to explain our own position or feeling." He adds that, "Empathy, however, calls upon us to empty our mind and listen to others with our whole being."

Relaxed Presence
Miki Kashtan, co-founder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication said in a workshop, "To be with people in distress and be helpful we want to achieve relaxed presence. If I care for someone I want to give them what is most helpful - my relaxed presence."

Kashtan gives a helpful tip for getting to this place. She says to separate yourself from responsibility for the outcome or for fixing others when helping others.

It may also be helpful to know what empathy is sometimes mixed up with.

Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is when I am with my experience about your experience. I might say, "I feel sad for you" or "Poor you."

Empathy & Identification
Empathy is not identification. Identification is when we are with our experience about what happened to us when we identified with the other person's experience. Sometimes this leads to sharing our story and comparing stories which takes the focus off of the other person. 

"Identification can serve as a doorway to approximate understanding of what might be going on for the other person," said Kashtan in a workshop. "Yet, it may be harder to see when in identification because I am more charged. I may get stuck on me. So we may need to dance with it so we don't get stuck."

Nonviolent Communication
Rosenberg, who developed the Nonviolent Communication (NVC) process, explains what empathy looks like with NVC, "In nonviolent communication, no matter what words others may use to express themselves, we simply listen for their observations, feelings, needs, and requests. Then we may wish to reflect back, paraphrasing what we have understood. We stay with empathy, allowing others the opportunity to fully express themselves before we turn our attention to solutions or requests for relief."

Kashtan in a workshop on how to influence your community said, "The most important way we can make a difference in our community is to listen."


Robin said...

I think empathy is an often misunderstood concept. You have done and excellent job of explaining The Power of Empathy. Thank you for the links to NVC.

Heather Henry said...

Great explanation of empathy. I think it is often confused with sympathy.
My husband and I had a place for youth for a couple of years and I spent a lot of time listening to them. I realized after awhile that they didn't want me to solve their problems or give my opinions, more than anything they just wanted someone to listen to them.
I've noticed in this time of our society, we have so many means of communication, yet it's difficult to find people who truly listen to us. So many distractions.
Your blog is wonderful, I look forward to reading more.

Eddie Zacapa said...


I'm so glad that you connected with this post and are enjoying the blog. I agree that there is a scarcity of empathy in our society. Hopefully, we can start to change that and see the quality of life enriched.

Anonymous said...

the key is to instill empathy at a young age.