1. What is empathy?
Dr Marshall Rosenberg describes empathy as "a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing. The Chinese philosopher Chuang-Tzu stated that true empathy requires listening with the whole being. '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. 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.' "1
Dr Rosenberg makes these further points:
- We can't have empathy if we're caught in preconceived ideas and judgments about the person.
- We need to give our full attention to the person's message, allowing plenty of time and space for full expression until he/she feels understood.
- Beware of assuming the person wants you to make suggestions or offer solutions.
2. An example of empathy in action2
"Suppose a mother comes to us, saying, 'My child is impossible. No matter what I tell him to do, he doesn't listen.' We might reflect her feelings and needs by saying, 'It sounds like you're feeling desperate and would like to find some way of connecting with your son.' Such a paraphrase often encourages a person to look within. If we have accurately reflected her statement, the mother might touch upon other feelings: 'Maybe it's my fault. I'm always yelling at him.' As the listener, we would continue to stay with the feelings and needs being expressed and say, for example, 'Are you feeling guilty because you would have liked to have been more understanding of him than you have been at times?' If the mother continues to sense understanding in our reflection, she might move further into her feelings and declare, 'I'm just a failure as a mother.' We continue to remain with the feelings and needs being expressed: 'So you're feeling discouraged and want to relate differently to him?' We persist in this manner until the person has exhausted all her feelings surrounding this issue."
How long is enough? Dr Rosenberg suggests 2 indications:
a) the speaker seems relieved
b) the speaker stops talking
If unsure, ask a question such as "Is there more that you wanted to say? "
3. Basic principles
- Be fully present when listening.
- Try to take in the whole message: words, tone of voice, body language and silence.
- Tune into the speaker's world as far as you can.
- Put yourself in his/her shoes and focus on understanding things from that perspective.
- Your goal is to understand, not to give your opinion, share your experience or offer advice unless invited to do so.
- Silence can be very fruitful. Don't feel you have to fill the gaps.
- Take your cue from the speaker: pace, vocabulary etc.
- Look at the speaker's face to see if he/she is thinking of what to say next. Allow plenty of time.
- Focus on the speaker and avoid distractions.
- Listen with a friendly, respectful curiosity.
- Take the speaker's issues seriously.
4. Useful phrases
- "Sounds exciting/difficult/challenging."
- "Tell me more."
- "Would you like to say anything else about that?"
- "What else would you like me to know?"
- "Go on."
- "Could you tell me a bit more?"
- "What did that feel like?"
- "How did you feel when that happened?"
- "I don't quite understand. Could you tell me again?"
5. Checking the accuracy of what you've heard
- "Let me see if I've understood you." Give a short summary (1-2 sentences) then ask, "Have I got it right?"
- "What I'm hearing is …. Is that what you're saying?"