Another example of empathy in action1
A student volunteering at a food bank was shocked to hear another volunteer say, "What we need to do in this country is bring back the stigma of illegitimacy!"
The student's usual response to such a comment would be to say nothing, to judge the speaker severely but silently, and take time to process her own feelings away from the scene. On this occasion, she chose to listen for the feelings and needs behind the speaker's words.
Student: "Are you reading something about teenage pregnancies in the paper?"
Other volunteer: "Yes, and it's unbelievable how many of them are doing it!"
S: "Are you feeling alarmed because you'd like kids to have stable families?"
O: "Of course! Do you know, my father would have killed me if I had done anything like that!"
S: "So you're remembering how it was for girls in your generation who got pregnant?"
O: "Yes! We knew what would happen to us if we got pregnant. We were scared about it all the time, not like these girls nowadays."
S: "Are you annoyed that there is no fear of punishment for the girls who get pregnant these days?"
O: "Well, at least fear and punishment worked! It says here that there are girls sleeping around with different men just so they can get pregnant! That's right! They have babies and the rest of us in society pay for it!"
S: "Are you surprised to hear that people are getting pregnant these days without any consideration for reputation, consequences, financial stability … all the things you used to consider?"
O: "Yeah, and guess who ends up paying for it!"
S: "Sounds like you're exasperated because you'd like your tax to be used for other purposes. Is that right?"
O: "Certainly is! Do you know that my son and his wife want a second child and they can't afford it – even though they both work – because it costs so much?"
S: "I guess you're sad about that? You'd probably love to have a second grandchild ..."
O: "Yes, and it's not just for me that it would make a difference."
S: "... and for your son to have the family he wants ..."
O: "Yes, and also I think it's sad to be an only child."
S: "Oh, I see. You'd like Katie to have a little brother or sister?"
O: "That would be nice."
At this point the student sensed a release in the other volunteer. There was a moment of silence. The student was surprised to discover that, while she still wanted to express her own view, her urgency and tension had dissipated. She understood the feelings and needs behind the other volunteer's statements, and no longer felt that the two of them were worlds apart.
S: "You know, when you first said that we should bring back the stigma of illegitimacy, I felt worried because it really matters to me that all of us here care about people who need help. Some of the people coming here for food are teenage parents, and I want to make sure they feel welcome. Would you mind telling me how you feel when you see Chris, or Amy and her boyfriend, walking in?"
The conversation continued with several more exchanges until the student got the reassurance she needed that the other volunteer did indeed offer caring and respectful help to unmarried teenage parents.
The other volunteer felt satisfied that her concerns around teenage pregnancy had been fully heard.
Both volunteers felt understood, and their relationship benefited from their having shared their understanding and differences without hostility. If the student had not been able to listen with empathy, the relationship might have begun to deteriorate from this moment, and the work they both wanted to do in common – helping people – might have suffered.
Marshall B Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, 3rd edition (Encinitas, California: Puddledancer Press, 2015), pp. 61-64. ↩︎