EMPATHY IN FOUR STAGES
Belgian lawyer Thomas d'Ansembourg has spent over 20 years working with young people who are at risk. This ground-breaking endeavour has given him a very practical understanding of empathy as a pivotal part of nonviolent communication.
When he first started working with these young people, he embarked on a steep learning curve. "I had never been trained to listen," he explains.1 Looking back, he describes some of the tools he used in that early period as "clumsy". For example:
- Denial or reduction: "Oh, it's not so serious; you'll get over it; life is wonderful, come on."
- Moralising or giving advice: "Such-and-such relationship isn't good for you. Get out of it."
- Moving the focus to himself: "You know, I too have been through difficult times ..."2
"In those sincere but largely misguided efforts I was denying the others' suffering or was seeking to deflect their attention from it," he says. "Finding that looking at a festering wound was intolerable, I was attempting to distract the injured person by drawing their attention elsewhere, or I simply covered the thing over with a layer of ointment and a big bandage."3
Over the years he has learned that simple presence and empathy can do a great deal to support people in distress. "Empathy for self or empathy for another means bringing our attention to what is being experienced at the present moment," he notes. "We connect to feelings and needs in four ways: the stages of empathy."4
Stage 1: do nothing
This is no mean feat. "How difficult it is if we are too encumbered with our own pain, anger, and sadness to open up to the suffering of others," he remarks. "I've lost count of how many young, soul-searching people say to me something like this: 'I would just like my father (or mother) to listen to me for a while when I want to talk to them about my difficulties. But as soon as I start to talk about what is not going right, they bore me to tears with all their advice. They bring out heaps of solutions that are their solutions. They tell me everything I should do or everything they did in their day. They don't really listen.' […] Being empathic with another, particularly if that other is someone close to us with whom we have significant emotional ties, requires considerable inner strength and security."5
It's not easy to give someone the space in which to find their own solutions. Yet d'Ansembourg is convinced that everyone has what it takes "to heal, to awaken, and to know fulfillment. What alienates people from their inner resources […] is their inability to listen to themselves in the right place and in the right proportions. The inner resources are there. What is lacking is our ability to perceive them in a balanced way."6
As we listen with empathy, we give the speaker time and space to uncover their inner wisdom and find their own way forward.
Stage 2: focus on their feelings and needs
This entails listening with everything we have: eyes, ears, heart, memory and imagination. It means paying attention to the person's words as well as their silence, tone of voice and body language – and taking the time to resonate with them.
Empathy "does not mean assuming responsibility for what [they are] experiencing," d'Ansembourg says. "That is their business. However, we do offer our presence."7
Stage 3: reflect their feelings and needs
Reflecting is not interpreting but rather "paraphrasing in order to attempt to gain awareness of feelings and needs. It is of vital importance to realise that repeating or reformulating another's needs doesn't mean approving them, agreeing with them, or even being willing to meet them. […] Reflecting feelings and needs is like throwing the other person a lifeline." It invites them "to look inside, to go deep down and ascertain an inner state."8
Our compassionate presence accompanies them on this journey. Sometimes questions can help them clarify what they're experiencing:
- Are you sad because you were hoping for …?
- Is there perhaps a sense of feeling divided because one part of you feels … while another part is more …?
- What would you like to do about that, and how do you imagine it might work?
Stage 4: watch for a physical sign that their tension is diminishing
"Waiting for this sign is invaluable in checking whether the other person feels understood or is ready to listen to us," d'Ansembourg notes. In his experience "most people have a huge hunger for empathy and feel deep well-being when they're listened to in the realm of their feelings and needs."9 Just having their needs recognised and respected can reduce their frustration and boost their confidence.
"Our needs must be recognised more than met," he says: "often nothing in particular needs to be 'done.'" Just being heard can make a huge difference. In common with many practitioners of nonviolent communication, he has found that "listening to another's need relieves [their] frustration without the listener becoming in any way responsible for relieving it."10
Thomas d'Ansembourg, Being Genuine: Stop Being Nice, Start Being Real. California: Puddledancer Press, 2007, p. 132. Originally published in French by Les Editions de L'Homme in 2001. ↩︎
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d'Ansembourg, pp. 150-152. ↩︎