From “Getting Empathy” to “Getting Support with Self-Connection”

[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]

I have a sense that 90% of Nonviolent Communication is about “Self-Connection.” When using this expression, I’m referring to the practice or process that lives at the root of Inbal Kashtan’s Tree of Life diagram. I see this diagram as inviting us to return to the Self-Connection roots repeatedly in a conversation. Again and again, we can pause for a moment to ask ourselves silently, “What’s alive in me right now?” (How am I feeling and what are my needs?), and “What’s alive in the other person right now?” (What do I imagine they could be feeling and needing?). From that foundation of Self-Connection, we then decide whether we want to express ourselves or listen with empathy to what the other person wants to say.

Of course, being able to do this Self-Connection live in the moment is not always easy or even possible. However, if we try to proceed with the conversation without pausing for Self-Connection, the conversation will often accelerate and escalate in ways that are not enjoyable or effective.

Fortunately, returning to the Self-Connection roots does not have to happen right there and then, while you’re still attempting to connect and converse with the other person. Sometimes the Self-Connection is going to take longer than just a few seconds or minutes within the space of an active conversation. Sometimes you’ll need to do it in a pause between conversations.

Perhaps your conversation with the other person comes to a pause that you both agree to because you see it as a wise thing to do. Or perhaps your conversation grinds to a halt when one of you runs out of the energy or willingness to continue. However the pause happens, you eventually find yourself with time away from the other person. The recipe I then recommend is:

  • – Calm your nervous system in whatever way works for you
  • – Practice Self-Connection before returning to the conversation
  • – When you return to the conversation, use it as a chance to share whatever you want to share about what’s alive in you and your guesses about what’s alive in the other person. They can let you know whether any of your guesses are accurate.

From “Getting Empathy” to “Getting Support with Self-Connection”

You might already be familiar with the practice that people often call: “getting some empathy” or “receiving empathic listening.”

In this practice you pair up with someone and talk about something that’s important to you, while the other person listens with empathy. Through their listening you get support figuring out what your feelings and needs are, i.e. “What’s alive in you.”

 Imagine Purna and Alex are a couple. They had a fight. Purna found Alex to be unreceptive to her ideas. Purna does not like to be judgmental at all, but she couldn’t help thinking that Alex was being deliberately aggressive and stubborn, “as usual.”

Somehow, the fight came to a pause. We don’t know what Alex is doing right now, but we know Purna has calmed her nervous system with some deep breathing and a walk in the park. She’s now looking for some support. Purna has a regular empathy buddy, Emani, so she gives Emani a call.

Purna and Emani met at an NVC workshop where finding an “empathy buddy” was encouraged. They’ve both received great joy from their empathy buddy relationship. Many needs are met for them: empathy, connection, companionship, inspiration, reassurance, and a sense of enriching each other’s lives. After a challenging interaction with their intimate partner, or a colleague, family member, etc. they can call each other to speak freely, and sink into the “warm bath of empathic listening.” Ahhhhhhhhhh…finally a place to exhale, to speak openly and freely, and to be received with compassion and presence.

We can say that, during an empathy call, the listener supports the person they’re listening to with the “Self-Empathy” part of “Self-Connection.” For example, Emani is going to help Purna get connected to “what’s alive in her.” She’ll help Purna identify her needs, including the precious needs that lie underneath Purna’s judgments of Alex.

For example, Purna comes to realize that her judgment of Alex as “aggressive” is an indicator that she’s longing for kindness and empathy in her conversations with Alex. And her judgment of Alex as “stubborn” indicates that she’s longing for openness, flexibility, and consideration of her needs.

Emani and Purna wrap up their call and Purna feels much more calm and ready to resume the conversation with her partner, Alex. Surely, it will be a more connecting experience now that Purna has reminded herself of what she’s longing for, yes? She can tell Alex about her needs and make requests of Alex aimed at better meeting those needs – kindness, empathy, openness, etc. But it doesn’t go that way! She’s sad and disappointed to find herself in another fight. She thinks, not for the first time, that maybe their relationship will just always be this way.

Meanwhile, over at Emani’s house, Emani is wrestling with some unease and skepticism about the efficacy of NVC to really bring about any change. You see, Purna has sought empathy from Emani on many occasions after very similar fights between Purna and Alex. Purna says she loves Emani’s listening and feels much better after their calls. But nothing really seems to change for Purna and Alex.

Emani has come across the idea of Self-Connection as a vital practice involving both Self-Empathy (“What’s alive in in me?”) and “Humanizing” (“What do I think is alive in the other person?”).

However, Emani also learned in the NVC workshop she attended that “When giving empathy, we do not try to lead the person we’re listening to with our suggestions and questions and opinions and advice. Similarly, we don’t try to lead the person we’re listening to in the direction of empathizing with or humanizing the person they’re in conflict with! We want to give them the ‘warm bath of empathy.’ Then they’ll get connected to their needs and new strategies will arise for them.”

Emani is confused. By fulfilling her role as empathy buddy, she’s giving empathy to Purna, helping Purna to connect more fully with “What’s alive in her.” She’s effectively supporting Purna’s Self-Empathy, which is one part of Self-Connection.

However, Emani has a sense of somehow being banned from mentioning the “Humanizing” aspect of Self-Connection, so she is not supporting Purna with the full practice of Self-Connection. Purna seems OK with that; she’s not asking Emani to be a “Self-Connection-buddy” and she enjoys their relationship as “empathy buddies.”

The result, as you may have spotted, is that after speaking to Emani, Purna has much clearer awareness of her own needs, but no greater sense of Alex’s needs, of the humanity beneath Alex’s habits and choices.

Getting empathy frequently increases our capacity to empathize with others, but so far, Purna’s capacity to empathize with Alex is not growing. She theoretically knows how to listen to Alex with empathy; after all, she frequently listens to Emani with empathy. But…things escalate too quickly in conversations with Alex, and Purna’s capacity to listen with empathy quickly disappears. They’re stuck in a pattern, and the truth is, so far, that the empathy calls with Emani have not led to new strategies in Purna’s relationship with Alex.

The Solution I Recommend

In their next empathy call, it’s Purna’s turn to listen to whatever Emani wants to talk about.

Emani tells her in this call: “I’d like to talk about our empathy buddy relationship, which I really love, by the way. I just want to explore whether we can make it even more supportive than it already is…”

Purna is curious, and a bit nervous, but wants to hear her friend.

Emani explains her unease, confusion, and longing to support Purna with change in her intimate relationship, and for Purna and Alex to find greater happiness with each other. She talks about Self-Connection and the Humanizing step. Purna listens to all of this, making sure she’s understanding each point and connecting with Emani’s feelings and needs.

Then they do something that they’ve never done before. They decide to do some brainstorming about how they can keep the “warm bath of empathic listening” feeling in their calls, but also make room for the Humanizing step (i.e. make room for Purna to do some wondering and guessing about Alex’s needs).

They come up with a plan to keep a very simple log of what they do in their empathy calls, on occasions when Purna is seeking empathy about her relationship with Alex. They write answers to the following questions:

  1. Which needs did Purna get clear were important to her?
  2. Did they also move to the Humanizing step, and if so, what needs did they guess were important for Alex?
  3. Did they do any brainstorming about new strategies for Alex and Purna, inspired by the needs they’d identified?


At first, things continue as they were before. They focus on empathy for Purna, and that continues to feel very good to Purna. Purna finds she does not want to switch to considering what’s going on for Alex, for Alex’s longings and needs. She says that the calls with Emani are like an oasis of empathy in her week, and she does not want to take that away by taking on the painful and challenging task of trying to connect with Alex’s needs.

Then a few weeks later Purna says to Emani, during their empathy call: “I don’t want to switch over to thinking about Alex’s needs right now, but would you be available tomorrow and we can give it a try then?”

Emani is excited to do this. With Emani’s loving, empathic presence, Purna comes up with all sorts of guesses about what might be really important to Alex. Purna even asks if Emani has any other guesses – they’ve agreed that Emani will only makes guesses about Alex’s needs if Purna asks for this kind of support.

Emani takes her guesses about Alex to their next conversation, saying, “I’ve been thinking a lot about what your unmet needs are in our conversations, and I wanted to ask you if any of my guesses are accurate.”

After getting clear on what Alex’s needs are, they start brainstorming new strategies that would meet Purna’s needs *and* Alex’s. They commit to using only strategies that honor both of their needs equally.

They’re amazed by how things start to shift for them.

Weekly Practice

Please join me, Leeza and Taj at the Communication Dojo Weekly Practice Session where the foundational practices we currently support are “Giving and Receiving Empathy” and “Self-Connection.”

You might find an empathy buddy like Emani there, and you might find that your empathy buddy is very enthusiastic about the two of you becoming “Self-Connection buddies.”


Newt Bailey is the founder of the Communication Dojo workshops. His passion is sharing nonviolent communication, through workshops, videos, and other materials, in a way that is quick to integrate and put to use.

In his private practice, Newt brings his services as a trainer, coach, and mediator in corporate settings, with a focus on executive and “office hours” coaching. He also works privately with individuals and couples as a coach and mediator and has now started offering events focused on “NVC and Spiritual Practice.”