This Thing We Call Empathy

[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 know it is not the question, “Are you feeling   x , because you need   y ?”

The way I think NVC approaches empathy is not with the particular meaning of ‘feeling what another feels,’ like an empath does. This meaning of empathy is showing up in recent neuroscience research as having a high mental cost to people in caring roles and professions – it wears people out, sometimes leaving them depleted with “compassion fatigue.”

I emphasize to people in NVC classes that Marshall Rosenberg’s approach to empathy is just one of many ways to express compassion, with our focus on needs/values/motivations.

Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, wrote, “True compassion requires us to attend to our own humanity, to come to a deep acceptance of our own life as it is [italics added]. It requires us to come into right Relationship with that which is most human in ourselves, that which is most capable of suffering.”

This aligns completely with Inbal Kashtan’s gift to us of the NVC Tree of Life, placing self-connection in the root of the Tree. Knowing what is going on with ourselves first can provide us the capacity to understand what others may be going through, but when it is left untended, that absence of self-connection can strangle the good will that fuels our compassion for others.

I recently read Stephen R. Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, updated after 40 years as a major force in thinking about leadership. Two things stood out for me:

One was that I wish every person interested in NVC could read (or re-read) Covey’s chapter on Empathic Listening. Much of the book is strongly aligned with NVC, especially his discussion of empathic listening. The other idea I loved from Covey’s book was a simple shift in awareness and choice: from “listening with the intention to reply” to “listening with the intention to understand.” He discusses how, when people experience another listening to understand them, their defensive walls and postures soften and they can enter meaningful conversation. If you read this book years ago, as one of my colleagues mentioned, you might find re-reading the chapter on Empathic Listening more interesting and useful with your more recent NVC understanding.

One of my empathy buddies with whom I have practiced empathic listening weekly since 2002 suggested another shift in stance from “giving empathy to another” to “entering into empathy with another.” I find this moves me beyond any sense of ‘I have the power to give you empathy’ and instead into a stance of ‘we are fellow humans on the planet, both of whom suffer, celebrate, struggle, and grow, and perhaps we can understand one another.’ For me, entering into empathy with another carries more a sense of deciding to show up, to be present, to care. It is a tacit agreement that I will spend time with one another, willing to witness the rich complexity of this other expression of life called ‘you.’

Sometimes it feels to me like we are inexorably headed into the kinds of horrors already underway in other parts of the world, or in past periods of human history. When I start to feel tumbled in pain, worry or helplessness, I recall a magnificent work I read in 1988: Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, by Yaffa Eliach. I lived in Skokie, Illinois during my high school and college years, where 70% of the citizens were survivors of the Holocaust and nearly all my friends were children of survivors. In my & my friends’ search to understand the ‘senseless violence’ of World War II, these stories renewed (and still renew) hope and conviction that kindness, compassion is always a choice, no matter the circumstances. And they made a difference in the bleakest of moments – perhaps a bigger difference than in ordinary days, the difference between life or death. In these real life tales, some words or gestures of kindness, compassion, or respect touched another and changed their next action, sometimes saving a life, sometimes only making an impossible moment more tolerable, sometimes making it possible for ‘enemies’ to see themselves and each other as fully human.

Just a few weeks ago, PuddleDancer Press released the newest book in their NVC library: The Healing Power of Empathy, edited by Mary Goyer, MS. In it, Mary shares many simple stories with a wide range of how empathy is spoken (or conveyed without words). What a gift for new and established NVC explorers, to hear how people speak compassionately without ever using the learning templates of NVC, yet living the intention of being present and entering empathy with another.

As I’m sure many of you know, three other rich resources for perspectives and practices around empathy are Brené Brown, Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh. I love how Brené so clearly in her Shame Resilience Theory stresses the importance of both naming our shame and speaking it to another (trusted) person. This echoes certified NVC trainers Brigit Belgrave and Gina Lawrie’s thinking in their NVC Anger/Guilt/Shame/Depression Dance Floor. Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodron offer a wide variety of meditations and essays on empathy and compassion in small, easy to digest books.

I encourage people in my classes to identify their own needs and values regardless of whether or not those needs can be met, to experience the beauty of what our hearts long for, the dignity of knowing what could nourish us. In the same way, we can carry forward a choice to live compassion wherever a heart can be turned back toward life. Have you ever seen a grocery store checker come alive when their humanity is seen and honored? Or watched a child’s tears dry when they hear someone name what they most wanted and grieve not having, instead of being told to stop crying?

I’m also focusing more in my classes on helping people develop a strong network of NVC support. Though working with an empathy buddy can be healing and nourishing, I want everyone to have access to many resources, so now I ask people to practice empathic listening not only with their buddies, but with 2 (different) other classmates weekly for short (5 minutes each) calls. I have experienced and have heard many others experience anguish, frustration, sometimes even resentment that others cannot give them the same sweet quality of listening they get from NVC friends. But let’s be clear. People who are not studying compassion and empathy are unlikely to adopt that stance just because we love being heard. We are learning ways to feel, speak and act with more compassion toward ourselves and others. This is not a ‘should’ or a way to ‘be a better person’ or the new ‘good’ or ‘right’ thing to do. It is one choice in our life tool kit we may choose. I personally choose empathy often because of how much I like what happens inside me when I do. And more often than not, I like what happens between me and another when I do. But they’re not ‘supposed to’ empathize with me. And I’m not ‘supposed to’ empathize with them. Instead, I ask myself if I am willing to enter empathy with them.

One of the men who learned both NVC and mindfulness meditation while incarcerated in a Washington state prison (through the Freedom Project) worked to become a certified CNVC trainer after his release. Dow Gordon was the person who impressed on me how important it is to continue offering NVC classes “inside” the prisons and jails. He told me, “the people in your classes may never ‘learn’ NVC, but when they are met with respect and compassion [by the trainers], many of them for the first time in their lives, something begins to heal, something important.” If we can stay present with their suffering – often lives filled with nearly ceaseless sequential trauma – both they and we are changed.

What kinds of trauma, shaming and loss lead someone to turn to cruelty and violence? If woundedness arises in part from a sense of isolation, of being cut off from the whole, can we sometimes find it in ourselves to see the wholeness of someone who cannot see their own? Is further exclusion likely to heal and change someone’s life trajectory of judging, diminishing and excluding others, or only validate it? All current research points to empathy as the primary, sometimes only, path to wholeness and healing from trauma.

[We’d love you to contribute to our work as we meet every week with people living inside prisons and jails if it aligns with your values. You can click on the donate button. And thank you!]

And I’m interested to know if something in this article contributed to your appreciation or commitment to entering empathy with others (and if so, what in particular struck you). Your comments might fuel my sense of connection, companionship and contribution. You can reach me at

Meganwind Eoyang has been a collaborative trainer with BayNVC since 2002. She offers NVC classes at colleges, organizations, for the public, and in San Quentin State Prison. She co-founded the Safer Communities Project taking NVC training in to California prisons and county jails and working with parolees and their families. She also enjoys providing private NVC coaching and couples support work.