Friday, September 7, 2012

Who Benefits From Empathy?

by Miki Kashtan

When we are in conflict with someone, or are adversely affected by someone’s actions, even without personal interaction, or see others being adversely affected, our habit is often to pull back, close our hearts, create judgments about the other person, and all around make them less than human.

For me, for example, where I get completely lost, is whenever I interpret anyone’s behavior to mean that they don’t care. My entire life, as far back as I can remember, I’ve been profoundly affected by anything that registers in me as unkindness or lack of care. It’s only recently that I’ve been able to recognize the nature of the effect. It’s a shock to my system. Despite all I know about what human beings are sadly capable of inflicting on each other, I am still, somehow, shocked whenever I see any instance of it. My soul still refuses to believe, as it always has, that cruelty and unkindness truly happen.

It is not uncommon for me to receive several such shocks in the course a normal day. Almost anything can affect it. Sometimes it’s just seeing a tattoo, and thinking about the pain a person put their body through in order to have the tattoo. I could feel this shock when seeing someone throw something out through the window of a car into public space. Or when hearing someone say “I don’t care about how she feels!” I shudder when hearing someone make a joke at the expense of someone else or a group. I cringe in some movies when an audience laughs at a person designed to be made fun of because of their weight, and just thinking about what life is like for that person that would lead them to accept an acting role in which they know they will be made fun of, and why others find it funny. I feel this shock when I see, in many of the places I work with, how bosses talk about or interact with their employees. At times I feel this shock more than anywhere when I see how many parents respond to their children.

With this degree of sensitivity, I keep away from the news. I don’t trust my own capacity to recover from the shocks fast enough if I am exposed to the details of what is going on in the world.

With all of that, I nonetheless continue to have some fountain of faith in human beings that, although brittle, is endlessly renewable. When I first heard from Marshall Rosenberg, the man who gave us Nonviolent Communication, the simple and radical idea that every act of violence was a tragic expression of an unmet need, and, more generally, that everything that anyone ever does is an attempt to meet a human need that I myself would have, these ideas gave form and substance to my faith in a way that has sustained me and supported me in finding more courage, power, hope and even pleasure in life than anything I ever had before.

Becoming the Other Person

Just about anyone who’s ever taught Nonviolent Communication sooner or later engages in role-plays. Often enough, the people we are asked to be are someone whose actions would easily be seen as harmful, damaging to others, or even cruel. Over the years, I have found myself “being” a man who molested a girl; another man who took all his wife’s money, destroyed the school they built together, and disappeared; a woman who tortured her daughter; a soldier who just came back from Iraq and is livid about those who protest the war; and George Bush (several times over). Each time I become this person, I have no idea initially how I would find any authenticity in expressing the truth of the person I am being. In each of these instances, I have to bridge the chasm between my visceral shock reaction at whatever aspects of this person’s actions I find lacking in care and kindness, and my faith that whatever they do has, must have, always has, some human emotional logic that I will be able to make human sense of, because, ultimately, it relates to some human needs no different than my own. I have attempted to describe this process, which is sometimes wrenchingly painful, sometimes sublime, as solving an emotional equation within my own body.

Each and every time I have done this, my own understanding of what it means to be human has grown. I have some palpable, tangible grasp on what could happen to someone that would lead to acting in ways that previously were completely opaque and mysterious to me. My heart feels bigger, more resilient, more capable. My love expands, my reach, my ability to support others, to understand them in more and more circumstances.

I have also noticed that when I am in such a role-play, the moment I find my authentic access to the humanity of the person I am being is a moment of true healing for the person who asked me to do the role-play. I wrote about one such time. I called it "Finding Unexpected Humanity." I wish I could write and share with everyone in the world all of these experiences. They are some of the holiest moments I can remember. Some of the biggest pain that any of us has when we have been harmed by another is the very loss of being able to see that person’s humanity. When we are unable to see someone’s humanity, our own shrinks, we are diminished, made smaller. We need to protect and enclose ourselves, we trust humanity as a whole less, we take fewer risks, are less willing to open up to life. When I am able to show someone a possible way of making sense of another person’s apparently inhuman acts, the relief, the restoration of possibility, are almost indescribable. Something melts that may have been encrusted for decades. For a moment, or forever, there is an opening back into the fullness of life. When another person becomes human again, our own resilience increases, and we suffer less.

Humanizing Others and Empathy

One of the early discoveries I made while learning Nonviolent Communication was that whenever someone is heard, they find more willingness to hear another. This is one of the reasons why I find the practice of empathy to be so transformative and why conflict resolution practices of all kinds converge on the irreducible role of people being heard. It’s also, undoubtedly, the main reason why a certain conviction has taken root within the community of Nonviolent Communication which I have been trying to overcome: I regularly hear people say, as if it’s a “rule”, that we can’t offer empathy before we receive it. I want to overcome this habit, because in situations of conflict someone is always going to be the one to listen first to the other if the conflict is to be resolved rather than suppressed, avoided, or escalated. I want all of us who believe in nonviolence, who learn Nonviolent Communication because we want to be agents of change in the world, to find access to our hearts sufficiently to be able to respond empathically without waiting to be heard first. It’s clearly the case that in order to respond empathically in any kind of authentic way, to truly be interested in hearing what the other person has to say, we need to be able to see that person’s humanity. My own experience with myself and others leads me to believe that we can do that directly, and that in the process we diminish our own suffering. Humanizing the other person is something that benefits me even before it ever translates into anything relational.

Some people can reach a level of cognitive mastery of empathy that is so high that it becomes possible to use words of empathy even without having an open heart. I know I have done it at times, and I have seen it any number of times in practice settings. Even though such apparent empathy is clearly designed to defuse the conflict, the mechanical nature of it has been known to infuriate others and escalate the conflict rather than defuse it.

In order to be in empathic dialogue, I must be able to imagine being the other person. It’s a deep discipline for me. It requires me to overcome the righteous pleasure of writing off the other person; of making myself ever so slightly superior, more human, more caring; of keeping my world safe and protected by eschewing others. I come face to face with the undeniable reality that this person who did this act is human just as much as me. I plunge into that other world, that other and different experience that gave rise to that which is mysterious to me. Through that, I find them, I find their heart, even if they have lost it. I find their care, however deeply buried it is, even if they actively protest and deny it. I reach for their heart even when it’s well hidden and protected, so well that they themselves don’t see it. I am reminded, as often, of Longfellow’s quote: “If we could read the secret history of our enemies we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” I wish I were joined by many more in this most magnificent and excruciating task. I wish I succeeded more often, with or without the company of others to do it with.


  1. Interesting. I have a few comments. One, I do feel like it's important to honor times when I'm not feeling compassionate. I deal with a lot of difficulties with my mother and untangling myself from the conditioning I received. I find her incredibly frustrating, and as somebody who deals with a lot of self-blame, I want to own my anger. Usually my NVC buddies tell me something along the lines of giving her empathy and not expecting her to be able to return the favor. I don't see why I should bother with this. So I don't. I have some decent conversations with her, but they are shorter and less often due to my growing awareness and needs for self-protection and authenticity. I'm not willing to turn myself into a martyr and just guess her feelings and needs all the time when I don't want to, when I want space and independence. So that's one thing I experience. I don't want compassion to turn into a duty -- oh, she's tough, so I 'should' empathize with her! That definitely isn't in tune with my values of authenticity, integrity, and choice.

    Another thing, around the Longfellow quote, is that I do really wish that I could see other peoples' pain so I could relate. I have empathy buddies, a practice group, a lovely boyfriend, so I have opportunities to give and receive. But just on the street or in daily life, people seem fine. I wish there were more moments or more ways to see beyond people's defenses and really touch into their humanity. I find that other people's defenses are so high that this is hard to do.

    1. If I came across as implying that this is a "should", then I didn't manage to convey my point. For me this is a path to freedom for me. It's something I do for me, because I want to, because it frees me up, because I want to open my heart. If it doesn't work for anyone, nothing in me wants you to do it just because I invited you to... Hope this helps...

  2. Also, what happened to Youtube videos of the Conflict Hotline? Did this not make it through budget cuts?

    1. Thank you for this. We have stopped airing and taping this show over a year ago. Our volunteer producer/director reached the limits of his capacity to do this without funding. It went on for over two years. I hope one day we will have funding for this and more.

  3. Dear Miki,
    Thank you so much for this inspiring article that feeds my needs of hope and inspiration...
    Thank you for all your work and for taking the time to share on this blog your experiences...
    I'm so happy to meet you once more in may 2013, at Yenne !

  4. I'm struck by the part about the "rule." I agree that SOMEONE has to offer empathy first in a conflict, or no one will ever be heard! For me it definitely seems true that I can offer empathy before I receive it FROM THAT PERSON. At the same time, it is also true that if I've first received empathy from someone, maybe myself, that tends to open and soften my heart and increase my capacity to receive the words and energy of the person I'm in conflict with. I also know at times I have been divided: One part of me is very open to imagining what it's like to be the other person in connection with me, and can "hear" that with empathy. Another part is still longing to be heard about what it's been like to be me interacting with them. It's been at times confusing and uncomfortable and yet these two parts truly do co-exist. Recently I tried to express both these parts at once, which rather predictably (in hindsight) led to less connection between us, not more. I trust if I had just kept my heart open to the other person and stopped there (or waited to receive a willingness to hear from me before continuing), it might have gone differently. I was (a) still attached to her being the one to hear me and my f/n and to see my perspective and (b) not sufficiently filled up to offer empathy to her. My desire to receive her and see her humanity and f/n was very sincere. It's just that it existed alongside this other part. My desire to hear her came from a longing for peace, harmony, and understanding, and freedom from tension when we're in the same room. I think it would have been helpful to focus on these needs within myself first, to free myself from attachment to her doing anything -- talking, listening, anything, and to work on the conflict within myself between the part of me that was open to her and the part of me that still had judgments. Compassion for my intention to keep going on the path and to use this as an opportunity to learn and grow! Thanks for posting this; I continue to experience your words as opportunities for self-inquiry.

  5. Miki, you constantly enrich and deepen my understanding and my hope. Thank you.

  6. Thanks for addressing my question about the hotline. I hope that will come back! I've really enjoyed the Youtube clips.
    And nothing in your post sounded like I need to do something I don't want to, like have compassion for someone with whom I'm not ready. I just took the opportunity to vent my issues around that! I do feel that sometimes in NVC communities, compassion for the other person is so highly valued that we forget to just be with ourselves as we are, to let ourselves not go there when that's appropriate.

  7. Empathy for myself first is a prescriptive that works for me. When I hear myself- give myself empathy- I am connecting to my heart's longing. From that place, connecting to others just happens.

    Empathy and self empathy are two sides of the same coin. Both practices lead me home.

    Tattooed and Open Hearted,
    Deborah (aka Tawanda Bee)

  8. www.facebook/mihaly.bartalos.comSeptember 9, 2012 at 6:20 AM

    well said. i do have difficulty finding empathy for others (especially when, in the moment, it's that very person that is in conflict with me and I am regressed and needing empathy for myself. I have been practicing giving these parts of myself empathy and or finding someone uninvolved to support me in this first. Then, I can be fully open to the beauty of most anyone's tragic expression of unmet needs. A stretch for me is putting my regressed inner child into a safe place, reassuring him I WILL be back to give him attention, then giving OUT empathy... and later (and don't fuckin forget) come back to him and hold him tight and don't let go until he knows he is loved and safe.

    1. What a great image - the regressed inner child - and how you care for him. I will try to use this next time I have difficulty with empathy in the moment. Thanks.

  9. Thank you. I needed this. I work in a field where I see people being dehumanized all the time. I have written about it before, thought about it a ton, and grappled with it deep in my heart daily. My role in the situation prevents me from having an open communication with the people, but I try to hold them in my heart with empathy. It is very, very difficult at times. Sometimes it is difficult because of the pain and anguish they have caused to others. Sometimes it is difficult because others speak poorly of them. Sometimes it is difficult because daily interactions with these issues have hardened me, even to the point of physical pain. But these reminders from you are great. They help me re-open my heart, remember that we all have our stories, and begin to hold the entire process as a healing world rather than destructive. Thank you for the much needed reminder of faith in humanity. I needed it this week.

  10. "In order to be in empathic dialogue, I must be able to imagine being the other person. It’s a deep discipline for me. It requires me to overcome the righteous pleasure of writing off the other person; of making myself ever so slightly superior, more human, more caring; of keeping my world safe and protected by eschewing others."

    I just ran across a letter to the editor I wrote some years ago. It could be that what you are saying in the above statement refers to the "cushion" I mention in the letter.

    It is easy for critical thinkers to criticize people for acting in
    their self-interest and for ignoring the consequences of their
    decisions, which impact negatively on others or on society as a whole.

    SUV purchasers are among the popular targets, along with meat eaters,
    fast-food junkies, gun wielders, abortion choosers, and corporate

    The critics of the above rarely attempt to understand, let alone
    appreciate their "enemy's" motivation and rationale. This lack of
    understanding, for the most part, is matched by those criticized, who
    react by considering their critics to be naive, jealous, or wackos.

    This popular pattern of social intercourse promotes a lack of
    respect, understanding, and appreciation. Thus, what could serve as
    constructive criticism is forsaken, for it has no cushioning. We must
    offer each other this cushion to absorb our righteous knocks.

  11. Hi, Miki and everybody. I´ve been learning NVC with Dominic Barter for a while now. I´ve been wondering for a while about the need for empathy in itself. Many times I gave empathy without a previous work of self-empathy. And writing these lines I perceive a need for learning behind it. I was struck, many times, when I asked for empathy and people would tell me to try self-empathy or something like that. That hurted me then and still hurts now. Because I see empathy as a two way need. I need empathy. But I also need to give empathy. And, for me, is sad when I have such a precious gift to give and it is not received. Sometimes, especially when I'm triggered, is very difficult for me to give empathy. When I am alone with the other person, it gets more difficult. On the other side, if we're inside a NVC circle, I feel more safe to openly say what is going on in my mind. I know people will help me find what is behind. Be with their silence or with questions. One time, there was this girl on our circle. She never appeared before. And, all of a sudden, she was complaining about the circle being late, and also this was not the same as the circle where Dominic was present and blablabla. I was triggered. Irritated. Annoyed. All of a sudden, started telling her that. And the needs in me came to my mind. Recognition. Acceptance. After a while, listening to her, I also was able to hear what was behind her tough words. A strong need for acceptance.