Empathy or compassion could be called the heart of Nonviolent Communication. We use both terms synonymously. Empathy is one of the abilities that make us human (witch which I don’t want to claim that animals cannot show compassion! You just have to watch one of the many youtube videos where you’ll see a chimp feeding a tiger cub with a baby bottle or other examples of animal empathy….)
Empathy means being able to put myself in the shoes of other people and feel with them. And here comes the first distinction: Empathy is not the same as pity. When I pity someone, I am feeling pain about their being in pain. I am more concerned with myself than with the other person. Empathy on the other hand means being able to comprehend and relate to the other one’s feelings while still leaving the feelings with them.
Empathy also means to not immediately try to change something about a possibly painful and difficult situation, try to fix it, give advice, conciliate, or analyze. I am simply there and give my presence. A good advice can be very helpful, but it is not what we call empathy.
This doesn’t mean that I will automatically agree with everything a person tells me and this is where NVC comes in again: A friend may tell me how he called the police on his neighbours the other night when they were having a party. Even if I don’t agree with his calling the police in a situation like this I can still empathize with his feelings and needs behind his strategy. Maybe he felt angry and helpless, because he had an early shift the next day and wanted to sleep. (In a talk with him I can ask him if this is true which we call empathic assumption.)
To get sincere empathy is one of the greatest presents for people, a present which many have never really been given before in their lives. Some could probably buy a car if they had been given a buck for every well-meant advice, every diagnosis, or analysis of their problems they heard in their lifetime.
The best is: I don’t have to do anything to give empathy! I am simply there. I can listen silently. I can make an empathic assumption every now and then to support my conversational partner in coming into contact with her feelings and needs. Sometimes a word is enough, a simple gesture, a touch, a look. Something that says: I see you. I am here.
For a conclusion I will cite a paragraph from the children’s book Momo (published in 1973) by Michael Ende. Here it becomes very clear what a gift empathy is:
(…) what Momo was better at than anyone else was listening.
Anyone can listen, you may say – what’s so special about that ? – but you’d be wrong. Very few people know how to listen properly, and Momo’s way of listening was quite unique.
She listened in a way that made slow-witted people have flashes of inspiration. It wasn’t that she actually said anything or asked questions that put such ideas into their heads. She simply sat there and listened with the utmost attention and sympathy, fixing them with her big, dark eyes, and they suddenly became aware of ideas whose existence they had never suspected.
Momo could listen in such a way that worried and indecisive people knew their own minds from one moment to the next, or shy people felt suddenly confident and at ease, or downhearted people felt happy and hopeful. And if someone felt that his life had been an utter failure, and that he himself was only one among millions of wholly unimportant people who could be replaced as easily as broken windowpanes, he would go and pour out his heart to Momo. And, even as he spoke, he would come to realize by some mysterious means that he was absolutely wrong: that there was only one person like himself in the whole world, and that, consequently, he mattered to the world in his own particular way.
Such was Momo’s talent for listening.