How to listen with empathy

How to listen with empathy

In private as well as professional relationships empathy is a very effective means to establish connection between people and solve conflicts. It also helps people in emotional distress to relax and find clarity, it leads to inspiration for creative problem solving, and it can even heal old emotional wounds!

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The way I understand empathy, I learned it from non-violent communication (nvc) and its founder, Marshall Rosenberg.
I first met him at an introductory workshop about nvc in Munich, German. In front of a large room packed with audience I took up all my courage and asked Marshall personally if he would help me solve a conflict in my life by doing one of his empathic roleplays.

He agreed, and so I found myself on stage in a chair opposite to him. I was supposed to play the person with whom I had a problem, and he would play an empathic version of myself. I started and threw the the most hurtful sentences that I had heard at Marshall. The audience was roaring.
He did not even blink an eye and calmly said: “Well, it sounds like you’re sad because you’d like to have more contact with me!”
Out of nothing, I burst into tears. He had landed a direct hit. My whole aggressiveness was suddenly blown away. How the hell did he know? I would never have guessed THAT! How could all these attacks mean that this woman who I had difficulties with actually missed me?

Right there, I experienced the power of empathy myself. It changed my life. I needed a few days to get over the experience – in a positive sense 🙂

From then on, I wanted to be able to do what Marshall did, with the same ease and accuracy. Today, I would say he had the laserlike ability to penetrate all the layers of someone’s ego and see right to his core. And he saw something good in his core. He used to call it the force “that wants to contribute to life”. For him it was in everyone – even if hidden very far down!

Very briefly spoken empathy mainly consists of the second and third of the famous “four steps” of non-violent communication. Step two describes a person’s feelings, and step three identifies her needs.

When empathically listening to someone, I focus on asking about his feelings and needs in regard to a certain situation. I try to feel into the other one and then I check out whether  my impression is right.

An example:
Suppose a friend complains about her husband and says: “Oh man, I was out all night with him, and he only stared at his cell phone! He is totally antisocial!”
Empathic listening in this case could be questions like: “Are you sad about how things went (feeling)? You want more connection between the two, right?”

Let’s put this together to a quick guide for empathic listening:
1. Feel into the other person
2. Ask about her feelings
3. Ask about her needs

You don’t have to get the feeling and the need right. Just guess. What counts is your sincere intention to connect. Either you get a “Yes!” or a “No!”, and both is good. With a “no” in most cases the person tells you either what is really going on (e.g.: “No, I’m not sad, I’m disappointed!”), or you simply guess again.

It is also important that you don’t ask: “What are you feeling?” or “What do you need?”, but offer a specific feeling (“sad”, “angry”, “annoyed”, “frustrated”, “disappointed” etc.) and a specific need (“connection”, “community”, “belonging”, “appreciation”, “rest” etc.).
This makes it easier for the other person to get into contact with himself and keeps him from going into his head because he begins to think about what he might feel and need!

Basically, empathy is not difficult. What is often difficult though, is to stop falling back into our previous pattern of reaction to another’s emotional distress! The trick lies in just staying with the questions to resist the temptation to use one of the following things:
– Advice: “Do xyz!”
– Understanding: “I understand.” (I know this is supposed to be nice, but FEEL into it…does it really create connection?)
– Telling about yourself: “Oh yes, I know that, I had a very similar experience which was…!” (No! I know we all love speaking about ourselves, but right now the other needs your whole presence for herself. Please stay with her and don’t bring the focus to you!)
– Analysis: “This is the same pattern like with your father!”
– Feeling sorry: “Oh, that’s really bad! Poor you!”
– Know-it-all attitude: “I could have told you it would end like this!”

I’m not saying that all these things are “bad”. If you want to build a connection with someone and help him in an emotionally challenging situation though, then these strategies usually don’t serve the goal, because they draw attention away from where it is needed. Try out the difference!

And now the most important

The most important thing when giving empathy  is not getting the method right, but the inner attitude with which you meet the other.

This includes 5 things:
1. Non-judgment: Take to the other, as he is. Accept all his feelings and signal him to be no matter what emotional state it is and no matter what look like his thoughts.
(It is clear that you will be not always completely without judgment. But that doesn’t matter. Just be open for this, possibly with your judgment in addition to lie. Judgment not step into that, and not your behavior let him dictate!)
2. Benevolence: Believe that the others in the core is good. As Marshall always said: everyone wants to serve at any time always alive. Some people choose to just strategies that are painful for others, because they know no better. Be open to be sure that the good will show in the other, if he gets the opportunity, through his pain accompanied if someone else sees it as well. What do indeed! Keep active for the good intention in the other look. It’s there!
3. Connection first: Make the connection to the other person your top priority. Resist any temptation to want to convince him of something, to smuggle into advice in your conversation, or to want to have the conversation to a particular result. All of this would undermine the connection.Just be there for him!
4. Trust: Trust that the other knows what he needs and what is the solution to his situation. You do not have to tell him. In fact our solution proposals confuse others more often than that they help – unless unless the other asks.
Help him so, to find its own solution, and tell your opinion only when specifically prompted.
5. Listen to your inner voice: Exchanges with others are a dynamic process, and a tool out of a box is not always appropriate! Ask your intuition for help, to be as gentle as possible, and to be able to help the other as much as possible. And then trust yourself!

Thank you for reading this far! I am very happy about your interest in empathic listening, because I see it as making human interaction more beautiful, and I would like to contribute to that!

If you have any questions or comments, you can leave a message below or use our contact form!

I invite you to also read the related article: “Does empathic listening make a story true?

I wish you many moments of heart connection with empathic listening!

Kendra Gettel

P.S.: If you like this article, then share it but please via social media. Thank you!


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The miraculous communication formula

The miraculous communication formula

Ever wondered how to talk about being triggered and how to address upsets without ending up in a downward spiral with the other person?
Try out our “miraculous communication formula”!

The “miraculous communication formula” consists of the following five steps:

  1. Your observation
  2. Your feeling
  3. Your interpretation of the situation
  4. Your willingness to be wrong about your interpretation
  5. Your request for support in understanding the situation correctly and seeing the other one as innocent

Let’s jump straight to an example of how to apply the formula in your everyday life. Imagine a couple, John and Linda. They have two kids.
Linda is upset. The trigger is that when she comes home from work shortly before dinner time, she sees that John hasn’t prepared dinner although he had promised to do so.

Linda’s observation would be: “You haven’t made dinner!”
Her feeling in the situation might be: “I am upset!”, “I am angry!” or “I am frustrated!” while she interprets “You don’t support me!”.

To express her upset and reconnect with John in a loving way, she could start with expressing these three:“John, when I see that you haven’t made dinner although you said you would, I am angry and I interpret that you don’t support me!”

Then comes the miracle part, her willingness to be wrong about her interpretation and her request for support: “Well, that you don’t support me cannot be true, because I know you do and show it on many occasions. Yesterday, for example, you fixed my bike. Would you help me see what is really going on here?

Get it? 🙂

To help you understand better what Linda is saying, why this works and how to apply it yourself, let us look at the five steps in more detail:

1. The observation

In the observation you describe what you see, hear or perceive otherwise through your five physical senses. What is happening? Stay with the facts. Imagine you are a video camera recording the situation, what could be seen and heard on the tape?
Make sure not to mix up observation and interpretation and to stay neutral. “You haven’t made dinner” or “Dinner is not ready” is an observation, “I can’t rely on you to make dinner” is an interpretation. There is room for your interpretion in step number three.

2. The feeling

Describe what you feel when you perceive what is going on. Stay with words that express pure feelings, like “angry”, “sad”, “afraid”, “frustrated”, “stressed”, “under pressure” or “upset”. Be aware that words like “misunderstood”, “attacked”, or “not cared for” actually don’t refer to feelings, but rather to interpretations. To fully connect to what is going on inside of you and to help the other person feel you, it is important to stay with the feelings and leave away any interpretations at this point.

3. The interpretation

We are used to thinking that we are upset because of something that is happening or has happened or something someone has done. But in truth we are upset because of what meaning we give it, or, in other words, our interpretation of what has happened or what the other person has done.
If we change the interpretation of the situation, the upset disappears.
In our example, Linda interprets that John doesn’t support her. Other common interpretations are “You don’t appreciate me”, “You don’t love me” or “You are attacking me”.

4. The willingness to see it differently

This is the turning point of the conversation, and the step that goes beyond what you have probably read about other communications models. The thing is: If you stop after step number three, the other person will still most likely get the impression of being blamed or attacked and strike back instead of helping you. But help is what you need and want right now, isn’t it?
The trick is to question the interpretation you have made in the step before and to actively look for proof that your interpretation might me wrong.

In the beginning though, when you are triggered and upset, this will feel like bullshitting yourself and like sacrificing yourself. The reason for this is your identification with the interpretation. So giving up the interpretation feels a little bit like dying. But this is not the case, as you will see. Right here, just do it anyway. Speak the words, even if you feel heavy resistance and are totally convinced to be right in your judgment!

All you need is a little willingness, an openness to another possibility that your blaming and guilt-assigning mind is offering you through its negative interpretation.
Let’s say for example that your interpretation is “You don’t love me”. Then add something like “…but that can’t be, because….” and see if you can even find proof.
The whole sentence would be like this: “I interpret that you don’t love me, but that can’t be, because you tell me every day that you love me, and you gave me a special treat for my birthday last month.”
Can you feel how your upset is already shifting?

By the way, if you can’t find any proof for being loved, then be transparent about: “I am having a hard time finding proof that you love me.”

5. Request for support

At this point, ask the other person what was really going on. We often interpret an action as against us that in truth had nothing to do with us or was a desperate attempt of the other person to take care of himself.
In our example of John and Linda John might have been busy tending to a crying child and just didn’t get round to dinner. Or something else happened. But most likely he did not think “Today I won’t support Linda and I want to upset her. I will not make dinner even though I said I would.”
You will get the other person’s support because of your willingness to see them as innocent, as taking care of themselves and not as attacking you.

All of us hate being blamed and being assigned guilt to. It makes us defensive and wanting to strike back. Yet, at the same time, this is what society teaches us. We are blaming and judging addicts! We haven’t learnt to speak about our feelings and needs any other way. No surprise that blaming and judging others is our first, knee-jerk reaction.
It takes time and conscious effort to overcome it, but you can do it, and you will do it, because you will love it as soon as you find out how much your relationships benefit from it. 🙂
Here are some examples which words to use in step number five:
“I want to stop blaming you for how I feel. Can you help me see that you didn’t mean this against me? What was really going on for you?”
“Can you help me see that you were doing the best you could?”
“Can you help me see again that you are a wonderful person and I love you?”

Please let us know how this is working for you. Shoot us an email or simply leave a comment below.
I can’t wait to hear about the exciting changes you are going to experience!

Thank you,


P.S.: If you like this article, then please share it in order to bring about a worldwide communication revolution. I truly appreciate! Thank you! 🙂