What if someone perceives empathy as a threat?

 In Ask Glenda, Blog, Effective Dialogue

(Time to read: 2-3 minutes)

A student recently asked “How would one approach a situation in which well-intentioned empathy might be misconstrued and perceived as a threat by someone who would not want his/her needs noted?”

One of the things I love about NVC is how much simpler all situations seem when I look at them through this lens!

NVC Understanding of the Situation

So if I consider the question above, it is basically a situation in which I have said something and the other person does not know how to meet their needs when they hear it.

Ultimately it is their responsibility to meet their needs. And I may choose to try to support them in meeting their needs because it meets my needs – for example, for connection and mutual understanding.

I’ve generally found that the most effective strategy for creating connection and mutual understanding is… ironically enough, empathy!

What Empathy Really Is

For me, empathy is not necessarily about speaking words that appear on needs sheets – it’s about hearing what is important to the other person. Often that may sound very “strategy” like. What makes it empathy is that I’m trying to connect to what matters to the other person.

So how might this work? I’m going to make up an example in which the initial empathic guess is pretty close to “classical NVC” – because it is my experience that classical-style guesses are the ones most likely not to meet needs for connection.

A Workplace Example

Other Person: “You did a really sloppy job on that!”

Me: “Are you feeling frustrated because you value effectiveness?”

Other Person: “Stop using that NVC crap on me! This isn’t about me, it’s about your lousy work!”

Me: “So you’d really like me to have handled that work differently?”

(Here I’m focusing on creating connection with the other person – not worrying about the fact that what I’m saying is very “strategy” like.)

Other Person: “Yes! That report is full of typos and the last appendix is missing. I can’t believe you sent it out like that!”

(I’m interpreting this response as indicating that my attempt at connection is working – I’m finding out more of what is alive for this person.)

Me: “I’m hearing that it’s important to you that material from this department is accurate and complete when it goes out. That’s important to me too.”

(Here, in addition to my empathic guess, I’m sharing that the same things that matter to this person matter to me too – another approach to creating connection.)

Other Person: “Well, then how on earth could you have sent out something so unprofessional?”

(This is exciting! For the moment, this person has shifted to wanting to hear about my experience. That suggests to me that at least some of their needs for empathy have been met.)

Me: “So you’re wanting to understand how this happened so we can prevent it from ever happening again?”

(In this case, before I answer the request I’m hearing, I want to check that I’ve understood it accurately.

Also, their response will help me confirm whether they are actually ready to hear about my experience, or whether they first need more empathy for their experience. For example, from a conversation they might have had with someone who had received the report.)

What would you say next?

What do you imagine the other person might reply? How would you keep the connection going?

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