President Obama and Empathy
President Obama expresses in his speech to the country, "We need to be more empathetic!" I am wondering if he or the country really knows what empathy is and how to use this type of communication skill? I enjoy Dr. Marshall Rosenberg's definition of empathy. It is "a deep understanding what a person is experiencing."
Here is a real example how empathy can be used to have more peace and less violence in our world.
The booming voiced man says to me with a scary intensity, yet almost smiling. "Rick, you should resign from running for City Council. You do not do as you say, and you are a fake. Also, you will hurt the homeless in our city."
I am confused and becoming irritated by the man's anger at me. There is no recollection of ever meeting this short, middle aged man.. Here I am running for a City Council seat, just finishing a speech to them, a full council chambers and I hear this man in army fatigues ranting non-stop, about me.
I ask myself," What did I do to deserve this? I'm just running for City Council."
Yet, as he comes within 4 inches of my face I feel a knot in my stomach. It seems to be growing in my body, tightening, like a rubber glove grabbing my inner organs. This rarely happens as I am quite calm, nowadays. I teach compassionate communication and most of the time I use the techniques daily in my life.
Yet, the knot tightens more and more. It reminds me of the old days when I sang in country bars, before I learned and practiced these skills. I want to choke him or at least punch his lights out. I can feel my arm wanting to cock itself and explode his pudgy nose.
He adds to the conversation, "Let's go outside and discuss this. I am going to hurt you."
When Tempers Rise!
I realize that I am not ready to communicate with him feeling my temper rising to an alarming state, I start backing up. I take a few more steps backwards. I still have not said a word to him, knowing my words will not help the situation yet make it worse, much worse.
As I back up I offer self-empathy to myself, connecting with my needs. This is to understand what needs of mine are not being satisfied. I ask myself, "What am I needing right now?" It is a way of quick calming. Sort of like, emotional first aid.
I reply to myself, "The needs are for respect, safety, support and consideration. Safety is my priority at that moment, for myself and him."
He hollers to me, "Where are you going? I thought you were this communications expert? Don't you want to communicate?"
I finally sigh as I identify my values not being satisfied by this highly expressive man. Finally, I feel calm enough to express myself. I say to him, "When I hear the anger in your voice I'm concerned, as I value my safety. If you would lower your voice I will be happy to continue this... conversation?"
Surprisingly to me says, " OK, I will." I walk back to him slowly as I guess he understood my need for safety. I then see his face relax.
Why Empathy Helps...
Calm happens as people's values/needs are expressed and understood during conversations. For some reason it feels good to be heard and also to understand another's needs and values. This excretes feel-good chemicals in the brain like endorphins yet without running a marathon.. It is like an emotional aphrodisiac. More important, a connection is developing that also develops trust and cooperation between two people. Peace is developing.
I ask him to continue speaking. I have immense confidence in these skills because they have worked many times before to calm angry people. In fact, I calmed an irate customer and manager at a Marriot Hotel in 45 seconds. The customer asked me if I wanted to work for him after they arrived at a solution a few minutes later. He said, "I enjoyed how you calmed us down so quickly. It was amazing to experience."
Now, at the City Council meeting I was doing this for myself, trying to keep the peace and from going to the hospital or jail. The man said," What you said to the council will hurt the homeless and I am afraid gang members may start beating the homeless up."
I am finally hearing and understanding his specific concerns. My emotions start to soften as I guess his needs are for safety toward the homeless and more concern from the public. This understanding was the benefit of offering another person empathy by keeping the conversation focused on him.
Offering Empathy to the Speaker:
I offered an empathic guess to him." Are you wanting more safety and care for the homeless?" His reply was, "Yes!" I continued. "And you would like to be understood how important this is to you?" Again he responded with another "yes!" Now I see him sigh and relax even more.
I notice his intensity is gone and his voice softened. I asked, "Is there more you would like to say for me to hear?"
"No," he said as his eyes were watering up. Seems this man was finally heard and understood for his concerns.
Now that he was calm it was my turn to be heard. I said, " I am grateful for your honesty." Would you be willing to hear from me about this situation and what you heard?"
Looking in shock from my appreciation, his mouth open, he nodded and said, "Yes."
I then expressed to him, "I stated that the homeless need to be off the streets for their safety. The way I think that can be accomplished is to take each individual and identify their needs. Then try to identify what strategies might meet their needs for emotional and physical safety. How do you feel now about what I said?"
He said, "Oh, I only heard the first part and then got intensely angry. I guess I messed up your chances of becoming a Council member." He then apologized and we both laughed. I offered another empathic guess, "Guessing that you wish you communicated your needs in a different way?"
"Yes," He quietly said, looking embarrassed.
From there the conversation was how I could bring compassionate communication to the homeless shelters and homeless. We left City hall, peacefully.
Empathy Brings Calm Quickly
This is just one example how I use empathy and my training with compassionate communication to calm an angry person. I use it many times in my day for different situations with people. Like the Marriot Hotel, I also mediate and find that using empathic listening brings two feuding people together in a few minutes. It is like translating dysfunctional communication into functional communication.. Once everyone has been heard, the strategies and reconciliation come quickly and easily. It is like magic to watch the transformation.
Isn't it astounding that empathic listening is not used in politics or taught in schools. Yes, 4 year olds use empathic listening to mediate their playground feuds. In minutes they are back to playing peacefully and having fun again, not having resentments or anger.
If these type of empathy skills could be used by more people I believe there would be no need for wars, divorces, domestic or workplace violence. Find a training for yourself if you would enjoy learning these simple yet powerful skills. By listening to another with deeper empathic listening, you are contributing a huge gift for peace, cooperation and compassion for yourself and others..