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Empathy is a quality of being present with someone, and going as deep as possible with what is most alive in the moment. One way we support this "going deep" in Nonviolent Communication is by inquiring about what need is present.

Empathy itself is silent. You can also say things out loud to help let the other know that you are in empathy with them. One way to express it in one's mind or out loud - especially for beginners - is to make an empathy guess using the four part model, which looks like this:

When you see (hear, remember, etc.) ______(observation) are you feeling ______ because you are needing ______? Would you like ______ (request)?

Sometimes the request part may seem difficult at first, yet it can lead to remarkable depth of closeness and connection because it helps everyone get more clear on strategies that can lead to everyone's needs being met.

When expressed verbally, the four parts are generally phrased in the form of guesses. By guessing, we elicit a focused response from ourselves (self-empathy) or others that reframes our consciousness toward clarifying needs. NVC is thus a process of dialog that leads to mutual giving, rather than a goal-orientation based on statements of "fact."

Some specific examples:

  • When you see the ocean waves, do you feel peaceful, because your need for spaciousness is being met? Would you like to share this moment?
  • When he says you are lazy, do you feel hurt, because you need more consideration? Would you like to find a compassionate way to let him to know you're upset?
  • When I see that I got this termination notice, I'm feeling scared, because I want to be able to eat and have a roof over my head (needs for sustenancy and shelter). Would you be willing to let me know what comes up for you when you hear this?

The intention is to connect with the other person (or oneself - self-empathy). An empathy guess is my wondering where the person is - it is put in the form of a question so the person can reflect on the feelings and needs and respond with affirmation or corrections. It's not so important whether my guess is accurate; the support comes from my intention to be present with the other person, wherever they are.

Often when people most need empathy is when they are least likely to behave in a way that stimulates other people to offer it. Such behavior might be called a "tragic" expression of a need. It might be helpful if we were able to imagine the word "Empathy" written in the air over the head of someone behaving in this way, as a reminder to offer them empathy.

Authors include: Judy in Vermont

Empathy is at the heart of Marshall's process. However it is a difficult thing describe and easy to misunderstand. Marshall's book defines empathy as:

  • "A respectful understanding of what others are experiencing"
  • "empathy occurs only when we have successfully shed all preconceived ideas and judgements"

If you want to check your understanding further, the earlier work of Carl Rogers (one of Marshall's teachers) is more explicit as illustrated by the following section from "On Becoming a Person" by Carl Rogers, 1961.

It is the most effective agent we know for altering the basic personality structure of an individual, and improving his relationships and his communications with others. If I can listen to what he can tell me, if I can understand how it seems to him, if I can see its personal meaning for him, if I can sense the emotional flavor which it has for him, then I will be releasing potent forces of change in him. If I can really understand how he hates his father, or hates the university, or hates communists -- if I can catch the flavour of his fear of insanity, or his fear of atom bombs, or of Russia -- it will be of the greatest help to him in altering those very hatreds and fears, and in establishing realistic and harmonious relationships with the very people and situations toward which he has felt hatred and fear. We know from our research that such empathic understanding -- understanding with a person, not about him -- is such an effective approach that it can bring about major changes in personality.

Some of you may be feeling that you listen well to people, and that you have never seen such results. The chances are very great indeed that your listening has not been of the type I have described. Fortunately I can suggest a little laboratory experiment which you can try to test the quality of your understanding. The next time you get into an argument with your wife, or your friend, or with a small group of friends, just stop the discussion for a moment and for an experiment, institute this rule. "Each person can speak up for himself only after he has first restated the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately, and to that speaker's satisfaction." You see what this would mean. It would simply mean that before presenting your own point of view, it would be necessary for you to really achieve the other speaker's frame of reference -- to understand his thoughts and feelings so well that you could summarise them for him. Sounds simple, doesn't it? But if you try it you will discover it is one of the most difficult things you have ever tried to do. However, once you have been able to see the other's point of view, your own comments will have to be drastically revised. You wil also find the emotion going out of the discussion, the differences being reduced, and those differences which remain being of a rational and understandable sort.

Can you imagine what this kind of an approach would mean if it were projected into larger areas? What would happen to a labour management dispute if it was conducted in such a way that labor, without necessarily agreeing, could accurately state management's point of view in a way that management could accept; and management, without approving labour's stand, could state labour's case in a way that labour agreed was accurate? It would mean that real communication was established, and one could practically guarantee that some reasonable solution would be reached.

[page 332]


Fundamental to Roger's notion of empathic understanding is the concept of congruence, - the degree to which our actual experience, our awareness of it, and our communication are aligned. This sheds further light on the empathy, and in particular how authenticity is attained. It's by being congruent that authenticity is communicated, and this is one key to empathic connection.

This helps to explain why, when we think we are "following the process" (or more commonly when we think we've gone beyond the process and are doing the real thing), others do not respond to us as though we are being "empathic". Probably we are not, no matter how strongly we feel we are.

Here's a sample from "A General Law of Interpersonal Relationships" by Rogers where he illustrates how empathic understanding develops, using a protracted example dialogue - this is one snippet...

... The more Smith is congruent in the topic about which they are communicating, the less he has to defend himself against this area, and the more able he is to listen accurately to Jones' response. Putting it in other terms, Smith has expressed what he genuinely feels. He is therefore more free to listen. The less he is presenting a facade to be defended, the more he can listen accurately to what Jones is communicating...

... he finds himself experiencing fewer barriers to communication. Hence he tends to communicate himself more as he is, more congruently. Little by little his defensiveness decreases.

[page 343]

As Rogers points out, there is an unexpected consequence of fully realised congruence. If we are truly congruent, fully aware of our experience, awareness of it and communication - then we cannot talk about external facts. That is, we can only honestly talk about our experience of the world, not how things really are, because that is really only opinion and interpretation. Compare this to Marshall's differentiation of observation and evaluation - which he uses Krishnamurti's quote to support.


Rogers also explains how the safety necessary for empathic connection develops. It is achieved through empathy itself. This from "Toward a Theory of Creativity".

Understanding empathically. It is this which provides the ultimate in psychological safety... If I say that I "accept" you, but know nothing of you, this is a shallow acceptance indeed, and you realise that it may change if I actually come to know you. But if I understand you empathically, see you and what you are feeling and doing from your point of view, enter your private world and see it as it appears to you - and still accept you - then this is safety indeed. In this climate you can permit your real self to emerge, and to express itself in varied and novel formings as it relates to the world. This is the basic fostering of creativity.

[page 358]

With Giraffe ears we benefit from this safety ourselves, hence Marshall's introductory "After today, you will never hear criticism or blame..."

Other notes from Carl Rogers

If you would like to investigate Rogers further, here are a few sections from dipping in to "On becoming a person", that give a flavour of that work.

  • Away from "oughts" [p168]
  • Away from pleasing others [p170]
  • Toward being process [p171]
  • Social implications (of using Rogers' "path of life" in national and international negotiations) [p178]
  • A Therapis's view of the Good life: The Fully Functioning Person [p183]
  • Basic Trustworthiness of Human Nature [194]
  • General Semantics - Rogers notes that his work has appeared in the Journal of the Society for General Semantics [329]
  • An internal locus of evaluation - "that the source or locus of evaluative judgement is internal...value established not by the praise or criticism of others, but by himself" [p354]
  • "... when we cease to form judgements of the other individual from our own locus of evaluation, we are fostering creativity" [p357]

Wishing to contribute to everyone's edification and delectation (I otherwise obtain no advantage, or fee :), here are ~15 definitions of empathy from the Swedish Empathy Center:


There is a practical exercise of empathy (empathy for ourselves, and for another party or parties), when we/you've been on the receiving end of "something that you didn't like hearing", on this page:


Taking us one step at a time through the process, it is suitable for NVCers of all levels of ability? :)