Exercise: Shifting Toward Empathy

I found this exercise through the New York Center for Nonviolent Communication, created by the organization’s founder Thom Bond. The purpose of this exercise is to get us into the habit of shifting to a mental place of empathy when we’re in a conflict.

The exercise page is not very well-designed, but the exercise is fairly simple. I just did this exercise for the first time and will share my results.

Here’s my summary of how to do it (since that page is a bit hard to read):

1. On a blank page, write down a quote of something someone said to you that doesn’t enrich your life (that you have a conflict around). Doesn’t necessarily have to be a quote, I think, but that’s what the original exercise calls for. Any factual observation would probably work. For the first time doing this exercise, it’s usually better to go with a less traumatic event.

2. Below that, draw two large T charts. Write “F” or “Feeling(s)” over the left side and “N” or “Need(s)” over the right side.

3. With the first “T,” write your feeling(s) and need(s) connected to the quote/observation.

4. With the second “T,” writing the other person’s feeling(s) and (needs) connected to the same.

5. Observe whether you shifted a more empathetic place. About 20% have a neutral or negative experience with the first time they do this exercise.

My Experience

First of all, I think this is a really cool and useful exercise, which is why I decided to do it despite being lazy about this kind of prescribed exercise. And why I decided to share it despite having only done the exercise once. I also think it would be cool to do in a workshop.

I think this is something that I really need to work on, because once I get angry, I usually have a really hard time shifting back to a place of calm and empathy. It usually seems much easier to follow anger to its end and build up a grudge and resentment. This might be because the main reason I get angry at people is as a reaction to them getting angry at me, judging me, blaming me, or pressuring me…. and therefore, the other person is already definitely not coming from a place of empathy either. When neither person is in a place of empathy, then we’re really in a pickle.

Since I don’t work with paper much these days, I used Microsoft One Note for this instead of actual paper. This worked well.

I chose a quote from a sexual relationship that I’m no longer in, with someone I am on good terms with. This was a low-hanging fruit for me, as I don’t have a strong feelings about that particular conflict at this point in time. I chose feelings that I experienced at the time of the conflict. We eventually worked through some of these feelings and needs, but mostly by discussing other conflicts than this one. So this conflict was never completely resolved.

I ended up listing quite a lot of feelings and needs, referring to the lists of them in my NVC book. The list of feelings for the other person was almost as long. The only list that wasn’t long was the list of six needs for my former partner. I think I had a ton of unmet needs at the point of that conflict, which is why I listed so many. I listed less for the other person mainly because I think he had less unmet needs, but also because I had to guess for most of his. I only recall one need that he explicitly mentioned.

I ended up with a kind of neutral experience from this exercise. Mostly right now I am feeling overwhelmed from having done it. I think this is because I listed too many feelings and needs, although I also highlighted the ones that were prominent. Next time I do this exercise, I’m going to try to limit the list to around 3-5 each. Or maybe only one. The original exercise only calls for one, actually.

I think I’m also feeling neutral about it because this conflict is mostly in the past for me, since I rarely interact with this person anymore, and it happened more than 6 months ago, and some of these issues were resolved by other means.

Looking Forward

I want to keep doing this exercise and see how much it helps me. If I have interesting experiences, I will probably share them here.

As part of my Chinese New Year’s Resolution, I am going to commit to doing this exercise at least once a month for the Year of the Sheep, or until I reach the point where I feel like this exercise is not worth the time and effort.

I also will probably buy the NVC facilitator’s book to get more exercises like this.

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