Empathy or Not? A Deeper Look

by | Mar 7, 2018 | Nonviolent Communication


I was recently re-organizing some handouts that I often use for workshops, and came across this one on the difference between empathic and non-empathic responses.

Reading it again, I was surprised to find myself arguing with my own handout, and realized that I wanted to talk about how taking an Integral Communication approach has become increasingly important to me.

When I began studying nonviolent communication, this list of empathic versus non-empathic responses was super helpful to me.

It helped me see the ways in which I often tried to contribute to someone else’s well-being by giving advice, explaining something, sharing a story or a variety of other responses, that were considered “non-empathic.”

To the degree that this helped me to get more aware of all the various choices that I had available to me, it was useful.

I could see how my habit of offering advice, for example, could be a one-up move and could have the effect of unintentionally distancing someone or blocking their inner wisdom.

I could also see how some of these communication habits often kept me in my own perspective and didn’t support me fully in receiving another person’s subjectivity.

These distinctions raised my awareness of my choices and helped me to check in with my intentions more fully.

But, it’s not really that simple, is it?

  • Sometimes shared storytelling feels deeply empathic to me and meets my needs for shared humanity and exploration.

  • Sometimes well-timed and attuned advice feels like empathy.

  • Sometimes, explanations can feel empathic to me.

So, I’ve started writing about an Integral Communication approach, which instead invites us to consider how and where all kinds of communication fit.

It takes the core distinctions and contrasts that NVC is so good at clarifying, and helps us to find more nuance in our application of these principles.

It asks us to consider whose perspective we are inhabiting while we are listening – the “I,” the “You,” the “It’s”?

It invites us to get curious about both the intention from which we are listening, and to stay attuned to the impact that we are having on others.

It invites us to see listening and empathy as existing on multiple levels – in our internal worlds, our relational worlds and our transcendent worlds.

To the degree that any one of these responses are skillfully timed, attuned to my needs, resonate with my feelings and join me in my shared humanity with you, they can each be expressions of deep empathy.

Let’s not get too distracted by “rules.”

Our quality of presence, our attunement and our intentions have a far more profound effect upon the way in which something is received relationally, than whether or not our responses fall into the official category of “empathic” or “non-empathic.”

Marshall Rosenberg summed it up by saying, “Empathy calls upon us to empty our mind and listen to others with our whole being.”

How very beautiful.

Let’s embrace simply Being-With one another.

Of joining each other.

Of embodying care and shared humanity.

Of self-acceptance and tenderness.

And, as with any practice, aim for small changes over time. Don’t get overwhelmed by all there is to learn, integrate, and embody.

Frequent small steps. That’s all you need.

Happy Practicing!


  1. Ray Hommeyer

    I really appreciate this article, because similarly, sometimes storytelling, advice, reassurance, problem-solving etc does meet my needs.
    Iv been thinking about how strategizing isn’t bad, it’s just usually not effective unless Ive named what my need is and empathized first.

    NVC is doing a really good job of making the ways of communication a conscious experience in my life. So how I respond is becoming an active choice rather than a reaction.

  2. Jayalakshmi (Jaya) Sengupta

    Dear Yvette as a certification candidate I am expected to learn the nuances of empathy and make a clear distinction between what is and what is not empathy. The argument I am guessing is not what is good/bad, but what is more timely or appropriate as you say here. That’s very helpful. Also, I realise how empathy helps us drop into self-connection and surrender anD deep healing that other modalities may not offer. Finally, I think empathy is genuinely like that first gate of deep connection. Once we tap into the need-awareness, everything we do (advice/suggest/solve problems) their energy carries an empathic connection. Is that it?


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