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There is no "I" in empathy. That is sympathy.

Updated: Sep 4, 2022

The deeper I have journeyed into my Non-Violent Communication training, the more I understand this differentiation between empathy and sympathy. Many of us consider ourselves empathetic people, thinking of empathy as an adjective to describe a general personality trait (or evaluation of ourselves) rather than a verb where empathy is something we embody in action.

What is empathy?

It is placing full attention on YOU as a unique person and what is alive in YOU right now. From my experience, this tremendous energy and feeling of aliveness can be generated when empathy is done in an NVC style. I think partially because we so rarely receive empathy in this way. I also want to acknowledge that giving NVC-style empathy may be challenging and awkward at first, and it will hopefully become more natural with more awareness and practice.

"I'm not telling you it will be easy. I'm telling you it will be worth it." -unknown

NVC Empathy Phrase Examples:

"Are you feeling cranky because you're needing some rest?"

"It sounds like you feel sad and want more connection with others. Is that what I'm


NVC Empathy Includes:

Willingly giving your entire presence at this moment.
  • Check-in with yourself. Are you able to empty your mind and listen with your whole being at this moment? If so, are you willing?

  • Is making the connection your #1 priority?

Listening and responding without preconceptions, judgments, or diagnosing.

  • Are you intellectually analyzing them or their situation?

  • Before you verbally respond, run your words through a filter and check for an analysis of their situation.

  • Examples of an analytical response: "It sounds like you are feeling lonely, and that is normal given your situation." or "You know, you have this pattern in many of your relationships."

Focus entirely on the one expressing until they are complete.
  • This may be challenging because it requires us to hold space for the other person for as long as they need it without moving the focus back to ourselves or moving onto strategies to "fix the problem."

  • When the other person seems to be slowing down in their expressions, you may want to ask, "Is there anything more you would like to share about this?"

  • Once the person feels complete in their expression, you may move towards expressing your feelings and needs or ask if they are open to exploring some strategies together.

"Being listened to and heard is one of the greatest desires of the human heart. And those who learn to listen are the most loved and respected." -Richard Carlson

Focus on the present moment.
  • Even when someone is talking about a past or future event, try to help them bring that into the present moment. Why? Because there is no power to change things that have already occurred or haven't yet occurred. The only power is in this moment, right now.

  • Example:

  • Your friend is talking about how sad and depressed they were when they broke up with their mate last year.

  • You may consider responding with, "It sounds like when you think about that breakup, you still feel a lot of sadness and want some clarity around what occurred. Do I understand this right?"

  • The phrasing that brought this into the present moment was, "when you think about that breakup, you are still feeling a lot of sadness".....this is describing what is happening right now. ."

  • In contrast, this would be a response reflecting the past, "It sounds like you were really sad about the breakup last year, and you didn't understand why you two broke up."

Empathy requires emptying the mind and listening with your whole being.

So then, what is sympathy?

Sympathy is focusing on your response to someone else's pain. Sympathy focuses on "I" instead of "you." We probably say sympathetic phrases with good intentions. But maybe we aren't comfortable with that level of emotion, or we think this would be comforting to the other person. Or maybe, we simply don't know what to say, so we resort to one of these memorized phrases.

Sympathy Phrase Examples:

"I'm so sorry for your loss."

"I feel your pain. I've been there."

"I'm sad to hear how much pain you are in."

Sympathy Includes:

  • Taking the focus away from what is alive in the other person and instead focusing on your pain as a result of hearing their pain.

  • It may come across as dismissive of the other person's feelings.

  • Acknowledging intellectual understanding of the pain.

Is sympathy wrong to give?

No, sympathy may be helpful in certain situations given our cultural norms and is usually most beneficial if the person received empathy first. Also, empathy requires being willing and able to give our full presence to another person, and sometimes that isn't possible at that moment. Maybe we aren't in a place ourselves to be present, or maybe we don't want that level of connection with the other person at that moment. So this may also be a time you would use a sympathetic response.

How to give an NVC-style empathetic response:

Listen for the speaker's feelings and needs and give a guess during a pause in their speaking. This does require having a solid vocabulary for feelings and needs. Here is a list of feelings and a list of needs to refer to as you practice making empathetic guesses. Remember to make it a question or guess that reveals your understanding and allows the speaker to make corrections. Don't tell or assume.

Feeling: are you feeling...

Need: because you need/want/yearn for...?


"Are you feeling bored at work and wanting more of a challenge?"

"Are you feeling cautious in this new relationship because you want to maintain your independence?

"Are you feeling disturbed by the situation and wanting more equality in our world?"

"Are you feeling confused and wanting some clarity?"

When is empathy "complete"?

Until a person feels fully heard and understood and has explored their feelings and needs as much as possible, moving toward solutions/strategies will likely be ineffective. How will you know someone is "complete"? Usually, when someone feels fully expressed, they will start having less and less to say. You may want to ask, "Is there anything else you'd like me to know about this?"

First empathy, then strategies.

The reason it is crucial to continue empathetic reflections until they are complete before exploring solutions/strategies:

  • The solution/strategy may be based on incomplete information and lack of understanding of feelings and needs and therefore won't meet the real needs.

  • People want to feel understood and cared about.

  • If we don't use empathy when needed or move through it too quickly, there is an inadequate connection to create willingness for all needs to be met.

  • The person may think we don't care enough and can't wait to fix the problem and be free of them.

  • If we don't convey our genuine interest in their feelings and needs, they will unlikely be open to strategies.

I'd love to hear your thoughts! Please share below in the comments!


Erika Baum

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