Who Benefits From Empathy?

When we humanize our enemies, our resilience grows and we suffer less

Posted Sep 07, 2012

For me, for example, where I get completely lost, is whenever I interpret anyone's behavior to mean that they don't care. My entire life, as far back as I can remember, I've been profoundly affected by anything that registers in me as unkindness or lack of care. It's only recently that I've been able to recognize the nature of the effect. It's a shock to my system. Despite all I know about what human beings are sadly capable of inflicting on each other, I am still, somehow, shocked whenever I see any instance of it. My soul still refuses to believe, as it always has, that cruelty and unkindness truly happen.

It is not uncommon for me to receive several such shocks in the course a normal day. Almost anything can affect it. Sometimes it's just seeing a tattoo, and thinking about the pain a person put their body through in order to have the tattoo. I could feel this shock when seeing someone throw something out through the window of a car into public space. Or when hearing someone say "I don't care about how she feels!" I shudder when hearing someone make a joke at the expense of someone else or a group. I cringe in some movies when an audience laughs at a person designed to be made fun of because of their weight, and just thinking about what life is like for that person that would lead them to accept an acting role in which they know they will be made fun of, and why others find it funny. I feel this shock when I see, in many of the places I work with, how bosses talk about or interact with their employees. At times I feel this shock more than anywhere when I see how many parents respond to their children.

With this degree of sensitivity, I keep away from the news. I don't trust my own capacity to recover from the shocks fast enough if I am exposed to the details of what is going on in the world.

With all of that, I nonetheless continue to have some fountain of faith in human beings that, although brittle, is endlessly renewable. When I first heard from Marshall Rosenberg, the man who gave us Nonviolent Communication, the simple and radical idea that every act of violence was a tragic expression of an unmet need, and, more generally, that everything that anyone ever does is an attempt to meet a human need that I myself would have, these ideas gave form and substance to my faith in a way that has sustained me and supported me in finding more courage, power, hope and even pleasure in life than anything I ever had before.

Becoming the Other Person

Each and every time I have done this, my own understanding of what it means to be human has grown. I have some palpable, tangible grasp on what could happen to someone that would lead to acting in ways that previously were completely opaque and mysterious to me. My heart feels bigger, more resilient, more capable. My love expands, my reach, my ability to support others, to understand them in more and more circumstances.

I have also noticed that when I am in such a role-play, the moment I find my authentic access to the humanity of the person I am being is a moment of true healing for the person who asked me to do the role-play. I wrote about one such time. I called it "Finding Unexpected Humanity." I wish I could write and share with everyone in the world all of these experiences. They are some of the holiest moments I can remember. Some of the biggest pain that any of us has when we have been harmed by another is the very loss of being able to see that person's humanity. When we are unable to see someone's humanity, our own shrinks, we are diminished, made smaller. We need to protect and enclose ourselves, we trust humanity as a whole less, we take fewer risks, are less willing to open up to life. When I am able to show someone a possible way of making sense of another person's apparently inhuman acts, the relief, the restoration of possibility, are almost indescribable. Something melts that may have been encrusted for decades. For a moment, or forever, there is an opening back into the fullness of life. When another person becomes human again, our own resilience increases, and we suffer less.

Humanizing Others and Empathy

One of the early discoveries I made while learning Nonviolent Communication was that whenever someone is heard, they find more willingness to hear another. This is one of the reasons why I find the practice of empathy to be so transformative and why conflict resolution practices of all kinds converge on the irreducible role of people being heard. It's also, undoubtedly, the main reason why a certain conviction has taken root within the community of Nonviolent Communication which I have been trying to overcome: I regularly hear people say, as if it's a "rule", that we can't offer empathy before we receive it. I want to overcome this habit, because in situations of conflict someone is always going to be the one to listen first to the other if the conflict is to be resolved rather than suppressed, avoided, or escalated. I want all of us who believe in nonviolence, who learn Nonviolent Communication because we want to be agents of change in the world, to find access to our hearts sufficiently to be able to respond empathically without waiting to be heard first. It's clearly the case that in order to respond empathically in any kind of authentic way, to truly be interested in hearing what the other person has to say, we need to be able to see that person's humanity. My own experience with myself and others leads me to believe that we can do that directly, and that in the process we diminish our own suffering. Humanizing the other person is something that benefits me even before it ever translates into anything relational.

Some people can reach a level of cognitive mastery of empathy that is so high that it becomes possible to use words of empathy even without having an open heart. I know I have done it at times, and I have seen it any number of times in practice settings. Even though such apparent empathy is clearly designed to defuse the conflict, the mechanical nature of it has been known to infuriate others and escalate the conflict rather than defuse it.