We’ve all experienced those stressful situations where someone comes at us with both barrels blazing. Their aggressive words are upsetting—maybe even scary! Nonviolent communication is one of the best techniques I’ve seen to handle these potential conflicts.

In my last post, I introduced you to the concept of nonviolent communication based on Marshall Rosenberg’s book by the same name. Specifically, we looked at how to convey our observations, feelings, needs, and requests without making the listener defensive. It turns out, this method greatly improves our chances of getting our needs met.

Communication involves, of course, both speaking and listening. It shouldn’t surprise us that nonviolent communication has both of these parts covered. This post will focus on the second half—listening with empathy.

The great thing about nonviolent communication is that it does not require others to know the system or speak the language. We can apply our skills to help them determine those four components: observations, feelings, needs, and requests.

As a result, the speaker is more likely to feel heard and cared for. In turn, that will reduce their aggressiveness and make it less likely the dialogue will turn into an argument. All this is within our control.

The power of empathy

Rosenberg defined empathy as “the ability to see the world from another person’s perspective and to understand their feelings and needs.” When we listen with empathy, we connect with the people around us on a deeper level. This builds strong relationships and creates a more peaceful world for ourselves and others.

Focusing on hearing someone’s feelings and needs rather than taking what they are saying personally is so important. Behind intimidating messages are merely people—perhaps a person full of despair—appealing to us to meet their needs. Try to look past their language and behavior and see their humanness. A difficult message can become an opportunity to enrich someone’s life—and your own at the same time.

What we do instead of expressing empathy

I’ll be the first to admit that listening with empathy takes effort, and initially, feels foreign. Often, we give reassurance, offer advice, or explain our own position instead. Listening with empathy requires us to focus only on the other person’s message and give up our desire to fix them.

There are several ways we might fail to be present and empathetic with others. Here are some examples of responding without conveying empathy:

·       Advising: “I think you should…” or “How come you didn’t…?”

·       One upping: “That’s nothing. Wait till you hear what happened to me.”

·       Educating: “What you should learn from this is…”

·       Consoling: “It wasn’t your fault. You did the best you could.”

·       Storytelling: “That reminds me of the time…”

·       Shutting down: “Cheer up. Don’t feel so bad.” Then we change the subject.

·       Sympathizing: “Oh, poor thing!”

·       Interrogating: “When did this begin?”

·       Explaining: “I would have called but…”

·       Correcting: “That’s not how it happened.”

Just getting an intellectual understanding of their problem does not convey empathy. Let’s say your friend tells you about their incredibly bad day. They made a mistake at work and their boss yelled at them.

Saying, “So you made a mistake and the boss yelled at you” is not going to communicate compassion. Instead, relate to their emotions first: “I’m sorry. That sounds awful. I would feel the same way if I had your day.”

No empathy in judgment

A major empathy blocker is judging the other person. Remain open-minded and empty your mind of preconceived notions about them or what they should do. Avoid criticizing them for their views or blaming them for their problems.

If you’re thinking your friend is an idiot and that was a bonehead mistake, your attitude will seep into your reaction. See people as imperfect yet highly valuable gifts in your world. That point of view helps us shape a much more understanding response.

The process of listening with empathy

To tap into the power of listening with empathy and to build those strong relationships, here are some necessary components.

Focus on the speaker

Listening with empathy starts by focusing on the other person’s feelings and needs:

·       Be present and attentive—give them your full attention. Avoid distractions, such as checking your phone or thinking about what you’re going to say next.

·       Listen not just to their words, but also to their tone of voice and observe their body language. What message is coming from their non-verbal communication?

·       Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to understand their perspective. What emotions are they likely feeling? If you were them, what might you need?

Reflect back

Next, reflect back what they said by paraphrasing it in your own words. This shows the speaker you are paying attention and reassures them you are trying to understand them. If you get it wrong, it’s an opportunity for them to clarify what they said.

This technique gives the other person a chance to reflect on their words. Sometimes when they hear their statements back, they’ll realize they were too strong or simply inaccurate. “You never help me” may get scaled back to, “You don’t help me enough.”

It also allows them an opportunity to explore and express deeper levels of themselves. Sometimes, their initial message is the tip of an iceberg. After feeling heard, they may follow it with other unexpressed but related and more powerful feelings.

Let’s say we reflect back to the other person, “So what I’m hearing you say is you don’t feel that I help you enough. Did I understand that correctly?”

“Right,” they reply. “I feel so overwhelmed lately. Between taking care of my mother and the extra demands at work, it’s crushing me.” Notice how listening helped the speaker identify another emotion (overwhelmed) and other sources of stress (caretaking and work).

Often, we can tell we’ve adequately empathized with another person when they show a sense of relief. The person may simply stop talking once they’ve exhausted their feelings. If you’re not sure, ask: “Is there more that you want to say?”

Paraphrasing may seem like a waste of time, but it actually saves time. We’re likely to resolve a conflict more quickly when we paraphrase and make sure that we have understood the issue. Plus, that resolution will feel more satisfactory when both of you feel heard.

Ask questions

To better understand what someone is saying, ask questions. Focus on uncovering the components of nonviolent communication: observations, feelings, needs, and requests. Here are some examples:

1.     Observations: “Are you reacting to how many evenings I was gone last week?”

2.     Feelings: “Are you feeling hurt because I wasn’t here?”

3.     Needs: “Do you need more time and attention during the week?”

4.     Request: “Are you wanting me to change my schedule so I spend more time with you?”

Open-ended questions can also help you understand the other person’s perspective and needs. These inquiries encourage the other person to share more about their experience rather than just giving a yes or no answer:

·       “Why do you feel that way?”

·       “What do you need to feel better or differently?”

·       “What would you like me to do?”

For more examples and to practice listening with empathy versus not listening with empathy, follow this link.

Barriers to listening with empathy

Listening with empathy is not something that comes naturally to us. Few of us have been trained to do it. In fact, most of us learned counter-productive ways of listening from our families or others. Here are a few obstacles that prevent us from performing this skill well.

Lacking empathy for yourself

One hurdle is that we need to experience empathy ourselves to offer it to others. We’ll be unable to give what we don’t have in the first place. Feeling good about ourselves, maintaining a healthy self-esteem, and knowing our value positions us for the kind of deep listening we’re talking about here.

A good way to check how much compassion you have for yourself is to ask how the voice in your mind talks to you. If you think, “you dummy” when you make a mistake or “you’re a loser” when you fail, you’re not showing empathy to yourself. A healthier, more compassionate narrative would be, “Everyone makes mistakes. Failing is part of the process of getting better.”

If you find yourself low on empathy, try stopping to breathe to put yourself in a more centered state of mind. Maybe you’ll want to take a time-out to give yourself extra time to regain your perspective. You can state your feelings and needs for empathy to the other person. If you frequently struggle to be compassionate, you may need to address any identity issues that are blocking your capacity for empathy.

Taking criticism personally

Taking messages personally, especially those delivered in harsh or unkind ways, is so easy to do. But perceiving their words as something personal will get in the way of us listening with empathy.

Here’s a way to think about it that might make a difference. If your partner is upset with you, you have two choices on what you focus on. You can give your attention to the things they are saying (or implying) about you. Or you can concentrate on the fact that they are upset. The first will lead to defensiveness; the second will allow you to show empathy.

Listening to rejection

One especially difficult situation is when we’ve made a request and the other person says no. Our tendency is to read their “no” as rejection and take it personally. Instead, try to empathize with them. What is preventing them from saying yes?

Let’s say you asked your partner to go with you to visit your family. Your partner says no. By taking their perspective, you might anticipate why they declined your invitation.

Maybe they are feeling a lot of pressure to get their work or personal chores done and could use the extra time to catch up. Perhaps they feel unwelcome or judged by your family and being with them feels uncomfortable. It could be they have other plans or were looking forward to recharging with some alone time. None of these are about you.

Be careful not to assume what their reasons are. We often presume the worst: “My partner is not going because they’re a selfish narcissist.” If you’re not sure, you might ask them what’s stopping them from saying yes. Use the situation to listen and understand something deeper about the person.

In both of these conditions, feeling good about ourselves makes a huge difference in our ability to not take things personally. Otherwise, we’ll have a big button pressed and we’ll likely react before we have a chance choose how to think about their words.

Too many words

Another challenging application is when you are in a conversation with someone who rambles on and on. Try turning their words into possible feelings and needs. Interrupt gently by expressing your desire for more connection with them. Then, request information that would help you establish that connection—ask them about their feelings or needs associated with their story.

Say you meet up with a friend who’s repeating the story about the person who stood them up for a first date. Your friend is relaying every detail of their experience for the fifteenth time. Using your understanding of listening with empathy, you note they are not saying much about their emotions or needs.

You might interrupt by saying, “So, it sounds like you felt hurt and rejected when this person no-showed. Are you wishing you were treated more fairly?” Your friend might appreciate that you’ve helped them identify their emotions and needs. This act could help the conversation move on to a different topic.

Too few words

Still another use for listening with empathy is when a person remains silent or says very few words. Empathize with their silence by looking for the feeling and needs behind it. You might make an educated guess as to what those feelings and needs are. Then, be sure to ask them.

When my son was a boy, he’d sometimes look upset but didn’t seem to want to talk about what was troubling him. Open-ended questions like, “How are you doing?” were met with one-word answers, like “fine.” Still, his body language revealed that all was not fine with him.

I learned that guessing at what was disturbing him, what emotion he was experiencing, and what need was being unfulfilled helped him identify those himself. “Are you feeling hurt because we watched the movie your sister wanted to see instead of the one you wanted?”

Even if I guessed wrong, it was easier for him to correct my guess than to try to put his feelings into words. “No, I didn’t care about what movie we watched. I was just hoping my friend could go with us.”

Fear after vulnerability

A version of this situation is when we’ve been vulnerable and need to know how others are reacting to our words. It’s easy to project our worst fears onto their lack of response. We imagine their judgment—that they are thinking badly of us.

Suppose you tell your partner that things are not going well at work, and you’re concerned you may lose your job. Your partner says nothing, or perhaps only gives you a few word reaction: “That would stink.” Their limited communication leaves you feeling uneasy.

Rather than focus on yourself, get curious about what the other person is experiencing. Start by sharing your observations, emotions, and needs. Then, ask them about theirs.

“I noticed you didn’t say much when I told you about my job situation. I’m worried that you are thinking badly of me for being in this position. I would like to know how this information is impacting you. Would you be willing to share your thoughts and feelings with me?”

If that doesn’t bring an answer, you can make some guesses: “Are you quiet because you are worried about our finances?” Again, even a wrong guess will encourage them to share by correcting you.


The second part of nonviolent communication—listening with empathy—helps us handle other’s aggressive words and ward off potential conflicts. By developing our skills with this technique, we can avoid our own defensiveness and forge deeper connections with the people in our lives. None of this requires them to know the system. We can accomplish all this on our own.