The Greek root of empathy is en pathos, which means “in feeling.” Empathy is at the foundation of Nonviolent Communication and although not explicitly stated, it is also at the root of mindfulness meditation. While neuroscientists and psychologists are still learning about how empathy works and why, what we do know is that it has tremendous powers to calm, connect and heal, between people and between parts of ourselves.

In the practice of mindfulness of needs, there are two forms of empathy: Quiet empathy where we listen with our whole body without expressing any words, and active empathy where we try to guess the feelings and needs of the speaker.

In quiet empathy, we offer still presence that is attuned to the speaker’s experience. We hold space for the person. We set aside judgment, story or any attempt to change or help the person. We are just there as fully as possible.

In active listening, we reflect back what we are hearing either with an exact mirroring of what was said or a summary. As we advance in the language of feelings and needs, we can start to reflect the emotions and needs we are hearing, eventually zeroing in the needs.

When we listen empathically, we not only want to hear what is being said intellectually, we want to feel what the person is feeling and experience what the person is experiencing. To listen in this way, we need to empty our mind and listen with our whole being. We must shed all ideas and judgments about the person and listen with what Zen Master Suzuki Roshi would call, “a beginner’s mind.”

The goal of empathic listening is not to change the person or give them advice or reassure them. The goal is to give them a true sense of being heard and seen. It’s to create as much safety as possible for that person to be as vulnerable as possible so they can say whatever they feel they need to say.

Marshall Rosenberg says that empathy “is a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing.”  Karla McLaren defines empathy as, “a social and emotional skill that helps us feel and understand the emotions, circumstances, intentions, thoughts and needs of others, such that we can offer sensitive, perceptive, and appropriate communication and support. “

Benefits of empathy

Empathy might very well be the most emotionally healing quality nature has yet to evolve. Dr Brene Brown says, “If we’re going to find our way back to each other, we have to understand and know empathy, because empathy’s the antidote to shame.” Assuming this is true, imagine the self care at our finger tips.

Empathy is both a need and a strategy to meet needs. As a strategy, it can meet several other needs, such as To be Seen, heard, known and understood. It can also bring a sense of mattering to the person receiving the empathy. Donald Rothberg says that one form of empathy, “is to tune in to what matters for that person.” When we listen for what matters, rather than preparing for what we are going to say, the other person feels a sense that they have value to the listener. That their lives and their interests matter. Sometimes this is all a person needs.

Rothberg breaks down the forms of empathy into 3 types:

  1. Attuning into what another is feeling, their emotions;
  2. Attuning into their perceptions, their thinking, their point of view;
  3. Resonating with how the other feels–tuning in somatically to what another is experiencing. This comes from our mirror neurons.

Author Jeremy Rifkin in his book The Empathic Civilization says the movement towards empathy on a wide scale is exactly what is needed for the shift of consciousness to deal with some of our major issues.