What We Mean When We Talk About Empathy

Eva Hamer
July 17, 2023

This is Part 2 of our series on Nonviolent Communication. To start with Part 1, read Why the Animal Freedom Movement Needs Nonviolence.

The Gist:

  • Empathy is a central aspect of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and is essential to transforming interactions and conflicts. It allows others to explore their own experiences without feeling defensive or needing to look away.
  • We can strengthen our capacity for empathy through specific practices that build a habit of making our initial response reflective instead of responsive. 
  • This habit replaces habits that are more common in our culture to respond to others’ difficulties by providing advice, analysis, or diagnosis. Cultivating empathy involves focusing on the speaker's experience and maintaining that focus throughout the interaction, rather than shifting it onto ourselves.
  • Elements of empathy in NVC include presence, understanding, feelings, and needs. These different aspects can manifest in various ways, such as silent presence in a supportive relationship, repeating back what someone said to confirm understanding, or guessing at the speaker’s feelings and needs.
  • Regular practice of empathy, such as in workshops or regular meetups with practice partners, can improve both the skill of offering empathetic support and receiving it. Such practice is especially useful in emotionally charged discussions and can lead to healthier dialogues.

This post is all about empathy. Nonviolent Communication places a big emphasis on deepening our capacity for empathy, and I believe that as animal advocates, this is relevant both to our internal relationships with other advocates and in how we engage with the public.

A large part of Pax Fauna’s work is research to find best practices in messaging to convince the public about animal freedom. Now, I had already been very invested in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) when I was starting the research, but I was still amazed about how often empathy came up as a theme in our research.

One phase of our research consisted of 1:1 interviews with ordinary Americans who eat meat. We asked open-ended questions and didn’t provide any retort, only occasional content reflections. “Is this what you mean?” Given space to explore their own ideas, our study participants were able to talk themselves through defensive reactions and objections to animal freedom. Most participants also said that they actively try not to think about animals used for food in their daily lives, but were fully willing to think about it for our benefit. Our goal here as researchers wasn’t to trick people into talking themselves out of objections to animal rights. In fact, we were trying to avoid doing that: this stage of the research was just about understanding what they currently think. Yet, just by asking these questions and providing a non-judgmental space for people to sort through their own thoughts on the topic, we watched them transform.

This is what empathy seeks to do—by accompanying others in their experiences without trying to intervene, argue, or fix, we allow them a chance to transform. When people aren’t busy defending themselves or avoiding judgment, they have more space to self-reflect and change. 

Empathy is a vehicle for transformation

Nonviolent communication is based on a radical premise: that every single thing a person does is an attempt to meet a need, and everyone’s needs matter. If we accept this premise, then we can empathize and connect even when we don’t agree with the strategy a person is using to try and meet their needs. 

Alternatively, when we dismiss people and write them off, we cut off our ability to connect with them, and thus sever a connection that could have let them change. 

Empathy First 

This section is based on an exercise I learned from Oren-Jay Sofer.

When I conduct NVC trainings, I like to talk about empathy first. That’s because the practice of empathy is probably the biggest difference we can immediately make in our conversations and conflicts to make them go better. 

If you can form a habit that your first response be a reflection—letting someone know that you get what they are saying or how they’re feeling—you can de-escalate some conflicts before they start. 

One exercise I like to do in workshops is to talk about something that bothers me, and ask for examples of things that aren’t empathy. This might sound something like the following. 

“I was petitioning the other day and someone said they eat meat and want to keep eating meat. I gave a response to him but he walked away without acknowledging it. I feel so frustrated with how little some people seem to engage.”

The non-empathy responses I get back might sound something like these. 

Taking the spotlight: “Oh my gosh, last time I was petitioning I had two people say that they don’t want to give me their address because they don’t know what I’ll do with it, and they used that as an excuse not to sign! It’s so dumb because it’s actually illegal for us to use that for anything else; don’t they know that?”

This is a response that might create connection in casual conversation, but I might have a sense that you didn’t really hear me before you started talking about yourself. If this was something I really needed support on, I’ll feel like you missed me. 

Advice: “What I like to say in those situations is, ‘Do you think animals should have to die for that?’” 

Questioning: “Are you sure he didn’t misunderstand what the petition was saying?”

Advice and questioning can also lead to me not feeling heard. In this case, I explicitly said that I did have a response to the person who wouldn’t sign the petition and I was feeling frustrated because the person wouldn’t engage with me. But even if I hadn’t shared this information, hearing advice on what my response should be misses the mark entirely. Advice and questioning can trigger me to feel defensive—I wonder if you’re assuming that I use a bad pitch when I’m petitioning. Either way, the conversation has moved away from my experience. 

Sometimes, asking for advice (what should I do?) or validation (am I being crazy here?) is a veiled way of asking for empathy. I don’t mean that people who ask for emotional support in the form of advice are being dishonest. Rather, our dominant culture doesn’t have very much language around asking for empathy, so advice language is the best we can sometimes do. 

So, when you’re asked for advice on a charged topic, I recommend considering offering a few reflections of empathy first to let the person know that you’ve heard them. If they still want advice after that, they’ll tell you. If empathy meets the need in full, they might generate their own solution (and it might be better than what you were about to suggest!). 

Analysis: “People are so defensive. They have their retort and just aren’t willing to think about it anymore.” 

Diagnosing: “Sounds like a sociopath.”

These might be connecting if it tells me that you’re getting my perspective, and they might not. Remember, when I’m talking about something I’m having an emotional reaction to, I’m really talking about myself. Talking about the people who set me off might be a miss. It also might be escalating, guiding me more towards my own judgments instead of letting me move through my feelings. 

Minimizing: “That kind of thing happens; just move on to the next person.”

Optimism: “Well, you’re always planting seeds.”

Lecture: “I think we really need to be understanding as a movement that not everyone can see things from our point of view right away. We have to be patient.”

These kinds of reactions skip empathy. You see where you’d like the person (in this case, me) to be, and you suggest that they go there. What you’re missing is the necessary step of empathy in between having a feeling and resolving that feeling. Given a little bit of empathy, people often find themselves generating their own advice, analysis, optimism, and so on. Before receiving empathy, these responses can feel terribly alienating. 

Who is the focus on?

What all of these non-empathy responses have in common is that they turn the focus on the listener instead of keeping it on the speaker. It’s as if we’ve jumped up and turned the spotlight onto ourselves in the middle of someone else’s solo. When we talk about the skill of empathy, we’re talking about practicing deep listening, which helps people know that they’ve been heard, thus deepening relationships and preventing conflict. Deep, empathetic listening means listening with a different quality than we usually do. It means speaking in a way that keeps the spotlight on the person who is sharing. The exchange might sound something like this:

“I was petitioning the other day and someone said they eat meat and want to keep eating meat. I gave him a response but he walked away without acknowledging it. I feel so frustrated with how little some people seem to engage.”

Empathy: “I hear that frustration. Would it be so nice to be given a chance at being understood?”

This kind of response, we hope, will give the speaker a sense that we’re really listening and willing to engage about their experience. So let’s break it down and figure out what it takes to respond that way.

Elements of Empathy

In NVC, giving someone empathy usually refers to guessing what feelings and needs you heard in what they said, but of course, we can feel supported even when our feelings and needs aren’t reflected back to us. 

Empathy is a mutually felt sense that you’re being understood, and there are four different ways that is often achieved. 


In the context of a supportive relationship, an attentive, silent presence alone can be enough to communicate empathy. 


This one works well in situations where low emotional vulnerability is desired, such as in a workplace or with someone you don’t know well, or when someone’s describing a complex situation and you’re able to follow it. Repeating back the content of what someone says can help them feel heard. 

When I’m giving NVC presentations and get to this point in the Elements of Empathy discussion, I like to ask how I’m doing. “Would anyone be willing to repeat back what I’ve said so far about understanding, so I know I’m making sense?”

If I’m lucky, someone will volunteer to say, “If you repeat back the content of what someone said, that can be empathy too.” In doing so, they’ll provide a perfect example of an understanding reflection. When I hear it, I know I’ve been gotten—I’m not just talking into the void. Somebody hears me! This meets my needs for contribution and competence. 

You can offer others in your life the gift of understanding, even when they don’t ask. Sometimes it can help to give a little preamble, so they know you’re not necessarily agreeing or taking credit for their idea. You can say something like, “Is it okay if I repeat back what I’m hearing so I can be sure I’m getting it?” 

Feelings and Needs

NVC considers feelings and needs the main ingredients of empathy. If I understand what you’re feeling and what needs are alive, then I’m able to empathize. Feelings and needs will be discussed in depth in Part 3, but they include things like feeling lonely because you have an unmet need for companionship, or feeling rejuvenated because your need for leisure time has been met. 

Empathy example

I love learning about and teaching NVC in a workshop setting because we can use lifelike examples. In this blog, I’ll write out what such an everyday NVC conversation could sound like. 

Note that speaker and listener are the titles used because the modality thrives on this distinction. In casual conversation, we alternate between being a speaker and listener quickly and often, but in a practice setting, we’ll stick with one role for a while to fully inhabit it. So, in this example, the speaker and listener keep their roles throughout. 

Speaker: “I’m so frustrated with these cupcake vegans. Why even be vegan if you don’t care enough to come to a protest?” 

The speaker’s use of a judgmental term, “cupcake vegan” (sometimes used to refer to vegans whose interest in veganism is limited to food and not advocacy), doesn’t stop us from being able to empathize. 

Listener: “I hear how frustrating it is that more people aren’t coming out to protests. Is that about a sense of collaboration to you?” We reflect back the feeling the speaker mentioned, “frustrated”, along with a guess at a need, “collaboration.” Let’s see if it lands. 

Speaker: “Yeah, every time I go to a vegan event it seems like a great idea—there are usually a couple dozen people who come to these dinners, but hardly ever is anyone interested in talking about activism, let alone coming out.” 

It’s unclear if our last guess landed—she’s moved on to a different aspect of the situation. Let’s come with her and make a guess about what she just shared. 

Listener: “Ugh, that sounds so disappointing, is it?” We guess a feeling and phrase it like a question. We aren’t telling her how she feels, just asking. 

Speaker: “Yeah, it’s disappointing. But honestly I don’t even care anymore. I’m just going to put my head down and do the work, and if people want to join, they can, but I’m not going to bother with the vegan group anymore.”

Notice how the speaker has moved on to talking about what she’s going to do about the situation (or not do). You might feel tempted to give advice at this point, and it might be welcome, but I suspect that continuing to give empathy will work better. Let’s try another empathy guess. 

Listener: “Are you just feeling defeated after so many tries to invite people without any interest?” Her last share was content-heavy, so after we guessed the feeling, “defeated,” we added in a little bit of her story to let her know we’re following. 

Speaker: “Well, no, I mean, we have a steady group of people coming out, and sometimes they bring friends. It just seems like, with so many vegans in this city, our protests should be huge.” 

I guess she wants to change the world, and don’t we all? What need is that? Purpose? Contribution? Those sound so small compared to what she’s talking about now. Let’s use a metaphor to try to show that we’re really getting the enormity of it. 

Listener: “Is it almost like you’re trying to start a fire, and you know you have all the elements there—you have dry fuel and sparks and air—and you just keep adding paper but the logs won’t catch?”

In workshops, we spend a bit of time practicing this skill of empathy. We take turns sharing something we’d like empathy on, and others practice the skill of staying with our feelings and needs without advice, debate, reassurance, etc. We call these empathy groups or, when in pairs, empathy buddies. This practice is easy to self-organize in small groups and pairs. 

In one of my first NVC workshop experiences in 2020, I was assigned another participant as a practice partner. She and I continue to meet weekly today. I very much recommend finding others to practice with on a regular basis, both to hone the skill of empathy and to receive empathic support yourself. 

It’s difficult to summarize the impact that a study of NVC has had on my life. I’m less stressed by conflict now, and the conflicts I have go better. I make requests (and receive yeses!) to things I never would have thought to ask for before. And, I have new tools and rituals to manage when I’m up late at night fuming about something that happened three years ago. It’s not a magic spell– it doesn’t mean that I never have to apologize, that I haven’t lost any friends in conflict, or that I always sleep well. But I’m beyond hopeful that making time to study NVC will be well worthwhile. 

In the next piece in this series, the building blocks of empathy are described in more detail: Feelings and Needs.

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