Empathy circles: Listening from the heart

Photo Courtesy of Cathy Holt

About ten or so people — mostly strangers — gathered at Earthfare Friday evening Nov. 15 to practice what Cathy Holt, group leader and author of HeartSpeak: Listening and Speaking from the Heart, calls a “scarce commodity.” They were there to give and receive empathy.

Cathy Holt has been leading practice groups for HeartSpeak (non-violent communication) in private groups and schools for years, and has recently published a mini-booklet of the same name. Holt says that empathy can be defined as, “essentially being able to reflect back the feelings and the needs that you are guessing the other person might have.” Furthermore, the “guess” as to what the other person is feeling doesn’t have to be correct for the empathy to work.

It sounds simple enough. But when a friend or family member shares bad — or even good — news, Holt says that empathy isn’t always the natural response. More often than not, people will instead respond by sharing advice, commiserating or relating the situation to their own experience. As the attendees at the empathy circle at Earthfare discovered, responding to others with empathy, by utilizing the sentence structure: “Are you feeling (blank) because your need for (blank) isn’t being met?” was much more difficult than a simple, “I’m sorry, that really stinks.”

“What empathy is not,” says Holt, “Is it’s not offering advice or how to fix the problem, or in any way stealing the limelight, like telling your own story or giving criticism. Even saying, ‘I know exactly how you feel’ isn’t really giving empathy because you’re not making any effort to really guess. Empathy is going below the story to look for what the feelings and the needs that are.”

Attendees were asked to participate in activities that required them to share their own stories — both positive and negative — and receive empathetic responses from the group. The listeners took guesses at the person’s feelings and needs, presenting their guesses in the form of a question. For example, if a person shared that he or she recently lost their job, the empathy-giver might respond by saying, “I wonder if you are feeling lost or anxious because your need for a sense of purpose and stability aren’t being met. Is that right?” The guesses weren’t always on-point, but Holt says the act of trying to connect is what is important. Many in the group said that both giving and receiving empathy was deeply satisfying.

“I think that [empathy] is kind of a scarce commodity. I don’t see a lot of people realizing how valuable that is. Even in myself, I find that it’s so automatic to try to go to solving a problem … That’s not really being present with the other person on a feeling-level.”

Learn more about Cathy Holt and her recent publication at heartspeakpeace.com.

About Lea McLellan
Lea McLellan is a freelance writer who likes to write stories about music, art, food, wellness and interesting locals doing interesting things.

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