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Growing empathy

If we follow an individual's development of empathy, i.e. the ability to take some others perspective, we can see phases that they go through. It is difficult for the individual themselves to notice these phases as they happen slowly and over time. Sometimes it happens so slow that we might think that development does not happen at all.

The speed of development is an exciting question for some other blogpost.

As a trainer in NVC, Nonviolent Communication- where empathy and empathic listening is an important component - the understanding of how emphatic capability grows and what one can do to support this is very valuable and important.

Summary of the stages of developing empathic capabilities:

According to research by SUSANNE BENACK

  1. Unwilling to take others perspective.

  2. Not capable of taking the perspective of another.

  3. Willing to take others perspective.

  4. Capable of taking others perspective

You have surely met persons that are unwilling to take your perspective. If you are upset and have a need to be heard it is easy to give up or to start a fight with them. It can require some efforts from your side to get your needs met. But if you have the capacity and skills needed you might be able to handle the situation anyway even though it can be challenging.

You might also have had conversations with people that want to understand you but can not, that have the intention but not the capacity. Those conversations can be less charged but nevertheless you might feel lonely and unheard afterwards. Good intentions are not enough, to be able to take others perspective we also need to grow our capacity to do so.

Persons that are capable of taking other peoples perspective, often can show their understanding with words or other ways that makes us feel understood. This often feels really sweet.

How Nonviolent Communication helps us practice perspective taking

One of the fundamental things the Nonviolent Communication (NVC) model helps us with is to learn to differentiate facts from interpritations. In other words to know the difference between what we see and what we think about what we see. In order to take other peoples perspective we need to know this difference otherwise we end up willing but not capable.

To take another person's perspectives we might also need to relate to their feelings for that we also need willingness and capability. Can we separate between our own feelings and what the person in front of us might feel?

Nonviolent Communication helps us also to interpret ours and other feelings in a way that connects us to our motivation, also called our needs. For example when we feel alone, we might need community. Or when we are tired we might need rest. When we learn to interpret our feelings as a expression of our needs, we have moved ourselves from a dependent way of being to a more independent mode of being.

When we can take responsibility for our own feelings/reactions we are able to stay in conversation longer, and be part of resolving differences rather than being dependent on other peoples willingness to help us.

I have studied and thaught NVC for over 20 years and when I reflect on my years of practice I can more easily see these developmental phases in my own learning.

That helps me understand that it takes time, and also helps me understand why not everyone is intrested in learning Nonviolent Communication. Often interest in learning NVC comes online when we are willing but not able and then with practice, support and time we might grow to be willing and capable.

So for me "learning Nonviolent Communication" can mean to grow in capacity to take more perspectives and also to grow in capacity to put that into words.


Here is more inspiration in perspectivetaking.

Want to learn more how to support the development of empathy?

Read more about Walk your talk training

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