Red Green Repeat Adventures of a Spec Driven Junkie

Nonviolent Communication Chapter 7

Receiving Emphatically

Whew, I am halfway through the book now. It’s taking longer than I expected. I am glad to be going through each chapter a week at a time. One week is just enough time for me to digest a chapter’s contents and also apply its lessons.

Nonviolent communication concepts appear easy to grasp, but deep down, there are nuances that are easily overlooked.

As this chapter focuses on being a listener, the quote from chapter 3 about intelligence is apt for this chapter:

Observing without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.

Communication happens two ways: to give and receive messages. This chapter focuses not only on receiving messages, but with empathy.

Improving Listening

I thought I was a good listener. I presented an article on effective listening in my technical communications course. I am probably an above average listener, but it’s been a long time since that course.

After going through this chapter, I know I can improve my listening skills a lot. Adding empathy to listening is useful to establish better communication.


Let’s start with a definition, what is empathy?

the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and
vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another
of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and
experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the
capacity for this


Or simply: Respectfully understanding of what others are experiencing.

This understanding comes from being present with one’s heart. As we go through the chapter, it is more than just standing there and nodding, it is an active state.

Intellectual Listening

When I used to listen, I would listen for ways to help the speaker out. Ways to help would range from nodding to finishing their sentences.

Even if I was silent and nodding, I would be thinking: “What does this person want?”

Even with good intentions, this kind of listening behavior is intellectual. It is a behavior that blocks receiving emphatically.

I have done all of these intellectual behaviors when listening.

Behavior Typical Message
advising “Did you try this?”
one-upping “That’s nothing, I had this experience…”
educating “This is a learning experience”
consoling “It’s not your fault, you gave it your best effort”
story-telling “That reminds me of a time…”
shutting down “Awww… poor baby”
sympathizing “Oh, you poor thing”
interrogating “Why did you do that?”
correcting “That’s not the situation”
explaining “I was going to reach out but…”

Ultimately, these behaviors are ways to receive a message when using one’s head. The head is good at blocking empathy by rationalizing and analyzing.

How to Receive with Empathy?

In nonviolent communication. to receive messages emphatically is to listen for:

  • observations
  • feelings
  • needs
  • requests

Yes, to receive emphatically, look for the same things one is trying to express using nonviolent communication.

Focus on the speaker’s needs, not what they say they are thinking about. As tempting it is to just focus on the part of the speakers’ message after: “I am thinking…”, it takes more energy to really look for the speakers’ needs in their message.

For example:

“I think you need a haircut”

Typical ways to respond:

  • “No I don’t need a haircut, my hair is perfectly fine.” OR
  • “I do need a haircut.”

These responses focus on the part of the sentence after “I think”, which is: “you need a haircut.” Positive or negative, the responses focus on this in an intellectual manner.

Ways to react with more empathy:

  • “Do you mean my appearance does not appeal to you anymore?” OR
  • “Are you worried I won’t look my best for the upcoming meeting?”

These responses are with empathy and focuses on the needs of the speaker even though the message is towards the listener.

Being Present for the Listener

Listening with empathy demonstrates to speaker that one is present for them.

When listening with intellect, it is too easy to give the speaker impression that they are an annoyance. In general, all a speaker wants is to be heard:

  • A: “You don’t listen to me.”
  • B: “Of course I listen to you. What is wrong?”
  • A: “Nothing is wrong, I just want you to listen.”
  • B: “I’m here listening.”
  • A: “That’s not what I mean.”

Responding in a more present manner:

  • A: “You don’t listen to me.”
  • B: “I sense you are annoyed at me working so much lately.”
  • A: “Yeah, all you do is work and sleep. Whenever we spend time with each other, we just watch TV or you are looking at your phone every minute.”
  • B: “That is true, we haven’t spent any time with just each other. How about we set aside some time each day for just us. No screens, no distractions. Just the two of us.”
  • A: “I would like that. I just want to be together.”

Being present just doesn’t mean to be there physically, but to be there with every part of us: body, mind, and spirit.

Reflecting Back

The tool introduced last chapter: reflecting back, ensures a listener understood a request.

As a listener, reflecting back. does two things:

  • confirms own understanding of speaker’s needs
  • give chance to understand speaker at a deeper level

When reflecting back, focus on the speaker’s:

  • observation
  • feelings and needs generating the feelings
  • request

When reflecting, include own observations in reflection. The requires extra effort but including an observations is valuable as this demonstrates to the speaker presence and understanding.

Strong Messages

When there are strong emotional messages from the speaker, reflect those message back as it is a leading indicator of the main desire from the speaker.

This may be one way to handle strong messages:

  • A: “Augh, my boss is the worst. I can’t stand him.”
  • B: “OK, what did he do this time?”
  • A: “He hired someone else to do the job I wanted.”
  • B: “That’s horrible, he can’t do that.”
  • A: “He’s so disrespectful.”
  • B: “Yeah, let’s start finding a new job.”
  • A: “No, I still like my job. I just want you to listen.”

This result has the listener focused on the wrong a part of the message from the speaker.

Reflecting back strong messages with empathy:

  • A: “Augh, my boss is the worst. I can’t stand him.”
  • B: “I see frustration in you. Did something happen to you at work?”
  • A: “Yes, my boss hired someone for the job I wanted.”
  • B: “That is frustrating, I know how long you have wanted that position.”
  • A: “Yes, this person isn’t even as qualified.”
  • B: “You have every right to feel this way. Do you want some time alone?”
  • A: “I just want a quiet night a home. Can you take care of dinner?”
  • B: “Of course. Let me know if you need anything.”

This puts the speaker’s needs first and the listener allows time for the speaker to collect their thoughts.

How much?

It is easy to overwhelm a speaker by continuously focusing on their needs and feelings. When to slow down and relax? One will know with practice, but in general:

  • when speaker shows a release of tension
  • when words come to a halt

Look into ones own heart to see how communication is connecting and moving along with the other party.

Need Empathy to Give Empathy

This chapter has spoken about empathy as this arbitrary concept that is endless. In reality, empathy takes a lot of energy and heart. Being in a tired state, it is easy to just react intellectually.

So, recharge one’s own empathy reserves:

  • spend down time alone to recharge
  • get some empathy for yourself, have a heart to heart

This down time is important not only oneself, but for all the relationships around.


This chapter marks a turning point in nonviolent communication. Going from expressing oneself to actively receiving from others. Communication happens in two directions so receiving is as important as expressing.

There’s a focus on empathy in nonviolent communication. After seeing all the intellectual behaviors that can happen with listening, I see I have a lot to improve on.

With empathy, we can communicate effectively and connect on a deeper level than with any intellectual techniques.