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Empathy: Meeting the Jackals

Sometimes your best attempts at empathy are responded to with one jackal after another.If you've been learning Nonviolent Communication (NVC) a while, you have learned to guess someone's feelings and needs when they are expressing pain or difficulty.This is an important part of empathy, but not the whole picture.At a basic level empathy involves a willingness to meet someone in their own reality without judgment, without agreeing or disagreeing.Sometimes this means meeting jackals.A gem reader sent in this example of guessing her daughter's feelings and getting jackal* in response.

"I had a situation with my daughter the other day where she was clearly unhappy.  She said that I only ever talked about her sister, never her, and never spent any time with her.  I was sad that she thought that was true, but wanted to engage with her and address her feelings/needs.  I guessed that she was jealous and needed some attention and empathy.  I tried, "It looks like you're angry…" and she interrupted to say she wasn't angry.  I tried, "Maybe you're frustrated…" but she cut me off again and said I was trying to tell her how she felt.  I backed up and said that I really wanted to understand what she was feeling and would like to know how she was feeling.  She said that she was upset because I never… or I always…  So I said, "Ok, you're upset…" and she said, "No! Stop telling me how I feel!'"

In this example, my guess is the daughter wants her reality acknowledged.Whether what she says is true or not, it is her experience.Meeting her in her jackals might sound something like this:

"So you're thinking I never talk about you or haven't spent time with you the way I have with your sister?"

The phrase "you're thinking" acknowledges the jackals without agreeing or disagreeing.

If the daughter reacts and says, "I am not just thinking it.It's true!"I might respond like this:

"Yea, this has been your experience of it and it's been painful, uh?"

My guess is that at this point the daughter could begin to acknowledge the emotion or might go into describing the specific instances she is reacting to.No doubt before expressing this she has tallied up a variety of examples in her mind or at least one important event.

The important points here to remember about offering empathy are this:

If you guess a feeling and the other reacts, they probably want their jackal reality acknowledged first.

Acknowledging someone's jackal doesn't mean agreeing or disagreeing.

Your ability to meet someone in their jackal will depend on your awareness and checking of your impulse to defend, apologize, or educate.

If you guess a need and encounter resistance, you might try guessing the feelings first, and vice versa.

This week, experiment with meeting someone's jackal before guessing a feeling or need.

*jackals refer to any language or thoughts that disconnect us from life.

**giraffe refers to shifting into an interest in connecting to the feelings and needs in yourself and others.

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1 Response

  1. Jul 23, 2012

    This is most helpful... I see now how acknowledging the other person's personal reality, even if it doesn't fit with my perception of reality, creates connection, and space - a space that the child/person may be feeling quite desperate for - to go forth from in a new way.

    So reading your use for the words "You're thinking..." and "allowing for what their experience has been" (painful) brings up such compassion in my heart, where before - there was analysis, and "fixing" mentality going on - which I can clearly see is not going to build connection. So grateful to have the resource of your blog for added clarity and connection.


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