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Empathy When Things are Fine

Guessing someone's feelings and needs is most obviously helpful when there is difficulty or disconnect. Engaging in empathy in these situations is only the beginning of a richness of connection you can create.

A friend of mine recently returned from a week long visit with his family. He has been learning NVC and recently focusing on empathy. I asked how it went offering empathy to his family. He responded saying that things went fine and he didn't need to offer empathy. However, he did mention that conversations were superficial and he missed a depth of connection with his family.

Guessing another's feelings and needs can add depth and meaning "when things are fine". In some ways this kind of empathy can require a bit more subtlety and skill. Let's look at a few examples.

Example 1

Your 15 year old nephew says: I like to hang out and listen to my ipod.

You: Does that kind of give you a break from everything? (need for rest)

Nephew: I don't know. I just like it.

You: Yea, it's just fun for ya. (need for play)

Nephew: Yea, I put new songs on it every day. Check this one out.

Example 2

Grandmother: You know when I worked at the library I was recognized for excellence by the mayor.

You (interrupting): Good to get acknowledgment?

Grandmother: Yes. The mayor's name was. . (she continues the story in the way she has before.) … the town hall was full when I got my award.

You (interrupting): Everybody could witness the work you did, huh? (need for being seen)

Example 3

Uncle: I tell you what that governor is doing the right thing.

You: You appreciate her support of public schools? (need for community and support)

Uncle: Well, it's just the most important thing. Why if we don't educate kids, we will have a bunch of hoodlums running around like we do now.

You: Yea, helping kids and keeping the community safe? (need for contribution and safety)

Uncle: Well, it's the only thing to do.

You: The foundation for a lot of things, huh?  (need for security)

Uncle:  Yeah, we could have used more help when I was a teenager.  I was crazy and always getting into trouble.

You:  Uh, huh, you could have used more support.  What was it like for you as a teenager?  (When your uncle shares personally your genuine curiosity arises and you ask an open ended question.  Empathy has helped your Uncle feel safe enough to share something personal).

In these examples, you might notice that I don't guess the feeling. Guessing a feeling can create more vulnerability than a person is ready for in a "things are fine" kind of conversation. I am listening for the needs underneath each expression and giving them back in an even open tone using as few words as possible. Tone and a minimum of words together create an invitation to the speaker to go deeper.

Using more than six or seven words and a tone infused with emotion takes the focus away from the speaker and puts it back on you. When this happens it's easy for the speaker to interpret that you are trying to "psychoanalyze" them or simply that you aren't listening.

Bringing forth a humbleness and an attitude of curiosity, while at the same time a strength in your intention and commitment to create more aliveness and authenticity in any interaction, can add depth and meaning when things are fine.


This week look for an opportunity bring new life into a relationship that is okay, but not particularly rewarding for you.  Listen for even a small celebration from the other person and offer an empathy guess.  You could also engage in self-empathy when things are going well.  At the end of a good day sit down with the needs list* and identify the needs that were met for you that day and how you met them.

*You can find a needs list here:

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2 Responses

  1. Oct 17, 2013

    Again, perfect timing, thank you. Spending more time with my elderly mother where everything is always 'fine' and no conversation is possible, I can see that by identifying some needs I might glean a little curiosity and connection. I have tried to identify some feelings in the past, and I appreciate the clarity you have provided by explaining this would create more vulnerability. (seems obvious to me now!) I confess I must have been guilty of appearing to psychoanalyse or fix too - I have used too many words to try and make a connection - my intention was to have conversation, but I can see now that it is connection I am seeking. Many thanks Shakti Sue

  2. Oct 21, 2013

    Hi Shakti Sue,

    So glad this lands for you. I find this practice invaluable in creating connection with my own mom. I would love to hear back about how your practice with your mom goes as you guess needs.

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