Empathy Exercise

October 26, 2011
Two pairs of hands clasped together.

While empathy is one of the cornerstones of the Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® program, it can be difficult to put into practice. Understanding and appreciating what someone is going through, projecting ourselves into the state of mind of another is not always easy, as we may not be familiar with an experience someone is going through or we might not know the person very well. So here are some techniques to help make empathy part of your everyday routine.

Personal space (Proxemics) is an easy one for me. I am most comfortable with a generous amount of real estate between myself and the person I’m interacting with. So I can GET personal space by GIVING as much as I need to the other person. On the surface, this may not seem empathic because I’m focusing on my selfish need for space. But the end result is enough space for BOTH of us. Besides, I find it even more difficult to display empathy when someone is so close that my anxiety kicks in. As a general rule, I always err on the side of caution when deciding how close to get to someone. I’ll stay further away from them than I feel is necessary. If they want more closeness, they’ll either indicate that or move closer. But if I start out getting too close from the get-go, the damage is already done for both of us. This concept applies whether we’re talking about physical space, personal questions, or belongings. I won’t sit at your desk and monkey around with whatever I find there because I wouldn’t like it if you did that to me.

Body language (Kinesics) is another area that demands an empathic approach. Because we don’t see ourselves as others see us, I advise people to build a “virtual mirror.” Have you ever seen yourself in a photo and disliked what you saw because of the body language you were displaying? That’s what other people see and feel when they see that same person (you!). Look at yourself when interacting with others.
Paraverbal-communication empathy can be built by listening to ourselves. Because we don’t hear ourselves as others hear us, I advise people to create a “virtual recorder.” I once literally made a recording of myself in the classroom years ago when I was working as a language instructor. I listened to it later and did not like what I heard. As a matter of fact, I was ashamed to learn what my young students were hearing from me. That day was a game-changer for me.

By creating comfort zones around ourselves, looking at ourselves, and listening to how we communicate our verbal messages, we can make the task of empathizing with others a more productive one.

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