Patty Zeitlin - Blog - Jan. 1, 2007

The Power of Empathy

by Patty Zeitlin (see her website)

When I worked as a nanny, I assisted one day each week in a cooperative preschool, where the twin 3½-year-old girls in my care were enrolled. They had been to school there the year before, and were comfortable enough to run off and play without needing my constant attention. Several other children were newcomers, however, and in the process of letting their mothers leave for the first time.

I was busy helping to set up paints when the peaceful, happy sounds of play were interrupted by loud screams coming from the hall. A dark-haired two-year-old girl was sitting on the floor, tears streaming down her face. "No!" she yelled, with the force of her whole, small body, and threw her shoes away. The teacher was trying to put them on her because everyone was supposed to wear shoes, but the child kept hitting anyone who came near her. She screamed so loudly that all of the children in the room stopped what they were doing to stare.

After several attempts, the teacher gave up trying to help; a mother also tried to get the shoes on, but with no success. The little girl was alone, still screaming in the hall, with the classroom door open.

Years before that, I had been a preschool teacher, so I was familiar with the kind of anxiety young children experience when their mothers leave, but I had worked only with the children who were in my class and who weren't complete strangers as this child was to me. I assisted in this class just once a week, and had never seen her before.

What gave me hope that I might be able to help anyway was that for the previous two years, I had been learning to use Nonviolent Communication, or NVC, as taught by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, a worldwide mediator. I'd never used it with a child so young however, because of the limited language skills at that age, and in this case, although the child did speak, she was learning several languages at home, and her speech was a hodgepodge containing a bit of English I could barely understand. Despite her age, she talked, although not just then!

Seeing her so alone and probably frightened, I wanted very much to help, so I took a little chair and sat next to her. Then, using the steps I had learned from my training in NVC to offer empathy, I reflected how she felt. I was totally "with her," with no judgements or reactions about her screaming or ideas about what she should be doing or feeling.

I said, "It sounds like you feel angry and sad now. Ordinarily, using the NVC approach, I'd ask, "Are you feeling angry and sad?" rather than assuming I was on target, but in this case, it was clear. I knew that if I asked, she wouldn't be able to answer anyway! She kept crying and screaming; however, now she pointed again and again to the door that led to the outside. "Did mommy go out?" I asked.

Right away, she screamed, "Mommy, mommy, mommy!" sounding more terrified than angry. "Are you scared because mommy went out?" I asked, realizing that maybe no one had told her that her mother would be back. That would be terrifying for a 2½-year-old. Even if someone had told her, she might not have heard, because her first need was to know that someone accepted and empathized with her feelings. After that, she might be able to hear and receive the reassurance she needed.

"Mommy went out that door, yes," I said, "but she is coming back." The child stopped sobbing and looked at me. I had made up a song some while ago to reassure a fearful child, so I smiled at this little one and sang, "Mommy goes out, oh, mommy goes out. Mommy goes out, oh out, oh. But mommy comes back, oh, mommy comes back. Mommy comes back oh, back oh."

She was quiet now, listening, her large, dark eyes still teary but fixed on mine. When I stopped singing, she reached out. I took her small hand, picked up her shoes, and said, "Want to go play now?" She nodded, and we played with a train set in another room nearby for a few minutes. She was smiling now, even laughing with me while we played. It was easy to put on the shoes after that. In fact, she put out each foot so I could.

I felt amazed and touched when I saw the results of what had happened, and was certain now that Marshal Rosenberg's methods could be used effectively to work with small children even when very little language was available. The power of that connection surprised me, because although I hadn't seen this child for a whole week, when I returned to school again to assist on my appointed day, she called out my name, ran to me with a big smile, and grabbed my legs to give me a strong hug. I hugged back.

For many weeks afterwards, she did the same thing. She also insisted on saying goodbye to me each day, although I had spent no more than twenty minutes with her once when she desperately needed her feelings to be reflected and accepted, her needs met, and to experience the warmth of connection.

That is how empathy works, NVC style. It does include listening, accepting, and/or reflecting feelings, which many of us already know can restore a sense of connection and trust, but there are other parts of this practice, which, in my experience, offer a deeper sense of satisfaction and completion. One essential part is the naming and recognition of unmet needs.

After practicing this kind of empathy for several years now, on myself and with people of all ages, I can easily agree with Marshall Rosenberg when he says that needs are universal, but the ways in which people get them met might be different. It was my acceptance of her feelings and a song of reassurance that met some of that two-year-old's needs. When feelings and needs are identified and enough empathy is received, I've seen a dramatic shift take place in how the subject feels about and perceives the other person and/or the circumstances in question. The one who has been upset feels free enough to act in a way that is more life-giving and connected with others than before.

When it comes to handling conflicts, whether with children or adults, when both are feeling too angry or otherwise upset, it's often not possible for one to really empathize with the other. But I've found that if each person receives enough empathy from a third party, there is real hope that agreements can be made that work for both. Not agreements based on compromises, but on the genuine desire of giving from the heart with, as Marshall describes it, "the joy of feeding a hungry duck."

Another form of NVC empathy is the ability to give it to oneself something that is really useful when there is no one else available to offer it. When I start to criticize myself now, I listen for the feelings and unmet needs behind the self-criticism and find out how I can address those. Being aware of and expressing my own needs has been an exciting, and at times difficult, part of this work because I did not grow up learning what they were or how to make requests to have them met.

So, for quite a while I kept a list of needs handy: respect, autonomy, clarity, celebration, being seen, being heard, and connection, to name a few. Learning to identify my needs and those of others has taken some time and practice. Practicing NVC has increased my sense of connection with and compassion for myself and others, and I know from reports of Marshall's work worldwide that it is a practical and, I believe, essential part of peacemaking.

Patty Zeitlin is an author, songwriter, playwright, and early childhood consultant with an M.A. in human development from Pacific Oaks College.