When asked to define empathy, Marshall Rosenberg compared it to surfing, as he relates in this audio clip:
Empathy and Surf. When you ride the wave, the thrill is so exhilarating that you forget everything else. You live in the moment when nothing else matters, so intent on riding the wave perfectly that you and the wave become one. Pain and worry disappear, replaced by euphoria, akin to flow. Similarly, when giving empathy, you want to strive for this kind of total presence for the person you are listening to. I transcribed the above recording as follows:
Question: "What is the Definition for Empathy?"
Rosenberg: "Empathy, I would say is presence. Pure presence to what is alive in a person at this moment, bringing nothing in from the past. The more you know a person, the harder empathy is. The more you have studied psychology, the harder empathy really is. Because you can bring no thinking in from the past. If you surf, you'd be better at empathy because you will have built into your body what it is about. Being present and getting in with the energy that is coming through you in the present. It is not a mental understanding."
Question: "Is it speaking from the heart?"
Rosenberg: "What? Empathy? In empathy, you don't speak at all. You speak with the eyes. You speak with the body. If you say any words at all, it's because you are not sure you are with the person. So you may say some words. But the words are not empathy. Empathy is when the other person feels the connection to with what's alive in you."
Also on the above webpage is a recording of surfing legend Gerry Lopez: "Well, I think one of the big lessons you learn about surfing is how to operate in the present, that's really what the foundation of the entire surfing experience is."
"I've been quoted on the subject of empathy in a recent book edited by Josh Baran titled 365 Nirvana Here and Now: Living Every Moment in Enlightenment. The author excerpts a passage in which I compared empathy to surfing. I said that empathy is like riding on a wave; it's about getting in touch with a certain energy. But the energy is a divine energy that's alive in every person, at every moment.
Unfortunately, many of us are blocked from that divine energy by the way we've been taught to think. But for me, empathy is getting with that energy that's coming through the other person. It's a divine experience. I feel as if I'm really in a flow with divine energy. And when two people connect in that way, any kind of conflict can be resolved so that everybody's needs get met.
When we teach people to empathize with people from other cultures who are behaving in a ways we do not like, we find ways of resolving our differences peacefully. So empathy is a beautiful experience when we have it. And it's powerful to work toward peace in diplomatic relationships based on empathy, not on our usual adversarial tactics.
Now when we can empathize with what's alive in another person, it's amazing how much healing can go on. Unfortunately, there's a lot of healing that needs to happen in the world because of the pain people are in, and I'm often called to help individuals who have been victimized by people with different religious beliefs.
Exercise 4. YouTube video: Self-Empathy exercise led by Mary Mackenzie, NVC certified trainer, her website is the NVC Academy. (Date: January 18, 2008; Length: 5:35)
After clicking the arrow, the first four exercises will play in custom video player below (the first exercise consists of two clips on YouTube, but you can watch it without the break on Google Video). Other NVC related topics are covered in successive video clips. Double click on video window to get to the original YouTube posting to leave comments and read more description.
Exercise 5. Silent empathy listening exercise, done in pairs with groups of two or more people. Odd person out can be an additional listener, or timer. One person talks about what is alive in them for an agreed amount of time (say 2 to 5 minutes) while the other person listens without saying anything. The listener giving empathy just nods, makes eye contact, and silently guesses what the speaker is feeling or needing. In groups, after an agreed amount of time, rotate to a new partner. After three rotations, switch, so the person formerly talking, is now listening, and repeat for 3 rotations.
Exercise 6. Silent empathy feelings and needs guessing exercise, done in pairs. One person talks about what is alive in them while the other person listens without saying anything. Odd person out can be an additional listener, or timer. The listener giving empathy just nods, makes eye contact, and silently guesses what the talker is feeling or needing. After the agreed upon time, the listener now speaks and guesses the feelings and needs of the person talking using the NVC model of interaction: "When I heard you say "...." do you feel ...... because you need ....... ? At this point, a dialog can begin to check if the guesses are accurate. Then speakers and listeners switch and repeat the above.
Exercise 7. Silent empathy eye gazing exercise, done in pairs, with groups of two or more people. Odd person out can be an additional listener, or timer. Paired partners make eye contact, and each silently repeats this thought to themselves: (a) "Just like me, this person feels pain, sadness and loneliness." After an agreed amount of time (say 2 minutes), repeat the exercise, replacing the silent thought with: (b) "Just like me, this person feels "joy, happiness and hope." Other sets of feeling words can be chosen from the above mentioned lists. Lastly, do the exercise again, replacing the silent thought with: (c) "Just like me, in the moment, this person is trying to meet their needs in the best way they can. The purpose of this exercise is to instill the habit of paying attention to another person's feelings and needs. Too often when we met another person, we are trying just to advance our own agenda. Participants can rotate to new partners as time permits.
Notes and observations: Some people experience difficulty speaking for the entire time interval probably because no one ever listened to them before. Others, while not having any difficulty talking, finally experience "being heard" for the first time. If you are sick, in pain, or irritated after hearing a "hard to hear message," it is difficult to give empathy as you need it for yourself. Empathy is not sympathy, because empathy is without evaluation, while sympathy involves a judgment, that you agree with the speaker.