Three Layers of Empathy

We’re relocating: ~ Three Layers of Empathy

(beneath is courtesy of the work of Jim and Jori Manske)

Three Layers of Empathy


Empathy is being with another with compassion, connecting to the
humanness of their experience. Empathy is the silent presence
with another, not the words we use. We can express our empathy
and some possible ways to express empathy are included here.

ACKNOWLEDGING another’s experience
Reflecting: Observation, Feeling, Request, and/or Wish
NOT: blame, criticism, or evaluation
“(Something) happened. ”
“You are upset.”
“You wish (something different) had happened.”
“You would like (something).”

Connecting to the CAUSE of the feeling (the need)
Connecting to the universal need/value that the feeling is
reflecting, making no reference to any specific person (including
myself) doing any specific action. Notice there is no reference to
“I” or “me” at the causal level.
“Are you feeling _____ because (need) is important to you?”
“Are you valuing (need)?‘
“So for you, (need) is important.”
Some examples of “need” words: security, cooperation, fun, creativity, love,
respect, freedom, healing, understanding, belonging, awareness, etc.

SAVORING the need
Being with the value of the need.
Connecting to the internal resource and universality of the need.
“Ah, (need)”
Space / Silence

Based on the work of Marshall B. Rosenberg, author of Nonviolent Communication
© 2009 peaceworks, Jim and Jori Manske
Certified Trainers with The Center for Nonviolent Communication

Meryl Streep

“The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy, we can all sense a mysterious connection to each other.” ― Meryl Streep

“You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”
— M. Scott Peck

Workshop by Jori and Jim Manske, May 22, 2011, Oxynard CA

(transcribed and edited by Anjali C. Schreiner)

Empathy is a state of being connected to another person giving them space to be just as they are. Empathy is being present to the kind of energy going on in someone else. NVC is not about changing other people, but to interact in a way to support well-being (for all).

Empathy is where you place your focus allowing the person some space. Words are not required. Some people don’t need words just the space. Marshall said, “ Never think that what you SAY is empathy.” Sometimes as NVC practitioners we think that there is something else we are supposed to be doing. This imperative gets in the way of being present and being with the other person.

Space, Presence, Focus “SPF” are reminder words.

Something about how we focus on feelings and needs (in NVC) often takes us up to our head, and we end up leading people instead of following.

Empathy has gotten confused with sympathy. Sympathy is when you source your own experience. Sympathy helps as a bridge to focus on others. It can be very helpful for another to receive. Notice that it is different to focus on another’s experience allowing them to lead.

Notice Energy: Notice a presence in the room. Even a baby has the ability to sense the energy in a room. It’s so natural and we all have that ability.

Get Clear: If you are giving empathy with a sense of “should” then you are doing empathy not being empathy.

We’re going to unpeel the layers of empathy. There are layers like an artichoke. On top are the spiky ones and gradually you get to the soft heart inside.  We can savor  our needs when we get to the heart of the matter.

Empathy is pacing with someone, walking with them where they are (step by step).


  • If we are pointing somewhere else (leading them) then we have our own agenda. 
  • True empathy is authentic. If we aren’t in empathy stop. Perhaps expression of honesty is what is more alive for us or self-empathy.
  • We can oscillate between empathy for self and empathy for another. We can be present to them and to ourselves as well.
  • Keep our reflections and guesses short (up to 10 words or less ideally.) When there are really strong emotions it’s best to use very few words. If we are using more words then they can hear then our focus in on ourselves, not on them.
  • What we don’t reflect is any judgments the other says. (We don’t collude with their jackals) because it cements enemy images.
  • Avoid using words like, “I or I’m” (I’m hearing, I’m guessing…) because the energy moves to us and it’s distracting vs. totally focused on them (“So for you….., Are you wanting……Does that make sense…..You wished that….)
  • Match the feeling tone of the person with your own similar tone. If they are sad and quiet speak in a similar manner that resonates with where they are.

Have you ever said to someone, “Are you feeling X, because you are needing X?” and they said, “Huh?”

KEY: Sometimes guessing feelings and needs can cause disconnection. 

Three Layers of Empathy steps:

1.   Acknowledging Level : FIRST be with the person and reflect where they are without adding to the disconnection just holding them with acknowledgment.

Acknowledge one little piece of it–as a way to say, I’m here with you. Be in the flow of what’s happening and see what you can connect with.

a.    Phrases that help: “So X happened.” “You’re upset.” “Oh, there’s pain for you.” “You’re angry.”

b.   Some things are more accessible especially if they are strong.

Like feelings: “You’re really mad.”

Like observations: “She said that she hates you!”

Like strong wishes: “Oh, you wish that something different had happened?” or “You wish X had happened?”

KEY: These things meet people where they are.

2.   Causal Level: Connect to the universal need or value that is the cause of their feelings supporting them to go deeper inside to what really matters. Make no reference to any specific person (including myself) doing any specific action.

      This is the why of it all. This level is more intrinsic when people settle deeper into themselves after having some acknowledgment of what’s going on with them (step 1). Guessing feelings at level 2 is not that important. ( So X is important to you?  You really value X in your work)

3.   Savoring the need: Being with the value of the need. Connecting to the internal resource and universality of the need. Savoring is the well. Anything we say at this moment will move them from the well. (Pause and allow them to just be in this space for a moment.) Savoring is just being present saying nothing.

“Ah……(need, value)”   (“So X is really important.”)

Space /  Silence / Pause

Key: What do you do when the person is done? Be aware of that and stop.

If they have more aspects of this issue they may say more and be back at the first level again. There is no right or wrong way to do this. Usually it’s not a straight line of going from steps 1 to 3. Many times people go to level 2 and back to level 1 several times before they get to savoring. And they might not get to savoring at this time.  

Jim: “For me savoring is not the goal.  Empathy is the goal.”

My summary of what I heard: The three levels of empathy process is following another person’s expression by being with them with presence and responding in specific ways at the different levels they are in along their winding journey. It is not usually a linear path. It’s about being present with them and myself at the same time. It’s about choosing to be in empathic presence when that is authentic and realizing when it is not authentic. It’s about giving someone the space to express and be heard and offering presence. It’s about following their lead.


Carl Rogers on Empathy


Empathy in its Broader Context via Nonviolent Communication Model | Capital NVC:

Nonviolent Communication Model:

Modes of Communication

Nonviolent Communication highlights three modes of communication: honest self-expression, empathic listening, and empathic self-connection.

  • At the heart of everything is empathic self-connection. This is about connecting to what feels alive in us, about what we value. Self-connection grounds us, focuses our attention on what really matters to us, and provides a sound basis for subsequent communication and action.
  • A vital part of communication is empathic listening. People all long to have others understand their experience of the world. Most people are starved for this, and that starvation makes it difficult for them to hear us until they themselves are heard. Empathic listening is about listening for what is important to a person, what positive aspiration they are longing to achieve in any given situation. It doesn’t mean that we necessarily agree with the other person, just that we sincerely try to understand what is going on for them. Empathic listening offers a gift to the other and to ourself, and paves the way for connection and satisfying communication.
  • Self-expression is something we are familiar with trying to do. Nonviolent Communication encourages a shift in what we focus on as we express ourselves honestly. Instead of using self-defeating patterns of expression that are pervasive in our culture, we focus on sharing what is really important to us in ways that allow the listener to connect to our humanity and aspirations. This supports the listener in not striving to defend themselves from us, but instead understanding what is going on for us. This is a step towards connection and towards creating what we really long to have in our lives.

Sven Hartenstein’s cartoons:


Components of Communication

NVC delineates four components of communication:

  1. Observations free of evaluations;
  2. Feelings straight from the heart;
  3. Needs, values and longings; and
  4. Requests expressed clearly in positive action language.

We are trained to make careful observations free of evaluation, and to specify behaviors and conditions that are affecting us. We learn to hear our own deeper needs and those of others, and to identify and clearly articulate what we are wanting in a given moment. When we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt, and needed, rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion. Through its emphasis on deep listening—to ourselves as well as others—NVC fosters respect, attentiveness and empathy, and engenders a mutual desire to give from the heart. The form is simple, yet powerfully transformative.

Needs vs. Strategies

The word “need” as used in Nonviolent Communication only approximately corresponds to the way most people use the word. In Nonviolent Communication, a Need is a something that our humanity calls us to seek, something universal. Each need is something we can all relate to, though a given need might be more intense for some people or at some times or certain situations.

It is important to distinguish between Needs and Strategies. If I want a fancy sports car, that’s not a Need because it’s not inherent that all human want a sports car. However, I might want a sports car as a Strategy for meeting a Need for excitement. Valuing excitement is a universal experience.

Shifting our attention from Strategies to Needs has the power to transform conflict because (1) the universality of needs means that all parties to the conflict can understand and appreciate what is at issue, and (2) the focus on needs introduces flexibility, since there are likely to be ways to meet the need one wouldn’t have thought of if one clung to the idea that the strategy was what was important.

Requests vs. Demands

People typically respond to demands by either giving in but resenting it, or by rebelling. As a result, getting things done by making demands tends to be something that you will ultimately pay for through degraded relationships.

Nonviolent Communication recommends learning how to pursue meeting our needs by making Requests. You know that something is a Request if a response of “no” does not provoke retaliation. Nonviolent Communication offers ways to appreciate receiving a “no” and treat it as simply one step along the path towards meeting everyone’s needs, including your own.

And There is More

The above notes provide pointers to some of the key ideas of Nonviolent Communication. There are many additional ideas, and great depth to those already mentioned, which you can learn if you make a study of Nonviolent Communication.

See Also

More irreverent NVC cartoons:

Other resources:

Radical Compassion

Notes on Jim & Jori Manske’s “W.A.I.T” process

Listen to W.A.I.T.Via Compassionate Leadership’s free teleclasses

See also:

The Fearless Heart: Making Empathy Concrete — Empathy Buddy Guidelines

New center at Stanford to study brain’s role in compassion, altruism

Blog – The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education

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