It’s 3:00 am. I am woken up by the sound of a bee. I feel tired, and turn on a light to see if the bee is inside and I need to take it out.
Nope, it is outside, hovering in front of its hive.
My fatigue turns into sadness. An outcast is desperately trying to get back in. Bees are sensitive, smart, and social, so I am sure they have a kind of mechanism to punish members. Ostracizing could certainly be one of them. It’s effective for humans, why wouldn’t it be for bees?
Hanging out on the porch
At 7:00 am no buzz. I feel relieved. Thank God, maybe the bee was accepted back in.
When I tell my husband, he laughs. He tells me that Texan beehives get hot in summer, and sometimes bees hover in front of it to cool off, especially right before dawn. Like hanging out on the porch, before we had air conditioning.
Empathy and Sympathy
With a mixture of amusement and embarrassment, I realize I confused empathy with sympathy.
I thought I was respectfully understanding what the bee was experiencing, as if I was walking in its shoes (flying in its wings?). Instead, I was sympathizing: not walking in its shoes, but running away with them, and thinking they were mine. I was superimposing my experience of fitting in, as a lens to look at its experience. Because I was ostracized as a six-year-old, and stood apart, doesn’t mean that others who stand apart, are being ostracized. Probably not this particular bee.
Empathy is not better than sympathy
It’s just different. Empathy helps to respectfully understand someone else’s experience. Sympathy is more about creating closeness by sharing our own experience: “I think I know what you’re talking about since I think I’ve been in a similar situation.”
And since our situation can be different from theirs, sympathy can create as much confusion as understanding. It shifts the focus to us, instead of maintaining it on our partner. It’s more about being understood than understanding.
If you want to understand your team members, empathy is your tool. When you listen for and accept their reality as is, without imposing your lens on it, you can more effectively help (or empower) them resolve whatever issue they’re talking about.
With empathy I could have provided shade for the beehive. With sympathy I would try to mediate between the bee community and this single bee (if there is even such a thing as bee mediation).
Empathy can be learned
For some of us empathy may not be our go-to strategy when we listen. We may “react, before reflect”. If you want to learn to “reflect, before react”, I’m your girl. We can work on specific tools and skills to support you be the team leader you want to be. I’m sure you can learn to be more effective, create better results, and go home fulfilled and satisfied.
Get these fun, max-500-words stories directly in your mail box! Just sit back, relax and wait for them to appear. Read them in your bathroom, while waiting for the bus, or standing in line. Sign up here.
Don’t think you know what people are talking about
Even if you’re absolutely sure you understand the words they’re saying, those words can have a very different meaning to them than to you. “Well, how is that important?”, you might ask. Let me tell you a short story.
Last week, I was camping. When I checked in, I received a green reservation card “to clip on the pole”. I felt confused about how to do that. The poles of my tent are round and on the inside of the outside layer, so I how can I clip that card on the pole?
Eventually, I decide to shove the card under my ground cloth and trust they will find it, if they want to check my reservation.
The next day, new campers arrive. As I walk to my tent, I see those same green reservation cards. Clipped on the pole. But not the pole I thought the registration lady was talking about. Nope. The pole at the entrance of their camping spot. With two clippers. And the number of their site. Never even thought of looking at that pole. Let alone check how to clip my card on it.
Same word, different meaning
It dawns on me that even a simple word like pole, has a different meaning to the registration lady than to me. And because the meaning seemed so obvious to me, it never occurred to me to ask questions what she meant with it. As a result, I got confused and couldn’t implement what she was asking me to do.
This was a pretty innocuous misunderstanding with no consequences. And we can all think of situations, where the consequences can be more harmful.
When someone is calling you a jerk, you’ll probably get defensive. You either withdraw or turn against them. You disconnect or you call them names, or worse. As a result, conflict lies around the corner.
Reflect, before react
The solution is to reflect, before we react. You either literally use their words, or ask about their meaning. “You want me to clip this card to my tent pole?” (“du-uh, no, silly, the pole at the entrance of your tent spot”). “What do you mean when you say I’m a jerk?”.
In the reflection of their words they have a chance to self-connect and check if they’re expressing themselves in the way they want to be heard. Sometimes people realize they mean something different, when they hear their words reflected back.
And reflecting gives you a chance to take a deep breath, calm yourself down, and connect to your values, before you react.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, I can tell you from more than 11 years of practice it isn’t. We need sincere dedication and perseverance to make this a daily habit.
I handed off the parenting group to Kayla Rose Yoder, one of my students in Nonviolent Communication and a dedicated mom who I deeply admire for the level of unconditional respect for and support of her three year old.
She starts Tuesday, April 23. She asks $195 for the whole series. Contact Kayla with any questions.
It is Jugglefest and Noah offers a workshop big-ball-balancing. I’m curious enough to watch others do it, but too terrified to try it myself. At age 12, I do a head roll and land on my neck. I can’t breathe or move for minutes and think I am gonna die. I don’t, but I never completely overcome the fear for acrobatic stunts.
But now Noah is here. He tells me how to get up on the ball and extends his hand. His presence helps me take a risk and go way beyond my comfort zone. I trust that even though I might hurt myself, I won’t harm myself.
I realize that when we have the support we need, we can do things we never thought ourselves capable of.We can expand our self-limiting beliefs and do things that fear keeps pushing off to the back burner of our aspirations. Those Big Hairy Audacious Goals come within arms reach with enough support.
We might fail at reaching them -even more than once- but we learn from the failure, not die from it.
Having needs doesn’t mean we’re needy
The challenge for many of us is to ask for support in the first place. We belief that having needs, means we’re needy. That asking for help, means we’re weak. Making a request, shows we’re incompetent. And some of us have come to believe that we’re unworthy to ask for anything to begin with, that our needs come second place to everyone else’s.
We struggle to see our needs as beautiful, human, and universal. We don’t realize that getting support for our needs, means we’ll be happier. And that when we are happier, we are so much more giving and less self-centered. We see asking for support as an expense to others, not an investment in our community.
Seeing needs as beautiful, human, and universal
Imagine a gardener who takes care of a bougainvillea. She doesn’t criticize the bougainvillea for needing eight hours of sun, or very specific amounts of watering, or severe trimming right after the last frost. The gardener supports the bougainvillea with delight, because she knows that if she takes care of the bougainvillea’s needs, it will bloom exuberantly.
We are not bougainvillea’s. We are human beings with a rich, sometimes painful, history. Some of us need support to see our needs as beautiful.
How to find support to see our needs as beautiful
Search for people, communities, and living beings that you feel safe with. It might be your aunt, your mindfulness community, your therapist, God, your dog.
Bring awareness of the acceptance, support, and respect you’re receiving and let this restorative healing experience sink in. Connect to your physical sensations, feelings, needs and take a deep breath.
Once you have experienced that your needs matter, ask someone you trust for help, even if it is just for a simple ask.
Celebrate that you did! Whether or not your request got support, you took a step to live the life you really want, with yourself and others.
I’m biking on Duval Street. It is a busy two-lane street, where cars drive 40 miles per hour on average. Since there are no separate bike lanes, I choose to bike on the sidewalk, to keep me safe. As always, I am alert and careful. Especially for cars backing out.
But this one I didn’t see coming. Out of the blue, a black pick-up truck backs out of it’s parking spot at at least 20 miles an hour.
I hardly have enough time to turn my handlebars, jump off my bike, and land on knees and palms on the gravel surface. I feel a bruise growing on my right thigh.
The truck driver probably doesn’t notice me and keeps backing out. “What an idiot! He didn’t look over his shoulder and blind spot! He’s incompetent and a danger to other cyclists!” Infuriated I jump up and bang on his window. “What?” “You almost hit me as you were backing out!” “Are you okay?” “Hardly.” “I’m sorry” and he drives off.
When I tell my friend about this incident, she asks incredulously “I thought you were practicing Nonviolent Communication?” “Yes, but this is screaming in giraffe.”
Now I realize I was not. I was just screaming.
Four steps to get support for unmet needs
Screaming in giraffe means we use force to draw attention and support to our needs. Usually we sense urgency about this. I believe there are four elements of successfully screaming in giraffe (versus just screaming):
Awareness of our needs being unmet.
Enough self-acceptance and compassion to see our needs as beautiful(instead of a deficit, as if there is something wrong with us for having those needs, as if we’re ‘needy’).
Transform any enemy image of those, whom we think are responsible for our needs being unmet, so we can ask for their support to meet our needs (how do you think I did on that count?). Like offering our requests with Santa Claus energy.
Openness to explore strategies to meet as many needs as possible: ours and those of other stakeholders (that’s way harder when you perceive urgency).
Listening to unmet needs
When we hear someone screaming in giraffe, it helps to listen for unmet needs. Rather than focusing on how they express themselves (which might just sound like screaming), we can use empathy to deepen our understanding of their experience, listen for needs, and figure out strategies that meet as many needs as possible.
Live the life you really want, with yourself and others
I believe this process helps us to live the life we really want and create the closeness and authenticity we long for.
Let me know how this landed for you: I would love to hear from you.
(This is a re-post from January 2018, when it was still cold. I hope this is a refreshing reminder that everything is impermanent, also temperatures)
It is sleeting. The road is getting slippery. It’s also getting dark. And it’s rush hour. Everyone seems anxious to get home, before the road completely freezes up and driving becomes a car balancing act on ice.
I’m on my bike. And I feel scared. I don’t like biking when it sleets. I have had my share of slips and falls growing up in the Netherlands with these road conditions. I have no desire to add one more to my track record.
I have to cross a busy street without stop signs or traffic lights within half a mile. I decide to cross without that support.
I wait and wait and wait till there are no cars in either lane. I cross the first lane as careful as I can. Before I am half way, the cars from the other side have a green light and are coming at me. I have to wait. As I look over my shoulder, I see that the cars behind me also got a green light. They’re speeding up. One truck in particular. In my lane. I see him coming right at me. I feel terrified he will drive into me, but I have nowhere to go. There are cars in either lane and I can’t make myself smaller with my bike. I just have to hope and pray that the truck is gonna spot me, before he hits me.
He does. He swirls around me within six yards, hunks at me, and continues with at least 50 miles per hour. No one gets hurt.
I tremble as I get on my bike to finally cross the street.
In my upset I start to rant blame toward him: “He is f*cking going way too fast on a slippery road, and the idiot was probably texting too. What a moron he is!”
After biking a few blocks, I turn the blame toward myself: “You are an idiot too, not taking the time to walk over to the traffic light and cross when it’s safe. You’re a fool for risking your life for a few minutes efficiency! You’re not competent to ride a bike! (Ouch, that’s very painful for a Dutch woman to hear)”
It’s only when I am home and feel safe, that I start to empathize with myself: “Gosh, Elly, you were terrified that you would be hit and end up with a wrecked bike, broken legs or arms, or… dead. You want to know that car drivers care about your needs for safety and consideration.”
It takes a few more hours, before I start to empathize with the car driver: “He probably didn’t see me at dusk. He probably didn’t expect a cyclist in the middle of the road. Maybe he was tired and anxious to get home safely. Who knows, he might have had to pick up a sick kid.”
I feel super grateful for Marshall Rosenberg’s teachings on our four choices when receiving a hard-to-hear message:
Realizing I can choose how I respond to difficult messages and situations helps feel empowered. I am not in full control about what’s happening around me, but I am in control of how I respond.
How does this land for you? Let me know, I would love to hear from you.
To my husband. I feel pretty shitty about it. Scared. I fear I’ll lose acceptance by confessing. I know this feeling from long, long ago and it has motivated me more than once to show up with less honesty than I wanted.
A few weeks ago I described washing the cushion covers of one of our living room chairs. My husband has taken care of this chair for 25 years, and it was in almost pristine condition. I had asked to clean it and we had agreed to try the washing machine set on cold temperature and delicates. I shared in a previous story that the covers came out shrunken and shredded. I wrote that it was an accident, and that I forgot to check the temperature.
I actually knew the temperature of the washing machine and had made a conscious choice to wash them on a ‘warm’ setting anyway. I thought it wouldn’t do any harm, and I was convinced that a warm setting would do a better cleaning job. When they came out shredded and shrunken, I felt shocked.
I did irreparable harm, and it was my fault. I felt shame. I feared my husband would be angry, blame me, and we would lose connection.
So I lied.
At our nextNonviolent Communication empathy practice, a friend asks me if I really hadn’t checked the temperature. With my husband nearby, I decide to continue the lie. I don’t want her to know the truth, before he does. That only seems to aggravate the lie. I feel horrible immediately. I sacrifice my needs for integrity and honesty in service of my needs for acceptance and emotional safety.
As soon as our practice ends and our community leaves, I tell my husband the truth about what had happened. To my relief he seems to already have understood this. He appears to hold no grudge or judgment, just a genuine regret that the cushions were ruined.
It reminds me of a lesson about mourning and self-forgiveness:
“Mourning in NVC is the process of fully connecting with the unmet needs and the feelings that are generated when we have been less than perfect. It is an experience of regret, but regret that helps us learn from what we have done without blaming or hating ourselves. We see how our behavior ran counter to our own needs and values, and we open ourselves to feelings that arise out of that awareness. […]
We follow up on the process of mourning with self-forgiveness. Turning our attention to the part of the self which chose to act in the way that led to the present situation, we ask ourselves, “When I behaved in the way in which I now regret, what need of mine was I trying to meet?” (Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication).
I feel relieved to see how much I value intimacy and honesty in my closest relationships and cleanliness in my house, and how my strategies failed to include my hubbie, my roommate in brainstorming strategies that meet all those needs.
When I call my friend that same evening and explain what happened, she laughs. Wholeheartedly. She is amused by the tangle of cushions, honesty, and acceptance. She doesn’t have any judgments. Just compassion for our human predicament, and empathy for my needs for love, acceptance, and belonging.
How does this land for you? Let me know, I would love to hear from you.