Sharon Rudnitzky: Empathy is compassionate understanding

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Published: 04-01-2024 5:58 PM

Modified: 04-02-2024 11:32 AM

I agree with much of what guest columnist Shalini Bahl-Milne wrote about moving forward with compassion in her piece about the recent Amherst Town Council meeting [“Beyond empathy: A compassionate approach to polarizing issues in Amherst,” March 26]. I was frustrated, however, when she described empathy as “a double-edged sword” and wrote that to move forward, we need to transcend empathy. 

It bothers me immensely when people misrepresent what empathy is, and so I feel compelled to clarify.

My background is in nonviolent communication (created by Marshall B. Rosenberg) and in that realm empathy is compassionate understanding. When offering empathy, we have the intention of being open-hearted and fully present as we listen to a person as they speak their truth. Empathy is the nonjudgmental receiving of another’s experience and a sense of resonance with another person’s feelings and needs.

With nonviolent communication, we specifically listen for a person’s feelings and needs even if they may be yelling or stating opinions different from ours or calling other people names. A skillful empathic listener can still hold presence and focus on what is in the speaker’s heart.

Is the person afraid and needing safety? Are they frustrated and wanting to engage in respectful dialogue? If, as Bahl-Milne writes, a person is able to empathize with one person, but then demonizes someone else, the problem isn’t empathy, the problem is with the empathizer!

Empathy isn’t “limited” or “biased,” but, unfortunately, people can be. Luckily, empathy is a skill that can be learned, and nonviolent communication is an amazing resource.

Sharon Rudnitzky


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