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  • Writer's pictureJulia

Unlocking the Power of Empathy

The other day I was in a newly developed area and was calling a cab. It was before the Uber age, and my location couldn’t be shared through mobile. I provided my location to the operator and mentioned that the area was so new that it wasn’t on Google Maps yet. The operator said she found my location on the map and assured me that the cab would be there in 10 minutes.

Sometime later, I received a call from the driver, who said he would be there soon. A few minutes later, he called again, sounded frustrated, asking where I was since he couldn't see me at the location that I provided.

Finally, I saw the cab and got in.

The driver still seemed frustrated and kept asking, "Why didn't you tell your location clearly?" I tried to explain how I had talked to the operator, but he wouldn't listen and kept asking why I hadn't provided clarity.

I then realized that he wasn't looking for an answer to his question. Instead, all he was trying to say was, "Do you know how difficult this was for me?"

So, I stopped explaining.

I started listening to him, occasionally responding with, "Yes, it was hard." He told me how he had received the message from the operator and had searched the roads, trying to find me. "If you don't see me, you would just call another cab. But I've spent so much time on this already!" This made me think he might have experienced similar situations and suffered some financial loss due to this issue. I felt some tenderness within me. Now, I could understand why he was so frustrated.

After talking it all through, the intensity of his emotions seemed to decrease. Sensing he had already said what he wanted, I started to explain how I had talked to the operator. The driver then said, "Right, this area is so new that even some experienced drivers get lost." I now felt he could understand me too.

From that point on, the conversation had gone very peaceful and enjoyable. We said Goodbye to each other with joy.

Four Options for Responding to Negative Messages

Dear reader, when you receive a message that's not in your favour, or you sense tension between someone else and yourself, how do you respond?

According to Marshall Rosenberg, the author of Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, when we receive a negative message from others, we have four options for how to receive it.

Blame ourselves

In the case where I hear the driver say, "Why didn't you tell your location clearly?" if I say to myself, "I should've made sure the operator knows exactly where I was. How careless I was!" I accept the other person's judgment and blame myself. It would likely make me feel guilty and ashamed.

Blame others

I might also blame the driver for judging and criticizing me. I might think (and likely would say to the driver unconsciously), "Why do you keep criticizing me? I didn't do anything wrong. It's the operator who didn't give you the correct info. It's unfair! And you're rude and unreasonable!" This would likely make me feel angry and frustrated.

The two options above are common reactions that we have when receiving a message that's not in our favour. Neither of them is life-serving. When we respond in these ways, we're likely to be dragged into a vortex of blame, which causes more conflicts and pain for all parties involved.

Sense our own feelings and needs

Our third option here is to sense our own feelings and needs. In this case, after hearing the driver say, "Why didn't you…?" and not accepting my explanation, I sensed my feeling (frustration) and needs (to be understood, to be heard). Once I deviated from my judgmental thoughts toward myself or the other person and solely focused on my feelings and needs, I no longer felt the pain. This option is also known as self-empathy.

Sense others' feelings and needs

The fourth option is to empathize with others, i.e., to sense and/or reflect on others' feelings and needs. In this case, I sensed the driver's feelings were irritation, frustration, and pain, and his needs might have been to understand and be understood, consideration, and perhaps financial stability as well. I may also choose to reflect back the feelings and needs, saying something like, "I see you're frustrated. It must be hard for you." When humans are empathized with, we're likely to have more inner space to listen to others with empathy. I'm glad to see that after the driver was empathized with, he was able to listen to my perspective and understand me.

Once I became aware of the latter two options (self-empathy and empathy for others), I felt like a door was opened in my world. Through this door, I started walking into a new world where I was no longer stuck in the blaming game. Instead, I could view the world through a different lens, one that set me free.

Embracing Empathy

Empathy has the power to transform our relationships and the way we communicate with others. By practicing empathetic listening and focusing on the feelings and needs of ourselves and others, we can build deeper connections and find more joy in our interactions. As you navigate your daily life, remember the power of empathy and strive to unlock its potential in your relationships.


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