How to Empathize Without Agreeing
I have taught Nonviolent Communication to hundreds of people, and I so frequently I hear some version of this:
"I want to be able to give empathy to a person in a conflict situation, but in doing so, I do not want them to think that I am agreeing with them, or that they are 'winning' an argument. How do I still empathize with them without seeming weak or like I am agreeing with them?"
I love this question, because it is a perfect opportunity to point out what empathy really is: true understanding with an underlying intention of connection and compassion. Empathy is not agreeing. It is not taking someone's side. You do not need to have shared reality with someone to be able to empathize with them. You simply are leaning in with curiosity and trying to truly understand what is going on for that person.
Here are some steps you can move through that will hopefully help:
Check in with your intention. Notice where you are around the situation. Are you triggered, angry, or in a defensive mode? Is your intention to win the argument, or prove the other person wrong? If so, there is no way you will be able to truly empathize. My recommendation would be to do some internal work so that you can come back to the conversation with an intention of connection. Click here to read more about how being intentional makes for better communication, and here to read just why intentions matter.
Do the internal work! That could look like getting empathy from someone else, or maybe giving yourself empathy. Get to a place in which you no longer have such a strong charge around the situation. At The Bigbie Method, we call this being in "WAIT", which stands for "What am I thinking?" or "Why am I talking?". Do tell the other person that you are doing your own internal processing instead of leaving them hanging. You can always say something like, "I'm noticing feeling pretty frustrated and charged right now, but I really would like to have connection with you. I'm going to step away from this conversation right now and come back to it when I am ready to respond in a way that holds emotionally safety for both of us." If that doesn't sound like something you would ever say, make it your own! Just be clear with the person that you need some space and that you still care about connection with them.
Think about their needs. After doing some work yourself and getting clear on what your needs are around the situation, start to get curious about what is going on for the other person. Even though you might not agree with them, can you think about what they are needing? Try using this list of universal human needs.
Give them empathy first. When you are less charged and ready to interact with the person again (or maybe you were already ready and you skipped the second and third step), really listen to what the other person has to say. Try not to come up with responses in your head, or get lost in your own thoughts, but rather give them your full presence. Lean in with curiosity. It's okay if you don't agree with them. Try to figure out why it is they believe whatever they believe, and then take some needs guesses around it for them. You can go here to read more about the empathy process and how to empathize with someone. You can go here to read about all the other responses that we tend to use with each other that are very specifically not empathy.
Express your own view in an emotionally safe way. THIS is the key here. I think so many people think that giving empathy means the other person gets heard, but then they don't get heard themselves. Expressing is the way to rectify that. However, it is imperative to keep in mind your intention for the conversation: connection. So in order to have connection while telling someone something that they will not agree with, try using OFN, which stands for observations, feelings, and needs. Start by stating the observations and make sure they are truly objective facts, not your interpretation or your thoughts, but something that everyone can agree on. Then state your feelings about it - are you angry? scared? embarrassed? concerned? disheartened? Then state your needs that lie behind those feelings. Again, use that feelings and needs sheet for help.
I find that this process allows for emotional safety for everyone involved, while also meeting needs for honesty, authenticity, and integrity. You don't ever have to agree with someone in order to have connection with them. You just have to lean in with curiosity and compassion while trying to understand them, and then share what you would like them to understand in a way that is not triggering for them.
Dr. Cindy Bigbie, the founder of The Bigbie Method, and Heather Claypoole, actually have a couple of great podcast episodes about how to stay in integrity with NVC when talking to people with whom you disagree with - specifically around politics - and how to have connection with them. You can listen to part one here and part two here.
Additionally, it is important to note that while I have simplified this process to one blog post, this process takes quite a bit of practice and understanding of NVC as a whole. The Bigbie Method offers an introductory course to Nonviolent Communication that you can check out here. I highly recommend taking it to experience greater learning, understanding, and growth in all of this.