Can empathy be a form of self-defense?

I’ll admit that the title didn’t impress me, but Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg really changed how I think and communicate.

When I covered deescalation in my Self-Defense for the Workplace training I discussed types of workplace violence and how angry and potentially violent people may feel that they have been wronged. I always tried to highlight that  anger is a secondary emotion. We discussed how to avoid escalating the situation by projecting calm and by working to focus on a solution. I told them how useless telling someone to ‘calm down’ is. I mentioned one of my most used phrases “if I were in your situation I would be frustrated as well.”

From Nonviolent Communication (NVC) I learned to focus on viewing the unmet needs which manifest in anger. Talking about one’s needs is often shunned and unpopular, but I don’t think it should be. Rosenberg’s list of basic human needs is so simple, yet so comforting to hear acknowledged. If I felt I was being denied any of the things listed I would feel emotional.

When I lived in the Bay Area, I took public transportation frequently and walked a lot. One of the things I learned from this experience: Sometimes people just need to be heard. They don’t want advice, they just want to be seen and for someone to recognize their pain. What I saw: Many people will avoid eye contact with pan handlers and sometimes this denial of being seen sparks an emotional reaction. I learned to at least acknowledge people and tell them that I wished I could help them out. Sometimes I could spare some change or share my food and I did, being careful not to pull out my wallet or purse. 

Once of the keys to NVC is paraphrasing the other person’s needs back to them accurately with empathy and without adding in our judgement. Rosenberg flat out says that “Classifying and judging people promotes violence.” We are seeing this play out in tensions between the police and POC and between liberals and conservatives.

The author also says: “It’s harder to empathize with those who appear to posses more power, status or resources.” In volatile situations the person threatening violence is trying to become powerful and it can be hard to afford them the empathy that might keep us safe. One piece of advice: “Never put your ‘but’ in the face of an angry person.” Making excuses is annoying. If we want to resolve conflict and deescalate a situation we can’t focus on how ‘right’ we are and how ‘wrong’ they are.



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