Why the "Empathy" section of the "Science" page at connectionpractice.org is unconvincing to me

by Michael Hurwicz
March 8, 2021
Marshall Rosenberg

"Empathy gives you the ability to enjoy another person’s pain." (Marshall Rosenberg, Source: PuddleDancer Press)
Picture from Wikipedia

Hi, I'm Michael Hurwicz. I began studying the Connection Practice in 2011, when it was called BePeace. I am certified to coach and teach the Connection Practice.

This little essay concerns Section 2 ("Naming needs leads to empathy") of the "Science" page on connectionpractice.org. In my opinion, the article cited in Section 2 does not support the statement that "Naming needs leads to empathy," at least not in the context of what we do and experience in the Connection Practice. I'll divide my discussion of this into two sections: "Empathy" and "Needs." I'll conclude by trying to explain why this matters to me.


Our practice of empathy is based on Nonviolent Communication (NVC). In NVC, "empathy" has nothing to do with feeling personally distressed by another person's pain. Marshall Rosenberg, the originator of NVC, emphasized this by saying, "Empathy gives you the ability to enjoy another person’s pain." (Source: PuddleDancer Press)

What empathy does mean in NVC is suggested by the following Marshall Rosenberg quotes (from the same source as above) :

  • "Empathy lies in our ability to be present without opinion."
  • "The number one rule of our training is empathy before education."
  • "Postpone result/solution thinking until later; it’s through connection that solutions materialize – empathy before education."
  • "Empathy is a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing."
  • "Self-empathy in NVC means checking in with your own feelings and needs."
  • "With empathy, I’m fully with them, and not full of them – that’s sympathy."
  • "With empathy we don’t direct, we follow. Don’t just do something, be there."
  • "Time and again, people transcend the paralyzing effects of psychological pain when they have sufficient contact with someone who can hear them empathically."

This is the essence of empathy in NVC, and by extension in the Connection Practice: simply being there, listening and understanding. An important part of the process is usually letting the person know that we understand.

Another Rosenberg quote gives a feeling for the experience of fully empathizing with someone:

"If you think ahead to what to say next - like how to fix it or make the person feel better - BOOM! Off the board. You're into the future. Empathy requires staying with the energy that's here right now. Not using any technique. Just being present. When I have really connected to this energy, it's like I wasn't there. I call this 'watching the magic show'. In this presence, a very precious energy works through us that can heal anything, and this relieves me from my 'fix-it' tendencies." (Source: culutreofempathy.com)

Contrast that with the description of empathy below, taken from the article cited on connectionpractice.org, "The Science of Empathy," by Helen Riess, MD (Journal of Patient Experience, June 2017 4 (2): 74-77):

"Our capacity to perceive and resonate with others’ suffering allows us to feel and understand their pain. The personal distress experienced by observing others’ pain often motivates us to respond with compassion."

The article by Dr. Riess is only about four pages long and free to download at the link above. It consistently focuses on the "I feel your pain" type of empathy – i.e. what we (and Marshall Rosenberg) call "sympathy".

Another author cited both by Dr. Riess and on the connectionpractice.org site is C. Daniel Batson, Professor Emeritus at the University of Kansas, and a pioneer in the field of empathy research. For example, the connectionpractice.org "Science" page says, "In an interesting study described in the article, Batson explored the relationship of perspective-taking to valuing a person who is in need. Perspective-taking is a well-known precursor to empathic concern. In the first experiment, both perspective-taking and valuing were variables and each increased empathic concern independently."

Although one might suppose that "empathy" and "empathic concern" are more or less the same, this is not the case. For example, the article on "empathic concern" in Wikipedia (which cites Batson) says the following:

"Empathic concern refers to other-oriented emotions elicited by and congruent with the perceived welfare of someone in need. These other-oriented emotions include feelings of tenderness, sympathy, compassion, soft-heartedness, and the like.

"Empathic concern is often and wrongly confused with empathy. To empathize is to respond to another's perceived emotional state by experiencing feeling of a similar sort. Empathic concern or sympathy not only include empathizing, but also entails having a positive regard or a non-fleeting concern for the other person."

Note the identification of empathic concern with sympathy. (The bolded emphasis above is mine.) In addition, note that the definition of empathy (experiencing feelings similar to someone else's) has little to do with the NVC definition. Thus, neither "empathy" nor "empathic concern" as defined by Dr. Batson corresponds to NVC-style empathy. Feeling empathic concern, in particular, typically implies feeling some level of distress. In contrast, experiencing distress neither indicates nor facilitates NVC-style empathy.

The first paragraph of the Wikipedia article cites articles by Dr. Batson and is congruent with the following from Dr. Batson's book, "Altruism in Humans":

Empathic concern is not a single, discrete emotion but includes a whole constellation. It includes feelings of sympathy, compassion, softheartedness, tenderness, sorrow, sadness, upset, distress, concern, and grief.... [E]mpathic concern is other-oriented in the sense that it involves feeling for the other—feeling sympathy for, compassion for, sorry for, distressed for, concerned for, and so on.

Batson, C.D. (2011). "Altruism in Humans", Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 11.

If you have empathic concern for someone, you may have a number of feelings, at least some of them probably distressing. This contrasts sharply with "just being present," "watching the magic show" and "like I wasn't there" in Marshall's comments above.

Dr. Batson's books and articles overall focus on altruism, helping behaviors and prosocial behaviors – actively helping someone who is in trouble or in need. This is a typical feature of empathic concern or sympathy. However, it tends to block empathy as practiced in NVC. Indeed any focus on changing, as opposed to simply experiencing, tends to work against NVC-style empathy. (Again, see Marshall's quote above about the "fix-it" tendency.)

Of course, practitioners of NVC, like the great majority of human beings, do tend to experience personal distress when observing others’ pain. They may well be motivated to respond compassionately. However, NVC defines this as "sympathy" – not "empathy." The Quick Coherence technique, adopted by the Connection Practice from HeartMath, makes it easier for me as a Connection Practice coach to achieve and stay in NVC-style empathy, thus reducing my tendency towards "sympathy" and making it easier, as Marshall suggests, to "postpone result/solution thinking until later."

As a force in human society, empathic concern or sympathy is far from a bad thing, and the resulting altruistic actions can be among the most fulfilling, joyful and even thrilling moments in human existence – at the right place and time. However, that place and time would not be while doing the Connection Practice. (Unless, say, a session was being conducted on a raft on a raging river, and the coach jumped in to save a client who had fallen overboard – or vice versa.)


In the Connection Practice, our understanding and practice in relation to needs is also based on NVC. In this context, "needs" refers to universal – and one might even say somewhat abstract – human needs like safety, connection and understanding, not the concrete, specific actions that might help solve a problem, like pulling someone out of a raging river. In the Connection Practice, we call such actions "strategies," and – barring a real emergency – a Connection Practice coach should virtually never even suggest such strategies to a client, unless specifically requested to do so, and then only after 1) giving full scope to the experience of empathy and 2) helping the client achieve coherence and then access "heart-brain insight".

It is said that if you give someone a fish you may feed them for a day, but if you teach them to fish, you feed them for a lifetime. The Connection Practice focuses on teaching people to "fish" for their own insights; coaches are discouraged from giving their own insights or analyzing a client's insights.

In the Connection Practice, we guide the client to identify feelings and needs (in the NVC sense) and make a clear distinction between these and strategies. If strategizing is required, the client generally does that, with the help of the powerful "heart-brain insight" process.

In contrast, when "empathy" and "needs" are defined as they typically are in the context of sympathy or empathic concern, there is a definite tendency to take concrete action to help the sufferer. The desire to do so is in fact a hallmark of sympathy or empathic concern.

In Conclusion

It may be that there is scientific support for the statement that "Naming needs leads to empathy," as those terms are used in NVC or the Connection Practice. I'd be very curious to hear about such support. However, the sources cited on connectionpractice.org have very little to say about "needs" or "empathy" as those terms are employed in the context of NVC or the Connection Practice.

Why I Care

This is important to me for three reasons:

  1. In the ups and downs of everyday life, I generally don't want people to "feel bad" for me. (I could state this more emphatically, but I'll just leave it at that.) The Connection Practice is brilliant at enabling its practitioners to generate a caring, positive inner state when encountering unhappiness of various sorts. This reduces the likelihood that a Connection Practice coach will "feel bad" for me while I'm sharing my feelings and needs.
  2. I often (maybe usually) do not need or want you to be inspired to help me just because I'm telling you my troubles. It is much better to wait and let me ask for help if and when I want to. Again, the principles and processes of NVC and the Connection Practice are wonderfully respectful in this regard.
  3. For me, identifying the universal human needs underlying feelings is the essence and glory of NVC. It helps me understand what really makes me and others "tick" in a deeper way. It allows me to find the good that underlies "bad" feelings – for example, the beautiful and tender need for connection that might underlie a feeling of loneliness, or the healthy, growth-facilitating need for self-determination that might underlie a feeling of anger. I don't want to conflate such NVC-style needs with "needs" in a more general sense. For me, a scientific study would have to be based on this specific NVC-style definition of "needs" in order to meaningfully assess the impact of naming needs in the context of NVC or the Connection Practice.

Michael Hurwicz, mhurwicz(at)gmail.com, March 8, 2021