Empathy in a time of conflict

Empathising with the other is the first step to nonviolence

Empathy in a time of conflict

As I sit here, along with the rest of the world waiting for Putin’s 40 mile long convoy to reach Kyiv, I feel exhausted with the sense of powerlessness.  The easiest first response is to want to fight fire with fire, to respond in kind.  However, I am a trainer in nonviolent communication, I am a Quaker, I am frequently surrounded by others who work for peace, surely we can do better than that?  

Barbara Deming talked of the two hands of nonviolence:

“With one hand we say to one who is angry, or to an oppressor, or to an unjust system, “Stop what you are doing. I refuse to honor the role you are choosing to play.  I refuse to obey you.  I refuse to cooperate with your demands.  I refuse to build the walls and the bombs.  I refuse to pay for the guns.  With this hand I will even interfere with the wrong you are doing.  I want to disrupt the easy pattern of your life.” 

But then the advocate of nonviolence raises the other hand.  It is raised out-stretched – maybe with love and sympathy, maybe not – but always outstretched… With this hand we say, “I won’t let go of you or cast you out of the human race.  I have faith that you can make a better choice than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you are ready.  Like it or not, we are part of one another.”

from Barbara Deming, Revolution and Equilibrium


How does one extend that hand of nonviolence when confronted with images of aggression?  

Empathy is the practice of taking time to understand someone else’s experience on their own terms.  It is not about intellectually understanding, or analysing, or excusing.  It is about emotionally discerning what is going on for them.  If the other person is right in front of you, you can make guesses to check out with them whether you have discerned correctly.  If not, you have to do it from afar, but even the process of opening your heart to try, you create a connection between you where love and peace can flow.

“Peace requires something far more difficult than revenge or merely turning the other cheek; it requires empathizing with the fears and unmet needs that provide the impetus for people to attack each other.” 

Marshall Rosenberg

Empathy starts with the self

When I hear that there is a convoy 40 miles long of Russian tanks heading for Kyiv, I feel rage, grief, heartbroken, exhausted with the sense of powerlessness.  I am longing for a world where that doesn’t happen, longing for a world of peace, understanding, curiosity and mutuality in dealing with the other.  Not a world of strong divisions and us and them and forming yourself into silos.  These are the feelings I feel and the needs they are pointing to.

There is an element in my pain at hearing about the war that is personal to me.  I have studied both Slavic languages and International Relations so there is a story there that I should be doing more, I should have had a different life where I was more active in these parts of the world. There is a shame, a disappointment with myself, that I have not put my skills and gifts to better use.  That shame is pointing to a need for contribution and deep connection, to truly get involved in something that matters.  

Why empathise with the self first?  

If you don’t empathise with yourself first, it is easy to get lost in the trigger.  You get lost in the images of devastation and suffering, lost in blaming your feelings on Putin.  My need is for peace, mutuality and curiosity about the other.  Is not up to Vladimir Putin to provide that for me.  Once I have spotted that, I can take a moment to celebrate the things I already do in my life which work towards a world of peace and mutuality.  My work as an NVC trainer, the practice I take part in as a Quaker.  None of that stopped Putin invading Ukraine, but it does work towards a world of peace and mutuality and curiosity about the other.  As I remember that I can feel my heart start to open.

The other reason to empathise with the self first is about creating capacity to hear the other.  While I was still unconsciously distracted by my story of personal shame, I did not have space to see him on his own terms.  Once I had identified that need, I decided to do more research about Putin in order to understand him better.  Research and understanding is something that I can contribute.  By understanding where he is coming from, it meets my own need for contribution and creates the space within me to break down my enemy image of him.  

Caveats I need to say before I move on:  
  1. Firstly, I fully recognise that others might be drawn more to empathising with the Ukrainian people, with the refugees, with the men who are having to stay and fight when they are not fighters, when they don’t want to.  Nearly all my male friends are between the ages of 18 and 60, they don’t want to fight any more than I do.  I fully recognise that they need empathy too.  I also feel drawn to empathise with the Russian people and soldiers, many of whom would not have chosen this either.
  2. Secondly, to empathise is not to excuse.  The willingness to open yourself to why someone has chosen the strategy that they have, and to see the humanity beneath that choice, does not mean that you let go of your belief that the path they have chosen will cause suffering.

Empathising with Putin

I heard someone on the radio this morning claiming that Putin was entirely in his own world.  We hear people saying that he is mad, but that is a cop out.  It’s a refusal to understand, it is a denial of the responsibility to try and understand.  It’s a trump card, I don’t have to listen to you because you are mad, wrong, evil, because you are not human.  But he is human, just as Hitler was human, just as all dictators are, human beings with needs and feelings.  

Veterans for Peace (who are well worth following on social media for the excellent content they share) shared a post from someone about the NATO expansion encircling Russia since 1997. 

So what are his feelings when he sees that?  I guess he is frightened and longing for safety and security.  NATO expansion is a sign of ‘The West’ having ‘won’ the Cold War (all these terms are heavily laden with ‘us and them’ significance).  NATO is gradually being understood as everybody but Russia and China.  Does he feel as if he has been backed into a corner?  Does he feel isolated and afraid?  He could easily perceive that ‘the West’ is rubbing his nose in it.  We won the cold war, yah boo sucks.  Much of the rhetoric in politics and on the news recreate this narrative.  It is an act of violence too, to actively humiliate someone.  Is he also longing for respect and mutuality?  Does he perceive that he has run out of options to be seen in any other way?

He will be 70 this year.  I have heard talk of Parkinson’s, I have heard talk of cancer.  He is coming to the end of his healthy life and maybe his tenure.  Maybe he is looking back with disappointment or sadness, frustration and anger, frustration that ‘the West’ doesn’t see the world as he does.  Maybe he is longing for a shared reality of how great Russia is.  Maybe he wants to be seen for his contribution in returning Russia to its imperial glory, to leave a legacy that corresponds with his vision of himself and Russia.  Maybe he is longing for the sense of justice that that would bring.

I can empathise with his needs for respect and mutuality, for safety and shared reality.  I fundamentally disagree with his strategy for meeting them and I feel deep grief that this is the path he has chosen.


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The Value of Integration

The value of integration

I saw this sign in a warehouse directing people to ‘Inward Tipping’ and it got me thinking.  I have spent many years firstly training for, building up to, and then waiting for my assessment as a certified trainer in NVC.  Now that the event has taken place and I have been recommended, I find myself feeling a little lost.  I have so many plans to put in place, so many exciting projects to bring to the world, but nothing is flowing right now and I am contemplating instead the value of taking time to integrate.

The sign in the warehouse was in the area where work arrives on a lorry and is organised before being despatched back out again on different lorries.  This work is normally referred to as inbound or arrivals.  I have never seen it referred to as ‘Inward Tipping’ before.  Lorries come in, they are tipped, that is why it is referred to as tipping, but given that is also my surname, I was struck by the sign.

Going inward

At first I saw it as a description, I am introverted, I could relate to being an ‘inward Tipping’.  I am not generally shy, I just need a huge amount of solitude to balance out even a small amount of time spent in company.  That is why driving trucks at night has suited me for so long. I am being paid to think, to reconnect with myself and all that is.  As I set off on a journey of 2 hours or more, I find myself breathing a sigh of relief and can feel my head taking time to put itself back together after the busyness of outward life.  I read the sign initially as a celebration of that process.   A few days later, I was sitting in Quaker meeting.  I had done a night shift the night before and had not slept so found myself reading Advices and Queries to stay awake.  No. 3 includes the following lines: 

Do you try to set aside times of quiet for openness to the Holy Spirit? All of us need to find a way into silence which allows us to deepen our awareness of the divine and to find the inward source of our strength. Seek to know an inward stillness, even amid the activities of daily life. 

Twice in one paragraph it uses the word ‘inward’.  At that moment I experienced the sign, not as a description of how I am generally, but as an instruction of where I need to go now.

It is not enough to simply spend time alone, if all that time is spent beating yourself up about all the things that you are not doing.  You are not getting the value of going inward, if what you are thinking about is all the things that you need to do outward.  

Integration as active process

So how does one go about integrating?  For me it is about noticing which elements of life are coming to mind, and then fully experiencing everything that thought is trying to tell you.  Now, when I think about the assessment event and certification, I fully take time to celebrate all the work that has gone into it, the wonderful connections I have made and the beautiful sense of achievement of having chosen a path, worked for it and arrived at this stage with it.  When I think about the courses I am designing for women in male-dominated industry, I am not planning the specifics for now, I am encouraging myself to fully connect with the living energy of what I want to contribute – the experience of wholeness, of walking towards a new way of being with joy, of changing the world for the better through compassion, connection and choice.  Lesson plans, marketing strategies and sign up forms can wait.  For now, I am just hanging out in the beauty and joy of life so that when the time comes, I can move forward from a place of groundedness.

Why improving diversity is a nonviolent act.

We think of diversity and inclusion as policies which organisations adopt to improve their demographic balance.  There are programmes to support and empower women, people of colour and people from the LGBTQI community and these are all to be welcomed.  For me, diversity goes way beyond a process for creating opportunities for marginalised groups.  For me, accepting and encouraging diversity is a nonviolent act.

Quakers are “called to live ‘in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars’.”  We are asked to “Search out whatever in your own way of life may contain the seeds of war.” (Advices and Queries, no. 31).  The unconscious bias and privilege that we carry with us every day are part of that way of life which may contain the seeds of war.  Challenging them are acts of nonviolence.

Nonviolence in action

Nonviolence is not just the absence of physical violence, it is the presence of something different, something that Martin Luther King called justiceMarshall Rosenberg chose Nonviolent Communication as the name of his ground-breaking process to draw a link with Gandhi’s practice of nonviolent resistance to oppression.  Underlying any violence, physical, verbal, emotional, is some kind of separation between you and me, between us and them.  When the group called ‘us’ looks different to the group called ‘them’, it makes it a lot easier to put that wall up and a lot harder to break it down.

Recognition of the shared humanity of ‘us’ and ‘them’ is the foundation of diversity and inclusion work.  When we are each part of a greater whole called ‘us’ the divisions slip away.

The importance of history

To try and create a nonviolent and inclusive world from now will be an empty task without recognition of the violence of history.  The historic freedom to build that wall between us and them has always been indicative of, and constructive of, power relations.  The capacity to define who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’, is the power to judge ‘them’ as lesser.  The one who tells the story of who is in and who is out has the power to exclude and banish from view those they do not consider to belong.  It is the power to dominate and it is profoundly violent.  

Wherever we choose to be now, we are not coming from the same place.  Women have only a few generations in the workplace behind them.  People from underprivileged backgrounds in the UK have only had access to the benefits of higher education and health care since the 2nd world war and the massive rise in tuition fees over the last decade has reversed that opportunity.  People from formerly colonised parts of the world or whose personal histories contain stories of forced migration, carry with them that experience of powerlessness.   The recent series It’s a Sin on UK television has vividly depicted just how recent it was that coming out at work would be tantamount to career suicide.  

Colonialism, sexism, homophobia, and policies which restrict access to good quality education and health care are all in themselves violent acts. Approaches to diversity which do not recognise the burden of history are merely surface dressing. 

Yes, diversity is a cornerstone of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and that is a good thing.  And it is so much more than shifting the demographic of your workforce.  It is an opportunity to shine a light on histories of domination and move towards a more peaceful and equitable future.

Image by Joshua J Cotten on Unsplash

What is Nonviolent Communication?

What is Nonviolent Communication? 

NVC was developed by Marshall Rosenberg, an American psychologist, in the 1960s. On a purely practical level it is a series of steps to follow, to increase your understanding of why you are feeling and acting the way you are and to then understand the same in others. 

“With Nonviolent Communication (NVC) we learn to hear our own deeper needs and those of others. Through its emphasis on deep listening—to ourselves as well as others—NVC helps us discover the depth of our own compassion. This language reveals the awareness that all human beings are only trying to honor universal values and needs, every minute, every day.” (From website of Center for Nonviolent Communication)

On a consciousness level it is about a commitment to deep connection with the self and with others and through that radically altering the way that humans relate to each other.  At its core it focusses on fundamental human needs and the understanding that in any situation all anyone is trying to do is meet their needs.  Once you become aware of what the need is that you or someone else is trying to meet, it is a lot easier to empathise and start to understand someone’s behaviour.  

Between those two poles of the practical and the conscious, there is where we all place ourselves as practitioners and trainers of Nonviolent Communication.  For me, rather than just telling somebody the importance of empathy in leadership, I like to give a very clear process for what that means and how it might happen.  It is a tool for self-connection so that in any situation you can understand your own motivations better and through that you can create the capacity within you to understand other people’s motivations better.  

What does NVC mean to me?

Where my interest lies, especially in the work I do in male-dominated industries, is in finding ways for people to communicate so that diversity and creating a more diverse team, is a lot less scary and just flows easily.  It is also about bringing our awareness to what is a choice and how much of the way things are – our typical habits and ways of relating to each other – are part of a pattern that can easily be changed, while still staying authentic.  For me it is about changing the small picture while always keeping an eye on the big picture.

How did I get into NVC?

I first heard about NVC while at a festival down in Dorset.  I didn’t go to the workshop but was intrigued by the name.  Then in 2014 I left a relationship and I knew that communication had been a serious issue for us.  I bought Marshall’s book and read it, ticking off all the things that he and I had done that contributed to the relationship not working!  From then I was hooked.  I went to my first course in 2015, started on the path to certification as a trainer in 2017 and would hopefully have certified in 2020 had COVID not got in the way.

Now it is the process I turn to make sense of myself, to understand why something has bothered me, to delve deeper into the core beliefs which underlie the surface behaviour and to empathise better with others.  I love the simplicity of the model combined with the depth that it makes possible.  We are all a work in progress, but I am very grateful to have found the process that works for me.

Image by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash