Nonviolent Communication in Action

Man comforting woman

One sees clearly only with the heart.
Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.

de Exupery, The Little Prince

 

Another Way

The Mugger

The Drug Addict

The Crocodile

The NVC Card

The Palestinian Camp

The Prisoner

Get Service

The Street Gang

The Rapist

The Street Mob

The Anti-Semite

The Clenched Fist

 

All passages except videos and “Another Way” (by Terry Dobson) are excerpted, courtesy of PuddleDancer Press, from
Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, with titles and quotations added.

Another Way

Perhaps everything which is terrible is, in the deepest sense, something that wants our love.

Rilke

The train clanked and rattled through the suburbs of Tokyo on a drowsy spring afternoon. Our car was comparatively empty - a few housewives with their kids in tow, some old folks going shopping. I gazed absently at the drab houses and dusty hedgerows.

At one station the doors opened, and suddenly the afternoon quiet was shattered by a man bellowing violent, incomprehensible curses. The man staggered into our car. He wore laborer’s clothing, and he was big, drunk, and dirty. Screaming, he swung at a woman holding a baby. The blow sent her spinning into the laps of an elderly couple. It was a miracle that she was unharmed.

Terrified, the couple jumped up and scrambled toward the other end of the car. The laborer aimed a kick at the retreating back of the old woman but missed as she scuttled to safety. This so enraged the drunk that he grabbed the metal pole in the center of the car and tried to wrench it out of its stanchion. I could see that on of his hands was cut and bleeding. The train lurched ahead, the passengers frozen with fear. I stood up.

I was young then, some 20 years ago, and in pretty good shape. I’d been putting in a solid eight hours of aikido training nearly every day for the past three years. I like to throw and grapple. I thought I was tough. Trouble was, my martial skill was untested in actual combat. As students of aikido, we were not allowed to fight.

"Aikido," my teacher had said again and again, "is the art of reconciliation. Whoever has the mind to fight has broken his connection with the universe. If you try to dominate people, you are already defeated. We study how to resolve conflict, not how to start it."

I listened to his words. I tried hard I even went so far as to cross the street to avoid the chimpira, the pinball punks who lounged around the train stations. My forbearance exalted me. I felt both tough and holy. In my heart, however, I wanted an absolutely legitimate opportunity whereby I might save the innocent by destroying the guilty.

This is it! I said to myself, getting to my feet. People are in danger and if I don’t do something fast, they will probably get hurt.

Seeing me stand up, the drunk recognized a chance to focus his rage. "Aha!" He roared. "A foreigner! You need a lesson in Japanese manners!"

I held on lightly to the commuter strap overhead and gave him a slow look of disgust and dismissal. I planned to take this turkey apart, but he had to make the first move. I wanted him mad, so I pursed my lips and blew him an insolent kiss.

"All right! He hollered. "You’re gonna get a lesson." He gathered himself for a rush at me.

A split second before he could move, someone shouted "Hey!" It was earsplitting. I remember the strangely joyous, lilting quality of it - as though you and a friend had been searching diligently for something, and he suddenly stumbled upon it. "Hey!"

I wheeled to my left; the drunk spun to his right. We both stared down at a little old Japanese man. He must have been well into his seventies, this tiny gentleman, sitting there immaculate in his kimono. He took no notice of me, but beamed delightedly at the laborer, as though he had a most important, most welcome secret to share.

"C’mere," the old man said in an easy vernacular, beckoning to the drunk. "C’mere and talk with me." He waved his hand lightly.

The big man followed, as if on a string. He planted his feet belligerently in front of the old gentleman, and roared above the clacking wheels, "Why the hell should I talk to you?" The drunk now had his back to me. If his elbow moved so much as a millimeter, I’d drop him in his socks.

The old man continued to beam at the laborer.

"What’cha been drinkin’?" he asked, his eyes sparkling with interest. "I been drinkin’ sake," the laborer bellowed back, "and it’s none of your business!" Flecks of spittle spattered the old man.

"Ok, that’s wonderful," the old man said, "absolutely wonderful! You see, I love sake too. Every night, me and my wife (she’s 76, you know), we warm up a little bottle of sake and take it out into the garden, and we sit on an old wooden bench. We watch the sun go down, and we look to see how our persimmon tree is doing. My great-grandfather planted that tree, and we worry about whether it will recover from those ice storms we had last winter. Our tree had done better than I expected, though especially when you consider the poor quality of the soil. It is gratifying to watch when we take our sake and go out to enjoy the evening - even when it rains!" He looked up at the laborer, eyes twinkling.

As he struggled to follow the old man’s conversation, the drunk’s face began to soften. His fists slowly unclenched. "Yeah," he said. "I love persimmons too…" His voice trailed off.

"Yes," said the old man, smiling, "and I’m sure you have a wonderful wife."

"No," replied the laborer. "My wife died." Very gently, swaying with the motion of the train, the big man began to sob. "I don’t got no wife, I don’t got no home, I don’t got no job. I am so ashamed of myself." Tears rolled down his cheeks; a spasm of despair rippled through his body.

Now it was my turn. Standing there in well-scrubbed youthful innocence, my make-this-world-safe-for-democracy righteousness, I suddenly felt dirtier than he was.

Then the train arrived at my stop. As the doors opened, I heard the old man cluck sympathetically. "My, my," he said, "that is a difficult predicament, indeed. Sit down here and tell me about it."

I turned my head for one last look. The laborer was sprawled on the seat, his head in the old man’s lap. The old man was softly stroking the filthy, matted hair.

As the train pulled away, I sat down on a bench. What I had wanted to do with muscle had been accomplished with kind words. I had just seen aikido tried in combat, and the essence of it was love. I would have to practice the art with an entirely different spirit. It would be a long time before I could speak about the resolution of conflict.

The Mugger

Kindness is the greatest wisdom.

author unknown

The Drug Addict

Many a man would rather you heard his story than granted his request.

Phillip Stanhope

I’d like to illustrate how a young woman used empathy to bypass violence during her night shift at a drug detoxification center in Toronto. The young woman recounted this story during a second workshop she attended in NVC.

At 11:00 p.m. one night, a few weeks after her first NVC training, a man who’d obviously been taking drugs walked in off the street and demanded a room. The young woman started to explain to him that all the rooms had been filled for the night. She was about to hand the man the address of another detox center when he hurled her to the ground. “The next thing I knew, he was sitting across my chest holding a knife to my throat and shouting, ‘You bitch, don’t lie to me! You do too have a room!’”

She then proceeded to apply her training by listening for his feelings and needs. “You remembered to do that under those conditions?” I asked, impressed.

“What choice did I have? Desperation sometimes makes good communicators of us all! You know, Marshall,” she added, “that joke you told in the workshop really helped me. In fact, I think it saved my life.”

“What joke?”

“Remember when you said never to put your ‘but’ in the face of an angry person? I was all ready to start arguing with him; I was about to say, ‘ But I don’t have a room!’ when I remembered your joke. It had really stayed with me because only the week before, I was arguing with my mother and she’d said to me, ‘I could kill you when you answer “but” to everything I say!’ Imagine, if my own mother was angry enough to kill me for using that word, what would this man have done? If I’d said, ‘But I don’t have a room!’ when he was screaming at me, I have no doubt he would have slit my throat.

So instead, I took a deep breath and said, ‘It sounds like you’re really angry and you want to be given a room.’ He yelled back, ‘I may be an addict, but by God, I deserve respect. I’m tired of nobody giving me respect. My parents don’t give me respect. I’m gonna get respect!’ I just focused on his feelings and needs and said, ‘Are you fed up, not getting the respect that you want?’”

“How long did this go on?” I asked.

“Oh, about another 35 minutes,” she replied.

“That must have been terrifying.”

“No, not after the first couple of interchanges, because then something else we’d learned here became apparent. When I concentrated on listening for his feelings and needs, I stopped seeing him as a monster. I could see, just as you’d said, how people who seem like monsters are simply human beings whose language and behavior sometimes keep us from seeing their humanness. The more I was able to focus my attention on his feelings and needs, the more I saw him as a person full of despair whose needs weren’t being met. I became confident that if I held my attention there, I wouldn’t be hurt. After he’d received the empathy he needed, he got off me, put the knife away, and I helped him find a room at another center.”

Mother-daughter argumentDelighted that she’d learned to respond empathically in such an extreme situation, I asked curiously, “What are you doing back here? It sounds like you’ve mastered NVC and should be out teaching others what you’ve learned.”

“Now I need you to help me with a hard one,” she said.

“I’m almost afraid to ask. What could be harder than that?”

“Now I need you to help me with my mother. Despite all the insight I got into that ‘but’ phenomenon, you know what happened? At supper the next evening when I told my mother what had happened with the man, she said, ‘You’re going to cause your father and me to have a heart attack if you keep that job. You simply have to find different work!’

So guess what I said to her? ‘But, mother, it’s my life!’”

The Crocodile

Wherever I have traveled with inward good will, tolerance, consideration,
a desire to cooperate, understanding, gentleness and appreciation,
those qualities came back to me in outward profusion from all directions,
even from creeping and crawling things supposedly to be deadly foes.

J. Allen Boone, A Kinship with All Life

The NVC Card

If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow.

Chinese Proverb

A friend of mine, Sam Williams, jotted down the basic components of this process on a three by five card, which he would use as a “cheat sheet” at work. When his boss would confront him, Sam would stop, refer to the card in his hand, and take time to remember how to respond.

When I asked whether his colleagues were finding him a little strange, constantly staring into his hand and taking so much time to form his sentences, Sam replied, “It doesn’t actually take that much more time, but even if it did, it’s still worth it to me. It’s important for me to know that I am responding to people the way I really want to.” At home he was more overt, explaining to his wife and children why he was taking the time and trouble to consult the card. Whenever there was an argument in the family, he would pull out the card and take his time. After about a month, he felt comfortable enough to put it away.

Then one evening, he and Scottie, age 4, were having a conflict over television and it wasn’t going well. “Daddy,” Scottie said urgently, “get the card!”

The Palestinian Camp

The more ugly the judgment, the more beautiful the need behind it.

Marshall Rosenberg

I was presenting Nonviolent Communication in a mosque at Deheisha Refugee Camp in Bethlehem to about 170 Palestinian Moslem men. Attitudes toward Americans at that time were not favorable. As I was speaking, I suddenly noticed a wave of muffled commotion fluttering through the audience. “They’re whispering that you are American!” my translator alerted me, just as a gentleman in the audience leapt to his feet. Facing me squarely, he hollered at the top of his lungs, “Murderer!” Immediately a dozen other voices joined him in chorus: “Assassin!” “Child-killer!” “Murderer!”

Fortunately, I was able to focus my attention on what the man was feeling and needing. In this case, I had some cues. On the way into the refugee camp, I had seen several empty tear gas canisters that had been shot into the camp the night before. Clearly marked on each canister were the words “Made in U.S.A.” I knew that the refugees harbored a lot of anger toward the U.S. for supplying tear gas and other weapons to Israel. I addressed the man who had called me a murderer:

I: Are you angry because you would like my government to use its resources differently? (I didn’t know whether my guess was correct, but what is critical is my sincere effort to connect with his feeling and need.)

He: Damn right I’m angry! You think we need tear gas? We need sewers, not your tear gas! We need housing! We need to have our own country!

I: So you’re furious and would appreciate some support in improving your living conditions and gaining political independence?

He: Do you know what it’s like to live here for twenty-seven years the way I have with my family—children and all? Have you got the faintest idea what that’s been like for us?

I: Sounds like you’re feeling very desperate and you’re wondering whether I or anybody else can really understand what it’s like to be living under these conditions. Am I hearing you right?

He: You want to understand? Tell me, do you have children? Do they go to school? Do they have playgrounds? My son is sick! He plays in open sewage! His classroom has no books! Have you seen a school that has no books?

I: I hear how painful it is for you to raise your children here; you’d like me to know that what you want is what all parents want for their children—a good education, opportunity to play and grow in a healthy environment…

He: That’s right, the basics! Human rights—isn’t that what you Americans call it? Why don’t more of you come here and see what kind of human rights you’re bringing here!

I: You’d like more Americans to be aware of the enormity of the suffering here and to look more deeply at the consequences of our political actions?

Our dialogue continued, with him expressing his pain for nearly twenty more minutes, and I listening for the feeling and need behind each statement. I didn’t agree or disagree. I received his words, not as attacks, but as gifts from a fellow human willing to share his soul and deep vulnerabilities with me.

Once the gentleman felt understood, he was able to hear me as I explained my purpose for being at the camp. An hour later, the same man who had called me a murderer was inviting me to his home for a Ramadan dinner.

The Prisoner

Far better for either to be mute than to murder friendship by dispute.

Robert Herrick

John: “Three weeks ago I made a request to the prison officials and they still haven’t responded to my request.”

MBR: “So when this happened, you felt angry because what?”

John: “I just told you. They didn’t respond to my request!”

MBR: “Hold it. Instead of saying, ‘I felt angry because they…,’ stop and become conscious of what you’re telling yourself that’s making you so angry.”

John: “I’m not telling myself anything.”

MBR: “Stop, slow down, just listen to what’s going on inside.”

John (silently reflecting and then): “I’m telling myself that they have no respect for human beings; they are a bunch of cold, faceless bureaucrats who don’t give a damn about anybody but themselves! They’re a real bunch of . . .”

MBR: “Thanks, that’s enough. Now you know why you’re angry—it’s that kind of thinking.”

John: “But what’s wrong with thinking that way?”

MBR: “I’m not saying there is anything wrong with thinking that way. Notice if I say there is something wrong with you for thinking that way, I’d be thinking the same way about you. I don’t say it’s wrong to judge people, to call them faceless bureaucrats or to label their actions inconsiderate or selfish. However, it’s that kind of thinking on your part that makes you feel very angry. Focus your attention on your needs: what are your needs in this situation?”

John (after a long silence): “Marshall, I need the training I was requesting. If I don’t get that training, as sure as I’m sitting here, I’m gonna end up back in this prison when I get out.”

MBR: “Now that your attention is on your needs, how do you feel?”

John: “Scared.”

MBR: “Now put yourself in the shoes of a prison official. If I’m an inmate, am I more likely to get my needs met if I come to you saying, ‘Hey I really need that training and I’m scared of what’s going to happen if I don’t get it . . . . ’ or if I approach while seeing you as a faceless bureaucrat? Even if I don’t say those words out loud, my eyes will reveal that kind of thinking. Which way am I more likely to get my needs met?”

(John, staring at floor, remains silent).

MBR: “Hey, buddy, what’s going on?

John: “Can’t talk about it.”

Three hours later John approached me and said, “Marshall, I wish you had taught me two years ago what you taught me this morning. I wouldn’t have had to kill my best friend.”

Get Service

If we could read the secret history of our enemies,
we should find in each man's life
sorrow and suffering enough
to disarm all hostility.

H.W. Longfellow

The Street Gang


Bully

Non-reaction is not weakness but strength. Another word for non-reaction is forgiveness. To forgive is to overlook, or rather to look through. You look through the ego to the sanity that is in every human being as his or her essence.

Eckhart Tolle

Once I showed my vulnerability to some members of a street gang in Cleveland by acknowledging the hurt I was feeling and my desire to be treated with more respect. “Oh, look,” one of them remarked, “he’s feeling hurt; isn’t that too bad!” at which point all his friends chimed in laughing…

As I listened closely to the gang member’s remark, “Oh look, he’s feeling hurt, isn’t that too bad?” and the laughter that followed, I sensed that he and his friends were annoyed and not wanting to be subjected to guilt trips and manipulation. They may have been reacting to people in their pasts who used phrases like “that hurts me” to imply disapproval. Since I didn’t verify it with them out loud, I have no way of knowing if my guess was in fact accurate. Just focusing my attention there, however, kept me from either taking it personally or getting angry. Instead of judging them for ridiculing or treating me disrespectfully, I concentrated on hearing the pain and needs behind such behavior.

“Hey,” one of them burst out, “this is a bunch of crap you’re offering us! Suppose there are members of another gang here and they have guns and you don’t. And you say just stand there and talk to them? Crap!”

Then everybody was laughing again, and again I directed my attention to their feelings and needs: “So it sounds like you’re really fed up with learning something that has no relevance in those situations?”

“Yeah, and if you lived in this neighborhood, you’d know this is a bunch of crap.”

“So you need to trust that someone teaching you something has some knowledge of your neighborhood?”

“Damn right. Some of these dudes would blast you away before you got two words out of your mouth!”

“And you need to trust that someone trying to teach you something understands the dangers around here?” I continued to listen in this manner, sometimes verbalizing what I heard and sometimes not. This continued for forty-five minutes and then I sensed a shift: they felt that I was truly understanding them. A counselor in the program noticed the shift, and asked them out loud, “What do you think of this man?” The gentleman who had been giving me the roughest time replied, “He’s the best speaker we’ve ever had.”

Astonished, the counselor turned to me and whispered, “But you haven’t said anything!” In fact, I had said a lot by demonstrating that there was nothing they could throw at me that couldn’t be translated into universal human feelings and needs.

The Rapist

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.

The Dalai Lama

A teacher in the inner city of St. Louis related an incident where she had conscientiously stayed after school to help a student, even though teachers were warned to leave the building for their own safety after classes were dismissed. A stranger entered her classroom, where the following exchange took place:

Young man: “Take off your clothes.”

Teacher (noticing that he was shaking): “I’m sensing this is very scary for you.”

Young man: “Did you hear me? God damn it, take off your clothes!”

Teacher: “I’m sensing you’re really pissed off right now and you want me to do what you’re telling me.”

Young man: “You’re damned right, and you’re going to get hurt if you don’t.”

Teacher: “I’d like you to tell me if there’s some other way of meeting your needs that wouldn’t hurt me.”

Young man: “I said take them off.”

Teacher: “I can hear how much you want this. At the same time, I want you to know how scared and horrible I feel, and how grateful I’d be if you’d leave without hurting me.”

Young man: “Give me your purse.”

The teacher handed the stranger her purse, relieved not to be raped. She later described how, each time she empathized with the young man, she could sense his becoming less adamant in his intention to follow through with the rape.

The Street Mob

The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn't being said.

Peter Drucker

A metropolitan police officer attending a follow-up training in NVC once greeted me with this account:

“I’m sure glad you had us practicing empathy with angry people that last time. Just a few days after our session, I went to arrest someone in a public housing project. When I brought him out, my car was surrounded by about 60 people screaming things at me like, ‘Let him go! He didn’t do anything! You police are a bunch of racist pigs!’ Although I was skeptical that empathy would help, I didn’t have many other options. So I reflected back the feelings that were coming at me; I said things like, ‘So you don’t trust my reasons for arresting this man? You think it has to do with race?’ After several minutes of my continuing to reflect their feelings, the group became less hostile. In the end they opened a path so I could get to my car.”

The Anti-Semite

When you are listening to somebody completely, attentively, then you are listening...
to the feeling of what is being conveyed.

Krishnamurti

Early one morning I was picked up by a cab at an airport to take me into town. A message-from the dispatcher came over the loud speaker for the cabbie: “Pick up Mr. Fishman at the synagogue on Main Street.” The man next to me in the cab muttered, “These kikes get up early in the morning so they can screw everybody out of their money.”

For twenty seconds, there was smoke coming out of my ears. In earlier years, my first reaction would have been to want to physically hurt such a person. Now I took a few deep breaths and then gave myself some empathy for the hurt, fear, and rage that were stirring inside me. I attended to my feelings. I stayed conscious that my anger wasn’t coming from my fellow passenger nor the statement he had just made. His comment had triggered off a volcano inside of me, but I knew that my anger and profound fear came from a far deeper source than those words he had just uttered. I sat back and simply allowed the violent thoughts to play themselves out. I even enjoyed the image of actually grabbing his head and smashing it.

Giving myself this empathy enabled me to then focus my attention on the humanness behind his message, after which the first words out of my mouth were, “Are you feeling…?” I tried to empathize with him, to hear his pain. Why? Because I wanted to see the beauty in him and for him to fully apprehend what I had experienced when he made his remark. I knew I wouldn’t receive that kind of understanding if there were a storm brewing inside of him. My intention was to connect with him and to show a respectful empathy for the life energy in him that was behind the comment. My experience told me that If I were able to empathize, then he would be able to hear me in return. It would not be easy, but he would be able to.

“Are you feeling frustrated?” I asked. “It appears that you might have had some bad experiences with Jewish people.”

He eyed me for a moment, “Yeah! These people are disgusting, they’ll do anything for money.”

“You feel distrust and the need to protect yourself when you’re involved in financial affairs with them?”

“That’s right!” he exclaimed, continuing to release more judgments, as I listened for the feeling and need behind each one. When we settle our attention on other people’s feelings and needs, we experience our common humanity. When I hear that he’s scared and wants to protect himself, I recognize how I also have a need to protect myself and I too know what it’s like to be scared. When my consciousness is focused on another human being’s feelings and needs, I see the universality of our experience. I had a major conflict with what went on in his head, but I’ve learned that I enjoy human beings more if I don’t hear what they think. Especially with folks who have his kind of thoughts, I’ve learned to savor life much more by only hearing what’s going on in their hearts and not getting caught up with the stuff in their heads.

This man kept on pouring out his sadness and frustration. Before I knew it, he’d finished with Jews and moved on to Blacks. He was charged with pain around a number of subjects. After nearly ten minutes of my just listening, he stopped: he had felt understood.

Then I let him know what was going on in me:

MBR: “You know, when you first started to talk, I felt a lot of anger, a lot of frustration, sadness and discouragement, because I’ve had very different experiences with Jews than you’ve had, and I was wanting you to have much more the kind of experiences I’ve had. Can you tell me what you heard me say?”

Man: “Oh, I’m not saying they’re all…”

MBR: “Excuse me, hold on, hold it. Can you tell me what you heard me say?”

Man: “What are you talking about?”

MBR: “Let me repeat what I’m trying to say. I really want you to just hear the pain I felt when I heard your words. It’s really important to me that you hear that. I was saying I felt a real sense of sadness because my experiences with Jewish people have been very different. I was just wishing that you had had some experiences that were different from the ones you were describing. Can you tell me what you heard me say?”

Man: “You’re saying I have no right to talk the way I did.”

MBR: “No, I would like you to hear me differently. I really don’t want to blame you. I have no desire to blame you.” I intended to slow down the conversation, because in my experience, to whatever degree people hear blame, they have failed to hear our pain. If this man said, “Those were terrible things for me to say; those were racist remarks I made,” he would not have heard my pain. As soon as people think that they have done something wrong, they will not be fully apprehending our pain.

I didn’t want him to hear blame, because I wanted him to know what had gone on in my heart when he uttered his remark. Blaming is easy. People are used to hearing blame; sometimes they agree with it and hate themselves—which doesn’t stop them from behaving the same way—and sometimes they hate us for calling them racists or whatever—which also doesn’t stop their behavior. If we sense blame entering their mind, as I did in the cab, we may need to slow down, go back and hear their pain for a while more.

The clenched fist

The Clenched Fist

Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person,
having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words,
but pouring them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together,
certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them,
keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness
blow the rest away.

Dinah Craik

During my practice as a psychotherapist, I was once contacted by the parents of a 20-year-old woman under psychiatric care who, for several months, had been undergoing medication, hospitalization, and shock treatments. She had become mute three months before her parents contacted me. When they brought her to my office, she had to be assisted because, left to herself, she didn’t move.

In my office, she crouched in her chair, shaking, her eyes on the floor. Trying to connect empathically with the feelings and needs being expressed through her nonverbal message, I said, “I’m sensing that you are frightened and would like to be sure that it’s safe to talk. Is that accurate?”

She showed no reaction, so I expressed my own feeling by saying, “I’m very concerned about you, and I’d like you to tell me if there’s something I could say or do to make you feel safer.” Still no response. For the next forty minutes, I continued to either reflect her feelings and needs or express my own. There was no visible response, nor even the slightest recognition that I was trying to communicate with her. Finally I expressed that I was tired, and that I wanted her to return the following day.

The next few days were like the first. I continued focusing my attention on her feelings and needs, sometimes verbally reflecting what I understood and sometimes doing so silently. From time to time I would express what was going on in myself. She sat shaking in her chair, saying nothing.

On the fourth day, when she still didn’t respond, I reached over and held her hand. Not knowing whether my words were communicating my concern, I hoped the physical contact might do so more effectively. At first contact, her muscles tensed and she shrank further back into her chair. I was about to release her hand when I sensed a slight yielding, so I kept my hold; after a few moments I noticed a progressive relaxation on her part. I held her hand for several minutes while I talked to her as I had the first few days. Still she said nothing.

When she arrived the next day, she appeared even more tense than before, but there was one difference: she extended a clenched fist toward me while turning her face away from me. I was at first confused by the gesture, but then sensed she had something in her hand she wanted me to have. Taking her fist in my hand, I pried open her fingers. In her palm was a crumpled note with the following message: “Please help me say what’s inside.”

I was elated to receive this sign of her desire to communicate. After another hour of encouragement, she finally expressed a first sentence, slowly and fearfully. When I reflected back what I had heard her saying, she appeared relieved and then continued, slowly and fearfully, to talk. A year later, she sent me a copy of the following entries from her journal:

“I came out of the hospital, away from shock treatments, and strong medicine. That was about April. The three months before that are completely blank in my mind, as well as the three and a half years before April. “They say that, after getting out of the hospital, I went through a time at home of not eating, not talking, and wanting to stay in bed all the time. Then I was referred to Dr. Rosenberg for counseling. I don’t remember much of those next two or three months other than being in Dr. Rosenberg’s office and talking with him.

“I’d begun ‘waking up’ since that first session with him. I’d begun sharing with him things that bothered me—things that I would never have dreamed of telling anyone about. And I remember how much that meant to me. It was so hard to talk. But Dr. Rosenberg cared about me and showed it, and I wanted to talk with him. I was always glad afterwards that I had let something out. I remember counting the days, even the hours, until my next appointment with him. I’ve also learned that facing reality is not all bad. I am realizing more and more of the things that I need to stand up to, things that I need to get out and do on my own.

“This is scary. And it’s very hard. And it’s so discouraging that when I am trying really a lot, I can still fail so terribly. But the good part of reality is that I’ve been seeing that it includes wonderful things, too.

“I’ve learned in the past year about how wonderful it can be to share myself with other people. I think it was mostly just one part that I learned, about the thrill of my talking to other people and have them actually listen—even really understand at times.”

I continue to be amazed by the healing power of empathy. Time and again I have witnessed people transcending the paralyzing effects of psychological pain when they have sufficient contact with someone who can hear them empathically. As listeners, we don’t need insights into psychological dynamics or training in psychotherapy. What is essential is our ability to be present to what’s really going on within—to the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing in that very moment.