The Power of Empathy
by Patty Zeitlin
When I worked as a nanny, I assisted one day each week in a cooperative preschool, where
the twin 3½-year-old girls in my care were enrolled. They had been to school there the year
before, and were comfortable enough to run off and play without needing my constant
attention. Several other children were newcomers, however, and in the process of letting
their mothers leave for the first time.
I was busy helping to set up paints when the peaceful, happy sounds of play were
interrupted by loud screams coming from the hall. A dark-haired two-year-old girl was
sitting on the floor, tears streaming down her face. "No!" she yelled, with the force of her
whole, small body, and threw her shoes away. The teacher was trying to put them on her
because everyone was supposed to wear shoes, but the child kept hitting anyone who came
near her. She screamed so loudly that all of the children in the room stopped what they
were doing to stare.
After several attempts, the teacher gave up trying to help; a mother also tried to get the
shoes on, but with no success. The little girl was alone, still screaming in the hall, with the
classroom door open.
Years before that, I had been a preschool teacher, so I was familiar with the kind of
anxiety young children experience when their mothers leave, but I had worked only with the
children who were in my class and who weren't complete strangers as this child was to me. I
assisted in this class just once a week, and had never seen her before.
What gave me hope that I might be able to help anyway was that for the previous two
years, I had been learning to use Nonviolent Communication, or NVC, as taught by Dr.
Marshall Rosenberg, a worldwide mediator. I'd never used it with a child so young however,
because of the limited language skills at that age, and in this case, although the child did
speak, she was learning several languages at home, and her speech was a hodgepodge
containing a bit of English I could barely understand. Despite her age, she talked, although
not just then!
Seeing her so alone and probably frightened, I wanted very much to help, so I took a little
chair and sat next to her. Then, using the steps I had learned from my training in NVC to
offer empathy, I reflected how she felt. I was totally "with her," with no judgements or
reactions about her screaming or ideas about what she should be doing or feeling.
I said, "It sounds like you feel angry and sad now. Ordinarily, using the NVC approach, I'd
ask, "Are you feeling angry and sad?" rather than assuming I was on target, but in this case,
it was clear. I knew that if I asked, she wouldn't be able to answer anyway! She kept crying
and screaming; however, now she pointed again and again to the door that led to the outside.
"Did mommy go out?" I asked.
Right away, she screamed, "Mommy, mommy, mommy!" sounding more terrified than angry.
"Are you scared because mommy went out?" I asked, realizing that maybe no one had told
her that her mother would be back. That would be terrifying for a 2½-year-old. Even if
someone had told her, she might not have heard, because her first need was to know that
someone accepted and empathized with her feelings. After that, she might be able to hear
and receive the reassurance she needed.
"Mommy went out that door, yes," I said, "but she is coming back." The child stopped
sobbing and looked at me. I had made up a song some while ago to reassure a fearful child,
so I smiled at this little one and sang, "Mommy goes out, oh, mommy goes out. Mommy goes
out, oh out, oh. But mommy comes back, oh, mommy comes back. Mommy comes back oh, back
She was quiet now, listening, her large, dark eyes still teary but fixed on mine. When I
stopped singing, she reached out. I took her small hand, picked up her shoes, and said,
"Want to go play now?" She nodded, and we played with a train set in another room nearby
for a few minutes. She was smiling now, even laughing with me while we played. It was easy
to put on the shoes after that. In fact, she put out each foot so I could.
I felt amazed and touched when I saw the results of what had happened, and was certain
now that Marshal Rosenberg's methods could be used effectively to work with small
children even when very little language was available. The power of that connection
surprised me, because although I hadn't seen this child for a whole week, when I returned
to school again to assist on my appointed day, she called out my name, ran to me with a big
smile, and grabbed my legs to give me a strong hug. I hugged back.
For many weeks afterwards, she did the same thing. She also insisted on saying goodbye to
me each day, although I had spent no more than twenty minutes with her once when she
desperately needed her feelings to be reflected and accepted, her needs met, and to
experience the warmth of connection.
That is how empathy works, NVC style. It does include listening, accepting, and/or
reflecting feelings, which many of us already know can restore a sense of connection and
trust, but there are other parts of this practice, which, in my experience, offer a deeper
sense of satisfaction and completion. One essential part is the naming and recognition of
After practicing this kind of empathy for several years now, on myself and with people of all
ages, I can easily agree with Marshall Rosenberg when he says that needs are universal, but
the ways in which people get them met might be different. It was my acceptance of her
feelings and a song of reassurance that met some of that two-year-old's needs. When
feelings and needs are identified and enough empathy is received, I've seen a dramatic
shift take place in how the subject feels about and perceives the other person and/or the
circumstances in question. The one who has been upset feels free enough to act in a way
that is more life-giving and connected with others than before.
When it comes to handling conflicts, whether with children or adults, when both are feeling
too angry or otherwise upset, it's often not possible for one to really empathize with the
other. But I've found that if each person receives enough empathy from a third party,
there is real hope that agreements can be made that work for both. Not agreements based
on compromises, but on the genuine desire of giving from the heart with, as Marshall
describes it, "the joy of feeding a hungry duck."
Another form of NVC empathy is the ability to give it to oneself something that is really
useful when there is no one else available to offer it. When I start to criticize myself now,
I listen for the feelings and unmet needs behind the self-criticism and find out how I can
address those. Being aware of and expressing my own needs has been an exciting, and at
times difficult, part of this work because I did not grow up learning what they were or how
to make requests to have them met.
So, for quite a while I kept a list of needs handy: respect, autonomy, clarity, celebration,
being seen, being heard, and connection, to name a few. Learning to identify my needs and
those of others has taken some time and practice. Practicing NVC has increased my sense of
connection with and compassion for myself and others, and I know from reports of
Marshall's work worldwide that it is a practical and, I believe, essential part of
Patty Zeitlin is an author, songwriter, playwright, and early childhood consultant with an
M.A. in human development from Pacific Oaks College.