In last week’s blog, I explored the role of empathy in building a culture of candor on a team. I define empathy as the capacity to understand and acknowledge others’ feelings and needs.

Over the years I’ve noticed that one barrier, particularly for men, is that we don’t always have a great vocabulary for feelings and needs. For many years, I used three words to describe my feelings – sad, happy, and… hungry. Without attuned and descriptive language it’s difficult to understand one’s own experience let alone that of others. And understanding is what empathy is all about.

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a communication method developed by Marshall Rosenberg. It prescribes a way to observe, describe, and inquire into our own and each other’s human experience. NVC encourages noticing feelings in two broad categories:

1) What we feel when our needs are being met, including calm, joyful, engaged.
2) What we feel when our needs are not being met, including fear, annoyance, and anxiety.

We practice empathy when we ask ourselves: What is this feeling and what might be the met or unmet need behind this feeling?

Here’s how understanding the vocabulary of feelings and needs help us be more empathetic:

Imagine you just delegated a new assignment to a team member and you notice what you interpret as heightened agitation. You might say something like:

I noticed that your eyes are becoming wider and you’re speaking faster. Which makes me think that you feeling anxious (feeling) about this assignment because you need reassurance (need) that you can realistically take on the extra work? (wait for confirmation). Would you feel reassured if we look together at all of your projects to see if we should adjust timelines, take something off your plate, or get you additional resources?

How do we get better at describing feelings and needs? The NVC website provides vocabulary to describe feelings and needs. NVC also offers a downloadable smartphone app called iGROK for people like me who want this language at my fingertips. Finally, if you and your teammates like to learn through games, check out GROK the World. This interactive game is a fun way to build emotional literacy and establish empathy as a shared practice on the team.

Some people would argue that “in the workplace we need to check emotions at the door.” Do you agree or disagree? Do you think it’s important to possess a strong vocabulary to describe feelings and interests? Why or why not?

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