What Is An Empathy Buddy?
An empathy buddy is a great way to receive some non-judgmental emotional support from another person, without having to spend big dollars on therapy. They can be particularly valuable if you:
- Have difficulty identifying or expressing your feelings or needs
- Feel isolated and in need of connection
- Don't trust other men to treat your feelings with respect
- Need ongoing emotional support
An empathy buddy isn't a replacement for a therapist; if you have emotional wounds from the past that are causing you fear or anxiety in your day-to-day life, get a therapist. But if you're looking for another way to expand your emotional vocabulary, reduce your emotional isolation or manage feelings of shame you may have about your emotions, an empathy buddy can be a great way to do it.
The idea is to have a buddy who listens to where you're at without judging you and occasionally reflects back how you're feeling and what your needs are. I suggest talking to your empathy buddy on a regular basis, such as every week or fortnight. Like any relationship, it may take a little while to feel fully comfortable with your empathy buddy, but following the guidelines below will help you build trust and rapport together more quickly.
The idea of an empathy buddy comes from the Non-Violent Communication (NVC) community. NVC is a style of communication developed by Marshall Rosenberg with the aim that everyone can get their needs met by communicating feelings and needs clearly and directly. Showing empathy is also a core skill for relating to other people so it's a great thing to learn and practice in its own right.
Having an empathy buddy gives you a safe environment to explore feelings that may otherwise undermine your self-confidence, since your buddy gives you permission to feel how you feel without telling you that you're wrong or should be different. I believe that healing unresolved feelings, especially when there is shame involved, requires us to connect to another consciousness; and an empathy buddy can help us do just that.
This is powerful stuff.
How To Find An Empathy Buddy
Firstly, you find someone to be your buddy and agree that the purpose of your meetings is to exchange non-judgmental empathy based on feelings and needs. They don't need to have the same issues as you; anyone willing to follow the guidelines who you think you can trust will do.
I find it particularly powerful to work with an empathy buddy who is also a man; this helps restore our trust in other men's willingness and ability to treat your feelings with respect. Join the Empathy Buddy Classifieds Facebook Group and post a message saying that you are looking for an empathy buddy, or contact someone who has already posted via private message.
Remember to check where in the world your empathy buddy resides, and find a mutually agreeable time using the TimeAndDate meeting planner. Swap Skype id's and make sure you're online at the agreed time for your call.
Having A Session With Your Empathy Buddy
Call your buddy on Skype at the agreed time. I recommend using a video call if you're both comfortable with it; but if one of you is not comfortable emoting on camera, just go with voice. Switch to video at a later time if and when you both feel comfortable.
An empathy exchange is not a time for idle conversation or chit-chat; you can potentially do this as well in a single interaction, but make sure you're very clear when you're doing the empathy exchange and when you're just socializing.
Schedule a time to talk for an hour. I recommend sticking to the following structure:
- 5 minutes: Brief check-in of how each of you is feeling.
- 25 minutes: Person A talks, Person B listens
- 25 minutes: Person B talks, Person A listens
- 5 minutes: Brief check-out of how each of you is feeling
- Set a time for your next exchange.
If you want a shorter exchange, you can alter the times accordingly. I wouldn't really recommend going any longer, as it can get exhausting and one of the goals is to learn to get to your feelings as quickly and concisely as possible.
During the main sharing part set a timer to go off 5 minutes before the end of the time so the talker knows when to start wrapping up. Stick to the structure; it helps you both relax into how you're feeling and what you're needing.
Agree at the beginning who will be the talker first, and who will be the listener. It doesn't really matter who goes first since you'll swap over later, but you just need to be clear which role you are in.
Here are some guidelines for each role:
When You're Talking
Talk about how you're feeling, and what you imagine you're needing right now. Avoid going too deeply into story about what has happened in the past. Story is useful only for triggering feelings and identifying needs. Many of us get stuck in our stories too easily and this allows us to avoid the feelings we need to get in touch with to heal.
Stick as much as possible to what is happening right now in the present. As Marshal Rosenberg says, "We don't heal by talking about the past; we heal by talking about what's alive in us right now, stimulated by the past". The important thing is to identify how you're feeling and what you need because this activates the emotional center of the brain which will help relieve your stress.
Use words that describe emotions directly, like happy, sad, angry, upset, scared, anxious, furious, despondent. Avoid words that describe mental states like depressed, or physical states like tired. Instead, say how you feel about being depressed (e.g. sad) or tired (e.g. frustrated). When you get this right, it can trigger your brain into releasing the pent-up energy behind the emotion, which can leave you feeling lighter. It may also be quite tiring though, especially if you're not used to it, so be prepared for this.
If you start to cry, let the tears flow; crying is a healing stress-relief. Avoid dramatic judgements like saying that you “burst into tears”, and don't try to suppress the tears either. We've been conditioned to believe that crying is a sign of weakness and many of us have suppressed this emotion to the detriment of our health. If your tears shut down out of fear of what the listener might think, you're experiencing shame, so express the emotion behind this by saying so: “Now I'm feeling ashamed of crying in front of you”. Stick with what's happening for you in the present.
The emotional parts of our brain are primitive and child-like, so it's probably better to say that you're frightened or scared than use more adult words like anxious. It may feel awkward at first; typical English vocabulary reflects the stiff-upper-lip attitude of its cultural origins and tends to steer away from emotions. The purpose here is to express and feel our way through the feelings, not to avoid or rationalize them.
If you're clear on what you're needing add it in to what you share. Don't worry if you're not clear, as the listener's role is to clarify this from what you're saying. It's OK to guess and get it wrong.
You may feel emotions arising unexpectedly which may be frightening if you're not used to receiving non-judgmental empathy. Don't shy away from the feelings by rationalizing or going into story about something else. Just express how you feel in the moment and wait for some empathy from your listener.
Try not to go over time; respect the boundaries that you've set between you. If it's an emergency and you desperately need a lot of empathy, try to say so at the beginning so the listener knows they may not get to share this time. Line up a future meeting where they can share and you just listen. If you find yourself needing a lot of emergency empathy that's preventing mutual sharing with your buddy, that's a sign that you might benefit from getting a therapist or coach who can focus entirely on your needs.
When You're Listening
Your role as the listener is to provide a safe, non-judgemental space for the talker to share in while you identify how they are feeling and what they need. For the most part you just listen with this in mind. Every now and then when the talker pauses, offer a reflection following the NVC formula:
“Are you feeling X because you're needing Y?”
Where X is one of the feelings and Y is one of the needs listed in the appendix of Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg. You can also find the feelings and needs inventory online.
The talker will generally clarify whether you are accurate, if not correct you, and then continue sharing how they are feeling. Their feelings may change during the exchange, in which case you pick up on the new feelings and the needs behind them.
You don't always have to stick to the exact formula; try to vary it a bit so the talker doesn't feel like they're talking to a robot. Always remember it's all about feelings and needs, and try to communicate what you're hearing clearly. If you get stuck, just listen or use the formula: it works.
Identifying feelings and needs may be new for you since we're not educated to communicate in this way, so cut yourself some slack if you get it “wrong”. Just keep listening for feelings and needs in the talker. If you experience feelings of fear or shame around getting the reflection wrong, share that with your partner during your turn as talker so you can get empathy to heal the fear of getting things wrong that many of us have.
You are not obligated to meet the needs of the talker; your role is simply to identify what they are. Some needs may end up being met during the exchange itself; for instance the need to be heard, to be taken seriously, or to feel understood. Other needs remain the responsibility of the talker. Avoid trying to rescue of fix the situation for them either during or after the empathy exchange. Treat the other person as capable of finding ways to meet their own needs. If you do end up meeting other needs they have outside the empathy exchange, be clear on what needs of your own you are meeting in doing so. Keep the boundaries of the empathy exchange clear.
Keep all judgements about the person and what they share to yourself. Focus on how they feel and what they need, not what you think they're thinking. Avoid criticizing, making them wrong, problem-solving, offering suggestions, telling them it's all going to be OK or trying to fix things for them.
Your buddy may go through a range of emotions that they have not previously been comfortable sharing, and that you may not be entirely comfortable hearing. Notice when you're triggered emotionally by what the other person shares and share your feelings with them during your turn as speaker or during your final checkout. If you still feel these feelings later, come back to them in a future empathy exchange to get some empathy for them yourself.
You are not responsible for your buddy's feelings nor for resolving them. If they start to cry for instance, it's because they've contacted some pain or grief that they are now healing. Allow them the space to cry for as long as it takes, bearing in mind the time agreement between you. A big issue may require empathy over several sessions or with several buddies to fully heal. Even then, healing tends to happen in layers so the same issue may come up on a deeper level later on.
Avoid giving sympathy or there-there responses. If the talker seems stuck in story or is going around in circles without identifying feelings, interrupt them gently to ask them “How are you feeling right now about this?” If you get impatient or bored, it could be a sign that the talker is avoiding feelings or it could indicate painful feelings of your own that you need empathy for when it's your turn to talk.
Don't coach your buddy, offer solutions or advice, or attempt to help fix their problems for them. Your role is simply to identify feelings and needs. If you find yourself wanting to fix them, or they ask for advice, identify the feeling they're experiencing and what they may be needing. Remember that meeting their needs is not your responsibility.
Getting empathy can trigger strong emotions that you may not previously have felt in full force. If it becomes overwhelming, get some professional help for what you're going through. I believe that empathy is the key healing ingredient in all effective therapies, but your empathy buddy isn't a therapist. Don't expect them to solve your problems for you and don't rely on them as your sole means of emotional support.
Your relationship with your empathy buddy may go through all the normal ups and downs of a regular relationship or friendship. If your buddy triggers strong feelings, share them in your next empathy exchange and request empathy for them. If your buddy gets defensive or critical, share how you felt in that moment and ask them simply to identify your feelings and needs. Your buddy may trigger feelings in you that aren't their fault or they may need time to learn how to offer empathy effectively. And vice-versa. If you feel unsafe or it doesn't seem to be working, find another buddy who can offer empathy in a way that makes you feel safe.
Sharing feelings is the basis of all close relationships, so don't be surprised if you end up feeling close to your buddy. I've even experienced feelings of jealousy hearing my buddy talk about her other empathy buddies! We've also had exchanges where we shared our feelings about the relationship itself and triggers that made us feel unsafe with each other, so we could get empathy to resolve our projections onto each other and establish a deeper level of trust.
Beware of becoming overly intimate with your empathy buddy, especially at the expense of your primary relationship. If you have a partner, consider having a weekly empathy exchange with them where you follow this same structure. It's likely to do wonders for your relationship.
Here are some other resources that I highly recommend for learning to be a good Empathy Buddy:
- Empathy Buddy Guidelines from OpenCommunication.com
- Feelings and Needs list from NonViolentCommunication.com
- Marshall Rosenberg's book Non-Violent Communication: A Language Of Life.
- Marshall's Comprehensive Non-Violent Communication Workshop on YouTube.