sustaining your nonviolent communication practice with an empathy buddy

My empathy buddy’s name is Joy. Joy lives in a rainforest, runs her own socially and environmentally responsible small business, teaches yoga and is a vibrant member of her local home-schooling and anti-vax movements. I am a urban librarian and am very attached to my regular hours, wages, and holidays. My kids went to school and got vaccinated as scheduled. It would appear that Joy and I have little in common, or to contribute to each other but we are excellent empathy buddies

What is an empathy buddy?

An empathy buddy is a fellow student of nonviolent communication who is committed to a mutual and regular shared practice of giving and receiving empathy.

How does the empathy buddy relationship work?

The relationship could take many forms, depending on the needs and constraints of the buddies. Joy and I live 100 kilometres apart and have different patterns of busyness and rest. It suits us to video call each other most Tuesday evenings. We spend an hour together, starting with a few minutes of silent meditation and then sharing some stories of the week and sharing empathy for any pain and any happiness. Sometimes it looks like that. Sometimes we wander off-course and let the jackals run with a bit of gossip, and bitching, or divert to giving advice. Sometimes a week comes and goes and we forget or have another commitment. But one or other of us eventually interrupts the distraction and gets us back on course.

We also like to explore new resources together. At the moment, we are working our way through the buddy practices described in the ONGO Book. Exploring new resources and attending courses together is a great way to keep nonviolent communication alive for us and to stay on track with sharing empathy.

Why have an empathy buddy?

It’s great to do a course in nonviolent communication and be all excited about it because you got it, you really got it and then go home all excited, walk through the door and pick a fight with your partner. Well, no, it isn’t great, but it demonstrates that it can be hard work to translate what you learned in a class and use it in your real life. An empathy buddy relationship helps by:

  1. affirming your commitment to nonviolent communication — even when it is hard work and you keep ‘stuffing it up’ turning up week after week is somehow a reminder that this is important and worthwhile.
  2. providing support to keep going: It is hard to give up when you have some other soul out there giving you empathy and also being appreciative of the empathy you give to them.
  3. encouraging and reminding you to give yourself empathy. Self awareness of your feelings and needs around a challenging situation create ease around a conflict or misunderstanding. It can provide the calmness and patience to try again — or the wisdom to know it’s best to leave it be for a while.
  4. providing practice in giving empathy to others, so that it becomes more automatic and natural to share empathy rather than erupt in anger or withdraw in the heat of the moment.

Where do you get an empathy buddy?

Most nonviolent communication courses offer to set up empathy buddies, so a course could be a good place to start an empathy buddy relationship. Joy and I met through the online course: the compassion course. This course runs every year, starting in June. Another avenue may be empathy-buddy.com. I have not had any experience with this site, but at a glance it seems OK. 🙂

How do you set students up with an empathy buddy?

The empathy buddy relationship is a sustainable way for students to take what they have learned in class and develop the skills and aptitudes needed to apply these in their lives. I have not had any practice with connecting empathy buddies, but I can share what I have experienced as a participant.

From what I have observed, the most important consideration is that the empathy buddies do not have an established relationship or connection. It is way too easy to fall into old habits of communication with someone you know, and this will limit the empathy buddy relationship.

Secondly, there is no need to set people up with those who have similar interests, beliefs, or expressed values. This practice may reinforce the idea that there are ‘us’ and ‘them’ – an idea antithetical to nonviolent communication.

I imagine in a class where everyone knows each other, or folk are working in the same industry it would be best to carefully consider how to manage discussions around shared experiences. The nature of the buddy relationship means there may be sharing about issues at work or with colleagues and confidentiality clauses aside, it will be tempting to gossip. It may be necessary to set up buddies away from the group.

You may also like to set the students who chose to take on an empathy buddy with some resources to help the relationship flourish. This may be a simple structure to follow (like the one Joy and I commonly use). You could also suggest one of the many workbooks available which provide exercises to complete and share each week.

Some examples

In the online course where I met Joy we were able to pick another participant from the entire class list. Joy was someone in the same timezone so I chose her. In a face-to-face class Joy and I attended together, those interested in a buddy gave their names to the facilitator and she did the work over lunch matching them with someone they did not know before class. Like the empathy buddy relationship itself, connecting empathy buddies will need to match the circumstances of the course.

Image attribution

I loved this image for representing a relationship that has been deliberately cultivated yet full of love. Heart by Leslie. CC BY-NC 2.0

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