Empathic Listening, Symbolic Modeling and Non Violent Communication – Compared

img_2220On August 19th and 20th, 2017 I had the good luck and privilege to participate in a weekend of Empathic Listening training and practice, led by by Allan Rohlfs (NVC Trainer), a student of Eugene Gendlin.  Gendlin was a philosopher, who was heavily influenced by Carl Rogers – a pioneer in client-centered psychotherapy. Rogers noticed that Empathic Listening contributed greatly to the creation of a safe space and connection between the client and the therapist. Gendlin went on to create ‘Focussing’, a method Rohlfs uses to help teach his version of Empathic Listening.

Focussing uses the term ‘felt sense’ to describe a pre-verbal or unconscious but emerging awareness about something.  In Empathetic Listening, there is both a listener and a speaker.  The listener is to discern the emergent ‘felt sense’ of the speaker and to use those moments to reflect back to the speaker by repeating or slightly paraphrasing what they said.   The idea is that the listener might, by focussing on the listener, also ‘get’ this same ‘felt sense’, that it is shared.  Unlike what we might think of being empathetic in normal every day discourse, there is a LOT more focus in a one way direction here. In every day interactions, being empathetic comes and goes in between other interactions, but is not the ‘purpose’ of the interaction.

In Symbolic Modeling, there is a client and a coach or facilitator.  The client expresses subconscious thought via metaphors that the coach intentionally elicits. Those metaphors come from what I imagine is the same place of ‘knowing’ as the ‘felt sense’ – expressing something that might never have been verbalized, that is emerging and embodied.  It seems to me, that Symbolic Modeling might be faster in helping the client understand themselves than Empathic Listening.  Symbolic Modeling makes no attempt and has no goal for the facilitator to ‘understand’ or ‘get’ anything about the client.  The Symbolic Modeller is a facilitator for the client – helping them to create their own ‘metaphorical’ or internal landscape.  As he Symbolic Modeller observes the coachee, and reflects their words back, they are looking for embodied shifts or changes (i.e. changes in facial expression, sighs, body movements) to support the new awareness emerging.  This is similar to Empathic Listening – where the body holds the wisdom.

While the  purpose of Symbolic Modeling (coaching with a desired outcome) and Empathic Listening (rapport/connection) differs, the effect on the coachee/speaker could be similar.  

During the workshop, Allan caught me (when I was listener in a pair) trying to use a question, and he interrupted and asked me not to do that because any question would be ‘leading’.  While this gave me a LOT of anguish at first because I am so comfortable with clean questions and I do not experience them as leading, I came to accept the guidance for empathic listening.  This awareness will help me to pause longer and perhaps more frequently while coaching using Clean questions in a Symbolic Modeling session, rather than coming up with a question right away after the speaker stops.

During the training, we each got to sit in both the speaker chair and the listener chair in a pair, with Allan coaching the listener and everyone else observing.  Each speaker (in the speaker/listener pair) seems to have felt ‘gotten’/understood.  We seemed also to all agree that sitting in the Speaker’s chair was absolutely necessary to understanding Empathic Listening.  In other words, you have to be listened to well by someone experienced in Empathic Listening, to really understand the effect. In that way, you may become a more effective empathic listener.  This is true for Symbolic Modeling and Clean Language – best to experience it first.

On the relationship between Non Violent Communication (NVC) and Empathic Listening

The event participants were all familiar, if not expert, in the use of Non Violent Communication techniques for creating rapport and understanding. While NVC has the certain purpose of creating safety and connection between two people, within its construct, it includes places where one person asks questions of the other, in particular with relation to understanding the other person’s feelings and needs.  If you are not familiar, NVC uses OFNR (Observation, Feelings, Needs, Request) framework where the empathic bits are mostly centered in the exchange of feelings and needs.  The most significant difference between Non-Violent Communication and Empathic Listening as learned in the workshop is that in Empathic Listening, the Listener does not try to guess the feelings or needs of the person speaking. That element falls away in Empathic Listening in favor of a more natural verbal validation and very slight rewording of what was said. Observations and Requests are also not present in Empathic Listening.  Both are strongly geared toward creating safety, empathic listening being much more a one way flow, it seems.    As Listeners, participants in the Empathic Listening workshop fairly universally felt much relief NOT to have to guess at the other person’s feelings and needs. 

I know that the philosophy and practice of Empathic Listening will stay with me as a useful alternative in other situations. I really appreciated that Jane McMahon (certified NVC facilitator) organized this event. It gave me the opportunity to connect meaningfully to a variety of interesting people. 

If you want another fantastic article about the relationship of coach/facilitator to client from the Symbolic Modeling perspective, this article is worth a read.

If you are interested in learning more or wanting to practice, please get in touch with me at andrea@connections-at-work.com. 

Explore posts in the same categories: Coaching, Experience Report, Listening, NVC, Personal Growth, psychology

4 Comments on “Empathic Listening, Symbolic Modeling and Non Violent Communication – Compared”

  1. James Lawley Says:

    I love this comparison, what a useful resource. Thank you Andrea for posting it.

    Although I have not been formally trained in either Focusing and NVC methods, I have experienced and practiced both over the years with experienced professionals. Also, Penny Tompkins and I have written a little comparing Symbolic Modelling (SyM) with Focusing and NVC, and it is good to see a more detailed comparison of these methods.

    As an aside, I’m pretty sure David Grove (originator of Clean Language) knew of Gendlin and Rosenberg’s work.

    A couple of points on your excellent comparison:

    – A key aim in SyM is for the client to “get or understand” themselves from their own point of view. As you say that does not necessarily require the listener to “get or understand” the client.

    – In SyM the facilitator does not “physically mirror” the client. Instead they use their body to point to the location of the client’s symbols where they are located in the client’s perceptual space. Physical mirroring involves the listener putting the clients symbol in their own mind-body space (adding, I assume, to the “empathetic” nature of the listening). Sometimes a SyM facilitator will need to replicate a client’s nonverbal symbol, which can look like mirroring, but that is not the aim.

    – An important difference with EL and NVC and SyM is the relationship of the coach to the client’s inner world. David Grove used to say, “The I-ness of the therapist should appear to cease to exist” and to that I add, “there is only one inner landscape in the room – the client’s”. Although in EL the listener may only bring in a few of their own words (when paraphrasing), they bring their presence and their desire to “get” the other person. EL and NVC are dialogues, whereas SyM aims to be a “trialogue”.

    – Rapport and a degree of safety is required in all three methods, it is just that they may not be achieved in the same way (or look the same to an observer). My experience says that the single most important ingredient in rapport is genuine interest in the other person.

    Lastly, your description of the EL method has a lot in common with some NLP exemplar/expert modelling methods (sometimes called ’second-position’ modelling) where the modeller is attempting to acquire an ability demonstrated by the expert. They do this by taking on the physiology and inner-world descriptions of the exemplar (without asking questions). While the aim in modelling is not so much to “understand” the exemplar, it’s more to “get” the skills, there seems to be an overlap.

    Thanks for a great blog.


  2. Andrea Chiou Says:

    Thank you so much for the lengthy response and the several very useful clarifications and additions. I had another thought on Empathic Listening to add:

    Based on a comment on my Facebook page, I realized that Empathic Listening may be understood by some as something we do naturally – being empathetic towards someone in everyday life. I wanted to also clarify here that I see this Empathic Listening as a deliberate ‘session’ that one would have with a speaker – and that’s why I do think it takes some practice/guidance to learn.

    In normal interactions, one wouldn’t sit for 10 to 30 minutes or longer with someone without bringing some of one’s own ‘stuff’ into the interaction. While EL would call forth any empathic skills one already has, it has enough heuristics about how to behave as the listener that I see it as a distinct way of getting together with someone who needs to talk.

    I am super excited about the upcoming biography by Carol WIlson on David Grove (The Work and Life of David Grove: Clean Language and Emergent Knowledge) I hope t will include a lot of references to which people knew and learned from which other people. Sadly, I didn’t have the energy to stay Sunday evening for a talk Allan gave on his recollection of Marshall throughout their long friendship. That would have been fascinating.




  3. Sharon Small Says:

    Great blog and following posts. Thank you Andrea and James.

    I was trained in NVC prior to coming to Clean Language and found myself naturally using the clean questions to find out more about a persons feeling and needs beyond the label, helping them understand their own definitions of that particulate feeling or need that was happening right then.

    The lovely thing about Clean and the clean questions is they are neutral and easily blend with models you currently are using and love. Using a clean stance brings a slight shift of attention and quality (and often quantity) of information you elicit – for both the listener/questioner and the client.


  4. Jan Nehyba Says:

    I had small lecture about CL for group of NVC people in the Czech Republic 10 days ago. After that I have three interesting combinations NVC and CL:
    Very interesting activity is NVC Dyads meditation by Robert Gonzales. It is activity for self-expression and deep listening in NVC:

    Seem to me that Dayds are something how (we) can teach deep listening in Clean Language.
    Inner chooser and inner educator is in NVC about working with inner parts. Clean questions are very usefull questions for facilitation of this process. More about inner chooser and inner educator:

    Click to access ChooserEducatorHandout_2-2-15.pdf

    Clean Space and NVC Dance Floor:
    Dance Floor is special type of work with space in NVC: http://www.nvcdancefloors.com/
    Seem to me that Clean space is more free and clear for participant than Dance Floor.


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