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  • Writer's pictureJuliana

The Opposite of Empathy: a critical perspective on everyday communication

Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication teaches us what empathy is, and also what empathy is not. He defines this latter category as "other conversational responses" (or OCRs for short). Other conversational responses account for most of the language we use day to day. These OCRs are not all inherently bad. Some of them can be connecting given the right circumstance, however, they are the opposite of empathy, which means they have a good potential to be disconnecting.

There are a few categories of OCRs. The first are responses that we often give when it is about someone else's situation rather than our own. These are usually given with the intention of connection, but they don't always quite land that way. Here is a list of those other conversational responses with examples:

  • Agreeing - "Absolutely. She is definitely trying to undermine you."

  • Relating - "Oh my gosh, me too! That reminds me of this thing that happened to me last week..."

  • One up-ing - "You think that's bad? I once had to..."

  • Devil's advocating - "She may be frustrating, but at least she pays well."

  • Sympathizing or Commiserating - "I'm so sorry to hear that."

  • Championing - "Yeah! That's it. You go, girl!"

The second category could fall into the first, but could also be things we might say to another person when we are in our own conflict. Sometimes they are given with the intention of connection, and other times they are given with the intention of defending or advocating for oneself in a conflict situation. Here are those other conversational responses with examples:

  • Giving Advice - "Maybe you should try being more empathetic."

  • Minimizing - "Oh that isn't so bad. You could have lost your job."

  • Shutting Down - no verbal response or simple deflection responses like "ok" or "fine".

  • Joking - "Sometimes the only way to get higher up at work is by adjusting your chair."

  • Questioning/asking - "Is this the first time this has happened? What did you do?"

  • Commenting - "That is interesting."

  • Exclaiming - "I know! Exactly!"

The last category overlaps with the second. These are responses we might use when we are in our own conflict. Here is a list of those:

  • Threatening - "If you send me one more memo about the damn recycling, I swear I will never recycle again just to spite you."

  • Correcting - "Actually, I was there and that is not what happened. Here's how it went down..."

  • Explaining or Lecturing - "You just need to understand that not all children are the same..."

  • Evaluating - "She tends to be unrealistic."

  • Criticizing - "You are too overbearing."

  • Blaming - "He should have given me more time. This isn't my fault."

These other conversational responses are the typical ways in which we respond to people every day. Sometimes they are connecting, but other times, what a person really needs is just empathy. In case you missed it, read this post on how to empathize. It details how to avoid these OCRs and how to effectively give someone empathy. And if you're interested in a deeper dive on how to find connection with others, even in times of conflict, take our Intro to Nonviolent Communication training.

What OCRs do you tend to use? Are they always connecting for those around you? What OCRs are particularly disconnecting for you?

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