Empathetic Responses Quiz

(Inspired by Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication and linked from my main article on empathy.)

Acknowledging Feelings and Needs

In which of these sentences does Person B truly acknowledge feelings and needs? (Compare your answers with the key below.)

  1. Person A: “I can’t believe I was dumb enough to do that!” Person B: “You’re not dumb — everyone makes mistakes.”
  2. Person A: “He’s a control freak!” Person B: “This is the third time Sam has corrected your punctuation :/ You feel frustrated because you expect a level of independence from Sam as another professional — is that right?”
  3. Person A: “You are being really disrespectful — I put a lot of effort into that project.” Person B: “Okay, so you’re feeling like I don’t see your contributions?”
  4. Person A: “Your emails are just really harsh and hurtful to me.” Person B: “When I send you emails about your performance, you feel attacked because I’m judging you.”
  5. Person A: “How could you undermine me in front of my manager?” Person B: “So you feel threatened when I suggest alternatives to your proposal in front of Susan.”
  6. Person A: “I can’t believe you’re off on another trip without me!” Person B: “You feel lonely when I go on trips without you … maybe because you want us to have more opportunities for connection? Is that right?”
  7. Person A: “I just read your recommendation for our project. Where on earth did that come from?” Person B: “It sounds like you’re feeling puzzled about my decision, and maybe you expected more say in an outcome that affected you?”
  8. Person A: “I’m disappointed by your performance this quarter. I was hoping you would hit all your goals this time.” Person B: “I hear you, but I think the goals were unrealistic.”

Key

Here are my answers:

  1. Does not acknowledge feelings and needs. Person B is giving reassurance to Person A, rather than hearing the feelings and needs behind what Person A is saying. An empathetic response might be: “You’re feeling disappointed because you would have liked to show your manager you are up to the job?”
  2. Does acknowledge feelings and needs. Person B is testing out if Person A has a feeling of disappointment and one of the Five Core Concerns, autonomy.
  3. Does not actually acknowledge feelings and needs. While it’s not totally bad because Party B does try to summarize Party A’s perspective, I wanted to use this example to show how we can sometimes use the word “feel” to express something other a real feeling. Here, a response that acknowledges feelings and needs might be: “You’re feeling angry because you would have liked more appreciation of the effort you’ve put in?”
  4. Does not acknowledge feelings and needs. Firstly, “attacked” is not actually a feeling — it’s one of those tricky words that imply an action on the part of the other party. Second, it doesn’t point to an underlying need — instead, it takes responsibility for what the other person is feeling (I’m judging you), rather than listening for what they expect or hope for. An empathetic response might be: “When I send you emails about your performance, you feel hurt? Could I understand what you’re hoping for?”
  5. Does not acknowledge feelings and needs. Similarly to “attacked” in #4, “threatened” is another of those tricky words that imply an action, “threatening,” on the part of the other party. (“Threatened” also tends to be our over-used/pseudo-psychological/passive-aggressive catch-all phrase to say that the other person is paranoid and irrational — when we resort to that, we’re likely not being fully empathetic.) An empathetic response might be: “You feel upset when I suggest alternatives in front of Susan because you are hoping to make a good impression?”
  6. Tries to acknowledge feelings and needs. However, this one might come off as patronizing, particularly if it mischaracterizes the feeling of Person A. Person B’s hypothesis seems to imply that Person A is dependent on Person B for emotional fulfillment. What if Person A also has anger and believes that what Person B has done is wrong or unfair? But good for guessing, and that’s what checking in is for — to be truly open to correction by the other person.
  7. Does acknowledge feelings and needs. Here, the underlying need is one of the Five Core Concerns, autonomy.
  8. Does not acknowledge feelings and needs. “I hear you” without saying what you hear doesn’t fully reflect your understanding for the other person. This also shifts into an explanation rather than an empathetic acknowledgment of what was said.

This quiz was meant to supplement the main post on empathy here — make sure to check it out!

I’d love to hear your questions and thoughts in the comments below!


Seanan Fong is the founder of Cylinder Project, where he helps startups and teams turn disagreements and grievances into insights and learning. His practice combines expertise in conflict resolution with a background focusing on tech startups. He is based in the Bay Area.

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