This is part one of a two-part series on using nonviolent communication with text messages. In this first part, we’ll look at empathically receiving the emotions behind the words the person is using with us.

Approximate reading time: 8 minutes


The other day a mate of mine sent a message complaining about a girl he’s seeing. It got me thinking about applying empathy in text-messages and not-so-perfect contexts. How do you hear the feelings behind one’s expressions when they’re voicing their concerns over a text message? I’m wary of making a guess at their emotional state based solely on a piece of text for fear of making the person think I’m clinically analysing them.

Why is text messaging different?

If we look at different modes of communication, text messages display least communication components and subsequent connection with others.

In the table below I’ve summarised those communication forms which involve a two-way exchange. For example, news broadcasts are not considered as these are a form of one-way communication.

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It should come as no surprise that communication components drop off as you go down the list in the table, until finally we are only left with language when text messaging. But how important are these other components to communication?

Jerry Shuster, a Political Communications Professor at the University of Pittsburgh, says that 85% of the take-away from the receiver of a message is based on body language, mannerisms and facial expressions.

Additionally, we tend to trust the nonverbal message more than the verbal message when they are not in agreeance.

Think about this within your own lives. Do you trust the nonverbal or verbal messages more?

Parent:          Johnny, did you eat the cookies?

Johnny:         (Looking away sheepishly) No…

Do you think Johnny ate the cookies?

If nonverbal communication is so important, how can we even begin to have meaningful conversations via text message? I’m not saying it’s impossible. Just a lot harder.

Look at that table above again and see how many components drop off for text; and think about the 85% of a message encoded in your nonverbal communication.

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Many of us live in an increasingly technological world, where we are physically separated from the ones we care about and instant messaging becomes an attractive, convenient and socially normal option for communication. You can still exercise a degree of choice when using different communication modes.

Here’s a breakdown of how I aim to use each one.

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We don’t live in a perfectly uniform world, and this is just my framework for using different modes of communication. It’s a big commitment, because face-to-face requires the most effort from its participants, but a commitment I’m willing to make (not always succeeding, mind you).

How do you use different communication forms to engage in two-way interactions with people? Do you put more emphasis on the face-to-face aspects, or prefer to make your time more efficient by using text-based communications?

Take a moment to pause and think about it. There are no right or wrong answers. Leave a comment below with why you prefer different modes.

It doesn’t always work

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Despite wanting to have all my emotional conversations in person, sometimes my friends will send me a message with what I guess contains an emotional message. While not always possible, these are my reactions, in order of preference.

  1. When will I next see the person? Can this thing wait until I see them next, or is it urgent enough for me to see them right now?
  2. Am I in a context where I can call the person?
  3. Respond to the text message with a text message of my own.

Texting has become so ubiquitous that often my response will be Option 3. How do you give someone empathy when you don’t have the ability to read their nonverbal cues or give your own cues?

It’s not that easy.

Let’s take a conversation I had the other day as an example. I’ve changed the names using a medieval name generator.

Me:                 How’d your talk go today?

Adius:            Lol. The talk

Me:                 I’m guessing very eventful or trivial

Adius:            So I waited around an hour, Terus didn’t show up, he was out at Stathford looking at a new guild. So Zesar just told me the talk was about me being late for my horse shoe fitting yesterday and that it should never happen again. Ok guys. First of all this week I just got to fitting number 320 for this year and I’ve never been late, second thanks for telling me about a meeting and taking my time when you don’t even come to it…

How do I respond to that message? My initial, programmed response is to say something sympathetic like “That sucks man.”, then maybe add a little reassurance in there too – “You’ve been working so solidly all year, that doesn’t sound fair.”

That’s my initial reaction, but I catch myself and try and guess what emotions my friend is feeling. I’m a little worried about coming across as clinical, but screw it, I’d rather come across as clinical than give some of my judgement.

Me:                 Sounds like you’re irritated and are needing some understanding

Adius:            Meh it is what it is

Adius:            Haha

I’ve made a guess at my friend’s emotional state and what he is needing. His response? A kind of dismissal and lack of acknowledgement of his emotions. Empathy isn’t always easy though, often requiring a persistence on your part and a commitment to stay present with the person.

Me:                 So you’re apathetic?

Adius:            Like you said, trivial

Adius:            So I’m just going to forget about it, there’s more important things to think about

Adius:            Like how the three guys tonight totally smashed their matches man they did really well.

Adius:            It’s great to see the level at Stathford starting to really pick up

One more attempt on my behalf to get Adius to communicate the emotion he’s feeling. Another rejection, with Adius changing the topic. As I’ve mentioned, a huge component of the empathy process is remaining present with the other person. This means that when Adius changes the topic, it’s not up to me to bring things back to the original issue, even if I think he may be suppressing emotions. I’ve done what I can to encourage him to share these emotions and he’s chosen not to.

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The process doesn’t always work, because it requires a willingness of both parties to be present and connect with their emotions. We can only prompt and encourage others to express themselves, we can’t force it. By employing empathy, even in a text-message situation, we give the person we’re speaking to an opportunity to express themselves honestly and achieve more happiness. Once they’ve connected with their emotions and expressed them, you can turn back to yourself and express your emotions or offer your opinion if it is requested. We’re in a better position to offer guidance and advice if the person’s emotional needs are met beforehand.

What have your experiences with using empathy via text been? Are there strategies you’ve found work really well or not at all?

Would you like to see more empathy in the world and use more yourself? What comments or questions do you have?

-Luke

P.S. In case you were wondering, no, none of the photos have any relevance to the content of this article. It’s not often that I’ll write an article with relevant photos. They’re just there for some glimpses into daily life.

P.P.S. My uncle didn’t actually move to Poland.

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photos: UTS Quidditch at the recent QUALF 2016 tournament by Ajantha Abey and Robin Örtenblad


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