How I Used Empathy To Disarm An Attacker With A Knife


Many a man would rather you heard his story than granted his request. ~ Phillip Stanhope

I’d like to illustrate how a young woman used empathy to bypass violence during her night shift at a drug detoxification center in Toronto. The young woman recounted this story during a second workshop she attended in NVC.

At 11:00 p.m. one night, a few weeks after her first NVC training, a man who’d obviously been taking drugs walked in off the street and demanded a room. The young woman started to explain to him that all the rooms had been filled for the night. She was about to hand the man the address of another detox center when he hurled her to the ground. “The next thing I knew, he was sitting across my chest holding a knife to my throat and shouting, ‘You bitch, don’t lie to me! You do too have a room!’”

She then proceeded to apply her training by listening for his feelings and needs. “You remembered to do that under those conditions?” I asked, impressed.

“What choice did I have? Desperation sometimes makes good communicators of us all! You know, Marshall,” she added, “that joke you told in the workshop really helped me. In fact, I think it saved my life.”

“What joke?”

“Remember when you said never to put your ‘but’ in the face of an angry person? I was all ready to start arguing with him; I was about to say, ‘ But I don’t have a room!’ when I remembered your joke. It had really stayed with me because only the week before, I was arguing with my mother and she’d said to me, ‘I could kill you when you answer “but” to everything I say!’ Imagine, if my own mother was angry enough to kill me for using that word, what would this man have done? If I’d said, ‘But I don’t have a room!’ when he was screaming at me, I have no doubt he would have slit my throat.

So instead, I took a deep breath and said, ‘It sounds like you’re really angry and you want to be given a room.’ He yelled back, ‘I may be an addict, but by God, I deserve respect. I’m tired of nobody giving me respect. My parents don’t give me respect. I’m gonna get respect!’ I just focused on his feelings and needs and said, ‘Are you fed up, not getting the respect that you want?’”

“How long did this go on?” I asked.

“Oh, about another 35 minutes,” she replied.

“That must have been terrifying.”

“No, not after the first couple of interchanges, because then something else we’d learned here became apparent. When I concentrated on listening for his feelings and needs, I stopped seeing him as a monster. I could see, just as you’d said, how people who seem like monsters are simply human beings whose language and behavior sometimes keep us from seeing their humanness. The more I was able to focus my attention on his feelings and needs, the more I saw him as a person full of despair whose needs weren’t being met. I became confident that if I held my attention there, I wouldn’t be hurt. After he’d received the empathy he needed, he got off me, put the knife away, and I helped him find a room at another center.”

Delighted that she’d learned to respond empathically in such an extreme situation, I asked curiously, “What are you doing back here? It sounds like you’ve mastered NVC and should be out teaching others what you’ve learned.”

“Now I need you to help me with a hard one,” she said.

“I’m almost afraid to ask. What could be harder than that?”

“Now I need you to help me with my mother. Despite all the insight I got into that ‘but’ phenomenon, you know what happened? At supper the next evening when I told my mother what had happened with the man, she said, ‘You’re going to cause your father and me to have a heart attack if you keep that job. You simply have to find different work!’

So guess what I said to her? ‘But, mother, it’s my life!’”




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