Compassionate Communication

Compassionate Communication

By Desmond Yeoh Seng Cheong 

In the chapter on “Seeing the ego as it is”, we saw that our thoughts form the basis of our ego. We can go one step deeper and question what is the foundation of our thoughts? It is the words we use. Marshall Rosenberg gave a very good example in his book, ‘Nonviolent communication: A language of life’. In the war crimes trial of Nazi officer Adolph Eichmann, he was asked if it was difficult for him to kill all the prisoners. He responded to everyone’s surprise that it was easy. When asked why, he responded that the language they used made it very easy. Marshall wrote:

“…he and his fellow officers had their own name for the responsibility-denying language they used. They called it ‘Amtssprache,’ loosely translated into English as ‘office talk’ or ‘bureaucratese.’ For example, if asked why they took a certain action, the response might be, ‘I had to.’ If asked why they ‘had to,’ the answer would be ‘Superiors’ orders’ ‘Company policy’ or ‘It was the law’”.

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In our normal day to day communication, we have been conditioned to express our judgment or put blame on others instead of telling others their actual behaviour that we found unpleasant. Marshall gave the following example:

I became acutely aware of this difficulty while working with an elementary school where the staff and principal often reported communication difficulties. The district superintendent had requested that I help them resolve the conflict. First I was to confer with the staff, and then with the staff and principal together.

I opened the meeting by asking the staff, “What is the principal doing that conflicts with your needs?” “He has a big mouth!” came the swift response. My question called for an observation, but while “big mouth” gave me information on how this teacher evaluated the principal, it failed to describe what the principal said or did that led to the teacher’s interpretation that he had a “big mouth.”

When I pointed this out, a second teacher offered, “I know what he means: the principal talks too much!” Instead of a clear observation of the principal’s behavior, this was also an evaluation— of how much the principal talked. A third teacher then declared, “He thinks only he has anything worth saying.” I explained that inferring what another person is thinking is not the same as observing his behavior. Finally a fourth teacher ventured, “He wants to be the center of attention all the time.” After I remarked that this too was an inference—of what another person is wanting—two teachers blurted in unison, “Well, your question is very hard to answer!”

We subsequently worked together to create a list identifying specific behaviors on the part of the principal that bothered them, and made sure that the list was free of evaluation. For example, the principal told stories about his childhood and war experiences during faculty meetings, with the result that meetings sometimes ran 20 minutes overtime. When I asked whether they had ever communicated their annoyance to the principal, the staff replied they had tried, but only through evaluative comments. They had never made reference to specific behaviors—such as his story telling—and agreed to bring these up when we were all to meet together.

Almost as soon as the meeting began, I saw what the staff had been telling me. No matter what was being discussed, the principal would interject, “This reminds me of the time . . . ” and then launch into a story about his childhood or war experience. I waited for the staff to voice their discomfort around the principal’s behavior. However, instead of Nonviolent Communication, they applied nonverbal condemnation. Some rolled their eyes; other yawned pointedly; one stared at his watch.

I endured this painful scenario until finally I asked, “Isn’t anyone going to say something?” An awkward silence ensued. The teacher who had spoken first at our meeting screwed up his courage, looked directly at the principal, and said, “Ed, you have a big mouth.”

As this story illustrates, it’s not always easy to shed our old habits and master the ability to separate observation from evaluation. Eventually, the teachers succeeded in clarifying for the principal the specific actions that led to their concern. The principal listened earnestly and then pressed, “Why didn’t one of you tell me before?” He admitted he was aware of his story-telling habit, and then began a story pertaining to this habit! I interrupted him, observing (good-naturedly) that he was doing it again. We ended our meeting developing ways for the staff to let their principal know, in a gentle way, when his stories weren’t appreciated.

Marshall introduced a new way of communication which he termed ‘Nonviolent communication (“NVC”)’ or ‘Compassionate communication’. The NVC process is as follows:

a)   State the actions that we are observing that are affecting us negatively. It is important to state our observation and not our evaluation of the person as in the example above.

b)   Express our feelings in relation to our observation. It is important not to express our feelings in a way that is more of an expression of our judgment instead of our feelings, for example, ‘I feel betrayed’ or ‘I feel taken for granted’ implies that the other person has betrayed us or does not appreciate us. It is our judgment which may not be true. We need to express actual feelings such as I feel sad, disappointed, angry or so on’. Expressing our feelings can be difficult because it makes us look vulnerable but on the other hand, it can open up an empathetic connection with the listener. It is better to express our feelings instead of allowing others to misjudge us as in the following example shared by Marshall illustrates:

I was teaching a course in NVC to a group of inner city students. When I walked into the room the first day, the students, who had been enjoying a lively conversation with each other, became quiet. “Good morning!” I greeted. Silence. I felt very uncomfortable, but was afraid to express it. Instead, I proceeded in my most professional manner, “For this class, we will be studying a process of communication that I hope you will find helpful in your relationships at home and with your friends.”

I continued to present information about NVC, but no one seemed to be listening. One girl, rummaging through her bag, fished out a file and began vigorously filing her nails. Students near the windows glued their faces to the pane as if fascinated by what was going on in the street below. I felt increasingly more uncomfortable, yet continued to say nothing. Finally, a student who had certainly more courage than I was demonstrating, piped up, “You just hate being with black people, don’t you?” I was stunned, yet immediately realized how I had contributed to this student’s perception by trying to hide my discomfort.

“I am feeling nervous,” I admitted, “but not because you are black. My feelings have to do with my not knowing anyone here and wanting to be accepted when I came in the room.” This expression of my vulnerability had a pronounced effect on the students. They started to ask questions about me, to tell me things about themselves, and to express curiosity about NVC.

c)   Explain our needs or desires that are not being fulfilled and that are causing those feelings. This helps the other person to understand our feelings. Examples of needs include, recognition, acceptance, financial security, some time alone and so on.

d)   Lastly, request for actions in order to enrich our lives. The actions must be clear. Request such as ‘I need you to be more responsible’ is vague and not actionable. It is better to say, ‘I need you to call me whenever you will be home late’.

It is also important to use NVC to understand the needs of others. When we focus on their needs, we will be less likely to become defensive and react aggressively. Marshall gave the following example in his book:

This dialogue occurred during a workshop I was conducting. About half an hour into my presentation, I paused to invite reactions from the participants. One of them raised a hand and declared, “You’re the most arrogant speaker we’ve ever had!” I have several options open to me when people address me this way. One option is to take the message personally; I know I’m doing this when I have a strong urge to either grovel, defend myself, or make excuses. Another option (for which I am well-rehearsed) is to attack the other person for what I perceive as their attack upon me. On this occasion, I chose a third option by focusing on what might be going on behind the man’s statement.

MBR: (guessing at the observations he was making) Are you reacting to my having taken 30 straight minutes to present my views before giving you a chance to talk?

Phil: No, you make it sound so simple.

MBR: (trying to obtain further clarification) Are you reacting to my not having said anything about how the process can be difficult for some people to apply?

Phil: No, not some people—you!

MBR: So you’re reacting to my not having said that the process can be difficult for me at times?

Phil: That’s right.

MBR: Are you feeling annoyed because you would have liked some sign from me that indicated that I have some problems with the process myself?

Phil: (after a moment’s pause) That’s right.

MBR: (More relaxed now that I am in touch with the person’s feeling and need, I direct my attention to what he might be requesting of me) Would you like me to admit right now that this process can be a struggle for me to apply?

Phil: Yes.

MBR: (Having gotten clear on his observation, feeling, need, and request, I check inside myself to see if I am willing to do as he requests) Yes, this process is often difficult for me. As we continue with the workshop, you’ll probably hear me describe several incidents where I’ve struggled . . . or completely lost touch . . . with this process, this consciousness, that I am presenting here to you. But what keeps me in the struggle are the close connections to other people that happen when I do stay with the process.

I may not have done justice to NVC in this short article. I encourage you to read Marshall’s book or watch the video of one of his workshop on youtube. The process may feel uncomfortable at first because we are more used to our negative habitual patterns of communication. But if we persist on applying the process, we will eventually reap the benefits of its application and using it will become natural to us.

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