By Janet Nicol
“Since in order to speak, one must first listen, learn to speak by listening.” Rumi
Susan: I’ve been waiting for over fifteen minutes. Where have you been?
Matt: I was working on a new sequence of backbends. I didn’t notice the time and my phone was off.
Susan: Well you’re late and you’re always working on some bloody yoga thing that takes forever and then you lose track of the time.
Matt: You’re so uptight. It was only fifteen minutes, take it easy. This is Bali. There’s no rush. What’s your problem?
Susan: Only fifteen minutes? Well Mr. Perfect, you’re the one who gets uptight when students are late for YOUR class. What makes you think your time is more important than mine? I’m leaving!
Regardless of the situation or the details, many of us can relate to some aspect of the above interaction. This exchange includes some of the least successful ways to connect and communicate: criticism, raising one’s voice, being an expert on someone else’s faults, over-reacting, impatience, name-calling, insensitivity….the list goes on. We all know that sinking feeling when a connection is lost and our conversation takes a turn for the worse. Words are said without thinking, empathy is lost and the fabric of your relationship is torn apart.
In the above example, Matt could be a respected yoga instructor who teaches the importance of ahimsa (non-harming) and satya (truth) in many of his classes. Susan could be a highly educated, well-travelled poet who writes eloquently about love and peace. And yet when awareness and consciousness aren’t there, the deep dangerous grooves of unsafe, unkind and even violent communication can take over anyone. After all, we’re only human. Even the yogis, artists and the spiritual-seekers among us aren’t immune to this downward spiral. Although we all desire to connect to others, our discomfort with vulnerability can sabotage us. The irony is that vulnerability is exactly what we need to develop strong, healthy relationships. This takes tremendous courage, and for many of us courage is in short supply. Our habits are strong, our triggers are sensitive and it seems easier to just lash out, to judge and to protect ourselves.
Marshal Rosenberg, an American psychologist, pioneered a way to negotiate this minefield of interpersonal communication. Developed in the 1960’s, Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a structure to help resolve conflict peacefully. His hope was to offer some practical skills we can all use to address the negative talk and over-reaction that often leads to arguments. Rosenberg uses the term ‘nonviolent’ to refer to our natural state of compassion when violence has subsided from the heart. Nonviolent Communication begins with the premise that all human beings are compassionate by nature, but we have learned harmful verbal and physical forms of communicating that are perpetuated constantly in mainstream culture.
In Rosenberg’s opinion, everyone’s needs can be met but we must first connect with ourselves. This means that every attempt at resolving conflict begins with identifying our own wants and feelings and taking responsibility for them first. Understanding that we can’t force people to feel, act or think in any particular way, NVC encourages letting go of responsibility for how others feel or behave, as well as avoiding judgmental dialogue. If we do share our judgments or opinions about what they are doing (or not doing) it assumes that someone knows more than someone else, which is generally untrue and almost always inflammatory.
Rosenberg’s strategy emphasizes slowing down, staying in the present moment, remaining in the body and speaking clearly and mindfully to others. If we don’t do these things we run a high risk of contentious communication because we verbalize from a place of fear and habit. Rosenberg divided NVC into a four-step technique that makes it easy to remember and integrate into our daily interactions.
1. Observation/Listening: Learn to listen to what people are saying to you. Consider what the person has said or done, or a thought you may be having. Articulate this observation without opinion or evaluation. Be the witness, not the judge.
2. Feeling: Recognize the feeling and emotion you (or your partner) experiences. Consider how you want the person to feel after they have heard your words. Describe what you’re feeling: afraid, ashamed, hurt, irritated….Learn to separate thoughts from feelings.
3. Need: Articulate a need of yours (not anyone else’s) that is being met or not met. Take the time to study yourself. Connect this to the feeling identified above.
4. Request: Consider your words carefully and kindly and state a clear request, one that can be met in the moment. Be sure to distinguish it from a demand or an ultimatum.
Susan’s needs may have been for greater trust and honesty. Matt’s for autonomy and exploration. In an NVC structure, Susan would have expressed herself quite differently.
Susan: “I feel abandoned when you arrive late because I need to feel our agreements are respected. Would you be willing come on time the next in the future?
In what might at first sound unkind, NVP is against giving praise, instead favouring gratitude. Rosenberg considers compliments as a violent form of communication, as one person is passing judgment on another and that involves using dominant and oppressive language. He goes on to say,
“What makes this more complex is that people are trained to use praise as reward, as a manipulation to get people to do what they want…. To me, this is a violent form of communication because it is using language as a manipulation that destroys the beauty of sincere gratitude. So in NVC we show people to make sure that before you open your mouth to get clear that the purpose is not to manipulate a person by rewarding them.”
To truly embrace NVC one needs to be clear on the difference between praise and gratitude. When we express gratitude to another person we are giving thanks to who they are, without any value placed on their behaviour. When expressing gratitude we are also called upon to share our feelings directly and to let that person know how they make us feel.
As Rosenberg points out,
“I have been called a lot of names in my life, some positive and some far from positive and I could never recall learning anything of value from someone telling me what I am.”
Asian cultures generally have a more peaceful manner of speaking with each other. Anyone who has lived, travelled or worked in Bali knows that resorting to blame or raised voices is counterproductive here. The Balinese seize up if you speak sharply or critically, giving us a wonderful opportunity to consider our words carefully in challenging situations. Different cultural expectations and language barriers mean that flare ups are often inevitable, but positive growth can come of them if they encourage us to study our expectations, emotions and judgments.
Conscious communication is in many ways similar to spiritual practice and, in fact, many of these theories have been informed by Buddhist teachings. People who put into practice this technique claim that the relationships in their lives improve dramatically.
NVC is about slowing down and checking in. It’s about self-awareness and cultivating empathy. It’s about understanding, listening and not over-reacting. Challenge yourself to go beyond your habitual patterns of communication and see what unfolds. A world of possibility awaits, and by forging an openness with others, you may just discover unchartered terrain deep inside yourself.
For more information:
-Read Rosenberg’s interview with William Stierle at www.YogiTimes.com
-Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life byMarshall B. Rosenberg
“Compassionate action is a practice, one of the most advanced. There’s nothing more advanced than communication – compassionate communication.” Pema Chödrön
Janet Nicol is the founder of Inspired Bali