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Connecting from the Wise and Compassionate Heart

Every criticism, judgment, diagnosis, and expression of anger is the tragic expression of an unmet need.

Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Nonviolent Communication

The title of this article is likely to be a good fit with most people’s intentions for human relations, and certainly for those of us who meditate regularly. In most approaches to meditation, we are encouraged to weave our mindfulness practice with warmheartedness, motivated not just by wanting to calm the mind but the desire to bring more love, peace, and understanding into the world. All the more disappointing when we fall out with people, perhaps even with our fellow sangha members, and don’t treat ourselves and others with the respect and sensitivity we would wish for.

The practice of NVC (Nonviolent or Compassionate Communication) has a lot to offer to the mindfulness practitioner, as much of this approach resonates with core principles with which they are already likely to be familiar. Learning some simple guidelines about the use of language can make all the difference in keeping the heart open even in trying circumstances. I first learned about it more than 15 years ago, when a few of us were trying to set up an eco-village in Scotland, called “bodhi eco project.” Among the many unknowns there was one certainty: there would be conflict. So, together with learning about setting up a charity, planning regulations, permaculture, ecological building techniques, and legal structures, the core team engaged an NVC trainer for communication training. In the end, the eco-village didn’t get off the ground, mainly because of resistance from planning departments. But I have been part of an ongoing NVC practice group ever since, and it has enriched my life in so many ways, not just as an aid for conflict-resolution.

Let me introduce you to the four main components of this system: observation, feelings, needs, and requests. In reality, the process is not as linear as it may appear, and awareness work is going on simultaneously in all these areas, over an extended period of time.

Step 1 – Observation

When there is conflict between you and someone else, it is very easy to fall into judgement and blame, and tell yourself a story that exaggerates the other’s behavior. “You are always late,” you may say, or, “You left the flat in a total mess.” The generalization and emotional charge behind such accusations makes it hard for the other person to stay open to hearing you, and they are likely to defend themselves: “I am not always late, and there was this thing at work I just couldn’t get out of,” or, “I was busy with more important things.” You can just imagine how the argument further escalates. Neither of the two gets any closer to the harmony and understanding for which they are probably longing. Being alert to what we and the other person really want is key in this approach and we will hear more about that in step 3 – Needs. And it also helps to turn down the heat and come down to what is objectively happening: “We agreed to meet at 7 p.m. and now it’s 7:30 p.m.” “When I came home, I saw your coat, shoes and several of your bags strewn on the hall carpet.” In this way, you establish common ground—with something you both can easily agree on. Maybe this wouldn’t be the first thing you say, however, unless you are sure it comes from a place of genuine openness and absence of blame.

The benefits of non-reactive attending to what can be observed in the sensory sphere are well known to the mindfulness practitioner. Our practice is grounded in what we experience through the senses, what we see, hear, touch, smell and taste. In meditation we try to catch the mind when it runs away into the past and future; when it rehearses stories that have little to do with what is happening here and now. The ability to bring it all down to earth, savoring the touch sensations in the body, coming to rest with the sounds that form the present environment, or with the breath, is an important element in establishing some inner peace and spaciousness. Ultimately, it is the practice ground for spiritual insight where, eventually, there is no need any more to view the world through the lens of an “I” who tends to take things so personally. And it provides the basis for connecting to others on a more objective, observation-based playing field.

Step 2 – Feelings

There is an inbuilt propensity in our brains to spend a lot of our time thinking. Useful as it can be, we often experience it as a burden, particularly when it is coupled with uncomfortable and/or semi-conscious feelings. We are trying to rid ourselves of emotional suffering by giving our stories of “this is so unfair” and “it’s your fault” yet another mental spin, and it usually backfires. When we have fallen out with someone, acknowledging to ourselves and, if appropriate, to the other person how we are actually feeling is an important step in the process of understanding what is happening and, eventually, resolving the tension. NVC pays attention to the accuracy of the words and encourages us to avoid “pseudo-feeling words” that are really hidden accusations, such as “betrayed” or “ignored.” Instead, we use words that are closer to the pure feeling, such as “sad” or “lonely,” which are much easier to hear and empathize with.

In mindfulness meditation we learn to tune into our feeling states with courage, curiosity, and compassion. At times, we may be afraid to do so because, quite rightly, we don’t want to be overwhelmed by strong emotions. It is a fine art to discern when it may be wise to keep overpowering feelings at some distance and when to become intimate with them as directly felt sensations. If we cut off from uncomfortable feelings altogether, chances are we can’t feel much happiness either and hence deny ourselves the pleasure of being alive. Fear can prevent us from feeling other emotions, so in many cases befriending the fear is the first step.

Step 3 – Needs

Everything we do is trying to meet some needs, and the more aware we are of those the more likely it is that we can go right to the heart of what matters in any situation and build connection, inner strength, happiness, and resilience. Empathizing with feelings and needs, both your own and those of the other person, is the magic key in this process.

Let’s come back to the earlier scenario: a friend is 30 minutes late without letting you know. The judgement in your head may be: “She is always late. She doesn’t care enough about me.” Applying NVC with yourself, even before the friend arrives, may look something like: “I have been waiting 30 minutes past the time we have arranged to meet” (observation). “I am starting to feel annoyed and impatient” (feelings), “because I would like some respect for my time, to use it efficiently and to know that I matter to her” (needs). You don’t just say those words, but savor the impact. Among those needs, “to matter” may have the most resonance and you spend a few moments getting in touch with the feeling tone of that quality. It may be close to other universal needs, such as warmth, closeness, respect, and safety. In this way, by honoring your needs you are likely to find yourself in a much better space, even before your friend arrives.

Experiencing the flavor of these universal human needs is always a positive experience whether or not our needs are met in any situation—this is one of the liberating insights that NVC has opened up for me. Having an active choice as to where we direct our attention—to our reactive stories or to the needs at stake—is immensely empowering. We can practice this proactive stance every time we meditate, when we pull ourselves back from being lost in rumination to resting in the moment. Our practice gives us access, in so many ways, to what matters most to us and we learn to savor those states more and more deeply.

Step 4 – Requests

Coming back to our example of self-empathy when waiting for a friend, after identifying clearly the observation, your feelings, and your needs, you then move onto requests. Requests in NVC have certain features: they are related to needs and are just one step toward meeting needs more fully. They are expressed in positive language and describe a doable, specific action. Most importantly, and this is how a request is different from a demand, you take “no” for an answer. And we genuinely want the other person to also meet their needs at the same time. In our example, you may formulate a request to yourself to start with: “When my friend comes, or when I next talk to her, I will stay in touch with that quality of ‘mattering’ and will enquire whether we had an arrangement for this particular time, and find out what delayed her, without any blaming.” This might not sort out everything about this relationship and potentially different views on punctuality, but it is a doable first step.

When we have established a good connection, we are more likely to engage fruitfully in a process of hearing more fully what is important to the other person and, eventually, be heard in our own right as well. Maybe we start to see, for example, that we come from different socio-cultural backgrounds, affecting how we experience lateness and punctuality, and we are starting to make more space for each other in our hearts. If we have slowed down and taken care with this whole communication process, both within ourselves and with the other person, it is much more likely that solutions emerge that really work.

Lateness was an issue that caused friction between a friend and me, and for a while it seemed to not be a big enough issue to merit talking about. I am so glad that I did eventually ask her whether she would be open to a conversation about it. It was a heartening experience to see that it was possible to engage with this conflict in a way that was free of blame and defensiveness. Now we let each other know when we are likely to be late, and it doesn’t feel like a burdensome task but an expression of love and care. Sangha situations are often plagued by conflict-avoidance, a kind of collective spiritual bypassing. My experience is that many people lack confidence in their ability to tackle any interpersonal issues. NVC offers some very useful tools—it spotlights disconnecting language habits, such as generalizing, subtly blaming, or rushing to fix problems, and presents alternative pathways that can be practiced and eventually feel natural. Essentially, in NVC we are practicing empathy as an act of generosity that can help to loosen our ego fixation.

I was angry with my friend; 
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe: 
I told it not, my wrath did grow. 

William Blake

See more

The Center for Nonviolent Communication

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