In Search of Shangri La

I’m taking a hiatus from blogging to travel through the Himalayas in Nepal and Tibet. Having never been to that part of the world and needing to literally get away from it all, I couldn’t be more excited. Watching Frank Capra’s “Lost Horizon” one too many times has lodged an illogical hope in the back of my mind that maybe, just maybe, we’ll stumble upon Shangri La. Or maybe we’ll have an Indiana-Jones type of adventure in Kathmandu. Even if that doesn’t happen, we’ll learn about the Nepalese and Tibetan people and cultures, and have up close and personal views of some of the most beautiful scenery on Earth.

In preparation for the trip, our group leaders gave us the following warning:

“Do NOT carry any pictures of the Dalai Lama, Free Tibet posters or T-shirts, Tibetan flags, any political magazines or books, etc. The Chinese government is very strict about this and may not allow you into the country or may deport you from the country if you possess any such material. Furthermore, your local Tibetan guide is highly regulated with regards to what he can and cannot discuss about Tibet, its politics, its religion, and/or its history. You may ask your guide questions but should he not want to discuss it, PLEASE do NOT push him as (like it or not) his livelihood depends on his following prescribed rules.”

Just last week, we were informed that the Chinese government has unexpectedly, without reason, declared that no foreign tourists will be allowed to visit Tibet from October 1st and beyond. Also, no tourists are allowed to visit the Mount Everest base camp, which was going to be a highlight of our trip.

My natural inclination is to be angry with the Chinese government. How can you not like the Dalai Lama? It’s like not liking chocolate-chip cookies fresh from the oven. And why are you blocking foreign tourists from visiting Tibet?

But since I’ve read The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, I know better than to react with anger. As the Dalai Lama emphasizes, it’s important to avoid negative emotions such as anger and hatred and focus on cultivating positive emotions:

“For example, so far as our own dealings with China are concerned, even if there is a likelihood of some feeling of hatred arising, we deliberately check ourselves and try to reduce that, try to consciously develop a feeling of compassion toward the Chinese. I think countermeasures can ultimately be more effective without feelings of anger or hatred.”

“If you maintain a feeling of compassion, loving kindness, then something automatically opens your inner door. Through that, you can communicate much more easily with other people. And that feeling of warmth creates a kind of openness. You’ll find that all human beings are just like you, so you’ll be able to relate to them more easily.”

I may not be able to bring the Dalai Lama’s books into Tibet, but I will bring what I’ve learned from him about compassion, kindness and love. And that is its own kind of Shangri La.

NVC 5: The Power of Empathy

NVC 2, 3 and 4 focused on what we ourselves are observing, feeling, needing and requesting from other people. That’s the first half of the process of non-violent communication (NVC). The second half involves applying those components when we receive messages from other people, regardless of their communication style. This allows us to make an empathic connection with what’s alive in the other person and what would make life better for them.

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There

Marshall Rosenberg (the creator of NVC, featured in the videos in this post) defines empathy as a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing. In Speak Peace in a World of Conflict: What You Say Next Will Change Your World, he distinguishes empathy from other practices:

“The goal isn’t intellectually understanding it, the goal is empathically connecting with it. It doesn’t mean we have to feel the same feelings as the other person. That’s sympathy, when we feel sad that another person is upset. It doesn’t mean we have to have the same feelings; it means we are with the other person. This quality of understanding requires one of the most precious gifts one human being can give to another: our presence in the moment.”

“Notice this doesn’t require that we agree with the other person. It doesn’t mean we have to like what they’re saying. It means that we give them the precious gift of our presence, to be present at this moment to what’s alive in them, that we are interested, sincerely interested in that. We don’t do it as a psychological technique but because we want to connect to the beauty in the person at this moment.”

Too often, we fail to connect empathically with people who are in pain and instead respond in one of the following ways:

  • Advising (“I think you should….”)
  • One-upping (“I had something even worse happen.…”)
  • Educating (“What you can learn from this is….”)
  • Consoling (“It’s not your fault….”)
  • Shutting down (“Don’t feel so bad….”)
  • Interrogating (“How long have you felt this way….”)
  • Sympathizing (“OMG, you poor thing….”)
  • Story telling (“That reminds me of the time….”)

When someone responds to me that way, I feel frustrated because I don’t think they’re really listening. Empathy requires focusing our full attention on the person, and giving them the time and space they need to express themselves and feel understood. There’s a wonderful Buddhist saying that describes this ability: “Don’t just do something, stand there.”

Reflecting Back

So how do we provide people with a sense that we’ve heard and understood them? It starts with listening for their observations, feelings, needs and requests, regardless of the words they use. This enables us to shift from perceiving what people say as an attack on us to an expression of what’s going on inside of them.

After we’ve listened to the person fully expressed herself, we may want to paraphrase or reflect back our understanding of what we’ve heard. In NVC, this takes the form of questions that show our understanding of what’s going on in the other person while eliciting their feedback. The questions might focus on what the person observed (e.g., “Are you reacting to …?”); their feelings and needs (e.g., “Are you feeling [guess their feeling] because you’re needing [guess their need]?”); or their requests (e.g., “Are you wanting me to …?”).

If our understanding is correct, the person will know we’ve heard them. And as Rosenberg explains in Speak Peace in a World of Conflict, our paraphrasing doesn’t have to be perfect to make the situation better:

“Even if we’re wrong, if we are sincerely trying to connect with the divine energy in another human being – their feelings, their needs at that moment – that shows the other person that no matter how they communicate with us, we care about what’s alive in them. When a person trusts that, we’re well on our way to making a connection in which everybody’s needs can be met.”

How do we know when we’ve done enough empathizing with the person? Usually they (and we) will experience a sense of relief at having been understood. And they may stop talking! But if we’re not sure, we can always ask (e.g., “Is there something more you want to say?”).

Silent Empathy

Even if we don’t reflect back our understanding to the other person in words, empathy can be a powerful presence in a conversation. Silent empathy impacts our intention toward others, and it shows  in our eyes and body language when we’re hearing what’s in a person’s heart. In What We Say Matters: Practicing Nonviolent Communication, authors Judith Hanson Lasater and Ike Lasater explain the practice of silent empathy:

“To give silent empathy is to intuit or guess what the other person might be feeling or needing in the moment. Be sure to start with observation language. Your inner dialogue might go something like this: ‘When I hear her say ________, I am guessing that she was feeling _________ and needing ___________.’ It does not matter if you are correct about what is ‘true’ for her. Rather, it is the process of considering the other person after having empathized with your own needs that fuels the shift. When you make this shift to compassion, you will have a greater potential to actually say what you want to say.”

NVC Resources

Although this series on NVC only scratched the surface, I hope it piqued your interest in nonviolent communication and the amazing benefits it can bring. If you’d like to learn more, I recommend the three books I’ve referenced throughout the series: Nonviolent Communication: A Language of LifeSpeak Peace in a World of Conflict: What You Say Next Will Change Your World; and What We Say Matters: Practicing Nonviolent Communication. In addition to covering the basics of NVC, they address advanced subjects such as dealing with anger, expressing and receiving gratitude, and practicing NVC at the workplace and in talking to our parents, children and significant others. Also, the Center for Nonviolent Communication offers a variety of books and resources on its website, in addition to NVC training.

Now for some parting words from Marshall Rosenberg:

“As NVC replaces our old patterns of defending, withdrawing, or attacking in the face of judgment and criticism, we come to perceive ourselves and others, as well as our intentions and relationships, in a new light. Resistance, defensiveness, and violent reactions are minimized. When we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion. Through its emphasis on deep listening — to ourselves as well as others — NVC fosters respect, attentiveness and empathy, and engenders a mutual desire to give from the heart.”

“Pay It Forward” Fever

Two friends in Grand Rapids, Michigan spent the month of March “paying it forward” (aka performing Random Acts of Rainbow) in fun and creative ways. Thankfully, CNN captured them on this video. I plan to borrow their idea of assembling care packages for homeless people. (On the way to work, I walk past about a half dozen homeless people asleep under a “deluxe” lighted and heated overpass and have been wanting to do something for them.) What’s your favorite “pay it forward” idea from this dynamic duo?

Rising Above The Funk

If you’re feeling a little down like I am this morning, sometimes the best way to get out of the funk is to do nice things for other people. Here are two ideas for doing just that, while doing something nice for  yourself at the same time.

TOMS shoes Fall line has really expanded. This is Blake Mycoskie’s brilliant business that gives a pair of shoes to a person in need for every pair of shoes that it sells. It now includes not only classic TOMS but several styles of wedges, boots and cordones. I ordered a pair of Kilim classics from the TOMS website (no sales tax and free shipping for orders of $75 or more). As cute and comfy as they are, I’ll be sporting my TOMS all over Chicago this Fall.

As I write this post, I’m drinking a copy of Starbucks new “Indivisible” blend coffee. Five dollars from the sale of each bag of beans goes to Opportunity Finance Network for the Create Jobs for USA Fund to help create and retain jobs across the country. Community lenders will leverage the donations to secure additional financing (an average of seven times the donation amount) to help create more than $80 million in loans to community businesses focused on creating and sustaining jobs in underserved neighborhoods. These loans are expected to help create and sustain nearly 4,000 jobs.

For finding ways to make doing something nice for other people so enjoyable, and for helping me rise above the funk, TOMS and Starbucks are my Rainbows of the Week.

NVC 2: Making Observations Without Evaluations

“Observation without evaluation is the highest form of intelligence.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti

In NVC 1, we learned about the basics of non-violent communication (NVC), developed by Marshall Rosenberg. The first step in NVC is calling to other people’s attention – concretely and specifically – what they’re doing that affects us. The trick is to make observations about what we see or hear without mixing in our evaluations of meaning and significance. In the words of Detective Sergeant Joe Friday, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

Why bother focusing on the facts and avoiding the tendency to mix in judgments about people’s behavior? As Rosenberg explains in Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life:

“When we combine observation with evaluation, we decrease the likelihood that others will hear our intended message. Instead, they are apt to hear criticism and thus resist what we are saying.”

When I’m not consciously trying to observe rather than evaluate, I might say something to a co-worker like, “Why do you always slam the conference room door?” If my goal is to get the person to close the door more quietly, that statement won’t help. Nor will it promote a good working relationship between us. Because I used an exaggeration (“always”) and an evaluation (“slam”), the person will very likely react with defensiveness. Instead, I could say, “Both times you shut the conference room door during today’s meeting, it sounded really loud to me.” By separating observation from evaluation, I created a statement that’s less likely to become the crux of an argument and more likely to inspire compassion and a positive reaction from my co-worker.

The authors of What We Say Matters: Practicing Nonviolent Communication describe an example of observation versus evaluation that most of us will recognize:

“Imagine the following. A parent knocks and enters the bedroom of a teenager with the following words: ‘This room is a mess. Please clean it up by tomorrow morning because company is coming.’ We almost guarantee that the response from the teenager will be: ‘It’s not a mess.’ If the parent persists, the teenager will likely switch to, ‘But I like it this way.’ And if that fails, the teenager will resort to the time-honored, ‘Whose room is it anyway?’ We would bet lots of money that what follows is not a period of sweet connection between parent and child.

“A more desirable connection is likely to result if the interchange begins with observation language. Pay attention to how different you feel when you imagine the communication starting with, ‘When I see your clothes on the floor, dishes with food on them on your desk, and your bed unmade ….’ The key point here is to notice the difference between making an observation and making a judgment. For example, to say, ‘When I see that your room is a mess’ is not to make an observation. The term ‘mess’ is a judgment; messes are not desirable.

“Observation used in this way is an expression of what we call spiritual speech. It is learning to leave out our judgments and beliefs about what is observed and just describe it as a camera would record it. ….

“We are not proposing a new set of rights and wrongs. It is not wrong to use judgments. We just want you to be aware of using them, so you can learn what ensues from using judgments and what ensues from using observations instead. Then the choice is yours.”

In NVC 3, we’ll shift the focus to from making observations without evaluations to identifying and communicating our feelings and needs that arise from what we observe.

NVC 1: The Basics of Nonviolent Communication

“It is through our speech that we are known, for it tells a story of our thought life and essential self. How we speak can open or close doors, heal or hurt, create joy or suffering, and ultimately determines our own degree of happiness.”

This quote, from the foreword to Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s book Speak Peace in a World of Conflict: What You Say Next Will Change Your World, kicks off a series on non-violent communication, or NVC. I first encountered Rosenberg’s work at the Chopra Center. I was there for the meditation practice, but as a lawyer dealing with conflicts every day, I was intrigued by Rosenberg’s book entitled Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.

A clinical psychologist, Rosenberg has applied NVC in conflict zones ranging from Rwanda and Serbia/Croatia to corporate board rooms to interactions between family members. NVC is premised on the concept that everything we do is to enable us to meet some need. Yet we’ve been raised in a world where we’re discouraged from identifying our needs and feelings for fear of being labeled weak and dependent. This leads us to engage in communication that’s harsh, judgmental and critical, i.e., “violent” communication. This type of communication, laden with diagnoses and demands, provokes defensiveness and aggression instead of creating connections and relating to each other based on compassion.

NVC guides us to shift our communication mindsets from violent to nonviolent by utilizing four skills:

  1. Observing what’s happening within us and around us without judging or evaluating.
  2. Identifying and expressing what we’re feeling, as opposed to what we’re thinking or how we’re interpreting the situation.
  3. Connecting those feelings to needs that create them.
  4. Making and responding to requests to take action that will fulfill our needs, without making demands that will be met with punishment if not satisfied.

These skills are applied to enhance self-empathy (compassionate awareness of our own inner experience); empathy (listening to others with compassion); and honest self-expression (expressing ourselves authentically in ways that are likely to inspire compassion in others).

This may sound like a strained form of hippy-dippy-trippy communication. But the focus is less on the four steps themselves and more on our intentions when we speak. Shifting our mindsets to nonjudgmental observations, feelings, needs and requests can be as valuable as years of therapy for our relationships with others and ourselves. Becoming aware of our own feelings and needs and transforming our own inner dialogue paves the way for us to develop empathy for other people in our lives and to listen to them with compassion, even if they’re not practicing NVC:

“As NVC replaces our old patterns of defending, withdrawing, or attacking in the face of judgment and criticism, we come to perceive ourselves and others, as well as our intentions and relationships, in a new light. Resistance, defensiveness, and violent reactions are minimized. When we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt and needed rather than diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion. Through its emphasis on deep listening — to ourselves as well as others — NVC fosters respect, attentiveness, and empathy, and engenders a mutual desire to give from the heart.”

(From Nonviolent Communication.)

So how do we keep our attention focused on feelings and needs and avoid the seemingly natural drift into judgments and demands? This series will go over key aspects of NVC designed to help us do just that. Also, Rosenberg’s Center for Nonviolent Communication offers training in NVC. To get the ball rolling, here’s a video of an introductory class with Rosenberg on the basics of nonviolent communication. Hang in there with it. Rosenberg’s approach may be far different than what you’re used to, but the results can be profound.

Next week: NVC 2: Making Observations Without Mixing In Evaluations

Craigslist Joe

Feeling down on Friday night after an extra-stressful work week, I decided to watch a new documentary film called “Craiglist Joe.” It’s about 29-year-old Joe Garner who, for one month, leaves everything behind except his cell phone (with a new number that his friends and family don’t have), laptop and the clothes on his back, and lives off of the kindness of strangers he meets through Craigslist.

Would the internet community enable Joe to survive for 31 days as he crisscrosses the United States (including stops in Chicago, New York, New Orleans and San Francisco)? It does that, and much more. So if you need a little uplifting shot of “feel good” like I did, check out “Craigslist Joe” (in theaters and on Xfinity On Demand). It’s definitely my Rainbow of the Week.


Happy Friday! Here’s a cute idea for a “Random Act of Rainbow” when you return a book to a library or a friend, or when you donate a book to a place like Open Books.


I had to take my overdue books back to the library today so slid £5 into the middle of one of them for someone to find. Wrote a note explaining random act of kindness and invited them to spend it as they wanted. Hope it’s not too long before someone finds it!


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