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.”

NVC 3: Feelings, Woo-o-o, Feelings

“The underlying intention in using NVC is to connect: to connect with ourselves first and only then to attempt to connect with others.”

(From What We Say Matters: Practicing Nonviolent Communication, by Judith Hanson Lasater and Ike Lasater.)

Connecting With What We Feel

The second step in practicing non-violent communication (NVC), after making observations without evaluations, is connecting with our own feelings and needs. Only then can we express them to others, which is essential to communicating in a meaningful and productive way. When we can identify our own feelings, it’s that much easier to identify the feelings and needs of other people, even when they don’t recognize them themselves.

I’m fairly representative of the general population in that I’m pretty clueless when it comes to identifying and expressing my actual feelings. Having been raised in an uber German household, I was taught to deny feelings as weak and self-indulgent (with the possible exception of anger, which seemed to be the one strong emotion that was OK to express). Heck, even in Morris Alpert’s song “Feelings”, the guy is “trying to forget” his feelings of love. Learning to recognize and express our feelings is a critical part of self-understanding and NVC. As explained in What We Say Matters:

“Unless and until we are aware of what we are feeling and needing, we are unlikely to relate in a direct way with others. Unless we are clear with ourselves, our words create consequences (karma) for everyone that we will probably not enjoy.”

Distinguishing Feelings From Thoughts

NVC teaches the importance of distinguishing between feelings and thoughts, assessments and interpretations, which are often expressed with the phrase “I feel”. Telling someone “I feel like you don’t understand me” isn’t expressing a feeling; it’s expressing an opinion about that person. Saying “I feel I didn’t get a fair deal” is also expressing an opinion.

In fact, any time the phrase “I feel” is followed by the words that, like, as, by pronouns (I, you, he, she, they it) or by someone’s name, we’re expressing opinions and thoughts, not feelings. When we’re really expressing a feeling, we don’t need to use the word feel at all. We can say “I’m feeling lonely” or just “I’m lonely.”

It’s also important to distinguish between words that describe feelings and those that express interpretations of other people. Here’s an example from Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life:

“‘I feel misunderstood.’ Here the word misunderstood indicates my assessment of the other person’s level of understanding rather than an actual feeling. In this situation, I may be feeling anxious or annoyed or some other emotion.”

Other examples of commonly used words that express our assessments of others instead of our feelings include abused, bullied, intimidated, let down, neglected, rejected, threatened and used.

Since many of us were raised in environments that discouraged us from expressing how we feel, it’s not surprising that we lack a “feelings vocabulary” beyond a few basic terms (happy, sad, tired, pissed off). To help with this, Rosenberg provides a “feelings inventory” – dozens of words, divided into “feelings when your needs are satisfied” and “feelings when your needs are not satisfied”. He also provides a “needs inventory” with a similar design. Armed with an increased literacy of feelings and needs, we can pause when we find ourselves being triggered by someone or something and increase our awareness of what’s happening inside.

Accepting Responsibility For Our Feelings

Why bother with so much work to accurately identify and express how we feel in a particular situation? It helps us come to grips with the fact that other people don’t cause our feelings. Rather, as Rosenberg explains, “our feelings result from how we choose to receive what others say and do, as well as our particular needs and expectations in that moment.”

Instead of accepting responsibility for our feelings, we tend to blame others and think about what’s wrong with them and what they should do differently. The phrase “makes me feel”, as in “You make me feel angry”, is one example of how we use language to shift responsibility for our feelings from ourselves to outside forces. In Nonviolent Communication,Rosenberg identifies other common speech patterns that mask accountability for our feelings:

  1. Use of impersonal pronouns such as “it” and “that”: “It depresses me when the Cubs lose.”
  2. Statements that mention only the actions of others: “Mommy is disappointed when you don’t finish your food.”
  3. Use of the expression “I feel (an emotion) because” followed by a person or a personal pronoun other than “I”: “I feel angry because the doctor is running late.”

In each instance, we can deepen our awareness of our own responsibility, feelings and needs by substituting the phrase, “I feel … because I….” For example:

  1. “I feel depressed when the Cubs lose, because I want Chicago to have a winning baseball team.”
  2. Mommy feels disappointed when your don’t finish your food, because I want you to grow up strong and healthy.”
  3. “I feel angry that the doctor is running late, because I have a long list of errands to get done.

I have to confess that I’m enamored with the phrase “I feel … because I ….” It helps me catch my tendency to blame others for my own feelings (having been a frequent user of phrases like “You make me feel …”). It causes me to be much more aware of the fact that I have a choice in how to respond to people and events around me. It also gives me a tool for stopping in the moment and determining what need of mine isn’t being met that’s creating the unpleasant feeling. In addition to creating more compassion for myself, tapping into my feelings and needs and expressing them in a way that avoids assessing and blaming others allows other people to respond in a more compassionate and less defensive and aggressive fashion.

Don’t let the seeming simplicity of this practice fool you. It can be tough to apply, particularly in situations of conflict and charged emotions. But as I’m learning, the results it produces — both in ourselves and the people with whom we communicate — are well worth the effort. To get you started, here’s a fairly short (10-minute) video of an NVC training session with Rosenberg on expressing feelings and needs.

Next week: NVC 4: Making Requests

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

Tough Love 2: If You Can Spot It, You’ve Got It

I looked, and looked, and this I came to see:

That what I thought was you and you,

Was really me and me.

(Old Proverb)

When I walk to work, if left to its own devices, my inner critic has a field day passing judgment on strangers: “How could you think it’s OK to wear so much Pepto Bismol pink?” “Thank god I don’t have cankles like her!” “No man carrying a backpack to work will ever be CEO!” And on it goes, as long as I let it run.

During my Jyotish (Vedic astrology) reading, Brent Becvar explained that when I pass judgment on others, I’m projecting onto them aspects of myself that I’m ashamed of – in other words, my “shadow” self. As Brent put it, in a memorable tough love phrase, “Lisa, if you can spot it, you’ve got it!”

Brent isn’t the first to observe this phenomenon. Jesus warned about the “shadow” self during the Sermon on the Mount (my personal favorite of his): “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?” He explained that we should “remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.” As Jesus suggests, two qualities emerge when we become more aware of the shadow self: (1) clarity of perception, and (2) a peaceful disposition that’s motivated to help and serve others rather than judge them.

In a short article called “Ten Keys to Happiness”, Deepak Chopra also discusses the tendency to project onto others what we deny in ourselves, and how moments of judgment can be transformed into learning opportunities:

“Know that the world ‘out there’ reflects your reality ‘in here.’ The people you react to most strongly, whether with love or hate, are projections of your inner world. What you most hate is what you most deny in yourself. What you most love is what you most wish for in yourself. Use the mirror of relationships to guide your evolution. The goal is total self-knowledge. When you achieve that, what you most want will automatically be there, and what you most dislike will disappear.”

Now back to Brent. He advised that when I catch myself being judgmental, I should hit the “pause” button. As long as I’m busy projecting onto someone else, I can’t access the truth about my own nature. Brent then said to ask myself these questions: Where is that (i.e., the quality I’m judging in the other person) in me? Is it possible that, under some condition, I could do that thing that bugs me so much when this person does it? Here’s an example of what the inner dialogue sounds like:

 Inner Critic: “How could you possibly think it’s OK to wear so much Pepto Bismol pink?”

Conscious Observer: Stop!! You’re judging her. Is it possible that, in some circumstances, I might wear that color? Well, yes. There’s a side of me that loves that color. In fact, I have a Pepto Bismol pink cardigan, and luggage lock, and yoga tops, and …. Hmmm, now that’s interesting.

This isn’t easy work, especially for an “uber judger” like me. Nevertheless, Brent’s advice to engage in this mindfulness exercise is invaluable tough love. Asking and answering the questions he laid out enables me to:

  • Detect, gently confront and integrate my “shadow” self (who, among other things, is apparently a closet fan of questionable colors);
  • Let go of my mental habit of picking faults in others and replace it with compassion; and
  • Have a much healthier and happier relationship with myself and the world at large.

Make no mistake: I’ll still see imperfections in others and myself. But if I continue to cultivate the mental awareness that “if I can spot it, I’ve got it”, I can minimize the amount of negativity I put into the universe and into my own mindstream.

Next week: Tough Love 3: You Can’t Change And Stay The Same