As part of my study of eastern philosophy, I took a class on meditation. The focus of the class, unlike zazen, was on a headier, more thought-filled meditation. As a component of that class, one of our sessions was on studying non-violent communication.
I’ve been meaning to write on the subject of communication for some time, since it was the subject of the philosophy thesis I had planned. It wasn’t until the other night, when I totally botched an attempt to discuss a problem with a friend, that I realized how rusty I’d become.
The point of this post is not to teach you how to overcome social anxiety—that is another beast entirely—but is, instead, intended to help you speak honestly, respectfully, and without punishment toward the people you’re already speaking to. It can be scary to be honest if there’s a chance the conversation will become heated, but if you follow these tips, and try not to repeat my mistake, you can reduce the chances that that will happen.
Do you ever feel better when you win an argument? If you “win” an argument against someone you care about, can you really celebrate in the face of their dejection? To put it another way, let me quote the Tao Te Ching:
and repose are what he prizes; victory (by force of arms) is to him
undesirable. To consider this desirable would be to delight in the
slaughter of men; and he who delights in the slaughter of men cannot
get his will in the kingdom.
If we win, someone necessarily loses. If someone feels dejected when we fight so hard to win an argument with them, how much do you think they really want to hang out with us?
The goal is to reach beyond any desire to “win”, because we ultimately understand that winning is losing, and instead move to a place where everyone’s needs can be addressed.
You make me feel…
No I don’t!
If someone blames you, or passes judgement on you, are you really going to hear what they want to say? Of course not! You’re immediately going to go on the defensive. And as long as you’re on the defensive, you’re never going to hear the need that they’re trying to express.
Further, people can’t “make us” feel anything. If I demand that you feel happy, will that make it so? No. Feelings are our own personal responses to stimuli. We may feel things when someone does something, but chances are that someone else will feel different things when that person does the same thing. That stimuli does not make us feel anything; we feel in response to that stimuli, and what we feel is all very personal.
The tricky part in learning to communicate non-violently is to express feelings, rather than judgements. This is where everything went wrong in talking to my friend. I thought I had done well and expressed how I felt, but after the conversation devolved, I realized I hadn’t expressed a feeling; I had expressed a judgment.
What did I say? I said “I feel betrayed.” It even looks like a feeling because of the masterful placement of “I feel.” But “betrayed” isn’t a feeling, it’s a judgment of what that person has done. Really, it’s no different from saying “you betrayed me.” You will almost certainly get a defensive response if you tell someone that you feel betrayed. How many of our loved ones set out to betray us? None of them. We may hurt people in the course of our selfish pursuits, but we never set out with the sole purpose of hurting someone we care about.
I needed to have reached deeper and discovered what I was actually feeling. “I FEEL upset and angry.” That’s better. I felt this way, but my friend did not make me feel this way. There’s a big difference. And more importantly, I wasn’t upset with my friend. I was upset because I had a need that wasn’t being met. It’s not about competing, and it’s not about getting a concession from them.
What did they do?
Just because we are responsible for our own feelings does not mean that they didn’t do whatever they did. They might have interrupted your story, or they might have failed to make the bed. Whatever they did or didn’t do, you feel a certain way in response to that. Because you have a need that isn’t being met (to not be interrupted, or to have the bed made), you are likely to continue to have this feeling. That’s why it’s so important to address our needs and feelings. Our feelings aren’t going to go away if our needs aren’t met.
But like above, we must be careful not to pass judgement or blame. Our loved ones are not out to hurt us, so pretending that they are will get us nowhere.
“When they speak loudly.” “Loudly” is a judgement about how they are speaking. It assumes that there is a right and wrong volume to speak at, and that you know the difference. Instead, “when they speak at the volume they did.” Volume is a measurable thing, and if you have a preference for a lower volume, then it would make sense to address the volume at which they are speaking.
“When you attacked me.” “Attacked” is yet another judgment about how they’re speaking to you. “When you said the things you did.”
If we are able to distill what measurable action it is the other person actually took, then we are on our way to effective communication.
Altogether, then, we have “I FEEL angry and upset WHEN you say the things you did the other night.”
Why do you feel that way?
We never just feel things. We feel things because we have unmet needs.
If the bed doesn’t get made, we may feel frustrated because we have a need for tidiness. If the other person raises their voice, we may feel angry because we have a need to not feel like we have to compete.
Don’t try to pass off your need as unreasonable or silly. If that’s your need, and it makes you feel the way that you do, then it needs to be addressed.
So far we have “I FEEL angry and upset WHEN you say the things you did the other night BECAUSE I need to feel respected for who I am.”
Making a request
This is the step where you give them something actionable they can do in order to meet your need.
“Be happy” is not actionable. “Write down what you need me to do” is, and might lead to them being happy. (Although, the problem here is assuming that they know how to tell you what they need you to do.)
Remember that this is a request. You’re not telling people what to do. “You better start making the bed!” Do you respond well to being told what to do? Probably not. And you can’t expect that other people will respond well to being told what to do either.
By it’s nature as a request, that person does not have to do what you ask of them. They have needs too. The way in which you’ve asked them to meet your need may interfere with them meeting their own needs. Because you’ve read this, you may be better at communicating needs and feelings than they are, so they may not be able to tell you what they are feeling and needing. Learn to anticipate their needs and feelings, and help them communicate those needs and feelings so that everyone can have their needs met.
Ultimately, the communication will end in one of three ways:
- They comply with your initial request
- The two of you find an alternate way to have your needs met
- You determine that the person in question cannot meet your need
If one person needs to cuddle more, and the other person needs to not cuddle, then there’s no way that both person’s needs can be met at the same time. Their needs are incompatible. They will either have to go without their needs being met—a recipe for resentment—or find someone who can meet their needs.
So, in my case, “I FEEL angry and upset WHEN you say the things you said the other night BECAUSE I need to feel respected for who I am. CAN YOU please not use those words?”
Or, even better, “I feel happy when you share your opinions with me. I feel proud to have you as a friend because you stand up for your opinions even when no one else shares them. I feel angry and upset, however, when you say the things you said the other night about the groups I belong to, because I need to feel respected for who I am by my close friends—which I consider you to be. Can you please be mindful of the words and tone of voice you use when describing the groups I belong to? They are part of my identity, and my need for feeling respected is not met when those words are used in my presence.”
Learning more non-violent communication
I’ve only talked about non-violent conflict resolution. The rabbit hole goes much deeper. Apologizing non-violently is another topic to consider. Are you really sorry, or are you just saying it to end the conversation? People can tell when you are not being sincere in your apology.
In my conversation with my friend, she did apologize, but it struck me as insincere. And rightly so. I unintentionally started the conversation violently, and then she responded in kind, and it continued back and forth until we stopped talking to each other. I feel sad that I did not communicate with her without judgement, and without punishing, because it is not in keeping with my value of effective communication.
And there is also non-violent empathy, which I am admittedly rather bad at. Sometimes people do things which inspire us to feel hurt because they are not having their needs met. Even if we feel hurt, sometimes we have to take the time to empathize with the other person before both of us will be able to address our needs. I’m sure she feels sad because she needs to feel that others share her values. I’m sure she feels upset because her need to be spoken to in a non-violent manner was not met.
The conversation we had was not effective because it didn’t meet either of our needs.
If you want to learn how to empathize, apologize, compliment, and do other things non-violently, I suggest you check out this series of videos on Youtube. It’s a whole seminar by Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg, the founder of Non-violent Communication. It costs about $6000 to get him for a day (plus expenses), so free is a pretty good price. There are 22 videos in total, so don’t feel like you need to watch them all in one sitting. Watch one or two, and then come back to watch more later. Oh, and forgive the cheesy little song toward the beginning.
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