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  • Writer's pictureJ Felix

Compassionate Communication

Updated: Mar 31

Communication is not a skill most of us were taught explicitly. "The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply," wrote the late author Stephen Covey.With the best intentions, we often default to correcting, evaluating, advising, fixing, or judging. Demands, criticism or complaints can sometimes be effective, but these are not the most skillful ways to communicate. They are unskillful because they almost guarantee that we will not get our needs met, or that we will have them met through coercion, manipulation, guilt, or shame.

One of the best frameworks I've found is Marshall Rosenberg's Non Violent Communication (NVC). At the heart of the NVC process is a kind of playfulness- identifying what would make life more wonderful for one's self and the other. We do that by identifying needs. By maintaining the flow of observations, feelings, needs, and requests (OFNR) we can communicate from the heart. Behind judgments, criticisms, complaints, aggressions, and diagnoses are calls for love, help, consideration, respect, understanding, or other noble need. The objective in NVC is not to change the other, to get them to do what we want, to get them to see the world our way, nor to fix, but to create a quality of connection that allows all parties to get their needs met. The process allows for empathy and a quality of presence which connects us from the heart. The presence that empathy requires is a precious gift we can give others. The central question at the heart of the process is this: What would make life more meaningful for me and the other person?

There are subsets of skills one needs to understand to practice effectively.

Skill 1: Emotional granularity

Emotional granularity is the ability to put feelings into words with a high degree of specificity and precision. People with high emotional granularity are better able to cope with emotions and self-regulate with greater agility. Are you sad or is it more nuanced? Maybe you're disappointed, discouraged, resigned, miserable, despairing, or grieving. Ekman's Atlas of Emotions explores the different shades and intensities of emotion. Our responses to our states will vary depending on how we evaluate them, how much skill we have in working with them, how resourced we are at that moment (i.e. whether tired or rested, calm or stressed, sober or intoxicated, healthy or ill). If sad, for example, I may withdraw, feel ashamed, reject or suppress the feeling, seek comfort or distraction, ruminate, mourn, seek out a friend, or simply be with it. There are many other strategies, some positive, some maladaptive (like consuming drugs or alcohol).

"Your brain, it turns out, in a very real sense constructs your emotional states — in the blink of an eye, outside of your awareness — and people who learn diverse concepts of emotion are better equipped to create more finely tailored emotions," writes researcher Lisa Barrett.

There are psychological and physiological benefits to this skill. People with high emotional granularity drink less, are less volatile, less reactive. The benefits are not only psychological, but physiological. They suffer fewer ailments, use fewer medications, report fewer hospitalizations, have fewer doctors visits.

Like any skill, emotional granularity can be learned. We begin by developing a vocabulary of emotional states (e.g. anger, fear, sadness, joy, disgust). Then we classify them based on their granularity or intensity. Irritation, frustration, vengefulness and fury are different shades of anger, for example. In the NVC model, we inventory feelings according to whether the needs back of them have been met or not.

When needs are satisfied, we may feel: AFFECTIONATE (e.g. compassionate, friendly, loving, open hearted, sympathetic, tender, warm); ENGAGED (e.g. absorbed, alert, curious, engrossed, enchanted, entranced, fascinated, interested, intrigued, involved, spellbound, stimulated); HOPEFUL (e.g. expectant, encouraged, optimistic); CONFIDENT (e.g. empowered, open, proud, safe, secure); EXCITED (e.g. amazed, animated, ardent, aroused, astonished, dazzled, eager, energetic, enthusiastic, giddy, invigorated, lively, passionate, surprised, vibrant); GRATEFUL (e.g. appreciative, moved, thankful, touched); INSPIRED (e.g. amazed, awed, wonder); JOYFUL (e.g. amused, delighted, glad, happy, jubilant, pleased, tickled); EXHILARATED (e.g. blissful, ecstatic, elated, enthralled, exuberant, radiant, rapturous, thrilled); PEACEFUL (e.g. calm, clear headed, comfortable, centered, content, equanimous, fulfilled, mellow, quiet, relaxed, relieved, satisfied, serene, still, tranquil, trusting); REFRESHED (e.g. enlivened, rejuvenated, renewed, rested, restored, revived).

When needs are not met, we may feel: AFRAID (e.g. apprehensive, dread, foreboding, frightened, mistrustful, panicked, petrified, scared, suspicious, terrified, wary, worried); ANNOYED (e.g. aggravated, dismayed, disgruntled, displeased, exasperated, frustrated, impatient, irritated, irked); ANGRY (e.g. enraged, furious, incensed, indignant, irate, livid, outraged, resentful); AVERSION (e.g. animosity, appalled, contempt, disgusted, dislike, hate, horrified, hostile, repulsed); CONFUSED (e.g. ambivalent, baffled, bewildered, dazed, hesitant, lost, mystified, perplexed, puzzled, torn); DISCONNECTED (e.g. alienated, aloof, apathetic, bored, cold, detached, distant, distracted, indifferent, numb, removed, uninterested, withdrawn); DISQUIET (e.g. agitated, alarmed, discombobulated, disconcerted, disturbed, perturbed, rattled, restless, shocked, startled, surprised, troubled, turbulent, turmoil, uncomfortable, uneasy, unnerved, unsettled, upset); EMBARRASSED (e.g. ashamed, chagrined, flustered, guilty, mortified, self-conscious); FATIGUE (e.g. beat, burnt out, depleted, exhausted, lethargic, listless, sleepy, tired, weary, worn out); PAIN (e.g. agony, anguished, bereaved, devastated, grief, heartbroken, hurt, lonely, miserable, regretful, remorseful); SAD (e.g. depressed, dejected, despair, despondent, disappointed, discouraged, disheartened, forlorn, gloomy, heavy hearted, hopeless, melancholy, unhappy, wretched); TENSE (e.g. anxious, cranky, distressed, distraught, edgy, fidgety, frazzled, irritable, jittery, nervous, overwhelmed, restless, stressed out); VULNERABLE (e.g. fragile, guarded, helpless, insecure, leery, reserved, sensitive, shaky); YEARNING (e.g. envious, jealous, longing, nostalgic, pining, wistful).

Skill 2: Identify needs. Needs, or values, are at the heart of the NVC process. Our actions, thoughts, and words are motivated by an urgency to satisfy needs. According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, there exists a hierarchy of needs- PHYSIOLOGICAL (e.g. air, water, food, shelter, sleep, sex, clothing); SAFETY (e.g. security, health, employment, prosperity); LOVE/BELONGING (e.g. friendship, intimacy), esteem (e.g. respect, status, recognition, freedom), and SELF-ACTUALIZATION (e.g. potential, purpose, meaning, self-expression, authenticity).

The NVC model categorizes them this way: CONNECTION (e.g. acceptance, affection, appreciation, belonging, cooperation, communication, closeness, community, companionship, compassion, consideration, consistency, empathy, inclusion, intimacy, love, mutuality, nurturing, respect/self-respect), support, to know and be known, to see and be seen, to understand and be understood, trust, warmth); SAFETY (e.g. security, stability); PHYSICAL WELL-BEING (e.g. air, food, movement/exercise, rest/sleep, sexual expression, safety, shelter, touch, water); HONESTY (e.g. authenticity, integrity, presence); PLAY (e.g. joy, humor); PEACE (e.g. beauty,, communion, ease, equality, harmony, inspiration, order); AUTONOMY (e.g. choice, freedom, independence, space, spontaneity); MEANING (e.g. awareness, celebration of life, challenge, clarity, competence, consciousness, contribution, creativity, discovery, efficacy, effectiveness, growth, hope, learning, mourning, participation, purpose, self-expression, stimulation, to matter, understanding);

Skill 3: Understand what empathy is not. We probably recognize cynicism, sarcasm, or criticism as empathy killers. Empathy, moreover, is not advising, analysis, consolation, comparison, counseling, data-collection, correcting, discounting, diagnosing, educating, fixing, or sympathy. Example: a friend says, “I don’t know how I’m going to pay my bills at the end of this month.”

advising: “If I were you, I’d start setting aside some money right now”.

analysis: “What probably happened is that you never got on top of things after you had to have the car repaired the month before last”.

consoling: “Don’t worry, you’ll manage somehow!”

comparison: “Oh, I’m sure you don’t owe as much as I do!”

storytelling: "That reminds me of the time, I..."

counseling: “Have you noticed that ‘not knowing’ has been a recurrent theme in your life?”

data-gathering: “Which bills is it that are worrying you the most?”

correcting: “Well, you’ve had the services, so you can expect to pay for them, can’t you?!”

discounting: “That’s nothing new, you’re always running out of money!”

diagnosing: “That’s because you don’t keep tabs on your income and expenditure!”

minimizing feelings: "Take a deep breath, and smile."

educating: “Now you can see why I’m always telling you to be less extravagant!”

fixing: “It’s OK. I can lend you the money”.

sympathy: “Oh God, that’s an awful state to be in! I feel really sorry for you!”

cheerleading: "You're the smartest person I know! You got this!"

Note: some people may want advice or counseling, but this is not empathy. It's important to differentiate. I often begin with empathy, then ask, if they'd care for advice or counsel or something else. I begin by giving the gift of presence. The attention is on them. Almost invariably, people appreciate this. They feel seen, heard, understood. They will often end by saying something like, "That felt good," "Thanks for letting me vent," "This felt like therapy," "What do you think?"

The following animation illustrates what empathy looks like.

Empathy is connecting to feelings and needs. "Are you feeling anxious around that? Are you needing predictability?" I guess, but even if I am wrong, it shows solidarity, an attempt to meet them where they are. Our presence is a gift we give to others.

Two years ago, I attended an intensive silent meditation retreat in Amanalco, Mexico. After the retreat, I carpooled with 4 attendees back to the airport in Mexico City. I sat in the back seat with another man I had not met until then. He asked me about my experience. I gave him the gift of authenticity. I told him about some of the painful memories that had surfaced. Because I was honest, he reciprocated the gift. "My daughter committed suicide. I came to heal."

On hearing that, I switched to empathy. I sat with his pain. "When you said that, I felt a deep pain and I don't even know you. I can't imagine what you must be feeling." He opened up and shared more. I listened, reflecting back what I heard him say, guessing feelings and needs. After several minutes he said, "Thank you so much! I don't share this with people often because they often say things that hurt. They don't mean to, but they don't listen. It's very painful." He began to enumerate many of the empathy killers I just listed.

Sympathy: "I'm so sorry. That's terrible!"

Minimization: "She would want you to be happy. You need to be strong now."

Comparison: "I know how you feel. My mother died last year."

Consolation: "God wanted his angel back."

Storytelling: "When my best friend died, it took me years to get over her death."

Advice: "You should see a therapist."

Data-gathering: "How? When? Why?"

Counseling: "It was God's plan. Everything happens for a reason."

Often, we say these things to console ourselves. It is harder to sit with the person and embrace the suffering. This is empathy. Empathy says, "I will go to the darkest places with you. I am here for you." Empathy is fully present, fully attending, courageous, generous, selfless.

Skill 4: Presence. Be fully present. Let listening be your meditation. The other person is the object of focus. If the mind wanders to what you want to say next, cut that, reorient your attention and focus on them. Listen for tone, observe body language, gestures, the movement of the eyes.

Skill 5: Paraphrasing. Paraphrasing can be parrot-like. I repeat back what I heard them say. We can also mirror, repeating back what we heard them say in our own words. When I do this, I append with, "Did I get that?" When I use the NVC framework, paraphrasing is more like translation. He says: "She's always criticizing me." Is he feeling anxious, frustrated, humiliated, angry, embarrassed? We can't know. We guess, we ask. Then we guess the need. "When I hear you say she is critical, are you feeling angry because you're needing (guess: understanding, trust, appreciation, recognition, respectful communication)?"

Your teenaged daughter says you never listen. Rather than react or defend, we pivot. "I'm guessing you're feeling upset because your need for (guess: autonomy, respect, inclusion, consideration, trust) is not met. Did I get that?"

Note: one round of OFNR often does not result in closure. This process takes time. Often, people are disconnected from how they feel, so paraphrasing acts like a sounding board. They can reflect when they hear their words echoed back. They may say something like, "No, that's not it. It's more like (this)."

Skill 6: Checking for understanding. "Is there more?" "Did I get that?" are 2 simple questions we can ask to elicit more, to go deeper, to check for understanding.

Skill 7: Keeping your seat. Keep to the flow no matter how others communicate. When there is a flow of that information, and nothing else, those compassion killers don’t get mixed in. Look, therefore, behind the judgments to needs and feelings.

4 common reactions when we receive negative messages:

1. Blaming or criticizing ourselves

“I should’ve been more __________.”

Result: Guilt, shame, depression

2. Blaming or criticizing others

“You are________!”

Result: Anger, defensiveness, aggression

3. Sensing our own feelings and needs

“When I hear you say_____, I feel______ because I need______.”

Result: Communication with openness and honesty that can result in meeting our needs.

4. Sensing others’ feelings and needs

“Are you feeling______ because you need____.”

Result: Communication with openness and empathy that can result in connection.

In NVC, we try to give naturally and from the heart, even when the other person communicates unskillfully. This is especially challenging during a conflict or argument when our ego is the apparent target. Behind judgment, criticism, complaints, aggressions, diagnoses, however, are pleas for love or respect or understanding or peace or something else. Hear her painful attempt to say, "I want to love and be loved!" Sink beneath the words and listen for his need to be understood or appreciated. Keep to flow no matter how he communicates.

You are not the cause of their pain. Their needs are not getting met. Stay with that. I am responsible for what I do and think. She is responsible for her responses and interpretations which will affect how she feels. I am not able to respond to how she feels.

Avoid the trap of egoic thought. Don't reinforce egoic thinking. Don't fix or problem solve. This process takes time. There is depth to his pain. Stay out of it. Maintain a curious, open, kind attitude. Enjoy the shit show. Look behind the judgments to needs and feelings. Make it a game of the heart. Enjoy the pain. Enjoy the gift of vulnerability, of truth as they perceive it, of real talk, an expression of deep longing for peace, love, connection, safety. Honor that longing! Tell what's in your heart. Elicit a reaction. Use 40 words or less. Come from the energy you choose to come from. Don't direct, connect with. Don't correct, connect with. Don't educate, connect with. Cognitive responses may be physically painful. Avoid head verbs. Don't connect feelings with what other people do. Connect their feelings with their needs.

Remember, the objective is not to change the other, to get them to do what you want, to get them to see the world your way. The objective is to create a quality of connection that allows us both to get needs met. Trust the power of empathy and compassion to heal and work through you. Don't do something; be present. The Spirit will attend.

It's important to note that this style of communication can also be self directed. Suppose the thought arises, "I'm a failure." I can investigate with the same openness and empathy. What is the need behind this unskillful self-talk? When I call myself a failure, am I feeling defeated because my need for self-expression isn't met? Am I disappointed because I have a need for competence? Am I disoriented because I need meaning, or is something else I'm searching for?

In the video below, Marshall Rosenberg explains the NVC process in more detail. We learn to differentiate between judgment and observation, feelings versus faux feelings, needs versus strategies, and requests versus demands. NVC is a process. OFNR (observation, feelings, needs, requests) is purposefully formulaic for beginners. With experience and practice, we develop a more natural, authentic approach. Marshall fields real-world examples from his audience demonstrating the power of this process.

First published 11/2/20. Edited and republished 12/16/21

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