Natural Health: Speak No Evil
Verbal sparring is exhausting and ineffective. Learn to communicate with compassion and you’ll get the respect, attention, and fulfillment you deserve.
You know the routine. Maybe you even live it: A husband comes home from work, turns on the TV, and just wants to zone out. His wife takes his actions personally; seeing her disappointment, he pulls away emotionally—then she berates him for not paying attention to her. This scenario repeats week after week, and eventually the couple is on the verge of a divorce.
Now, cut to the troubled twosome’s session with clinical psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D., who asks them, one at a time, to describe the situation objectively and to express their feelings about it and the outcomes they desired. After each spouse speaks, Rosenberg asks the other to say back what was heard, making sure that they each understand the other’s perspective. It quickly becomes clear that the wife feels lonely and the husband feels frustrated; it’s also apparent that she wants an intimate connection, while he desires the freedom to do his thing.
This exercise in revealing true needs and feelings enables the couple to communicate with consideration and clarity. Now they can figure out ways to satisfy each of their needs. She decides to arrange time with friends occasionally during post-work hours. And once he realizes that he can choose to be with her without feeling forced to, TV becomes a less compelling option. “When both parties feel that their needs matter to each other, then it’s amazing how creative we can be,” Rosenberg says. “But when you start with ‘I want this’ and ‘I want that,’ then it’s a win-lose situation.”
Rosenberg’s approach is called “compassionate communication,” or more popularly, “nonviolent communication.” As he explains, “Words often lead to hurt and pain, but NVC guides usin reframing how we express ourselves and hear others. Instead of being automatic reactions, our words become conscious responses based firmly on an awareness of what we are perceiving, feeling, and wanting.”
NVC has generated not only a book (Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life) but a nonprofit organization as well. Founded in 1984, The Center for Nonviolent Communication (cnvc.org) numbers about 200 certified trainers working against physical and verbal violence around the world.
At the core of NVC is this four-step model: Observe your situation objectively and without judgment; feel and express your underlying emotions; identify and state your needs; and make a specific and feasible request. Known as OFNR—for Observations, Feelings, Needs, and Requests—the model can be used to help resolve everything from spousal misunderstandings to workplace power struggles to political negotiations. (See “The Four Steps of NVC,” below.)
The key to communicating compassionately is empathy. As a practitioner of NVC, you learn first to empathize with yourself–to recognize your own feelings and needs–and then to identify with others through “empathy guesses,” such as “Do you need to be heard?” or “Are you needing nurturing?” Even if a conjecture is erroneous, the attempt at understanding tends to make the other person feel warmth and compassion. And when you get it right, it can inspire an instant breakthrough.
Before leaving for a six-week trip to Australia, 54-year-old internal auditor Margaret Smith was spending an evening with her 9-year-old grandson. “He was behaving rudely,” Smith recalls, “throwing the dice for aboard game onto the floor and speaking to me in a demanding way. When he thrust his glass at me and said, ‘Get me a drink of water,’ I felt irritated.”
Normally, she says, her reaction would have been to issue a “judgmental demand like ‘say please,’ ‘don’t be rude,’ or ‘what’s up with you today?'” Instead, as a six-month practitioner of NVC, she paused and asked, “Trevor, areyou irritated because Grandma is going away for solong?”
“Yes,” Trevor responded, visibly relaxing. “When I go away in the summer, you miss me. When you go away now, I’ll miss you.”
Watching her grandson’s anxiety dissolve in response to her empathy was incredibly clarifying for Smith. “He didn’t know how else to express his feelings and concerns in that moment,” she says.
Find the Truth
Of course, such epiphanies are usually the result of concerted effort, especially for adults with deeply entrenched behaviors. For Anne Symens-Bucher, a 49-year-old mother of five and personal assistant in Berkeley, Calif., the breakthrough with her husband, Terry, came a year and a half into their practice of NVC–and almost 20 years into their marriage. During one heated exchange, she had a thought she’d been recycling for ages: He just doesn’t care. “Suddenly I recognized it for a story–not the truth, but a story I’d been telling myself and to him. And I saw how it was actually keeping me from being able to receive his care.”
Though their fights are fewer now, and briefer, there are still conflicts. The night before a recent holiday dinner, they both got riled. “The usual pattern is that Terry is overwhelmed and withdraws and I’m overwhelmed and get angry,” says Symens-Bucher. “The angrier I get, the more he withdraws.” This time, the observation that Terry was sitting on the couch while she was still working on dinner preparations led her to make a judgment: There’s more to do. He should be helping out. Aware that her husband’s blame radar is highly attuned (“As soon as he’d pick up that I was judging him—which I was—he’d be even less likely to get up and help me”), she paused to ask herself what she needed and felt right then.
“I realized that I was desperate for support,” she recalls. “I was exhausted and in need of connection.” After considering this, she did her best to reach out to Terry by imagining that he needed rest, too. “In the heat of the moment I’m now better able to make empathy guesses even when my heart isn’t open—in fact, it’s a way to get my heart open,” she adds.
Still, the communication that builds the most trust tends to occur at more cool-headed times, says Symens-Bucher. When she shares good news with Terry, instead of launching into his own news or changing the subject, he’ll empathy-guess, “So you really feel excited? Are you celebrating?” This allows her a satisfying end to her tale and sustains a steady flow of conversation, support, and enthusiasm between them.
“I have a lot more work to do,” Symens-Bucher says of her communication journey, “but I’m elated when I think about how much my life has been transformed.” As for that holiday dinner, she was able to remember her priorities. “What’s most important to me is that we love each other, that we’re living the values we’re trying to teach our kids,” she observes. “If we’re screaming and yelling at each other and all stressed out just so the house looks good and the food is fixed, it’s completely meaningless. The process—the way we arrive there–is what really matters.”