Compassionate communication is a natural flow of acceptance based on mutual giving from the heart. It is our true nature to enjoy giving and receiving in a compassionate manner, so what stops us from experiencing connection with others and leads us to dysfunctional behaviour? In our modern culture we have developed habits of communication that limit our experience and trigger unconscious behaviour that can be destructive and alienating. Compassionate communication is learning to use our language in a new way, thus encouraging a more rewarding and fulfilling experience when engaging with others.
What do you value in another person in relation to communicating? Is it their ability to listen? Do they hold their body in an open and receptive manner? Can they accept the validity of your experience without contradicting or judging you? Are they able to receive you and not withdraw in reaction if they are challenged by something you have said? Do you feel heard when you express your deepest truth? Take a moment to remember a situation when you have felt supported and heard. What did you notice? What qualities did you see in this interaction? What moved you to trust and be open in this situation? What did you experience in yourself that helped support this interaction?
Communication that blocks
Certain ways of communicating alienate us from our natural state of compassion. The following are some examples from facilitator and author Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.
One kind of life-alienating communication is the use of moralistic judgements that imply wrongness or badness on the part of people who don’t act in harmony with our values. Such judgements are reflected in language such as: "The problem with you is that you’re too selfish." "She’s lazy." "They’re prejudiced." "It’s inappropriate." Blame, insults, put-downs, labels, criticism, comparisons and diagnoses are all forms of judgement.
How often do we compare ourselves with others, physically, emotionally, in relation to our work and so on? Comparisons can work both ways: either not feeling adequate next to someone or feeling superior to someone.
Denial of responsibility
Denial of responsibility is a strategy that clouds our awareness that we are each responsible for our own thoughts, feelings and actions. It can occur in your relationship with yourself and others.
For example, the use of the common expression "have to", as in "There are some things you have to do, whether you like it or not", illustrates how personal responsibility for our actions is obscured in such speech. An example of how to phrase this responsibly is: "I always have choice, therefore I choose to…"
Similarly, the phrase "makes one feel", as in "You make me feel guilty", is another instance of how language facilitates the denial of personal responsibility for our feelings and thoughts. An example of how to phrase this responsibly is: "I feel guilty when…"
Observation versus evaluation
An important factor in compassionate communication is the ability to separate observation from evaluation. When you combine observation with evaluation, others are apt to hear criticism and resist what you are saying. Compassionate communication is a process of language that discourages static generalisation. Compare the following:
Evaluation: "Hank Smith is a terrible soccer player."
Observation: "Hank Smith has not scored a goal in 10 games."
Evaluation: "You seldom do what I want."
Observation: "The last three times I initiated an activity, you said you didn’t want to do it."
Evaluation: "He comes over all the time."
Observation: "He comes over at least three times a week."
Taking responsibility for and owning communication doesn’t allow for blame and projection. It reveals the truth of each moment and creates an open, non-judgemental forum. It is an important ingredient of effective communication because everyone’s experience is unique and is able to be expressed, creating an empowering environment for all concerned to be heard and understood.
Thus, it’s recommended you own your experience by speaking using "I" instead of "we" or "you". For example, "I felt sad and angry when you walked away in the middle of our conversation yesterday" instead of the projected version: "You made me feel sad and angry when you walked away in the middle of our conversation yesterday."
The second sentence involves blame and projection and gives power away to the other person, which is an illusion if you believe in the power of choice. The response to feel sad and angry is an internal choice. This concept is highlighted when you consider all the different responses people choose in any one situation. No one can make you feel anything except you. There are plenty of catalysts in the world on this adventure called life, but you are the creator of your destiny. In every moment and in every breath, you have choice.
In the first sentence whereby you own your emotions, there is an opportunity to express your needs: "When you walk away in the middle of a conversation I feel unheard and it’s important that I feel heard and understood." When your needs are communicated with compassion and detachment from the other person’s response, a successful outcome is often realised. Even if the other person doesn’t respond to your needs in the way you’d like, you have expressed your moment of truth, moved beyond your fear about the situation and performed an act of self-love.
Tell me how you’re feeling
The next step in compassionate communication is to recognise and express what you are feeling. This is not as easy as it sounds because words we use to express our feelings are not actual feelings but reactions to the feeling. For example, in the statement "I feel rejected", rejection is not the feeling; it’s a reaction to the real and deeper experience of "I’m feeling sad." Sadness is the feeling; rejection is the reaction to feeling sad.
Getting to the depths of the real emotion being experienced is important because it allows full and truthful expression, which then has an opportunity to be witnessed and thankfully released. If you are not expressing, you are repressing, which can often lead to distress and sometimes explosive behaviour. Extreme cases of repression can lead to dis-ease.
Our repertoire of words for calling people names is often larger than our vocabulary of words for clearly describing our emotional states. In expressing your feelings, it helps to use words that refer to specific emotions rather than words that are vague or general. For example, if you say "I feel good about that", the word "good" could mean happy, excited, relieved or a number of other emotive states. Words such as good and bad can prevent the listener and yourself from connecting easily with what you are actually feeling. So set an intention to be specific when expressing your feelings as best you can in every moment. This may mean expanding your vocabulary.
Your needs and what you value
So often in life we experience deep pain when our needs are not meet. If your earliest experiences as a young child showed you that you were powerless to have your needs met fully, you may now deny your true needs to prevent the backlash of pain that inevitably follows: "If I don’t recognise my needs, then I won’t experience pain when those needs are not met." Our culture has enforced our disassociation from the human quality of vulnerability by encouraging an independent view; that is, the belief that we have to be independent to survive.
Compassionate communication, however, is about recognising our true nature as human beings experiencing interdependent intimacy. This relational space depends on two or more people bringing their unique qualities to communication. If someone says, "You never understand me", they are really telling you their need to be understood is not being fulfilled. If your partner says, "You’ve been working late every night this week. You love your work more than me", he/she is saying their need for intimacy is not being met. The more you learn to directly connect your feelings to your own needs, the easier it is for others to respond compassionately to your needs.
Take the time to explore your personal needs because you are fully responsible for supporting and meeting them. What are some of your needs in relation to the following?
- Personal space
- Work environment
- Intimate relationship
- Social change
- World view
Emotional intelligence and intuition
A great companion of compassionate communication and life in general is emotional intelligence. Here intuition plays a big role. Intuition is one of our greatest assets and yet is so underutilised in the Western world. The ability to hear and listen to your inner guidance, to sense it, to see images in your mind or to be guided by an inner knowing is a very special gift. It is a gift within all of us, but we need to practise developing it and be still enough to listen to it.
There are times when you may feel guided to do things that may seem strange. It may seem difficult to trust this guidance. Allow it to happen. This guidance gives you opportunities to leap beyond your normal limitations. Intuition goes way beyond book knowledge; it comes from deep within, not from your thinking. The more you let go of logic and quieten your mind, the more easily you’ll develop your intuition.
Inner guidance may come in the form of a feeling, a picture or a voice. It may come as simply a knowing. The more you still the daily chatter of your mind, the more you will connect with the intuitive part of yourself. The more you let go of the mind and connect with your stillness, the more you will connect with your expanded awareness.
The key ingredients for developing your intuition are:
- Listening with and moving from the heart
- Being quiet enough to hear the inner voice of wisdom
- Being quiet enough to listen to the clues; to know when to let go and when to take action
- Being comfortable enough to sit in the unknown
- Being comfortable enough to sit with vulnerability
- Accepting each moment and dropping resistance
How do you move intuitively?
- Ask a question.
- Trust that the mysterious world we live in will provide everything you need.
- Receive intuitive guidance in whatever form it presents.
- Watch the coincidences that allow you to move in the right direction, thus directing appropriate action.