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Compassionate Communication

Apr 17, 2013
Ashok Nalamalapu

Some of my biggest experiences ofheartbreak have come from problems with communication. When this happened to me, I felt angry, sad, and hurt, and yearned for a connection that seemed to elude me. Through the practice of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), developed by Marshall Rosenberg, PhD, I am learning to connect more compassionately with others by attending first to my own feelings and needs. In his book, NonviolentCommunication; A Language of Life, Rosenberg writes “What I want inmy life is compassion, a flow between myself and others based on a mutual giving from the heart.”

When communication between two peoplefails, Rosenberg asks us to challenge reactive assumptions, judgment, and blame with a simple observation of what happened. Next he asks us to notice the feelings we experience in relation to the event. What feelings are stimulated? A common belief is that the feelings stem from events, actions, or other people. Rosenberg invites us instead to consider our feelings as indicators of our universal human needs and to consider needs as “the energy of life.”

Peggy Smith, Certified NVC Trainer inMaine, demonstrates the typical manner of expression in NVC: “When I see you throw a book at the cat, I feel frustrated, annoyed, and concerned, because I really value well-being and harmony.” She states what happened, her feelings, and the needs that inspire those feelings. Finally she makes a request: “I would really like to understand what’s alive in you right now. Are you willing to tell me?” Speaking in this way opens up countless possibilities for exploration, discovery, and support of mutual needs.

Waite Maclin, owner of Pastor ChuckOrchards, said, “Unasked help is not received.” Clearly asking for what we want can increase the odds of getting it.

Some of the problems in communicationare judging, analyzing and composing responses while the other person is talking. We actually get better connectedness by listening from a place of stillness. Awareness of our breath and body sensations will guide us to be present in that moment. Smith says, “One of the biggest problems in communication is trying to be nice in how we say things instead of being real. While trying to be nice, we often confuse others and are unclear.”

Smith states that the belief that “wedon’t matter” often contributes to our unwillingness to ask for what we want. Therefore, says Smith, “We are afraid to ask for what our heart really wants. Also we don’t take time to deeply connect and know what we really want.”

Recently I found that one of mycolleagues did not complete an important task for three months. I felt upset, but instead of reacting in anger, I took time to connect with myself. I noticed how I felt when I told myself, “She really dropped the ball!” I felt disappointed, because of the need for competence and support. Upon my empathy buddy’s suggestion, I wondered how my colleague was feeling and what her needs were. I guessed she was worried because of her need for safety and support. I took a day to cool off and to allow my new awareness of needs to shift my view of the situation from judgment to compassion. On the next day I approached her with an open heart and shared my observation of what happened, my feeling of disappointment, and my need for competence and support. She expressed regret for her mistake and reassured me that I could count on her in the future. I felt relieved and happy that we not only avoided a potential conflict but also strengthened our working relationship.

Smith states that through culturalconditioning, most of us have learned to react in ways that are unlikely to meet our own or the other’s needs – what Rosenberg coined as “tragic expressions of our own values and needs.” Examples of this tragic conditioning can be seen in words such as “should” or “have to” that rob us of choice. Overcoming such tragic conditioning requires powerful tools of connection: presence, empathy, and compassion.

Powerful Tools of Connection: Presence,Empathy, and Compassion

In a culture that emphasizes judgment,criticism, punishment and blame, the need to be heard and to matter are two of the greatest unmet needs. Smith teaches that true empathy meets those needs. Smith says, “People want empathy and not sympathy.” She teaches that sympathy, the expression of pity, is often confused with empathy, total presence, hearing and acceptance of another’s reality. To practice true empathy, we learn to put aside a lifetime of cultural conditioning. That takes a lot of practice.

Smith teaches that when we areempathetic, we do not judge or blame, agree or disagree, wonder what we can do to help, or how we might respond. We sit in quiet, still, presence with an open heart. This requires gentle attentiveness to our own state of mind. If we begin to drift into habitual patterns of thought, the practice is to come back to our open heart to hold presence for the other. When strong feelings arise, we practice self-compassion to be able to hold empathy for others.

Rosenberg writes, “When we give fromthe heart, we do so out of joy that springs forth whenever we willingly enrich another person’s life.” When we communicate effectively with presence, we can improve our relationships and avoid unnecessary stress.

Ashok Nalamalapu is the President of iCST, an IT Staffing and Software Testing company. He can be reached at or (207) 772-6898. He also serves at Sadhana, a Spiritual Center.

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