My Personal Experience With The Language of Compassion—Nonviolent Communication

by Jerry Donoghue

(This article appeared in January 2006 issue of The Spirit In The Smokies magazine).

Many years ago I discovered Nonviolent Communication (NVC), the work of Marshall Rosenberg, PhD. The goal of NVC is an empathic connection through which all people’s needs can be met. From connection and mutual understanding, resolution, peace and harmony all happen naturally––and often effortlessly. The impact of this work in my life has been dramatic.

The NVC model is simple. It consists of stating an Observation, expressing Feelings, expressing the Needs associated with those feelings, then making a Request. I remember feeling frustrated when I first started practicing Nonviolent Communication, however, because what seemed simple on paper was very challenging for me.

It required me to express feelings, which meant I had to actually connect with what I was feeling. Yikes! Previously, my entire vocabulary for positive and negative feelings was good and bad.

Same thing for the Need part of the model. I wasn’t really connected to many of my needs, so when trying to express them, I stammered and groped for words, frequently using a ‘needs list’ to identify what I was experiencing.

NVC highlighted my covert blaming habits, showing me how I often made judgments of others instead of expressing myself, thus keeping me distant and disconnected when what I really wanted was a closer connection. For example, if a friend showed up late for a meeting, I would angrily lash out with “you’re so inconsiderate and only think about yourself.”

This judgmental way of communicating didn’t express what I was feeling and needing very well, so a response that could satisfy those needs was highly unlikely. Using NVC, I learned to say, “When you showed up 20 minutes late, I felt angry because I’m needing respect for my time.” This was much easier to hear, and my friend could now connect with my discomfort without feeling blamed. That made it more likely that she would be interested in responding empathetically to my needs and requests.

Other communication models had encouraged me to own my judgments. That may be a good first step, but I realized that in doing so, I was not connecting to the needs and wants that had prompted my judgments in the first place. If not in touch with my feelings of anger, and my need for respect, I’m still disconnected, unable to express myself authentically. That in itself often precludes being responded to compassionately by another, especially if I’ve just been judgmental toward them.

Like me, many people have struggled with judging our judgments. We catch ourselves making them, then judge ourselves as bad or wrong, and so suppress them and the emotional energy they contain. Learning to accurately express the feelings and needs which underlie judgments, to translate them, prevents this often damaging emotional repression.

When first practicing NVC, I observed myself habitually responding to people by diagnosing or analyzing them. Like many in the personal growth culture, I would listen to someone and then start assessing WHY something is happening to them, based upon my accumulated knowledge of psychology and personal growth methods. Sound familiar?

If a friend said he felt sad, instead of connecting with and hearing the sadness, I would begin to make internal interpretations, trying to get to the psychological bottom of the sadness. Not only was I not connecting with him, but I facilitated his disconnection from feelings or needs by inspiring him to get into his head to answer my “why” questions.

I began to notice how much this psychological diagnosis and analysis language has been infused into everyday conversations: “You're in denial...You clearly have abandonment issues...You're letting her manipulate you...What a control freak...You give your kids too much attention...You're being insensitive like your father...You're not on-purpose...You love too much” and so on.

As I learned to use NVC, I realized that diagnosing is not empathy. Empathic listening is when we connect to what a person is feeling and needing, then simply be with that energy without trying to change or fix it. We allow the full expression of emotions. Instead of analyzing, I would connect to the sadness of my friend, verbally or nonverbally, then connect with the need behind that sadness.

The power of empathy can not be described with words; it must be experienced and felt. To be deeply heard is a precious gift and has been rare in this world. I have found much peace in my life simply by acknowledging my conditioned ways of responding, with as much compassion for myself as I can muster, then choosing more empowering ways of communicating compassionately. The impact continues to be dramatic.

Partner conflicts are solved easily. I rarely get into “who’s right” arguments. I now can clearly express my feelings and needs in a variety of situations. When someone does get upset with me, I can usually stay calm and centered enough to hear and empathize with the need behind angry judgments directed at me. I’m more connected with myself and others in a very deep way.

Learning to use Nonviolent Communication has given me tangible ways to show up compassionately in this world. I’m excited and energized to teach and coach others how to use this model, because I desire to contribute to people’s well-being and ways of connecting in the world. Peace in the world will only arise out of the internal peace we hold, and the peace in our relationships.