As every writer knows, words matter. But what about the words that come out of our mouths or the words we hear in our heads when someone is talking? Perhaps one of the greatest things we can learn, and teach one another, is how to speak and listen with empathy, kindness and connection. Sound simple? It’s not. In fact, after reading Say What You Mean—A Mindful Approach To Nonviolent Communication by Oren Jay Sofer, I am convinced that I have much to learn and years to practice. Ultimately it’s SMART to remember that communication, especially the mindful nonviolent kind, is far more than figuring out the right words to say in any given moment. Thankfully there are books like this that offer perspectives and tools to increase our awareness, fulfill our mutual needs, and build relationship.
I first heard about Nonviolent Communication (NVC) as developed by Marshall Rosenberg back in the mid-1990s. Even though I never became very proficient at it, the basic idea that we can either heal or harm others by the words we use has been with me to this day. In a nutshell, as I understand it, nonviolent communication is the understanding that we are all connected with basic needs and values, including the inherent capacity for compassion. The only time a person uses violence, either in action or by words, is when we can’t figure out a more peaceful strategy for fulfilling our needs. This works for us individually, in all our relationships, communities and even globally. At its core is the understanding that if we can discover the needs that are unmet in any situation, we can work to restore our lives, and those around us, and bring us back to peace. I told you it wasn’t simple, right?
However, even though I’ve read other books about NVC, heard live lectures and podcasts and even attended a workshop or two, it has been awhile since I took the time to go beyond the basics. Then I was offered the chance to review this book. Not only did the book reawaken my interest in NVC, it reminded me that learning to communicate in this way is an excellent way to heal the chasm that now exists between so many of us in the world. Using his background in meditation Buddhism, Mindfulness practices, NVC, and training in Somatic Experiencing, Oren Jay Sofer offers understanding and practices that can heal both ourselves and our connection to everyone in our lives.
Below are two of the major topics in the book that generated the most thoughts and ideas in my mind during the last two weeks. They are:
How Understanding Needs Helps Us Communicate Compassionately
According to Sofer we’ve all been “trained” to communicate. Unfortunately that training is mostly unconscious and unintentional. We frequently blurt out what comes to mind and call that communication. We hear just enough to decide what we will say next and on it goes. Instead, there are a number of things we can do to improve and at the core is becoming more mindful. Sofer says, “Mindfulness is being aware of what’s happening in the present moment in a balanced and nonreactive way.”
Awareness is the key. Once we become aware in the moment, we can develop the capacity to notice our impulses, like whether to speak, listen, or do neither. We can also check our own intentions. In addition, Sofer is convinced that one of the most powerful things we can do to be mindful communicators is to learn to pause. Only with that space of awareness can we be mindful of intentions and the needs behind them.
A major theme weaving through the book is that everything we say, everything we do really, is because we think it will help us satisfy one, or more, of our needs. When talking to others we usually just focus on the “what happened” or “what” someone says rather than the “why”. But if we can pause long enough to step back and wonder about the need behind the word/action we are attempting to satisfy within ourselves, we can get to our true motivations. Even better, when we take the time to look for the need that the other person is attempting to fulfill, we can often find much more compassion in our listening and understanding.
This is fairly easy to do when we stay mindful and aware—especially if it concerns someone we care about. Say you plan to get together for lunch with a girlfriend and at the last minute she texts saying she isn’t coming. While you might be unhappy at first, chances are good that you will wonder what happened and hope everything is okay. We usually give our friends and family the benefit of the doubt—at least the first time. With strangers, it is far easier to assume that they are to blame and never even consider that the cancelation, like with a friend, is due to their need to meet they consider more important than our lunch date.
Of course, when Sofer talks about needs he is talking about fundamental needs or values, not passing whims or desires. Sofer says, “Needs are at the core values that motivate our actions. They’re what matter most, the root reason for why we want what we want.” They are also universal. Any time someone expresses a need that is an individual fulfillment or tied to a specific person, time, object or action then that is just what Sofer calls a “strategy.” We all use many strategies to meet needs, but only those that apply universally are fundamental needs.
How do you know when you’ve hit on a universal need/value? It applies to just about everyone on the planet. Again, when you think of these needs as universal values—like the need for love, safety, belonging, autonomy etc.—you can’t help but realize that as humans we are all deeply connected to one another. It is from that place of connection that we can truly communicate with one another if we take the time to recognize the need/value.
How do you know when you’re not connected to common humanity? You blame. When we find fault, blame or criticize others for their actions or their words we are refusing to see the needs or values they have behind their actions. Only if we are willing to search for those underlying values can we ever hope to truly communicate, collaborate or experience change. Obviously, if we are convinced we are always right, there is little room to see the other person’s point of view and no communication happens.
How Understanding Our Own Needs Heals On Many Levels
Sofer believes that awareness of needs is transformative. Once I become mindful enough to sense the need behind my words and my actions, I have greater understanding and choice about what to do or say next. Instead of blaming others for not meeting my needs, or reacting negatively when things don’t go my way, I can begin to recognize my own deep motivations and work to resolve those within myself.
Then as our understanding of needs matures, we can move beyond just thinking of needs on a personal level. After all, if I run around looking to fulfill my need to be safe and expect the world and everyone in it to comply in order for me to feel safe—it isn’t going to happen! Instead, if I can rise to the understanding that safety is a universal need and that just about everyone on the planet values that, then I can recognize that internal value within and appreciate what that means to me.
As Sofer says, “Every need also exists as a value that we carry within us, independent of whether or not it is satisfied. When we are in touch with our inner life in this way, a need’s gratification is less salient than our awareness and appreciation of it as a value.” He goes on to say, “Each need, in the very fact of its existence, contains a beauty and fullness in and of itself as an aspect of our humanity.”
What’s the payoff for this “advanced” level of awareness? According to Sofer, “…when we touch this universal dimension of our needs, we encounter great freedom…Sometimes our needs are met; sometimes they aren’t. Inner freedom doesn’t come from being able to control outcomes; it comes from knowing our values, developing the inner resources to meet life with balance, and letting go.” Wow!
So, when get to the place where we can be at peace with our unmet needs, we won’t go around blaming others or insisting that everyone else fulfill them. Instead, by appreciating universal needs we naturally strive to fulfill them in ourselves and for others, without being attached or identified to the outcome. Can you see how this leads to communicating with others in a way that bridges all gaps? Even when we don’t believe we have anything in common, there are ALWAYS universal needs hoping to be heard and expressed if only we provide the space.
Want a personal example? This week I have a nasty head cold. The temptation is to fight it and want to blame someone else for giving it to me. But when I can sense my need to feel healthy and at peace in my body, then just the awareness of that need gives me comfort. It’s normal to want to feel healthy. We all want it. There is no one to blame—myself included. Just focusing on that awareness takes the focus off of my illness and instead connects me with the universal need for good health. Peace.
What it boils down to is that, “The more we know our own needs and trust our ability to meet them, the more space we have to hear others.” If we want to connect and communicate with others the best way to do that is to establish as much mutual understanding as possible before attempting to solve any problems. Again, if we can understand the “why” behind people’s actions, the needs they are attempting to fulfill, we nearly always have more in common than we usually recognize.
Naturally, I am barely touching on the many ideas about communication in this book. Sofer does a great job providing exercises in order to practice and understand his ideas both in this book and on his website. It did take me a few chapters to get into this book, but once I got about a third of the way in, I was hooked. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in NVC, mindful communication and deeper self-awareness. While it may not be a simple process, I believe it has the power to transform our lives and our relationships. The SMART perspective is to use whatever I can to be free.
Okay, your turn. Are you familiar with Nonviolent Communication? Can you see where that and the practice of mindfulness can help us all not only understand the actions of others but help us communicate better? What about using it as a tool for our own self-awareness? Any thoughts on this in the comments below would be appreciated!