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!
Dr Sock says
I think consideration of the other is more the norm in collectivist societies around the world where one’s interdependence and relationship with others is valued and taught from a young age, as compared to in Canada, the USA, and Northern Europe, where individualism is prized. Suppressing one’s own impulses, opinions, and desires in consideration of others’ feelings and needs may be seen as mature communication, for example in Japan, whereas in individualistic societies, expressing one’s own point of view in an independent, articulate way is seen as desirable.
I sometimes wonder whether our fierce defence of individualism as a society correlates with certain negative outcomes, poor listening skills, such as feeling isolated, violence towards others, and violence towards the earth and its non-human inhabitants.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Jude! Thanks for bringing up these thoughts. I tend to agree with you that our culture (especially lately!) seems to be escalating the individual at the expense of the collective. However, on the other hand, too much “collective” reasoning can be problematic as well. Finding that perfect sweetspot is challenging in this and most things, don’t you think? What I do think is that right now a focus back toward the balance of the two is about the only thing that will bring us all together in peace. I have no idea how that will happen but I am an optimist so I’ll hold out hope! ~Kathy
I’m definitely in need of NVC. For me, it seems, I start with good intentions but they fly out the window when things get tense. Many conversations become passionate. If I don’t voice it, my body language does. Sometimes, taking a deep breath helps me keep things in perspective.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Laura! I agree that it is far too easy for all of us to respond to stress in ways that seem most natural. The author is pretty clear about how we have just accepted those habits and that we can change them with the right effort. I KNOW better but I don’t always do better. Deep breathing is REALLY good and helps to bring us into the present. There is a lot more in the book for any of us ready to make that change. Thanks for your thoughts. ~Kathy
Janet Mary Cobb says
Kathy, my experience with NVC is rooted in The Beloved Community and Nonviolence from the perspective of Martin Luther King Jr. Of course, I also spent a great deal of time in the convent and as a missionary learning how to listen from the ‘outside-in’. I’m actually proofreading my husband’s doctoral thesis which has a chapter on the importance of prophetic dialogue – which is really rooted in the need to listen before speaking in ministry. I found your post very informative and interesting as a new perspective on how to really bring these concepts to everyday experiences. Thanks for a reflection-provoking post!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Janet! I know this post is a bit “meaty” but I really enjoyed introducing so many people to the work of NVC. In fact, I’m thinking of doing an entire post on it as it is promoted by Marshall Rosenberg himself. I can use all the refreshers I can get. I’ll bet you could write an interesting post from both your husbands and YOUR perspective all well. I don’t think we all can hear enough about the idea of listening and speaking from compassion. I world would surely benefit. Thanks for your input. ~Kathy
A lot of food for thought, Kathy. I hadn’t heard of NVC, but I think most of us are guilty of trying to follow our desires, or blurting out words, not listening well. At least once in a while. I say “most of us”, because there are “listeners” out there, and “quiet people”. I recently sat around a campfire with a group of new friends and hung out with them as well. One of them, a retired psychologist, rarely talked. But, when he said something, it was always fascinating, intelligent, or funny. 🙂
I’m well aware of the word “need” and actually use it as little as possible. People often phrase things as “needs” when they actually mean “wants” or “desires”. To be honest, human beings don’t have a lot of “needs” or fundamental requirements anymore in the western world. But, I don’t mean to get off track.
Your article touches on an interesting concept when it comes to communication and I could learn a lot from being mindful and aware, which I should attempt more often.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Liesbet! Thanks for popping in here and sharing your thoughts. Wouldn’t it be great if we all took the time to just pause and listen to each other more? It’s definitely something I am working on it. And I get your hesitation about using the word “need” because it can carry a lot of different perspectives on it. But I think if we put it into the context of Maslow and his “hierarchy of needs” then it makes a lot more sense. Maybe the idea of “human requirements” makes it more clear? When we can take the time to consider the basic human requirements that connects us all and reminds us of our common humanity, then we can often learn to collaborate and work together more effectively. That’s another thing I’m working on…wish me luck! ~Kathy
Diane Dahli says
Needs are definitely at the core of any communication between two people. When you are taking into account the needs (and emotions) of the person talking with you, you are expressing empathy. Knowing and understanding your own needs goes a long way to having healthy communication with others. But being empathetic to others allows you to go the extra mile. It’s actually, in my mind, the route to good relationships.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Diane! You’re right. Thanks so much for bringing up the idea of empathy because Sofer talks about how that is a key to really being able to listen to another. He says, “At its core, empathy seeks to know experience directly, on its own terms, without trying to fix it, change it, or explain it. This willingness to be with experience is the key to empathy.” I had never actually thought of empathy quite the way he explains it so I very much appreciated. Another simple quote comes from Okieriete Onaodowan who said, “To walk a mile in my shoes, you must first take off your own.” Wow! I think most of the time in the past I always thought of empathy as just trying to understand where another is coming from. He, like you also suggest, it is really much more. And yes, a “route to good relationships.” Thank you for sharing this. ~Kathy
Mona McGinnis says
A phrase comes to mind – say what you mean; mean what you say; don’t say it mean. I’m compelled to put patience and listening into practice when in my ageing mother’s presence. I’m mindful of the many activities that contributed to her quality of life that she’s no longer able to do and further to that, she refuses medical investigation that might contribute to an improved quality of life. I’m constantly picking and choosing my words so as not to offend her, walking on egg shells for fear of saying the wrong thing (that’s another story). I’ve learned to smile and nod as she admonishes me for interrupting her train of thought when I think I’m making conversation. My concern for her safety often clashes with her need for autonomy. NVC is a concept that could help us both.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Mona. Thank you for sharing your own very personal example of attempting to communicate with compassion. Just your recognizing her needs for autonomy is so very important. An example from the book comes to mind where the author was attempting to talk with his mom about a big conflict they had. His mom was deeply disappointed in him because she saw him asserting his independence as a rejection of her and her need for acceptance and appreciation. She also wanted him to be safe in the way she thought best. When he explained he appreciated those needs but that he needed to act on his own needs for autonomy, freedom and pursuit of his own calling, it helped them both understand where the other was coming from. I sometimes wonder if I had been able to have that kind of deep honesty about my needs, and a willingness to hear her needs better, we could have had a better relationship. (She’s gone now so I’ll never know.) Sofer says that it didn’t really change what happened but it did bring them closer and increase their intimacy. As far as NVC goes, there is a lot on the internet about it besides this book if you want more info. Lots there for us all to benefit from. Thank you again for your thoughts. ~Kathy
Tom @ Sightings says
Well, I know that a lot of the time I’m conversing with someone I’m not listening to them, I’m thinking about what I want to say next. And I think other people are doing the same thing. One technique I’ve sometimes found to be helpful is to trade stories rather than arguments or points of view, or complaints or critiques. We can all relate to stories and remember them … and sometimes even learn from them..
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Tom! What great advice. As I think you know I’m a big believer in stories as well so having that as a “strategy” to communicate better would certainly be helpful. But at least the way I understand Sofer, no matter how good our strategies (and obviously some are much more compassionate and helpful than others) the only true way to connect on a deep human level is to attempt to see and connect to each other’s inherent needs. Of course if stories help us get there, so much the better. And I’m guessing they would. Thanks for the idea AND the comment. ~Kathy
Tom @ Sightings says
Oh, I agree completely. We should all aspire to see and connect to each other’s needs. But it’s hard to do that, while it’s relatively easy to tell stories. So I’m just saying we should tell stories in pursuit of a true connection and understanding of other people. Anyway, really good topic and thanks for the insights.
Nancy Dobbins says
I was not really aware of NVC as a “thing” but being present in the moment – being mindful – is a core requirement for good communication and being an active and empathetic listener. Too often we are not really listening; we are composing in our own heads what we will say next.
It is so important to take care with the words we speak – once spoken they can never be taken back.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Nancy! Like I said with Haralee, I really enjoy introducing people to things they haven’t heard of before so I’m happy I have at least touched on the basics of NVC. It really deserves more attention in our lives because it has so much potential for bridging the huge gaps between so many of us. When I can(mindfully) remember to come from that space I not only satisfy my own needs of peace, belonging and compassion, but I also tend to connect to other people’s as well. It does take a lot of practice and attention but it really makes a difference. But regardless of how we get there, as you say, the words we speak are so very important. Thanks for your comment. ~Kathy
I was not aware of NVC, but it makes so much sense! It is so easy to blame other people for everything and we all know many who live their entire lives this way. People who love to argue, I think fall into this group too. A need is not being met so they argue to feel alive or to blame someone else for whatever is their problem while really mindfulness and better communication skills would be so much better!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Haralee! Thanks for commenting. NVC has always intrigued me and I found this book to be such a nice blend of it and mindfulness. And I’m ALWAYS happy to introduce people to something they haven’t heard of before. Wouldn’t it be great if we all took the time to learn our true motivations before opening our mouths. I’ve been working more on it ever since reading this book. Again, thanks for taking the time to share you thoughts…I was a bit nervous in case I was the only one interested in this topic! ~Kathy