Constructive communication is hard to get right
In April I wrote an article on the physiology of anger and offered some techniques useful in calming one’s self when faced with challenging situations.
It is great when these techniques begin to work for us – this is the essential first step towards constructive communication. The next step is to effectively communicate our point of view to others from this calm and respectful state. How can we defend our point of view without feeling the need to be ‘right’, or to attack those who may not agree with us?
About ten years ago I was first introduced to the practices of non-violent communication. It was at a point in my life where I was quite aware of what was going on inside my body when I felt anger, sadness and other emotions, but did not know how to truly communicate with others about these emotions. Attempts at resolving conflicts often turned into matches of one-upmanship, resulting in pointless fights over who was ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – with predictably, no winners.
The first book I read on non-violent communication was ‘Defense without Attack. The Power of Non-Violence,’ by Belgian author Pat Patfoort. When I read it, I realized I was actually using violence in my way of speaking – and that I needed to change my style of communication. It was quite an eye-opener…
I continue to study this subject, reading works by other important teachers including Marshall Rosenberg. I have taken trainings and workshops, and – try to – apply non-violent communication practices in my own life. I succeed most of the time – but not always!
The First Step
The first step in changing our communication style is to become aware of what we ourselves are actually doing. We are usually very aware of what the others are doing to “wrong” us, but rarely aware of how we are contributing to the imbalance of the situation.
When are we ‘violent’ in our communication?
Firstly, we need to realize and accept that we all have a natural instinct of self-defense which is absolutely necessary for survival. Secondly, we all have needs, and we want to make sure that our needs are fulfilled. This is all completely normal human behavior.
However, how we go about meeting our needs is where there is room for improvement. When our needs go unfulfilled, we feel uncomfortable, we feel tension, pain, and we often feel that we are in an ‘inferior’ position. Then, we assume that in order to get out of this inferior position we need to return ourselves to a higher position, to become ‘superior.’ We have learned to defend ourselves by attempting to dominate others and by putting others down. The only possible result of this is a continuation of the cycle of sadness and frustration.
The practice of non-violent communication stops this cycle in its tracks, allowing new, positive energy to enter into the equation.
We feel that we are being put into an inferior position when the other person:
– doesn’t listen, ignores us, or is indifferent to us;
– comes too close, asks too many questions;
– makes prejudiced remarks;
– looks at us in a mocking manner, talks in a denigrating way, turns away from us;
– uses physical violence, a weapon.
And, of course, we put the other person into an inferior position by behaving this way.
These are just a few examples; there are many ways we put ourselves and others into an inferior or superior position.
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Dynamics of Conversation
Whenever we communicate, we need to honestly assess the dynamics of the conversation, our ‘stance’ in the situation, and what we ourselves may be doing to perpetuate the impasse in communication. We are very often aware when we are in a lower position, but not always when we have elevated ourselves to a higher position – through dominance behavior. It takes time to become aware of these tendencies: For instance, being a ‘know-it-all’ is dominance behavior – it implies that others know less, and relegates them to an inferior position.
Communicating in a non-violent manner does not mean that we are passive or that we refuse to defend ourselves. This practice requires courage and inner strength, and that we make the conscious choice not to react with violence, but rather to manage our emotions. It is not about repressing or denying emotions, it is about acknowledging and dealing constructively with them. Experience proves that when we speak in anger, people react mainly to our anger, rather than to the words that we actually say. Instead of insulting or attacking the other verbally or physically, we can state clearly that, for instance, we’re angry, and explain why.
We are not weak or passive, we come from our inner strength. We position ourselves to converse in a mutually respectful manner, where we feel we can express our needs without putting the other person in an inferior position.
To achieve this, we need to learn to communicate through deep awareness. It is not about being right or wrong – it is about seeing clearly what our and others’ needs, values, and belief systems are. Along with this, it is essential to honestly examine where our own belief systems have come from, to assess if they are still valid for us, or if we are simply acting according to old scripts.
The basic structure that Marshall Rosenberg developed to enable non-violent, connecting communication is as follows:
- You state what you observe. For instance: When I see that you are half an hour late for our appointment…
- Then how you feel about this: … I feel irritation….
- Express what need is not fulfilled: … because I want to use my time efficiently.
- Request: Think of a way that the other person could contribute in fulfilling your need. Be as concrete as possible (what, when, where). For instance: Are you willing to take this into consideration next time?
The last point, ‘request,’ is very important, to clearly state what you would like. We often assume that people can or ‘should’ know how we are feeling or what we want, but this is so often far from the case – few people are clairvoyant!
It is also important to leave room for creativity in our request. There are many different ‘strategies’ of fulfilling our needs. If we become trapped in the polarized thinking of “I’m right and the other person is wrong,” we often see only one strategy for ‘winning.’
Stronger Inner Courage
When we have stronger inner courage, we have more space in our minds as well, and can accept that there are many different ways to take care of our own needs and to help others take care of theirs. There may be many possibilities for resolving the situation at hand.
This is only a short introduction to non-violent communication. For further information please check out Pat Patfoort (she offers another method for non-violent communication, please check her website ) and Marshall Rosenberg online and on youtube, as well as other teachers cited in their references.