SPEAKING AND LISTENING WITH EMPATHY

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.  I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about” ~ Rumi

We constantly evaluate and label things as right or wrong, good or bad, true or untrue and so on. These excessive judgments weigh us down and make us feel dispirited and unsatisfied.

How much more wonderful would it be to let go the burden of excessive judgment, to allow the radiance of the universe to permeate our consciousness and just be. To connect with the human spirit in each person in any situation and interact with one another in a way that allows everyone’s needs to be equally valued.

For example, if another person is dominating the conversation, talking too much (in our opinion) then we more often than not form a judgement about them such as, “they really like to be the centre of attention, don’t they just love the sound of their own voice!”  Of course, this judgement is rarely a description of what is actually going on.  Perhaps the other person is talking so much because they are incredibly nervous in company.

We go to the cinema.  “That film was great!”  “No it was boring.”  Here we have not only expressed an opinion about the film but also informed the other that we think their opinion is WRONG.

The film is neither great nor boring, the film is just a film. However, we feel in different ways about the film.  In empathic communication the reply would be, “that’s interesting that you thought it was great – tell me why you thought it was great because I didn’t find it that way.”

Using this type of language will heighten our own consciousness that we always have a choice.  We choose to do everything we do. We also have a choice to do each and every thing from a place of joy rather than from a place of guilt or feeling like we have to rather than genuinely wanting to.

To change racism, sexism, prejudice of any kind; to help relationships between parents and children, between lovers, between work colleagues we need a radical departure from the ingrained systems of communication that presently exist within our society.

Our society is currently largely based around domination structures in which some people claim superiority and therefore feel they know what is right for others and consequently impose what they believe to be right ON those others.  This way of living requires communicating in power dynamics. Most of us have been programmed to communicate in language that categorizes people and their actions– it is a language of judgements, appropriate/inappropriate, right/wrong, good/bad etc.  This language teaches people to be submissive and obedient.  It is a static language and talks about what people ARE: It uses the verb to BE in order to judge people in terms of their behaviour, appearance, intelligence and so on.  This is a rather deadlocked way of thinking.  “You are stupid” does not allow room for the judged person to grow and evolve.

Furthermore, our society currently teaches that if you are judged negatively then you should be punished and if you are judged positively, then you deserve to be rewarded.  It is likely that this combination of judgemental language and disciplinary justice is at the heart of animosity and hostility on our planet.

If we look deeply into the weapons [of war] we see our own minds – our own fears, prejudices and ignorance.  Even if we transport all the bombs to the moon, the roots of war, the roots of bombs are still there in our hearts and minds and sooner or later we will make new bombs.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

In other words discord is something that will arise naturally within our communities because each of us has different needs.  Peace is not living without conflict, it is being able to resolve conflict.  When we connect with one another empathically and allow everyone’s needs to be heard and understood, resolutions will follow more easily.

It is not that we do not require order and discipline or that we prefer anarchy. On the contrary, for there to be a healthy happy family/ school/ workplace/ community, there must be regulation, standards and principles that are adhered to but all of its members must WANT to interact compassionately with one another to maintain those standards.  Whatever we do must be done voluntarily, not out of guilt or shame or fear of punishment or trying to buy love by submitting to what we think others expect us to do.  I don’t like to be nagged or manipulated and so I must assume that neither does anyone else and adjust my language accordingly.

Empathy is the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives and to use that understanding to guide our actions.  Through empathy, we can contribute to one another’s happiness willingly, out of a joy that comes naturally and therefore enrich our lives and the lives of those around us.

We don’t need fixing.  We just need to change the way we think and interact.

To move away from this ingrained, opinionated language requires a huge transformation.

Firstly we require a radical change in language.   Instead of judging what people ARE. whether people are right or wrong, a better way might be to focus our attention on human NEEDS; needs are universal; we all need to be valued, to feel safe, to have connection, to be fed and sheltered – the list is long but it does apply to all of us.  When our needs are not being met, we have to be able to find ways of behaving that can nurture these needs.

How do we support this way of expressing our needs and hearing the needs of other people?

  1. Feelings- be aware of our feelings as these are manifestations of what is happening to our needs; enjoyable feelings when they are being met, unpleasant feelings when they are not.
  2. Clarity – make clear observations about when people’s actions are meeting our needs and when they are not meeting our needs.
  3. Requests; when our needs are not being met we must request of ourselves or others what actions are required to better meet our needs

 

Explain and find solutions rather than criticizing, blaming or attacking.

Present requests rather than demands.

Resolve conflicts whilst avoiding punishment and reward.

We want people to know that we don’t want them to do anything to fulfil our needs out of guilt or shame from criticism they hear coming from us.

If someone does what we request out of shame or guilt, they will see us as a source of brutality, as someone who will make them suffer if they don’t do what we want.

We may not care about what all people think of us but most of us, if not all of us, care about the opinions of those close to us about us. We not only want to be empathic towards others, but for others to interact empathically with us.

For example, it’s bedtime, you are tired and want some time to yourself but your child wants to continue playing. You say, “If you don’t brush your teeth and get into bed right now there will be no TV tomorrow.”  or “I’ve been looking after you all day and now I deserve some rest so get to bed.” My parents certainly spoke to me like this and I imagine most parents speak to their children like this on a regular basis – because it’s how many of us have been taught to speak.

In this case how do you manage your need to rest versus your child’s need to play?  Ideally in empathic communication, everyone’s needs are met whenever possible. Perhaps in this situation a better way would be to say, “I’m really tired and I’ve had a long day but I can see that you want to carry on playing. Would you be willing to play for another 10 minutes and then start getting ready for bed?” This would be clearly explaining your needs and requesting, rather than demanding, to be met half way.

We can see when we look at it rationally that our language is often manipulative and controlling such as in the above example, and we don’t want to be that kind of person but in the heat of the moment it just comes out.  As soon as we recognise that we’re feeling frustrated or angry etc, that’s our cue to stop and breathe.  The more we practice being aware of our emotions, the better we become at it.  In that moment of stopping, we have our opportunity to transform our language.

Anger in particular tells us that we are disconnected from our needs.  Anger tells us that we are thinking in a way that promotes violence.

Other people cannot make us angry. How we think about a situation makes us angry.

There is nothing wrong with being angry – when channelled in the right way it gives us a chance to transform the world around us to create peace and harmony and an environment which is conducive to everyone’s needs.

Anger not only tells us that we are disconnected from our needs but also shows us that we are focusing our attention on, for instance, what someone else said or did to us.  If we can understand that the other person did not make us angry, that their statements did not make us angry but that we are creating our anger through the way in which we are reacting.   If we learn to see past that, we will be able to connect into their needs as well our own and find a solution that meets everyone’s needs.

Perhaps your partner or house mate has once again not done the washing up. You say, “You’re so selfish.  You make me feel used.”  Perhaps a better way would be to say, “I understand that you don’t like to do the washing up, I don’t either.  When you leave the washing up for me, I feel used even though I know you don’t intend that. Would you be willing to work out a solution with me?”

We must liberate ourselves from language that does not promote our well being or peace and harmony in our environment.  Language which implies fault or wrongdoing, which criticizes, manipulates, blames or insults, is merely a catalyst for unpleasant feelings to arise – albeit a powerful one but the SOURCE of our anger is within us. It comes from how we react to such language.  Not only must we avoid speaking in such terms but must also retrain our brains not to react with anger.  Instead we must learn that this anger, indeed every judgement is “a tragic expression of an unmet need” ~ Marshall Rosenberg, Non-Violent Communication

If you feel angry because of what someone else says or does,

  1. Stop
  2. Breathe
  3. Make a note of what they say/do that stimulates your anger
  4. Make a note of what you are telling yourself in reaction to this that is actually making you angry
  5. Work out what need it is of yours that is not being met.

 

We must become conscious of what we are telling ourselves that’s making us angry and become connected to our needs. Is it really what someone else did, or are you feeling angry because of what you’re interpreting their actions to mean? For example, you may think that your boyfriend not showing up means that he doesn’t respect you, when he may have a valid explanation.

You are at your friend’s house. Your children are running riot. One of them picks up a flower pot to throw at his sibling.  You shout, “Stop! You are so stupid!”  In this instance, the dialogue in your head is probably,

“I don’t want you to break our host’s things but more importantly, I don’t want you to hurt each other.”  (unmet needs)

Perhaps even, “I must be a terrible parent that my children don’t get along and could be so unruly in public!” (self judgement)

When we become aware that we have made a mistake, it’s easy to start a negatively judgemental dialogue in our heads about that; In the above example after shouting at your children, perhaps you end up thinking “How stupid of me! How could I have said that?!  What am I teaching them? What’s wrong with me?” Here we are judging the judgements!! This is a continuation of a pattern set in our childhood when our parents/teachers etc would speak to us.  It is this very pattern we must break. When we talk to ourselves like this, we know that we feel guilty and ashamed. This is hardly inspiring for us to step on the right track. Perhaps a better way would be to simply acknowledge that our new found awareness of our speech and thought patterns is helping us to change and that we are taking action to meet our need of expressing ourselves in a compassionate manner. In this way we can learn from our mistakes without losing self respect.   This is self empathy.

It can take some time to move away from a habit of judging and connect with our needs; to transform our ill feelings by being aware of our thinking.  But it is always worth it to just take a breath and think about your response before making it.

If we can learn to communicate empathically, changing how we express ourselves and how we hear others by focusing our consciousness on what we are observingfeelingneeding, and requesting rather than on judging and presuming. we will not only discover the depth of our own compassion towards others and ourselves but will also heighten our capacity to inspire compassion in others.  We will cultivate consideration, respect and empathy, and generate a shared, reciprocal intention to give from the heart. ॐ

Published by the Centre for Nonviolent Communication

(1) Spend some time each day quietly reflecting on how we would like to relate to ourselves and others.
(2) Remember that all human beings have the same needs.
(3) Check our intention to see if we are as interested in others getting their needs met as our own.
(4) When asking someone to do something, check first to see if we are making a request or a demand.
(5) Instead of saying what we DON’T want someone to do, say what we DO want the person to do.
(6) Instead of saying what we want someone to BE, say what action we’d like the person to take that we hope will help the person be that way.
(7) Before agreeing or disagreeing with anyone’s opinions, try to tune in to what the person is feeling and needing.
(8) Instead of saying “No,” say what need of ours prevents us from saying “Yes.”
(9) If we are feeling upset, think about what need of ours is not being met, and what we could do to meet it, instead of thinking about what’s wrong with others or ourselves.
(10) Instead of praising someone who did something we like, express our gratitude by telling the person what need of ours that action met.