This blog is for you to be able to read all the Communication Matters columns published in the newspaper in Sri Lanka in one place and to post comments or questions – to engage in a constructive discussion. Note that most recent week’s column is on top and it goes in order back to the first one being at the very end. So if you want to read it in order (which I recommend), you need to go from bottom to top. Each one stands on its own yet given the depth and complexity of the topic, each week is building on the previous weeks’ to gain some wholeness.
Continuing topic of empathic listening from previous column. Specifically on listening to self and having unconditional acceptance and self compassion which is the basis of having compassion and acceptance for others. Empathy and listening as a skill that can be learned and practiced. Similarites between meditation practices and NVC. Ends with a concrete example of transforming a painful story into the feelings and needs which helps in self understanding and self compassion.
By Jeyanthy Siva
Communication has two aspects, there is speaking and there is listening. Today, I want to talk about listening, specifically, empathic listening – the art of hearing what is in the heart of another person, in the Nonviolent Communication way.
But first, why? Its a difficult thing to do – to really give our attention and our presence to someone takes focus, energy and effort. So why do it? What is the benefit of making this effort? (If you want to share a story about your experience of listening or being listened to, please comment on our blog or send an email through the contact button on our website).
When I was in my early 20s, I came across an essay by a woman called Brenda Ueland, on the topic of listening that had a big impact on me. Her belief was that listening was powerful, that it was healing and that it was transformative. In her essay, “The Art of Listening”, she says: “”Listening is… a creative force. Think how the friends that really listen to us are the ones we move toward, and we want to sit in their radius as though it did us good… This is the reason: When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life.”
Wow, so much power in the simple act of listening. At this time in my life when I first read Ms. Ueland’s article, I thought of myself as a “good listener” and perhaps I was at times. But when someone said things that I disagreed with or things that I had judgments about, I would lose my ability to listen and would start to express my disagreement or at least, pull away in my heart mind and stop being able to listen well. And if the person was saying things that were not of interest to me, I would tune out and day dream or interrupt or distract in some way.
As I came to recognize the gift that good listening can be to people, I wanted to be a caring friend and a good person, so I tried to practice being a “good listener”. How to do this? Listening meant not speaking, right? So, if someone said something I didn’t agree with, I tried to suppress my disagreement and keep silent. At least out loud I didn’t say anything. Of course inside my mind, the thoughts and the disagreeing kept going. Another advise about how to be a good listener was “don’t judge the other person”, so when I had judgmental thoughts come up in my mind, I would suppress it or try to get around it in my mind somehow. And this didn’t work either since all the effort to suppress my reactions and judgments made it so I was no longer present with the person speaking. Even if I was putting on a good show of being silent, or even nodding my head periodically and saying “ah ha” in between pauses, the other person could tell that I was not really there.
That was because, this wasn’t really listening, this was just looking on the outside like I was listening. When I am so occupied with my reactions and judgments and didn’t know what to do with them, I wasn’t present to the other person (nor to myself) and my heart-mind wasn’t open to receive the other person.
So what do we do if we want to be good listeners? I will get to that but first, some…
More things we do instead of Empathic listening
Instead of empathy, we tend instead to have a strong urge to give advice or reassurance or to explain our own position or stance. At times, we make an attempt to fix the situation the other person is speaking about, especially if its something painful for them. Or we try to cheer up the sufferer and relieve their distress. At other times, we try to give sympathy, or to console, or sometimes tell stories of our experiences which are similar to what the person is sharing. Usually, we do everything but just be present and listen to the other person.
So before talking about how to listen well, lets look at what it means to listen well and why its so hard to do.
Don’t just do something, Stand there! (Or perhaps, Sit there)
Listening is primarily about being present, aware, empty of thoughts, open (to self, to others, to the Universe). Its not a “doing” so much as a state of “being”. It can be said to be a kind of energy (or energetic state) which we can draw upon to connect with other beings. In NVC, we call this “empathy” or “empathic listening” or “empathic presence”.
When we genuinely offer empathy we are coming from a place of connection to ourselves, and acceptance and openness to whatever is happening with the other person. Even if the other person is in pain or suffering, if we are in empathy, we are not trying to fix them or take away their pain, but instead being present with them and their pain – being a compassionate witness. This takes a kind of profound trust in human beings capacity to bear pain and also a trust in the healing power of presence… trusting that our job isn’t to DO anything but to BE with the other person. In fact, it requires trusting that being present and being with a person might be the greatest gift one human being can give to another.
Expressing sympathy, feeling sorry for them, trying to fix the situation (alleviate their pain) , reassuring them that things will get better, or telling a story to shift the focus are all strategies to avoid the uncertainty, vulnerability and nakedness of just being present for another person.
True empathy requires being in a state of open wonder, or what Buddhist teaching calls being in the “don’t know” mind. We listen, take in, reflect back and, in the end, trust that there is nothing to do or fix, that just being there fully for another person is enough.
Being Present with self; Being Present with another person
Of course, in order to be present with another person, first I need to be able to be present with myself. In order to have compassion for another person, I need to have compassion for myself. In order to not run away from another persons suffering or pain, I need to learn not to run away from my own. Here is where the practice of learning how to listen begins. As I am out of space today, I will continue this topic in next weeks column. Starting with how to listen to ourselves and be our own best friend.
This is a column on Nonviolent Communication (NVC), also known as compassionate communication. NVC shows a path, a step by step process, of how to go from disconnection and violence to connection, compassionate understanding and cooperation – with ourselves, the people around us and the world we live in.
(For information on NVC trainings in Sri Lanka, visit www.sandhi.org. Since each week’s column is building on the previous week, if you would like to read previous ones or to post comments or questions about the content of the columns, go to the blog set up for this purpose: https://sandhisl.wordpress.com/)
By Jeyanthy Siva
This is a column on Nonviolent Communication (NVC), also known as compassionate communication. NVC shows a path, a step by step process, of how to go from disconnection and violence to connection, compassionate understanding and cooperation – with ourselves, the people around us and the world we live in. It is a language of mutual respect, empathy and honesty, and is often described as “the language of the heart”.
People who come to workshops sometimes ask me “can this method work with children?”. My answer is, “yes, it can”. All human beings want to be listened to with empathy and treated with respect and care, children included. To illustrate this, I want to share with you a story of how NVC communication helped an adult mediate between two young children, to turn them away from a “grabbing struggle” into cooperation.
Below is a story shared by Inbal Kashtan, an NVC trainer friend from California. I like this story because while the situation is not serious (two children wanting the same toy), the modeling by the adults of how to handle such a situation is a powerful teaching that will last with them all their lives:
Young children go through periods when it seems that their purpose in life is to take anything that another child is playing with. Eighteen-month old Jacob and his dad were visiting three-year-old Ray and his mom. When it came time to leave, Jacob clearly had every intention of leaving with Ray’s little car.
Ray is sometimes willing to let other children borrow his things, but this happened to be his only little car. When I checked with him if he was willing for Jacob to borrow it, his whole body went into “grabbing mode”: his muscles tensed, his eyes focused on Jacob’s hand, and he seemed ready to jump on Jacob to take his car back. Noticing the imminent grab, I asked Ray to hold on so we could try to talk with Jacob about it, and since he is used to resolving conflicts with NVC, he relaxed. If he had not relaxed, I would have begun the dialogue with my attention on him.
I tried to reflect to Jacob my guess about his feelings and needs: “You like this car? You want to be able to keep playing with it?” Jacob looked at me intently and held on tight to the car. I told him: “You know, this is Ray’s only little car, and he wants to have it in the house. Would you be willing to give it back to him?” Jacob’s body language indicated a clear no.
Ray tensed once again, and Jacob’s dad said to me: “It’s OK, we’ll just take it out of his hand.” I asked them both to wait and give our conversation a chance. I stayed focused on Jacob: “You really like things with wheels? You want something with wheels?” I looked around for a strategy that would meet Jacob’s need for choice of the kind of toy he plays with, and found one, so I asked: “Would you like this Lego train with wheels?” Jacob happily took the Lego with wheels while continuing to hold on to the little car. Now he had two of Ray’s toys!
At that moment, I did not have any evidence that what I was doing was “working.” So why would I keep going? Because I believe deeply that all people have an innate desire to contribute to others’ well being. Even when children are very young and absorbed in meeting their own needs, one of their needs is to contribute to others. I believe we can tap their generosity by exhibiting trust in their need to contribute, by articulating it and inviting them to act on it without any coercion. The lack of coercion is crucial because generosity does not arise when we are forced into it.
Equally important to me is modeling for children that all people’s needs matter and can be met. Using NVC, I do this by actively showing that their needs matter to me. The key here is modeling for children the behavior we want to teach them. If we don’t want them to grab, we don’t grab. Almost every time I am around a group of children, I see an adult say “no grabbing” while taking a toy from the hands of a resisting child and giving it to another.
This action may seem logical in our adult eyes because we are acting to meet our needs for justice, consideration, and supporting our children. However, it is not inherently different from the action of a child who grabs a toy because she wants to meet her needs for play, autonomy, and exploration.
When Jacob still did not give the car back after I gave him the train, Jacob’s dad and Ray tensed once again, though Jacob seemed quite absorbed in our conversation. Dad repeated his suggestion of taking the car back by force. I spoke to them while keeping eye contact with Jacob: “I don’t want to force Jacob to give back the car. I want him to have choice, so I’d like to see if we can work this out with words.” Ray then moved toward Jacob, while Jacob’s dad and I watched, and spoke to him directly: “Jacob,” he said, “why don’t you take the Lego train? You can take it home, and give me back the car.” When Jacob did not immediately give back the car, Ray reached his hand to take it from him once again, but I moved closer and expressed again, to both of them, how much I wanted to talk until we figured this out. At that moment, Jacob turned to Ray, fully relaxed, and handed him the little car. It seemed to me that Jacob needed to trust that he was not going to be physically forced to do something he did not want to do in order for him to act on his own will to consider other’s wishes. His dad seemed awe-struck by his behavior.
But I was not surprised. An inner shift almost always happens for at least one of the people involved in a conflict when NVC is used, and often for both. When we trust that our own needs really matter to others, we can often relax about the particular strategies we are choosing. If Jacob had not shifted, I would have turned to Ray to see if he would shift. Sometimes, just the act of checking in with both children meets their need for trust that my request is not a demand, and that both their needs matter. This contributes to their willingness to consider the other.
The difference between needs and strategies is crucial in using NVC. When I talk about needs, I am referring to the broadest set of human aspirations, needs, and values, things like physical safety, food, and shelter, but also understanding, support, community, autonomy, honesty, play, peace, and meaning. These needs are universal. We fight, punish, or go to war when our strategies for meeting our needs conflict, and we are unable to connect with the human being on the other side of the argument.
(For information on NVC trainings in Sri Lanka, visit www.sandhi.org. Inbal Kashtan is co-founder of BayNVC: http://www.baynvc.org and Coordinator of Compassionate Parenting Project for CNVC: http://www.cnvc.org)
Consequences of repressing feelings for individuals and society. What to do with feelings.
In Nonviolent Communication (NVC) feelings are valuable because they guide us to discover what is important to us – what we need to make our lives whole. Feelings tell us when one or more of our needs are being met or not being met. It can be empowering to
connect my feelings to my own needs and not to the other person(s) behavior.
Topic is role of feelings in Nonviolent Communication. In NVC, feelings can be an important part of understanding what’s happening in our own heart, expressing ourselves to others, and understanding what’s alive in someone else’s heart. This column talks about what is it exactly that we mean by “feelings” in NVC and how are they related to Needs.