Communication from the heart

September 13, 2009 at 10:20 AM 1 comment

By Samantha Whybrow Dissanayake

(First appeared on 13th Sept, 2009, in “The Nation”, an English language newspaper in Sri Lanka)

Open any newspaper on any given day, on any given page, and you are likely to see stories of violence. People killing each other, people being beaten up, suicides, threats, attacks and bloodshed. But violence does not need to be about the blood that others shed. All of us are capable of violent acts, especially through thoughtless communication and a lack of compassionate understanding in our everyday relationships.

However, there is an emerging language of compassion that is starting to spread across the island, which seeks to remedy the disconnect many of us are feeling that leads us to resolve our differences with violence—verbal or physical. It is the language of nonviolent communication, otherwise known as NVC or compassionate communication.

Jeyanthy Siva is the Director of the Sandhi Institute in Colombo which hosts workshops on NVC. She also provides mediation, training, and counselling services island-wide. She hopes to spread the message of NVC by offering what she calls “powerful, life enriching communication skills which will help you stay calm and compassionate even in the most difficult circumstances.”

Giving from the heart

NVC was developed by American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg who used it widely during the American civil rights movement and has used it to peacefully resolve conflicts with parents and children, bosses and employees, husbands and wives, and even ‘warring’ ethnic groups.

Rosenberg sincerely believes that it is in our nature to enjoy giving and receiving in a compassionate manner, and developed his particular style of communication after devoting his life to trying to answer two fundamental questions: What happens to disconnect us from our compassionate nature, leading us to behave violently and exploitatively? And, conversely, what allows some people to stay connected to their compassionate nature under even the most trying circumstances?

In finding his answer, Rosenberg identified specific ways of speaking and listening to other people that lead us to, as he puts it in his book, “give from the heart in ways that allow our natural compassion to flourish.”

Rosenberg’s use of the term nonviolence should be familiar to most South Asians in particular, for, as he points out, it refers to a concept professed by Mahatma Gandhi of the natural state of compassion inside all of us when violence has subsided from the heart. But, then again, most religions and spiritual traditions teach compassion as a major guiding principal.

“The difference,” says Siva, “is that NVC gives you the language and practical step by step tools for practicing this compassion in day to day life.”

Connecting with your heart

Siva often gets asked whether she is trying to use NVC to resolve political and ethnic conflicts in the country. And while she admits that the techniques would be relevant here as elsewhere, she says her main focus is to help individuals develop the skills to connect with themselves so they can first connect to their own heart and then start to see the humanity in others thus leading to the possibility of open hearted dialogue with others.

“Many of us do not see ourselves as being violent,” explains Siva, “but that is often because we speak of violence in terms of killing or warring. However, we can be violent when we choose to express our hurt or pain in blaming ways instead of showing what needs of ours wasn’t met which lead to the pain.”

“These blaming words of accusation can put responsibility for our feelings onto others, which can make them feel defensive or guilty. It also disempowers us since it puts our attention on finding fault in others instead of putting our attention on our needs which weren’t met and how to best to meet those needs. These blaming thinking and words can be directed towards others or ourselves and is violent in either case.”

Through her workshops, Siva helps people get in touch with their inner narrative of judgment and blame that can often lead us to resent those around us and sometimes ourselves, eventually destroying relationships.

Workplace conflict

And while Siva believes NVC is relevant to any place where there are humans, she points out that it is particularly relevant to Sri Lanka, given the prevailing sense of distrust between people generally, combined with a fairly rigid social hierarchy that makes it difficult for those with less power to express disagreement with those with more power.

“This is an issue that arises every day within the family, at school, and at work,” says Siva.

“People believe it is disrespectful to express differing opinions to those who are more senior to them, as they are afraid of punishment or humiliation if they do.”

Siva relates the real-life story of an engineer who came to a training workshop she was conducting. The engineer was junior in the company, but highly competent. One day he spotted a flaw in the plan the senior engineers had been working on and predicted a structural failure.

Instead of speaking up, he kept quiet. And sure enough, sometime after the structure was constructed it collapsed. Fortunately, no-one was killed.

“As this story shows, there can be tragic consequences when we create an atmosphere where people do not feel able to express their opinions freely without fear of victimisation, and when we, in society have not taught people how to communicate compassionately so that differing opinions are not viewed as criticism or threats, but instead seen as valuable and necessary input,” says Siva.

Learning how to communicate again

Nonviolent communicators learn to listen and speak to others without judgment or criticism, deconstructing old habits to learn new ways to have their needs met without getting into fights, or building up resentment.

Say, for instance, you had been expecting an urgent phone call from a relative about a sudden illness in the family. You had told your teenage daughter to leave the telephone free that evening so you could take the call. However, when you enter the study, you find her still deeply involved in a telephone conversation that you had asked her to end an hour ago.

Falling into old habits you might instantly fly into a rage. “How can you be so inconsiderate! I told you to get off the phone an hour ago and you are still here! Do you think this house revolves around you! Other people live here too!” might be some of the expressions that flee from your mouth.

Falling into her old habits, your teenager might eventually resentfully hang up, mumbling or shouting about how she never gets any privacy, is always getting picked on, that she lives here too, etc., etc., as she grumbles her way into her room for the evening.

But, using NVC principles, you would use a four step process of communicating to your daughter in a way that might create a more peaceful interaction; observing without judgment, identifying feelings, expressing needs, and making a request that is do-able.

“When you have the phone tied up for so long, other calls cannot come through” (observation).

“I am feeling frustrated” (identify feeling).

“I am frustrated because I have been expecting an important call” (expressing need).

“I would like you to bring your conversation to a close now. Is that alright?” (do-able request).

Siva says this sort of process helps the other person understand that you are not necessarily interested in finding fault with them, but are anxious because you have a need. Also by sharing your need in this open way, you are both showing trust in her ability to care about your needs and also giving her a chance to contribute to your need.

“This would empower her and help her feel good about herself more than complying to your demand out of fear of punishment,” explains Siva.

And nonviolent communicators would use the same process when they are listening to others—even if the others are shouting at them.

“We learn to listen to the feelings and needs behind people’s words, rather than taking the words at face value or labelling or judging them,” says Siva, who calls this empathic or compassionate listening.

“This helps us to connect with people at a much deeper level, as we give other people the time and space to express themselves fully and to feel fully understood.”

(Jeyanthy Siva will be starting a regular column in The Nation from next week to help readers learn more about practising NVC in their lives)


Entry filed under: NVC Articles/Columns.

What does communication have to do with compassion anyway?

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Jeyanthy Siva  |  November 9, 2009 at 11:31 AM

    Note that this article was the initial article written to introduce Sandhi Institute and NVC to the newspaper and at the end of this article, it was announced that I (jeyanthy siva) will be writing a regular column for the paper – the rest of the posts in this blog are those columns written by me. This post was the article which was written by a freelance writer and feature story writer living in Sri Lanka – her name is Samantha Whybrow Dissanayke. She conducted an interview with me and did background research by reading over Marshall Rosenbergs book and websites and wrote the article. The quotes in the article are the words I used and they are accurate. The rest of the article (including the example of dialogue between parent and child) is something the author came up with. I am saying this for the sake of those of you in the readership who are NVC students and might be wondering about the exactness or not of the example in this article with regard to the need guess for the daughter (I had two people write to me already about this which initiated this comment). Please note that this was an example from the writer who had no previous NVC training and yet I think the dialogue example she came up with nicely conveys the idea and I am satisfied with it even though an “important phone call” is not a need as defined in NVC but instead is a strategy. If any of you NVC students or teachers are eager to see this explicitly stated, I invite you to make some guess’ as to what the need might be for the farther behind the important phone call he was anxiously waiting for.


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