Now we put the shoe on the other foot and consider how to listen, rather than speak, more skilfully. When others are speaking to us, what is our position? What is our frame of mind? The answers will vary depending on situational factors, personal history, emotional habits and more.

In the context of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), when we listen, the goal is to receive another person’s words empathically. Marshall Rosenberg (NVC originator) defines “listening empathically” as “emptying our mind and listening with our whole being”. Listening empathically is the opposite of listening in a defensive or disengaged way; we could say it means listening with our hearts.

In NVC, no matter what words people use to express themselves, we listen for their observations, feelings, needs, and requests.

One way to discover another person’s needs is to reflect back the speaker’s feelings, especially if they are charged. “So you are feeling X?” Even if you’re wrong, the speaker has a chance to correct your perception, and in the process know her own thoughts better.

Sometimes when we think we are being empathetic, we are giving advice or reassurance or explaining our own position or feelings. If we go straight to “fixing” mode, it often ignores the other person’s feelings and blocks a potential connection. We can wait until a specific request for help or advice is made.

Listening empathically takes patience. Our presence can create a safe space in a tense situation, but the process can’t be rushed or short-circuited. When we stay with empathy, we allow speakers to touch deeper levels of themselves. Patience is an important virtue in the Buddha’s teachings. Some say that if we train ourselves in patience, awakening will follow.

A related goal is to know ourselves well enough to see when our own feelings are blocking empathetic listening. This is a point at which we can really look inside: what is our body telling us? Is there fear? Frustration? What are our own observations, feelings, and needs in this moment? We don’t need to say them out loud, but we can use this basic mindfulness practice to understand what is happening right now. Is our resistance to this current situation preventing us from being completely present with it?

So much to learn. And we can start by attempting to listen to others with our full attention, with no agenda other than trying to understand their feelings and needs. Are we willing to start over and over again in developing the ability to listen empathetically?

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How to ask

Every now and then, I need to remind myself where we are in a particular thread of discussion. We’ve been looking at the elements of Nonviolent Communication (NVC, with Marshall Rosenberg as authority) as a way to make our speech more skilful. Right speech is part of the Buddha’s 8-fold path, which I’m recommending as a fundamental guide for developing clearer thinking and better relationships.

To review, in NVC, the four components for reflection are:
What are we:
* observing
* feeling
* needing
* requesting

Rosenberg says: “My belief is that, whenever we say something to another person, we are requesting something in return. It may simply be an empathic connection – a verbal or nonverbal acknowledgement…that our words have been understood.”

We may also be asking for a specific response in the form of words or action.

The idea that when we speak to others we are asking for something in return should give us pause. Ideally we should know – before we speak – what we’ve observed (is the other person open to our words?), what we are feeling, whether there is something we need (is this talk necessary?), and what specifically we’re requesting. Going through this process before each time we speak might make us all mutes! However, if we practice with these principles, even though it might seem laborious to start with, we should see progress in aligning our intentions and our speech. It could also become more natural to frame our thoughts in this way.

In the requesting phase of NVC, it is essential to use positive language. It’s often easier to know what we don’t want than what we do want, so we ought to inquire into our own thinking before asking for something directly. “I need you to stop acting like an idiot” is not a genuine request. “I need you to…” is a phrase that is unlikely to satisfy the speaker or the listener. “I need to find a way to feel that we are in this [project/relationship/etc.] together” is closer to an actual felt need, and the accompanying request might be “Would you be willing to do X (specific act, time, etc.)?”

Making requests in clear, positive, concrete action language reveals what we really want. Requests may sound like demands when unaccompanied by the speaker’s feelings and needs, so it’s important to communicate our felt need behind the request.

We can easily discover the results of an unskillful request — when people hear a demand, they see only two options: submission or rebellion. Listen for these responses! They are signals that our words are creating a separation rather than a connection.

If we show sincere empathy toward the other person’s needs when we ask for something, then it’s a request in the NVC mode. Our objective, with NVC and right speech, is relationships based on honesty and empathy (another word for compassion). Our care with speech is a direct path towards this goal.

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Taking responsibility for our…

…feelings and the needs behind them.

From Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication:
In the course of developing emotional responsibility, most of us experience three stages:
(1) “emotional slavery” – believing ourselves responsible for the feelings of others,
(2) “the obnoxious stage” – in which we refuse to admit to caring what anyone else feels or needs, and
(3) “emotional liberation” – in which we accept full responsibility for our own feelings but not the feelings of others, while being aware that we can never meet our own needs at the expense of others.

An important point from Nonviolent Communication is that we have to learn to take responsibility for our own feelings, and to NOT take responsibility for the feelings of others. Of course, this is very difficult for people who grew up with parents who didn’t take responsibility for their own feelings (and actions); the patterns get set early. I suspect this is one of the foundations of Al-Anon and other similar organisations: learning how to distinguish between our own feelings and needs and others’, and then figuring out what we’re responsible for and what we can’t control.

The evolution, as Rosenberg describes it, goes through three stages, which could correspond to levels of maturity. To some degree, most of us would like to manage others’ feelings, to make them happy, or assuage their anger or sadness or other difficult emotion. The confusion comes when the desire to placate or please becomes our primary approach to others and we don’t see that how others feel may have very little to do with our actions. This is particularly difficult for people who have family members with mental or emotional dysfunction; it’s very hard to find that shifting line between doing what one can and seeing others as having their own individual karma and responsibility.

It can happen that when we see that we’ve been trying too hard to please, we swing in the opposite direction and see only our own needs and desires. This “obnoxious stage” can be very short, or it can be seen as one of the storms of adolescence, or it can settle in for a long stay. The important thing is to know in which stage we, and those in our immediate circle of care, stand, and to understand that we can train ourselves, and so move towards the third stage.

In the third stage, “emotional liberation”, we understand that we are only responsible for our own feelings and needs, but that we are connected with each other in such a way that the fulfilment of our needs cannot be at the expense of someone else’s. This could be a definition of emotional maturity; it is essentially the opposite of blaming others for whatever we feel is not right.

Most of us have some mix of all three stages. To aspire to “emotional liberation” is not so different from aspiring to spiritual liberation. It’s a goal we can move towards, once we recognise that there’s a path we can take. We can ask ourselves: am I taking responsibility for my feeling and needs, or am I thinking that someone else is responsible for them? Can I see that others have feelings and needs that drive them? Can we find a way to listen to each other and respect each others’ feelings without taking responsibility for needs that are not ours?

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Negative words

From Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication:
When someone communicates negatively, we have four options as to how to receive the message: (1) blame ourselves, (2) blame others, (3) sense our own feelings and needs, (4) sense the feelings and needs hidden in the other person’s negative message.

Judgments, criticisms, diagnoses, and interpretations of others are all alienated expressions of our own needs and values. When others hear criticism, they tend to invest their energy in self-defence or counterattack. The more directly we can connect our feelings to our needs (e.g. “I feel X because I need Y”), the easier it is for others to respond compassionately.

Unfortunately, most of us have never been taught to think in terms of needs. We are accustomed to thinking about what’s wrong with other people when our needs aren’t being fulfilled.

A very important learning embedded in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is how important it is to notice when others are being defensive or attacking us in response to what we’ve said. We can deduce from these reactions that the listener took our words as critical of her/him. Even if that was not our intent, somehow our way of talking was interpreted as an attack, mild or strong.

Likewise if we find ourselves reacting to others’ words with defensiveness or reactive anger, we have some options for understanding what’s happening. Since blaming is non-productive, we want to avoid options (1) and (2). Trying to sense our own feelings and needs, and the feelings and needs of others, is a way to open up communications, and an invitation to respond compassionately.

Because Rosenberg advises us to “sense” feelings and needs rather than “think about” them, we understand that feelings and needs are sometimes not obvious, to ourselves or others. “Sensing” is more akin to mindful observation than intellectual analysis. If we listen with our bodies, with our eyes and our felt sense of other people, we are likely to understand them (and ourselves) better than if we are using our usual mental framework, trying to simplify and categorize what’s happening. We need to use more of our intelligence than our brains alone provide.

As an exercise, we can watch for instances of reactivity, in ourselves and others. What do we observe? Can we start to intuit what needs are not being met? If we can see them, can we articulate them? Either out loud or to ourselves?

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Words and thoughts

From Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication:
Semanticist Wendell Johnson pointed out that we create many problems for ourselves by using static language to express or capture a reality that is ever-changing: “Our language is an imperfect instrument created by ancient and ignorant men. It is an animistic language that invites us to talk about stability and constants, about similarities and normal and kinds, about magical transformations, quick cures, simple problems, and final solutions. Yet the world we try to symbolise with this language is a world of process, change, differences, dimensions, functions, relationships, growths, interactions, developing, learning, coping, complexity. And the mismatch of our ever-changing world and our relatively static language forms is part of our problem.”

This quote draws the important connection between how we think, confined by the language in which we think, and our words. It also points out that the world as experienced is non-static, an ever-changing flow of sensory and mental stimuli, of complex causes and results. We struggle with a language unsuited to describing our experience. The quote also points out that in order to change our speech, we need to change our thinking.

As a result of my starting to read Nonviolent Communication, an interesting moment occurred recently. The scene was a familiar one: I was the passenger, my husband was driving; we were in a line of cars approaching a ferry. The person managing the several lines of cars made a low signal with his hand, to which I didn’t see my husband respond. I said, “Did you see that signal?”, to which he replied, “Of course, I saw it! Don’t tell me how to drive!” I went silent and had a think. After a couple of minutes I said, “When I say something about your driving, I’m not insulting your manhood, I’m expressing my fear.” Then he had a think. A little later I asked if the same was true for him when he criticized my driving, and he allowed that in those situations he wasn’t saying “you’re incompetent”, but also expressing a fear.

Because of the principle (in NVC) of separating observations from feelings, I was able to identify my own fear/nervousness as the motivation behind my words. I was also able to perceive that my words were taken as a criticism and were not welcomed or received neutrally. This is a key – when people feel they are being criticized, they almost always react defensively. It’s our job to notice when we’ve unintentionally given a signal that was taken as criticism, and adjust our words to accurately reflect our own feelings. As we improve in this practice, we will (more and more often) be able to adjust our words before we speak.

This commitment to paying attention to accuracy with our words is a type of truthfulness, the central element of right speech in the Buddha’s 8-fold path. I’m feeling gratitude for this opportunity to deepen my practice of wholesome speech, and trust that it will also lead to more wholesome thought and action.


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Observations and judgments

In his book Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg points out our tendency to make moralistic judgments as a matter of course, in both our thinking and our speech. He distinguishes value judgments (things we’ve considered and hold to be of value) from moralistic judgments, which we apply to others who don’t seem to share our values (or sometimes our habits, assumptions, history or context).

This is the beginning of “violent” communication: when we don’t realize that we are condemning or dismissing others with our initial responses to them.

From NVC:
Thus if my partner wants more affection than I’m giving her, she is “needy and dependent.” But if I want more affection than she is giving me, then she is “aloof and insensitive.” If my colleague is more concerned about details than I am, he is “picky and compulsive.” On the other hand, if I am more concerned about details than he is, he is “sloppy and disorganized.”

Also from NVC:
At the root of much, if not all, violence — whether verbal, psychological, or physical, whether among family members, tribes, or nations — is a kind of thinking that attributes the cause of conflict to wrongness in one’s adversaries, and a corresponding inability to think of oneself or others in terms of vulnerability — that is, what one might be feeling, fearing, yearning for, missing, etc.

We do this sort of judgmental thinking at least sometimes, and most often when we do, we use it to distinguish and separate ourselves from others in a very primitive “me good, him bad” way. How can we start to undo the hold this habit has on us?

It’s not easy, but it begins with recognizing when we are making observations and when we are making moralistic judgments.

From NVC:
Example 1: “You are too generous” vs. “When I see you give all your lunch money to others, I think you are being too generous.”

Example 2: “If you don’t eat balanced meals, your health will be impaired.” vs. “If you don’t eat balanced meals, I fear your health may be impaired.”

Example 3: “Hank Smith is a poor soccer player.” vs. “Hank Smith has not scored a goal in twenty games.”

You get the idea. Sometimes we are just lazy and find it more comfortable to think in simplistic, moralistic terms. But we can become better communicators, and better people, if we know when we’re making unnecessary judgments and when we’re making factual observations.

The factors of the eight-fold path are:

1. Right View (of the ownership of action)
2. Right Intention (renunciation, goodwill, harmlessness)
3. Right Speech (truthful, harmonious, gentle, meaningful)
4. Right Action (non-harming, non-taking, good conduct in sensual matters)
5. Right Livelihood (legal, peaceful, honest, non-harming)
6. Right Effort (abandon the unwholesome, cultivate the wholesome)
7. Right Mindfulness (body, feeling, mind-states, dhammas)
8. Right Concentration (the four jhanas)

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Compassionate speech

We circle back now to thinking about wise or skilful speech, a seemingly infinite field for practice.

I’ve known about a system called “Nonviolent Communication” (originating with Marshall Rosenberg) for some time. Very recently I decided to look into it, and have begun reading the basic text, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Here’s a very short summary:

A better (though longer) summary is here:

The shorthand version of NVC involves accurately noticing and articulating:
1. Observations
2. Feelings
3. Needs, and
4. Requests

As with most practices, they are most beneficial if we use them to train ourselves first, before attempting to instruct others. If we can organize our speech into the suggested categories, we clarify our thoughts and remove any flavor of aggression from our words. We can make ourselves better understood if we are clear and non-accusatory in what we’re trying to convey. The NVC way of listening and speaking can connect our best intentions to our words; it can train us to remember that we want to act from a base of compassion.

As a complete newcomer to this system, I see some practical connections to the Buddha’s teachings. For one thing, mindfulness is necessary to accurately assess our observations, feelings and needs as they truly are right now. We have to let go of assumptions and look at our thoughts (and body sensations) in an unbiased way, with some wisdom.

It also seems that NVC is based on the premise that all beings desire happiness, in this case defined as “having their needs met”. When we start from this assumption, which is the opposite of “others are out to get me”, our defenses can soften, our compassion can rise up.

For today, I’m interested in observations and feelings from the listener’s point of view. When we listen to others, we are not only taking in their words; we’re also picking up tone of voice, urgency, disinterest, agitation, etc. If we’re interacting in person, body language can also tell us many things about energy level, engagement, and general mood. In other words, we have an opportunity to listen to feelings at the same time as listening to the content of speech. This seems like a useful practice in itself. Some of us are very sensitive in picking up other peoples’ moods, which can create difficulties. But for me, it’s often difficult to know what other people are feeling, partly because I’m not really seeking to know. Maybe if I listen for feelings in others, they can be discerned. Will give it a try and report back…

The factors of the eight-fold path are:

1. Right View (of the ownership of action)
2. Right Intention (renunciation, goodwill, harmlessness)
3. Right Speech (truthful, harmonious, gentle, meaningful)
4. Right Action (non-harming, non-taking, good conduct in sensual matters)
5. Right Livelihood (legal, peaceful, honest, non-harming)
6. Right Effort (abandon the unwholesome, cultivate the wholesome)
7. Right Mindfulness (body, feeling, mind-states, dhammas)
8. Right Concentration (the four jhanas)

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