Exploring Compassionate Communication

I’ve recently begun studying nonviolent communication, also called compassionate communication or mediation training, and it’s very different from what I had imagined. Sure, I’d encountered bits and pieces of the philosophy here and there, like disassembled car parts. Seeing it up and running is something else entirely. Now I know why the titles can seem inadequate. Words frequently fail to describe the profound experience of genuine heart-to-heart understanding, which can occur anywhere: at home, at work, in court, in prison, in a refugee camp, or in a moment between strangers.

One of the field’s great pioneers was Marshall Rosenberg, who died this past February. There’re several videos of his workshops online and, for me, watching him work is as miraculous as stumbling upon an oasis in a desert. Rosenberg described language as expressing either power over or power with others and believed that “there’s nothing we humans like more than to contribute to one another’s well being”. He used jackal and giraffe puppets to model these two very different kinds of speaking and listening. Mediation theory is pretty simple, but the practice can be exquisitely difficult in the beginning. Old habits are hard to break, no matter how poorly they serve our needs. Rosenberg stressed the difference between natural and habitual behavior. He believed that the language of connection is natural, and as Gandhi said, that we have been trained to be habitual in behaving in ways that are quite unnatural.

In this country, ideals of independence and individualism have been taken to such extremes that our genuine needs for things like interdependence and connection are often treated as shameful, unforgivable, or even criminal personal weaknesses. Suppression of healthy expression starts in infancy and examples are everywhere:

This morning, I took a break from mediation study to go outside and sit in the garden. From a neighbor’s backyard came a man’s voice. “Don’t roll your eyes at me. Don’t make faces. We don’t make faces. Don’t give me attitude.” Dad’s angry baby-talk tone was sweet poison. His young child started crying and the pair went back inside the house. I wish I could rewind and observe the lead-up to the child’s eye rolling!


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