Mind & Body

Speak No Evil

Verbal sparring is exhausting and ineffective. Learn to communicate with compassion and you'll get the respect, attention, and fulfillment you deserve.

Speak No Evil
Pin it courtesy of Shutterstock

Listen Deeply
Rosenberg's approach is called "compassionate communication," or more popularly, "nonviolent communication" (NVC). As he explains, "Words often lead to hurt and pain, but NVC guides us in reframing how we express ourselves and hear others. Instead of being automatic reactions, our words become conscious responses based firmly on an awareness of what we are perceiving, feeling, and wanting."

NVC has generated not only a book (Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life) but a nonprofit organization as well. Founded in 1984, The Center for Nonviolent Communication (cnvc.org) numbers about 200 certified trainers working against physical and verbal violence around the world.

At the core of NVC is this four-step model: Observe your situation objectively and without judgment; feel and express your underlying emotions; identify and state your needs; and make a specific and feasible request. Known as OFNR—for Observations, Feelings, Needs, and Requests—the model can be used to help resolve everything from spousal misunderstandings to workplace power struggles to political negotiations.

The key to communicating compassionately is empathy. As a practitioner of NVC, you learn first to empathize with yourself—to recognize your own feelings and needs—and then to identify with others through "empathy guesses," such as "Do you need to be heard?" or "Are you needing nurturing?" Even if a conjecture is erroneous, the attempt at understanding tends to make the other person feel warmth and compassion. And when you get it right, it can inspire an instant breakthrough.

Before leaving for a six-week trip to Australia, 54- year-old internal auditor Margaret Smith was spending an evening with her 9-year-old grandson. "He was behaving rudely," Smith recalls, "throwing the dice for a board game onto the floor and speaking to me in a demanding way. When he thrust his glass at me and said, 'Get me a drink of water,' I felt irritated." Normally, she says, her reaction would have been to issue a "judgmental demand like 'say please,' 'don't be rude,' or 'what's up with you today?'" Instead, as a six-month practitioner of NVC, she paused and asked, "Trevor, are you irritated because Grandma is going away for so long?"

"Yes," Trevor responded, visibly relaxing. "When I go away in the summer, you miss me. When you go away now, I'll miss you." Watching her grandson's anxiety dissolve in response to her empathy was incredibly clarifying for Smith. "He didn't know how else to express his feelings and concerns in that moment," she says.