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The Power of Nonviolent Communication

Communicating and connecting with your best intentions for yourself and others.

Key points

  • Combative, reactive communication typically leads to more combative, reactive communication.
  • Nonviolent Communication allows us to stay connected to our best intentions, balancing our needs with those of others'.
  • Mindfulness facilitates communication by creating awareness, such as of our emotional reactions, along with tools for managing emotions.
Miguel a Padrinan / Pexels
Source: Miguel a Padrinan / Pexels

I recently spoke with Oren Jay Sofer, who teaches Buddhist meditation, mindfulness, and Nonviolent Communication internationally. A member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council, he holds a Columbia University degree in Comparative Religion, is a Certified Trainer of Nonviolent Communication and a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner for the healing of trauma. Sofer is the author of Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication and the forthcoming Training the Heart (2023).

In our modern world, it can feel like combative communication is the new standard. And yet, logically, we know that attacking someone or shutting them out typically makes them want to attack or shut us out, too. It doesn’t get us anywhere useful. What does Nonviolent Communication mean to you, instead?

Nonviolent Communication offers us a way to stay connected to our best intentions, and a method for expressing them in conversation. It’s much more than a communication technique, as it invites us to look deeply at how we choose to live as humans, and to consider how to navigate sharing time, energy, and resources with one another and other species. Do we revert to stone-age methods of war and dominance, even in our personal interactions? Or are we able instead to recognize and embody our potential for compassion, creativity and cooperation?

Communication sometimes needs to be active. We have to convince someone of something for their health or safety or want to actively affect change in the world. How do you discuss that kind of situation?

Nonviolence does not mean being passive. It is a courageous, active, and engaged way of life. Nonviolent Communication encourages us to identify what’s most important to us (our “needs,” or deeper values and objectives) and to advocate passionately for them. The difference is in how we go about this advocacy.

Without training, we easily revert to habitual methods of communication, such as coercion, manipulation, guilt, blame, shame, or making demands. All of these methods can partially work, but come at a cost in the quality of our relationships, trust, and often the effectiveness of the outcome.

Nonviolent Communication encourages us to recall this reality, and to advocate in a way that includes other people’s needs with ours. Instead of seeking to control the situation, we aim to meet our needs without doing so at others’ expense. When others feel our interest in finding something that works for them, too, not just getting our way, they generally become more open to listening and working together.

And how do you see Nonviolent Communication relating to mindfulness?

Mindfulness is our capacity to be aware in a balanced, open, and curious way. This kind of awareness is essential for effective communication. Without it, we are simply on automatic. When we stay aware in any situation, we have more choice.

Mindfulness opens the door for our communication skills. It helps navigate inevitable relationship and conversation challenges such as reactivity, fear, or anger. It provides us a way to recognize various habit patterns that arise around emotions, along with a practice for handling difficult feelings and impulses so they’re not running the show.

One misperception I’ve heard about mindfulness is that we end up overly passive. There’s a worry we’ll support other people without enough attention to ourselves or to what needs to get done. What’s your experience?

I think it depends on where you’re coming from. The aims of both mindfulness and Nonviolent Communication are deeper insights into human nature, and more capacity to live an ethical life. That includes awareness of our own needs and the needs of others.

We each receive a lot of conditioning growing up about who we are allowed to be, based on our gender, class, physical appearance or abilities, and more. Some people may have a tendency to focus exclusively on others’ needs – listening instead of speaking up, for example. If that’s your experience, you’ll need to examine any beliefs preventing you from creating balance while seeking what’s important to you.

Other people come to these practices and find a tendency to focus on their own feelings and needs to the exclusion of others. In this case, the practice encourages developing balance by exploring empathy, listening, and attending to others. Even when someone else is speaking to us in ways we don’t enjoy, we can stay clear and grounded while trying to understand their motivations and needs.

There’s another common cognitive bias that affects communication: When someone challenges our beliefs, even with facts, we tend to dig in and fight for them harder. How can we watch for this in ourselves … and then how can we actually change someone’s mind?

These are natural tendencies for human beings. We want to be right, we want “our tribe” to win or be recognized. However, any time we fixate on a view or belief, it leads to a constriction in the emotional heart and rigidity in the mind. That contraction prevents us from learning, connecting, and fully experiencing life.

There’s a lot of research on what is effective in challenging others’ views and changing their mind. I’m not expert in this area, but in my experience, making a real, emotional connection and using personal stories may open another person’s mind. Since beliefs are emotional rather than rational, an initial way to shift them is through emotional connection.

What’s one thing someone could try next who would like to start practicing nonviolent communication?

One of the most transformative practices is to regularly focus on investigating your own and others’ needs. Train yourself to continually inquire, “What matters to me here? What’s most important to me … and what’s most important to you?” Try to get beneath the surface layer of what we call one’s strategies — What do we want? — to deeper needs, values, or objectives — Why do we want that? What will it offer us?

When we can identify our own and others’ needs, we can discover more common ground, and be more creative about how to mutually meet each other’s needs as well as possible.

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