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Can We Be Compassionate in an Election Year?

I was re-reading the beginning of one of my favorite books, Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Life, and was struck by his assertion that his method of communicating, which he calls Non-Violent Communication or NVC, is based on “language and communication skills that strengthen our ability to remain human even under trying conditions (italics mine).Wow!This year’s political atmosphere is certainly trying.Just reading the newspaper or listening to the radio usually leaves me feeling angry, frustrated or depressed.I don’t think I’m alone.I would love to remain human and compassionate (or even dispassionate) in the midst of the political debate.

It’s often difficult to even bring up political subjects unless one is sure one’s listeners are fairly like-minded politically—yet I believe we need political discourse and cross pollination now more than ever.No one really has all the answers.Yet the discourse is often so heated, vitriolic even, that understanding all perspectives seems impossible.

Rosenberg was fascinated from an early age with understanding what disconnects us from our compassionate nature and how people have been able to remain compassionate even in situations as difficult as a concentration camp. He believes that compassion is our natural state and, like Ghandi, that it returns to us “when violence has subsided from the heart.”

He found several types of communication that separate us from our compassionate nature.The first is making moralistic judgments.These are judgments that imply wrongness or badness when someone acts counter to our values.Blaming, insults, criticism, labels, comparisons and diagnoses are all examples of moralistic judgments.Comparing yourself to others is also a form “life-alienating communication” as Rosenberg terms it and so is using language that denies our responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings and actions.

This list of life-alienating communications pretty much sums up the way we all communicate—often.Who hasn’t compared themselves favorably or unfavorably to others? Who hasn’t said “you made me do it” or criticized someone for getting it wrong or labeled someone as “lazy” or “incompetent”? Rosenberg says that this type of communication takes away our compassion and often doesn’t get us what we want or need.

Why is that?Rosenberg believes that what lies at the bottom of our judgments or blame is an unmet need.We need something, often unconsciously, and because we’re not getting it, we blame something or someone else.He said a different way to communicate—one that not only allows our compassionate nature to flourish but helps us get our needs met more effectively—is to focus on our own experience and try to discover what we really need and how others can help us get it.

The four components of our experience are:

  1. Separating our observations (what actually happened) from our judgments.Doing so allows us to use neutral, non-blaming language to describe what we don’t like.
  2. Identifying our feelings and separating judgments from feelings.The act of honing in on our emotions and naming them rather than acting them out gives us greater objectivity and clarity.
  3. Identifying what we need and want that we are currently not getting in this situation.This is probably the hardest thing to do because we are so used to judging or blaming behavior (that politician is an idiot!) and often are completely out of touch with the need behind it (I want to know that my perspective will be heard—that I can influence the process).Identifying our underlying need gets to the heart of why we are angry or upset and can help us think creatively about how to move forward.
  4. Identifying what specific and positive action another person could take to meet that need and framing that action as a request rather than a demand.Trying to force someone to change usually backfires.Requests open rather than close the dialogue.

I love this idea of draining violence from our hearts and opening ourselves to our natural compassion.Our business relationships, our personal lives, and our political conversations can all benefit.And really, in all of the above, aren’t the stakes too high not to try?

For more information, see http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_3_14?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=marshall+rosenberg+nonviolent+communication&sprefix=Marshall+rosen%2Caps%2C217

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