For most people, communicating with others comes so naturally that we don’t think of it as a skill to be developed. We learn to talk as a toddler, so how hard can it be? Yet, breakdowns in communication regularly lead to conflict and frustration in relationships. Learning how to communicate effectively is a powerful skill that can help in all facets of your life.
In all situations, our aim should be to communicate without verbal or physical violence. This can be difficult to maintain when emotions run high and learned behaviours take over. Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is based on the concept that we all share the same basic human needs, and all our actions are an attempt to meet one or more of these needs. Practicing NVC can lead to greater authenticity, increased understanding of yourself, deeper connection and improved conflict resolution.
Turning the compassion inwards
The first step towards mastering NVC is to recognise your own feelings and behaviours during conflict. Your emotional reaction to situations is instinctual and not something that you need to feel ashamed of, or even try to control. What you can control is the behaviour you express when you have the emotional reaction. Be gentle with yourself and understand that your behaviours have been ingrained in you over many years. Self-compassion can be a struggle, especially when you’ve been told your feelings are unacceptable by family, friends or society. Try to focus on the positive step you are taking to develop new ways of expressing yourself.
An exercise for developing self-compassion, is to write down your self-critical thoughts in the second person. For example, ‘You are such an idiot. You never do anything right.’ Then think about how you would respond to a friend who spoke this way about themselves. How would you reframe these statements to help them feel better? Now try rewriting your original thoughts in the first person, using the same phrases you had for your friend. ‘I am not an idiot. I do many smart things. I have lots of strengths and don’t need to feel bad about making a mistake.’ It may not feel comfortable at first, but with practice it will be easier to reach a place of self-acceptance.
Turning the compassion outwards
The next step for NVC is to focus on compassion for others, which can be difficult during an argument. When you recognise that all our interactions with each other are an attempt to meet a human need, you are better equipped to empathise with your opponent. What insecurity is being touched on in this argument? What needs aren’t being met? Try developing a set of sentences you say to each other to help you express yourself.
When I hear you say …….
I feel …….
Because my need for …….……. isn’t being met.
Would you be willing to …….?
Again, it will feel awkward the first few times you try it, however as you see the impact it has on diffusing an argument, you will find it comes more naturally to you.
Another concept that shame researcher Brene Brown calls her ‘number one life hack’ is to use the phrase ‘The story I’m telling myself is……’ The power of this statement is that you are explaining how you have read the situation, while acknowledging that you may not be 100% correct. It gives the other person the chance to clear up any misunderstanding and express their point of view without accusations and hostility.
Prompts to consider in an argument.
- Can I articulate their side of the argument? Despite the desire to think that the person you are fighting with is acting crazy, most people are generally reasonable. When you take time to truly understand why they disagree, you may find your frustration with them fades a little.
- Have I explained myself clearly? When we argue, we revert back to our primitive brain’s response of fight, flight or freeze. In that state of mind, it can be hard to express yourself clearly and even harder to really hear someone else’s point of view. Try a new way of explaining your side.
- How would I feel if I was on the other side of this conflict? Take a moment to consider your body language and tone of voice. Is it be relaying an aggressive stance that could be intimidating? Is that how you want others to feel when interacting with you? Can I find a more peaceful way to express myself?
- Would I be willing to say these things in front of a group of people? We are all guilty of letting ourselves get carried away in an argument. However, if the words you are saying would be too embarrassing to utter in public, it’s a safe bet that you aren’t being respectful to the other person and you need to take a break and come back when you’ve calmed down.
- Is this argument worth it? If a bruised ego is the only result of losing the argument, perhaps it is better to let it go. Consider the quote ‘You can be right or you can be happy. You can’t always be both. Choose which is more important.’
Making the effort to communicate compassionately can help you find creative ways to transform conflict and connect deeply with others in a peaceful and more engaging way. Each time you choose nonviolent communication you foster mutual respect and allow empathy to flourish, which has the power to be life-changing in your relationships.