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Your coworker Joe is a nice guy, but he’s an interrupter: You’ll nearly be done making a point and he cuts in — to agree, to disagree — doesn’t matter. Every time it happens, you feel frustrated and annoyed — and you’re ready to unload on him.

When a person or situation triggers our less savory emotions, blame and negativity arise. Blame is a reflexive response that helps us protect our egos and avoid the hard work of examining our own emotions and culpability.

The trouble is that blame and grumbling usually make bad situations even worse. If we’ve decided Joe is hopelessly rude, and we confront him about it with language that insinuates as much, we’re unlikely to inspire Joe to change his behavior, let alone get what we hope to get from the situation. Rather, Joe will probably just get defensive and level blame right back. And we wind up in the same frustrated and annoyed place where we started.

When we’re able to pause before we react and identify what’s going on beneath all the confrontational language, however, we can approach the situation with more compassion and understanding. This approach has several benefits: It helps us get more of our own needs met, it helps us better understand and meet others’ needs, and it allows us to more fully appreciate and enjoy our relationships.

“When you give other people the gift of your attention and empathy, it makes them feel understood and they become more open to hearing what’s on your mind,” says Dr. Michael Nichols, professor of psychology at the College of William and Mary and author of The Lost Art of Listening.

This is the guiding philosophy of compassionate communication, an approach to speaking and listening that helps us respond to others more effectively in even the most difficult situations. Practicing compassionate communication promotes deeper connections with loved ones, more harmonious relationships and a greater sense of inner peace.

Motivated by Compassion

Compassionate communication (also known as nonviolent communication) helps people remain empathetic with each other, even in situations fraught with anger or frustration. It teaches people to speak to others without blaming and to hear personal criticisms without withering. This approach can be used to respond to nearly any situation — from dealing with troublesome colleagues in the workplace to ironing out rough patches with romantic partners and children at home.

Clinical psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg, author of Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, is generally credited with creating and promoting this approach to communicating. He theorized that most communication is an effort to get a core human need met and that if we train ourselves to home in on the deeper, unspoken needs underlying and informing harsh language, we can respond more effectively.

When we’re able to pay attention to core needs — our own and others’ — we’re motivated to act out of compassion instead of out of guilt, fear or shame. And, when we’re motivated by compassion, we don’t rely on defensive or blaming language — language that stalls and sometimes completely derails effective communication — in difficult situations. Instead, we approach others with more kindness and understanding — and, in turn, we’re more likely to be able to both give and receive what’s most needed.

An Example of Compassionate Communication

Rosenberg’s technique for communicating compassionately relies on four core steps:

    1. Observing a situation without judgment;
    2. Discerning which emotions are being triggered in the situation;
    3. Connecting those emotions to the underlying needs that aren’t being addressed; and
    4. Making a reasonable request of the other person.

Let’s go back to our interrupting coworker, Joe. Say you’re talking in the break room, he interrupts you, and all your intense, negative feelings get triggered. When using compassionate communication, your first goal is to pause and observe what’s happening. Ask yourself: What just happened? (I was talking and Joe interrupted). Now identify the feelings that reflexively cropped up for you. Ask yourself: What am I feeling? (I feel frustrated and annoyed).

The next step is to connect the feelings you just observed and described with the deeper needs that underlie them. Humans share several core needs, including autonomy, physical nurturance, connection and respect. Most of our communication is an attempt to meet one of those needs.

To parse what needs underlie your feelings, get specific. Describe your emotions with as much detail as you can. Use words like anxious, rushed or overlooked, as opposed to bummed, for example. Specific language will contain more clues about the needs involved.

Let’s take your feelings about coworker Joe. Do you feel intruded upon? Disrespected? Unheard? Insulted? If you feel disrespected or insulted, you may have a core need to be respected in the workplace. Reviewed in this context, the very nature of your irritation and frustration can become an important tool in self-discovery.

Once you connect with your deeper needs, you’re more likely to recognize them not as good or bad, but as human. Your natural empathy comes to the fore (you’re not a bad person for being annoyed by Joe, you simply need to be heard), and defensiveness and anger start to recede (Joe’s habit of interrupting isn’t intended to drive you crazy — it just rubs you wrong because it steps on some important needs of your own).

It’s from this place of greater empathy and receptivity for yourself that you can use the same questioning techniques to examine Joe’s motives and feelings — and begin to recognize the very human needs driving his behavior. Your subsequent deeper understanding of Joe’s needs allows your natural compassion to flourish when you respond to him.

Mastering Compassionate Responses

Now that you’ve explored the situation with Joe on a deeper, more human level, you’re primed to respond to him in a way that both addresses the deeper needs at play and also has a greater chance of getting those needs met.

The most effective way to frame your compassionate response to Joe, according to Rosenberg’s model, is to make a clear, reasonable and positive request. The idea here is to both limit confusion and prevent reactive resistance.

For example, the request shouldn’t be, “Please don’t interrupt me,” but rather, “Would you be willing to let me finish my thought before you begin speaking?”

This takes some practice, but that shift in dynamic between two people eventually can alter the tone of the relationship — for everyone’s benefit.

The 4 Pillars of Effective Compassionate Communication

There are four components in the compassionate communication model. Each step helps you respond to others with less blame and more compassion in difficult situations.

  1. Practice observing actions, rather than judging or evaluating them. This helps to short-circuit emotional reactions and gives you the opportunity to harvest important insights.
  2. Identify your feelings in difficult situations and describe them in specific terms. Try using precise words like unsettled or agitated, instead of good or fine. Specific emotions provide clarity, simplifying the connection between your feelings and the deeper needs underlying them.
  3. Explore how needs inform your feelings: The next time you experience a strong emotion, try linking it to a need. For example, if you feel angered with your spouse for forgetting to pay the bills on time, see if that feeling connects with your core need to act responsibly, or perhaps your need to feel secure, taken care of or in control. Next try to connect what he might be feeling — perhaps overwhelmed at the number of chores on his plate, or frustrated that he’s not better at keeping track of fiscal details — with a deeper need of his. Perhaps he feels called to focus on other things, a need to succeed in areas that come more naturally to him, or a need to do things “his own way.” Taken in this light, his “offense” may begin to make more sense, to seem more human, and therefore more deserving of a compassionate, constructive response. Identifying and owning your needs and preferences may, at the very least, help you evolve your own reaction beyond accusations and nagging.
  4. Practice making specific, positive requests for what you would like someone to do to meet your needs, instead of instinctively reacting to a situation with blame and negativity. Focus on what you want to create and experience or would like to see happen, as opposed to what you want to prevent or stop.


This article has been updated. It originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Experience Life.

Learn More

Enhancing your communication skills is essential for building robust, enduring, and closer relationships with others. You can elevate your ability to connect with others by delving into our vast collection of resources on interpersonal communication.

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