A little over a month ago I began taking a course in non-violent communication, also known as compassionate communication. When I share this news with folks who have not heard of or are unfamiliar with non-violent communication (NVC), I see confusion on their faces and/or hear confusion or curiosity in their voices as they try to understand what “violent” communication might look like or sound like.
“Violent” communication in this context does not refer to explosive or abusive language. Statements such as “you are making me angry” or “stop pressuring me” or “I feel disrespected” are examples of “violent” communication. In each of these statements the speaker is not articulating a feeling, but instead makes a judgement of another person veiled as a “feeling.” And by saying “you are making me angry” or “stop pressuring me” the speaker is deferring blame, creating a buffer, and/or not owing what he or she is truly feeling on the inside. I regard much of the language of “violent” communication to be passive aggressive.
What I’m discovering in this journey and practice of unlearning old communication patterns and learning and integrating a new, healthy, compassionate style of communication is how pervasive “violent” communication is in our society. I am sure many folks can recognize their patterns of using the language of “you are ____” instead of speaking from the position of “I feel ____” or “I need ____.” Furthermore, if we bring awareness to our collective patterns, we will hear how commonly people use the words “I feel” paired with a judgment or their perception of reality without even expressing a true feeling.
This journey is revealing to me how disconnected many of us are with our actual feelings and/or how challenged we are to actually speak to our deeper feelings. Using statements “I feel” paired with a judgment not only masks our feelings but further perpetuates our disconnection with our inner most selves. We become so accustomed to saying things like “I feel dismissed” or “I feel misunderstood” that we lose our ability to speak with fluency to our actual feelings; we are challenged to speak to or even name our actual feelings.
Feelings. What are feelings, exactly? Many of us associate a feeling with an emotion that stirs or resides in our inner landscape. But how do we know what a feeling actually is? How do we know what happiness is? gratitude? joy? exhilaration? What do we feel inside that tells us “this is happiness” or “this is gratitude” or “this is exhilaration”? How do we come to pair a body sensation with the word for that feeling? What signals or messages does our body give to us to help us identify or connect to that feeling? What stirs in our emotional landscape that informs us?
In NVC we cultivate self connection with our inner landscape, we cultivate a deeper listening. We listen to our thoughts and we listen to our bodies – both, not just one or the other – to help us identify and inform us of our deepest feelings. We use this listening to get underneath, to get behind historical statements such as “you are overwhelming me” or “I feel let down” or “I do not feel appreciated” to identify what we’re truly feeling and needing or to hear what others might be feeling or needing. Over time and with practice, we cultivate the skills to speak directly to our feelings and needs without falling into old, passive aggressive, judgmental patterns which very often alienate us from others. When we are more able to speak to our inner experience, we are able to own our feelings and needs.
I want to share and draw insight from a distinction that one of the members of my class shared that really resonated with me. He spoke to the ownership of feelings. He shared that to him the statement “I feel sadness” lacks depth of emotion. He articulated that “sadness” expressed in this way is like an object outside of ourselves and not something that is inside of us. He offered that when one makes the subtle shift and expresses, “I feel sad” or “I am sad,” there is a greater depth of feeling because the speaker is naming an emotional experience he or she is having instead of expressing something that could be perceived as outside of themselves. By expressing a feeling in this way the speaker not only owns the feeling, but truly inhabits the feeling.
When we “inhabit a feeling” we are fully present with that feeling, we stay with it, we allow it to fill our entire being, to permeate our inner landscape. Why might we allow ourselves to experience the fullness of a feeling? I can think of two very important reasons. One – happy and joyous feelings grow out of life’s gifts which, in my humble opinion, should be treasured and cherished; we choose to bask in happy feelings, to savor joyous feelings as these feelings are part of the gift. Two – mournful and sorrowful feelings grow out of difficult moments or tragic events that can be, if we choose, life’s greatest teachers; when recognize an opportunity for learning, we choose to stay, we choose to feel fully. When we stay with ourselves, when we “inhabit a feeling,” we develop greater authenticity. When we stay with others and receive their feelings, we cultivate harmony and connection.
“Learn to stay.” ~ Pema Chödrön
I bow to Karl, my teacher and model in NVC. I greatly admire and respect Karl’s exemplary skills and gifts.