The roots of resilience are to be found in the felt sense of existing in the heart and mind of an empathic, attuned, self-possessed other.
– Diana Fosha
At times our habitual lenses of perception and reactivity can make responsible speaking and empathic listening almost impossible. Both people in a conversation can be caught in a mind-set of “me. vs. you,” “us vs. them,” or “always-never.” The differences feel intolerable and frustrations run high. Learning to communicate your fears and wishes to other people, and receiving their communication about their fears and wishes in return, is a practice of emotional intelligence that will sustain resilience for a lifetime.
When two people meet in mindful empathy, their emotions can be expressed in a fairly straightforward way. This honesty opens the door to perceiving another person’s needs, even in a conflict, facilitating a mutual understanding or at least a respect for differences.
This exercise is adapted from a method originally known around the world as Non-Violent Communication (NVC) developed by Marshall Rosenberg and now called Compassionate Communication. To some, the method can feel structured and mechanical, but when a conflict needs to be expressed and dealt with, it can be worth its weight in gold. When both people become adept at the protocol, they can identify the emotional needs that need to be addressed and choose appropriate actions to address them.
- Stating the Intention
One person begins the conversation with: “There is something happening that’s impacting our relationship. I would like to talk about it. Are you available?” Mechanical! But it does close the exits. The listener agrees to listen respectfully until the speaker is done. If the listener is not available at that moment because he’s out the door on the way to work, or needs to be on an important conference call in five minutes, or is simply frazzled for the day, he can say no, but he must agree to be available within 24 hours. The speaker never has to nag or pursue once the mutual agreement to meet has been made.
- Creating the Conditions to be Heard
Choose a time and place where there will be no distractions or interruptions. With the two sitting face to face, the speaker then states the topic in one sentence, and the listener repeats the topic back word for word so the speaker feels heard. The listener then asks, “Is there more?” That’s it. No commentary, no rebuttal, no resistance, no incredulity. This method completely prohibits any shame-blame-name calling. Safety and mutual respect are the priorities.
- Speaking and Listening
The speaker then begins sharing her experience along the following lines: “I felt really hurt when I perceived (or thought or believed) you were flirting with Sandy at the block party last night.” She acknowledges any of her own subjective impressions or thoughts that may have contributed to the experience. The listener listens, repeats the statement word for word, so the speaker feels heard. “You felt hurt when you thought I was flirting at the block party last night.” The listener expresses no defensiveness, no editorializing, no retaliating, no sharing of his experience. It can be much harder to be the listener than the speaker!
The speaker continues until she is done, focusing on the feelings and needs underneath the facts of the events. Rather than express the problem as a thought – “I feel as if you’re not interested in me anymore” – she tries to get down to the feeling underneath – “I’m worried, and I’m scared.” Getting to the heart of the matter usually takes far less time than one would expect, once the focus is placed on the feelings driving the speaker’s own behaviors.
- Summary of concern
The listener gives a brief summary of the entire concern, and the speaker clarifies until both can agree on a clear statement of it. In this case, it might be: “When you experience me paying attention to other people and not paying enough attention to you or to us, you’re worried that I don’t love you as much as I did; that I’m not really there for you.”
- The request for change
The speaker articulates the request that would address the emotional need underneath: “I need to hear from you that you still love me; that you’re in this 100 percent.” She then identifies three things she is willing to do herself to address her emotional needs, for example: “I will check in with you at least once in the coming week to hear how you feel we’re doing as a couple.” “I will remind myself that I am loved by you before we go to the football game with Sandy and Jim two weeks from now.” “I will pull you aside and speak to you right away the next time I experience any worry about your behavior.”
The speaker identifies three things the listener could do that would help address her emotional needs, such as: “I ask that you spend five minutes with me every night this week telling me three things you appreciate about me.” “I ask that you include me in at least one conversation you have with Sandy in the coming month.” “I ask that you spontaneously give me a big hug and tell me you’re glad to see me at least once in the coming week.”
The speaker and listener each choose one of the three behaviors to do in the specified time period. The requests must be for changes in behaviors (not changing personality or character, but behavior) that are positive (specifying what is wanted rather than what is not wanted), specific, measurable, and set in a specific time frame so that both speaker and listener know when they have been accomplished.
- Following through
As the pair implements the change requests, the speaker is responsible for acknowledging and showing appreciation when a request for change has been met. If the change didn’t address her emotional need after all, she can use the method again to get clearer and more on target. The listener then takes his turn using the same formula that lets him create the conditions to be heard, communicate his feelings and needs, and present his six requests for change. If each person does one new behavior every week for a year, they will have instituted more than 100 positive changes in their relationship in that year. Pretty resilient!
The Neuroscience of Compassionate Communication
The mechanical formula of this communication tool prohibits the shaming, blaming, and name calling that might otherwise activate the threat response in either person and pre-empts the consequent reaction – either a counter attack or withdrawal-stonewalling. When we’re not feeling threatened, the pre-frontal cortex is not hijacked by a threat response nor by the defenses to that perceived threat. The pre-frontal cortex stays active, using the resonance circuit so we can listen to and empathize with the other person in order to reach a resolution. Learning to stay open and respond to requests for chances in behavior strengthens confidence in our ability to resolve complaints and conflicts.