Features and Occasionals

Compassionate Communication

By Katherine Pioli

I had come home broken-hearted and crying. My best friend had just announced that she didn’t want me talking to her. We were in middle school and I wasn’t cool enough anymore. Upon hearing the news, my mom responded with an irritating nugget of motherly advice—go make new friends. It was about the last thing that my teenage ears wanted to hear. I didn’t need to be told how to make things better. I just wanted to talk. I needed someone to listen.

Though my fit was perfectly adolescent, my need simply to be heard and not advised was familiar to anyone at any age. I had reached out for empathy and got problem-solving in return.

“Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between true empathy and what we perceive as an empathetic response,” says Karen Barbee, a certified trainer in nonviolent communication from Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Barbee will lead a two-day workshop on nonviolent communication in Salt Lake City this month.

“Compassionate communication teaches us to listen. When we are present, instead of creating our own reaction to the story—that is empathy. And when we are received that way, it can feel like a weight being lifted. We can breathe again. Solu­tions can suddenly present themselves.”

Like most of us, Karen Barbee thought she understood the language of empathy. A longtime educator, she had always believed in modeling and teaching solid communication. So when Barbee attended a workshop on nonviolent communication in 2006, it felt like something she had already been trying to practice for a long time, but also new and exciting.

“It was like watching snow melt and following it into a stream that flowed into a powerful river. I really started to see how we talk with each other. I found that conflict can either be a result of communication or be resolved through communication.” Inspired, Barbee continued to study compassionate communication, eventually leaving her work as a teacher to open her own mediating and consulting business, Steadfast Communication.

Around the world, people are using compassionate communication —in places such as Afghanistan, Argentina, Bosnia, Denmark, Mol­davia, Nigeria, Palestine, Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Switzerland. Certified nonviolent communications trainers like Barbee can be found from Oregon to India.

But it was from civil rights-era Detroit, Michigan that the concept of compassionate communication first appeared, developed by the young clinical psychologist Marshall Rosenberg.

Rosenberg was deeply aware of the power and potential violence of words. As a child, he had endured the abuse of anti-Semitic taunts. During his years at university, Rosenberg saw the violence surrounding the national struggle for civil rights and, closer to home, witnessed Detroit’s race riot of 1967 that left 43 people dead and over 1,000 injured. Communication, it seemed to him, might be the problem and the solution for a number of America’s social problems.

At the core of his practice, Rosenberg developed four fundamental components to compassionate communication: observation, feeling, needs and requests. It was essential, he felt, to use observation without the harmful elements of evaluation or judgment. People needed space to express their feelings and their needs. He understood that all humans share the basic needs not just for food and shelter, but also for trust and understanding.

Finally, his goal for the practice of nonviolent communication was to reach the highest form of understanding, a kind of compassionate communication nirvana, empathy.

Prepared with these ideas, Rosen­berg took nonviolent communication into his community, offering it as a method of conflict resolution. And it worked. Rosenberg participated in the desegregation of schools and other institutions in his community and around the country and from that work, he founded the Center for Nonviolent Communication.

In the decades since Rosenberg took compassionate communication into schools and government halls, the practice has spread and ma­tured. Today you can find it in boardrooms and living rooms. Progressive prisoner rehabilitation programs such as Washington State’s Freedom Project and California’s Restorative Justice project at San Quentin are teaching prisoners nonviolent communication as a tool for anger management, healing and reconciliation.

These days, compassionate communication is applied to healthcare, parenting, social change, spiritual growth, “just about anywhere that people interact,” explains Barbee, whose own work focuses on empathetic coaching—helping her clients overcome internal obstacles to their own success, and mediation—working with cases from landlord/tenant disputes to couples counseling. “It’s useful in these diverse circumstances because it is designed to foster respect and integrity. Compassionate communication is simply creating a situation where people can walk away from any conversation with dignity.”

But, like many things, sometimes compassionate communication is easier to talk about than to implement.

“Competition, reactivity, judgment and opinion are imbedded in our language and they can be very harmful,” says Barbee. “For instance, if I come home from work saying ‘my boss is such a jerk,’ that’s a violent statement. I have assassinated their character.”

Using compassionate communication can be a huge paradigm shift that requires unlearning years of verbal habits and, like a child learning the ABCs, there’s bound to be an awkward phase. Some nonviolent communication trainers start teaching the process with conversation outlines, tools that students can use to start a conversation. “When you … I felt … because….” Prompts help some people see how to apply this new way of communication. For others, they may feel unnatural and robotic. When Barbee teaches, she encourages a more organic nature to the conversation.

In the end, she says, whether or not nonviolent communication works for an individual depends on how willing they are to be impacted by it. Barbee says she knows it’s a hard step to take. “Asking people to change is asking them to give up their security. When we start changing something as fundamental as our language, it can be scary.” But taking that leap can be rewarding, as well. Using subtle differences in language, Barbee says, can make a powerful difference.

Introduction to Compassionate Communication
April 12-13. Karen Barbee, trainer. Space for 20 participants. Info: SteadfastCommunication.com

This article was originally published on March 30, 2014.