The Compassionate Communication Process gives us a framework for communicating with compassion in a nonviolent way. It's modeled after Psychologist Marshall Rosenberg’s nonviolent communication tool used to help facilitate difficult conversations and resolve conflicts. Nonviolent communication is described as the “language of compassion” and it allows us to express empathy and understanding even in the face of difference. When one side of a conflict uses empathic inquiry and strives to understand the position or perspective of the other side, differences can be resolved.
The Compassionate Communication Process is a powerful tool for romantic relationships, where intimacy can bring up challenging conflicts and dynamics. Rather than responding reactively, we can slow down our reactions and responses, and through the use of this communication process, we can begin to explore what is happening between ourselves and our partner at the emotional level. Using I-statements and keeping the focus of the discussion on emotions and feelings, we are better able to navigate potentially difficult discussions without doing damage to the relationship.
Following are the five steps of the Compassionate Communication Process that can help us communicate from our heart.
Step 1: Identify a Challenging Aspect of the Relationship
Decide who is going to be Partner A and who will be Partner B. Partner A...Select a challenging aspect of your relationship. For example, it could be something annoying or bothersome that your partner does.
Step 2: The Compassionate Communication Process
“When I see you _____________, I feel _____________, and I imagine ____________. My need for ____________ is not met.”
Example...“When I see you are not cleaning up after yourself around the house, I feel burdened by the extra work, and I imagine that you don’t appreciate all the hard work that I am doing. My need for appreciation is not met.”
Be careful not to slip into shaming/blaming/judgmental language. This is a common pitfall when communicating. Here's an example of this format being used incorrectly...“When I see you are selfish, I feel like you don’t care about anyone else, and I imagine I married someone who is self-centered.”
Consider the challenging aspect of the relationship, as described in step 1. Partner A communicates their challenge to their partner using the format described in Step 2 following these guidelines:
“I feel....” It's natural for people to slip into the format of using “I feel....” followed by “like you." This is a way of turning the format into a you-statement. For example, when saying, “I feel like you are selfish", or "I feel like you are like your mother,” you are turning the I-statement into a you-statement. There is a place to express that sentiment, but it needs to be made later in the “I imagine” section. If you tend to slip into this pattern, remember that “I feel...” is a feeling statement about yourself and shouldn't have anything to do with the other person.
“and I imagine....” By stating that you imagine, you acknowledge that it may not be entirely rational. It allows you to express some of the negative thoughts that pop into your mind while also acknowledging that whatever is happening between you and your partner is in your own mind.
“My need for….” When we experience conflict or negative emotions, it’s a sign that our needs aren’t being met. At times we get stuck in conflict or negative emotions because we confuse needs and strategies. Everything we do is an attempt to meet a universal need. Strategies are specific things we do to meet our needs.
Step 3: Mirror Back
Partner B mirrors back what partner A communicated. It can be word for word, or in your own words, but it should include all of what partner A expressed. It should sound something like...“What I’m hearing is…" Then check whether you understood your partner using a phrase similar to...“Am I hearing that correctly?” “What am I missing?” “Is there anything important that I left out?” This demonstrates active listening and helps to clear up any misunderstanding.
Step 4: Reflection
Pause and take time to let the experience sink in. It can be normal for Partner B to want to respond right away or try to solve the problem. The purpose of this exercise is to create an experience where Partner A expresses themselves in a potentially new way and feels deeply heard by their partner. If Partner B goes immediately into problem-solving or arguing, then it can negate the emotional experience of Partner A.
Step 5: Request
To make clear requests is crucial to the Compassionate Communication Process. When we learn to request concrete actions that can be carried out in the present moment, we begin to find ways to cooperatively and creatively ensure that everyone’s needs are met.
Keep in mind that when we make a request, we’re open to hearing a response of “no.” Demands, on the other hand, implicitly or explicitly threaten people with blame or punishment if they fail to comply. Example of a request...“Would you be willing to set the table for dinner?"
I invite you to practice using the Compassionate Communication Process when faced with challenging interactions. Communicating from your heart with intention takes practice, but your relationships will benefit greatly.