We Can Do Better (Talking to Each Other)

The more I watch and engage in public discourse, the more I believe that one of the most important things we can do for our children and our society is to learn and practice new ways of communicating with each other.

Right now, we’re learning to engage with each other in ways that are damaging and thoughtless and building habits that perpetuate harm and disconnection. Trading memes and sound bites, labeling each other based on assumptions, and not acknowledging the emotions that are being generated as a result only serve to polarize us more and make it harder to find common ground.

Non-violent communication (NVC) is a phrase most often associated with Marshall Rosenberg and a specific method of interaction, and I find the basic principles incredibly useful and sensible. Unfortunately, when I try to put it in to practice, I often find it to be rote and robotic, and often, if only one person is embracing the practice, it feels awkward.

Because of this, I’ve thought a lot about how to build the ideas in to a way of conversing that feel more natural to me. [I am absolutely not disparaging the work of Rosenberg. I see this more as building on it and working to make it accessible to other folks who may feel the same about the role-playing as I do. I am tremendously grateful for the work he and others have done in this area.] To that end, I’ve put together a list of things I think are necessary for more compassionate, purposeful communication.

  • GENUINE CURIOSITY – Going in to a conversation or dialogue where you’re convinced you “know” and it’s your intent to teach the other person or get them to adopt your perspective is not conducive to an honest, respectful exchange.
  • TIME – This kind of interchange takes effort. It requires pauses to digest what the other person is saying, an attempt to ‘read’ their body language and tone, and it’s important to make sure you’ve really understood what they’re trying to say to you. This doesn’t come quickly. And it’s challenging. We often want conversations to be quick and simple – especially when they are about difficult subjects. 
  • WILLINGNESS TO BE UNCOMFORTABLE – Learning requires growth, and NVC is about learning. It is also often about giving up the idea that there is a Right and a Wrong conclusion, or that there is any clear conclusion at all. That is scary. Our brains are wired to look for certainty, and we’ve been taught that the ideal outcome of any interaction is a winner and a loser. In order to communicate this way, we have to give up those ideas and sink in to uncertainty and really listen for what resonates as we navigate the conversations. And we have to be open to the possibility that more profound understanding is the outcome, as opposed to a concrete resolution. 
  • EMPATHY – Being willing to entertain the notion that someone else’s perspective is both very different from yours and also totally valid is key. Empathy is about acknowledging everyone’s right to feel the way they feel, honoring their lived experience even when we can’t understand it, and not judging them for the conclusions they’ve come to based on those experiences. It is also about a feeling of compassion for someone who is struggling and resisting the urge to minimize it, justify it, or fix it. 
  • DESIRE TO CONNECT, LEARN, UNDERSTAND – This kind of conversation leads to deeper, more authentic connections between people. Anytime someone feels that their world view is heard, validated, and respected, they learn to trust a little bit more. When we can enter in to a dialogue by setting aside the need to be Right or exercise our power, and set the intention to learn, we are creating a setting where we can connect on a deeper level. 
  • PRACTICE – Most of us have grown up watching people battle it out for supremacy in debates – whether by coercion or negotiation or outright fighting. We have been conditioned to think that any conversation that doesn’t require a definitive conclusion is “small talk” or “fluffy.” It takes a lot of time and patience to undo those lessons. 
  • EVERYONE ON EQUAL FOOTING, FEELING HEARD AND RESPECTED AND LEARNING – When we begin by “othering” the person we’re talking to (thinking we know what they believe, labeling them, mentally listing all the ways they are different than us or the things they ‘don’t know’), we’ve already made the interaction ten times harder. Starting with the assumption that the person we’re engaging with deserves equal time and opportunity to talk, and that they know things that might be valuable for us, allows us to be more receptive to what they’re saying. Eye rolls, sarcasm, mocking, and labeling change the dynamic so that not everyone feels respected and heard. 

The added bonus of this kind of conversation is that it doesn’t trigger our fight/flight response because we’re not automatically on guard. When we’re focused on learning and leading with curiosity and empathy, we are less likely to be emotional, which means that our pre-frontal cortex is working more effectively. We are able to think critically and learn better. But that’s only when all the participants are willing to show up with empathy and curiosity and a willingness to be uncomfortable. Even one person who doesn’t use the above tools can trigger emotional responses that derail the conversation and lead us back to those old habits. 

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