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Lessons in Compassionate Communication

By Scott Braxton, Ph.D., MBA

This is the first in a series of articles about a communication technique called "Compassionate Communication." Compassionate Communication (CC) is based on language and communication skills that strengthen our ability to connect with others, even under stressful conditions. CC helps us reframe how we listen to the feelings and needs of other people. Instead of habitual ways of responding with explanations, justifications or defensiveness, CC allows us to listen with respect and empathy and to express ourselves with honesty and clarity. Let me give you a real life example.

It is 12:30 on Thursday afternoon and I am plugging away on my computer. The ding of email wakes me from the trance of typing and I see an email from my sweetheart titled "A Few Thoughts." For a moment I am frozen because we had a brief disagreement the day before-I overheard her say something, made a comment and an accusation. Not the smartest way to start one's day.

This email was more than just a few thoughts. The email was blazing. I got to read about many of my flaws, not just the ones I displayed with my lack of tact. I saw four pages of sarcasm, ironic humor and anger, quadruple question marks and lots of capital letters. My defense mechanisms were revving up. I was ready to fire back an email defending myself, because, after all, I was right. This was starting to look all too familiar. I know how this story turns out-it's not pretty.

This is where I remembered Compassionate Communication. Behind all her anger, I saw she was frustrated that her desire to connect with me was thwarted by my insensitive comment. I saw she was hurt because I judged her and thereby withheld my love. I saw her love peeking though in her ending and plea that "our union is to open so much more than just us; it expands far beyond anything conventional and creates a future for others to see a possible future for themselves."

Instead of firing back my own blistering email, I wrote:
"Thank you for your email about "a few thoughts" and sharing with me what is going on for you and how you feel. I hear that you are frustrated when you create a day for us to be together and I do not play along and you hear accusations. You seem to be quite angry about how I listen to you and you are needing more compassionate listening. You often hear my requests as demands, and that doesn't work for you. I truly apologize if I interrupt you to make some smart-assed comment; that is not compassionate and I would never want to put you down in any way.

I am sorry for hurting you. I understand that cleaning this up could take some time and I am committed to completely understanding your feelings and needs around this situation and doing so with love and compassion. We get to create a new future to live into that lights up both of us and involves honesty, clarity and truth. That means both of us have a say in the future we create."

The response was better than any spurned lover could hope for.
"Thank you for your very generous response; I feel heard and understood. If you wish to write more detail, I would read it, but it is not necessary."

I would never have written such a response without the brilliant instruction of Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Compassionate Communication. Using the simple tools, we were able to restore love very quickly and have the type of honest communication we needed to not only move past the event, but to learn from it.
Stay tuned for the next installment where you will learn the Compassionate Communication model. If you are in a hurry, pick up the book "Nonviolent Communication-A language of Compassion" by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D.