Recently, a workshop participant told me they didn’t like the practice of nonviolent communication; the formula felt manipulative and patronizing to them.

Have you ever felt that way?

Yup. I know I have.

This is one of the most common pitfalls in the practice of NVC: formulaic adherence to the model.

Let me explain. I would rather be misunderstood than manipulated.

I’d prefer authentic, heartfelt, clumsy communication over skillful, but intellectualized words any day.

  • With misunderstanding, at least I trust that we care about each other. We are in this together and are grappling towards shared meaning and understanding.

  • With manipulation, however, I’m not confident that you care about what matters to me. I sense a hidden agenda, something feels one-sided and I feel wary and guarded.

A common pitfall when learning any communication modality like Nonviolent Communication or Couple Communication, or Conscious Communication or Courageous Conversations (there are so many …) is that it can be easy to forget to attend to these Two Significant Dimensions of Communication:

  1. Our level of care and empathy for one another (conveyed, for example, through relationship history, tone of voice, nonverbal cues)

  2. Our level of skillfulness with words when articulating personal truths (conveyed, for example, through the words we choose to use, the way we put them together, and the number of words we use before giving space to the other person)

Skillfulness matters, but empathy and care matters even more. Here’s a short and helpful overview of this:

Without an open, gentle and curious heart, our efforts may simply feel like manipulation to others.

Empathy cannot be scripted.

  • It doesn’t follow a formula.

  • It doesn’t respond to rules of right or wrong.

  • It’s a quality of presence, a way of being with, a way of holding space.

  • It’s open-hearted listening through all the cells of your body.

  • It attunes, receives, processes and responds.

  • It emerges out of a recognition of our essential shared humanity.

  • It dissolves labels and enemy images.

But it’s not always easy to do.

Empathy invites us to be present to pain: mine and yours.

We are called to look into our own hearts, to discover what hurts, and to relax into tender spaces. We resist our impulse to spread that pain onto others. We resist revenge, debate or shutting down.

Moving through what is painful, increases your empathic capacity. Allow pain to expand you. On the other hand, resisting what hurts, leaves you reactive and trapped.

The next time you find yourself in a challenging conversation, you can increase your empathy and openheartedness by …

  • Listening for what is alive for people.

  • Listening for the pain, for what emotions are charged

  • Seeking feelings out, connecting with them.

  • Listening for what is deeply important.

  • Naming the feelings, naming the needs.

  • Welcoming them into shared awareness.

  • Receiving. Witnessing. Remaining Present.

“Only when our clever brain and our human heart work together in harmony can we achieve our true potential.” Jane Goodall