Speak to a flower sweetly, and it will grow. Speak to a flower callously and it will still grow, just in different ways. I know this. I’ve been that flower.
Like gardeners, we choose what we feed. We can feed fear. We can feed hope. We can feed love. This language of growth is pulling me through 2020 and, through my lens as a writer and interviewer, I want to share how I am reframing non-violent communication as kind communication while navigating some difficult conversations.
One question beneath the surface of our discord is: How can we stay compassionate even under the most challenging circumstances?
To answer this question, we can look deeper into what kind and compassionate conversation really means. The original term for this philosophy is non-violent communication. I’m choosing to lean toward the positive, to call it kind communication. Fortunately, even the term “nonviolence” is rooted in calm.
Gandhi interpreted “nonviolence” based on its Sanskrit root “Ahimsa,” which suggests much more than just the avoidance of physical violence. It means the absence of both physical and passive violence. The passive can be verbal. Words can hurt quietly and slowly. They can also show empathy with immense courage and vulnerability. According to Gandhi, compassion is our natural state.
And through this state of mind, Gandhi pioneered a search for truth. Ahimsa— love, kindness, and compassion — is the basis for this search, he said. This all begins in the mind, in the heart, and flows out of the lips in conversation. Practicing “ahimsa” requires courage. Having a vulnerable conversation is one of the bravest things you can do.
Before beginning a conversation, consider The Center for Non-Violent Communication's 10 Steps to Peace:
1. “Spend some time each day quietly reflecting on how we would like to relate to ourselves and others.
2. “Remember that all human beings have the same needs.
3. “Check our intention to see if we are as interested in others getting their needs met as our own.
4. “When asking someone to do something, check first to see if we are making a request or a demand.
5. “Instead of saying what we DON’T want someone to do, say what we DO want the person to do.
6. “Instead of saying what we want someone to BE, say what action we’d like the person to take that we hope will help the person be that way.
7. “Before agreeing or disagreeing with anyone’s opinions, try to tune in to what the person is feeling and needing.
8. “Instead of saying ‘No,’ say what need of ours prevents us from saying ‘Yes.’
9. “If we are feeling upset, think about what need of ours is not being met, and what we could do to meet it, instead of thinking about what’s wrong with others or ourselves.
10. “Instead of praising someone who did something we like, express our gratitude by telling the person what need of ours that action met.”
When you’re ready to engage in a conversation, here are my 6 easy ways to create kind, nonviolent communication:
- Embrace openness. Practice active listening and mirroring, by saying something like “What I’m hearing/sensing is…” Find a common ground, and even if it seems impossible speak the words, “Yes, and…” to show your partner you hear them. Welcome similarities even within your own mind by replacing “but” with “and.”
- Get curious. Start a question with: “What could happen if…” Replace “You can’t (do) that” with “Have you thought about it this way?”
- Try replacing “you should” with suggestions. Some options are: “I recommend,” “I think you’d appreciate,” and “That reminds me of…”
- Ask open-ended follow-up questions. As an interviewer, my favorites start with “what, why, and how” rather than let the conversation get stuck on the who, where, and when of it all. Examples of inspiring questions in casual conversation are: “What has your experience been like?” “What do you think/believe?” “What are you thinking?” “What has been on your mind?” “Why is this important to you?” “And what does this bring up for you?” “How can I support you right now?” If it seems there are too many questions being tossed around, soften the word choice with “I wonder…” or “I’m curious what your thoughts are.”
- Experiment with I-statements. The most common formula is this: “I feel (adjective) when you (said/did something).” In an I-statement and throughout a conversation, welcome the -ing. Consider: “I’m feeling / I’ve been feeling (adjective) as you (are saying/doing something).” Another way to implement the “I” is to start sentences with: “I read,” “I believe,” “I feel,” or “I sense.” Consider softening your truth with: “In my experience…”
- Get comfortable living in the grey, in the in-between. Welcome silence and welcome change. Humans are fluid. Avoid nouns as labels unless your partner asks you to use one. Time is fluid too. Transform the simple past verb tense into present progressive. Replace “I read” with “I am reading [this book] right now.” Replace “I feel” with “Lately I’m feeling…” This will give you and your conversation partner more freedom.
The other day, my friend who is a republican both broke and warmed my heart as he told me: “When I talk politics with a liberal, usually I walk away believing they are a good person with different priorities than mine. More times than not, I know they look over their shoulder believing I am a bad person. When we talk, I feel like you see me for what I am — human.”
Healing the divide begins with dialogue. If you’re interested in learning to express core beliefs in a safe space with people across the political spectrum, check out Living Room Conversations. Start, join, or observe a conversation here.