Positive vs. negative inter-personal interactions

A positive interaction between people is based on a desire to connect and give, and includes empathy, compassion, caring, honesty, trust, patience, etc.

Unfortunately, many people often don’t know how to interact in this way when their needs are not met and they feel painful emotions like anger, sadness, and fear. Consequently, their actions sometimes end up being violent. This doesn’t include only physical violence, but also psychological and verbal violence, which comes in many forms: accusations, blame, criticism, insults, arguments, shouting, aggression, threats, coercion, control, punishment, abuse, revenge, spite, gloating, avoidance, deception, betrayal, and psychological manipulations.

These forms of negative interactions are a tragic expression of unmet needs. They are tragic because they decrease rather than increase the likelihood that the person’s deep needs would be understood and satisfied by others. This further reinforces the painful emotions, and adds guilt, shame, alienation, hatred, and feeling hurt and offended.

Scarcity

Sometimes people also operate from a scarcity mindset. If they find themselves in an argument, they focus on who’s right and who’s wrong, based on the assumption that only one of the parties can win while the other consequently loses and suffers. So each side fights to be the sole winner, but both parties end up losing as their deep needs are not being met.

More generally, a person who believes that there isn’t enough for everyone would focus his efforts on taking for himself at the expense of others, rather than on giving.

Another example of a scarcity mindset is when a person feels a lack of love, because deep inside, he has a lack of self-esteem, and does not give himself self love (he criticizes himself, which is a form of violence directed at himself). He tries to look for love outside of himself, but his low self-esteem makes him believe that no one could love him for who he really is. So he might end up doing things he doesn’t really want to do, in order to please others in an attempt to make them like him. Or he might try to hide his lack of self-confidence by presenting an over-confident persona, or by using other forms of psychological manipulations. But then he is not being authentic to himself, and ultimately he hurts himself and does not feel the connection he so desires.

Learning positive interactions

Instead of these negative interactions, we can learn how to act out of the desire to connect and give, to help each other rather than to fight and win at the expense of the other. In this way, we may be able to find together a win-win solution for both parties. This can be achieved by a positive interaction that is based on mutual empathy and compassion, where both sides strive to reach a better understanding of each other’s emotions and needs, and try to help each other satisfy these needs.

In particular, this positive attitude should be reflected in the way that we express ourselves in our communications with others. In the rest of this post, we elaborate on how this can be achieved, following the method of Non-violent Communication developed by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg.

The components of non-violent communication

Neutral description of reality

When we express a judgmental interpretation of reality or of another person, this may alienate the other person. For example, suppose that at this moment I feel that I am not being listened to, or I feel impatient or annoyed for some reason, and you are talking to me without noticing how I feel. I have a need for taking a pause in the conversation, but if I say to you that you “talk too much”, this is a negative evaluation of your behavior, and this is likely to cause you to feel attacked and to feel a contraction in your body. To avoid the emotional pain, you may become avoidant and reclusive or even leave, or you may attack me back. Either way, the situation deteriorates.

Instead, we should use an objective neutral description of the facts. These are descriptions that anyone observing the situation could agree on, and therefore they can form a basis for a productive interaction. Examples of such descriptions are: “when you leave your bag on the floor” and “when you talk without a break for ten minutes”. We should further express these descriptions in a positive or at least a neutral tone of voice, so that the other person would not hear an implied criticism because of a negative tone of voice (harsh, loud, cynical, etc.)

Expression of emotions

We all have emotions. The more we can express what we feel, and the more we are accurate in the description of our emotions, the more the other side can identify with us and feel empathy to us.

Here, too, the emotions should not be expressed in a negative tone of voice, so that the other person would not feel that we implicitly criticize them for causing us to feel bad.

Expression of needs and desires

We can express our needs and desires, thus explaining the background for our requests. The needs are usually universal, i.e. they exist for all people from all cultures, so expressing such needs allows others to identify with us. Needs can be physical, such as the need for food, sleep, or shelter, and they can be psychological, such as the need for security, independence, love, trust, fulfilment, friendship, order, happiness, etc.

Expression of requests

We can request the other person to do something that can help us satisfy a need or desire. For example: “I have a need for connection. Could you please give me a hug?” If we mention the need behind the request, this increases the likelihood that the other person would understand and agree to the request.

The request should be described very clearly and accurately so that the other person can understand exactly what actions we would like them to take or avoid. Phrasing clearly also helps us think and understand ourselves better, and find out exactly what we want (people often think they know what they want, but when they try to explain it to another person, they discover that they need to think about it some more).

We need to understand that the other person may not agree to our request, and that’s fine. We don’t have to take the refusal personally or let it cause us to feel negative emotions like disappointment, frustration, anger, or feeling hurt. We can understand that the other person is an independent individual, with their own emotions and desires, and sometimes they cannot or do not want to comply with our request. Despite such understanding, negatives emotions might still arise in us, and that’s fine too, but the question is – how do we react to them? We should take responsibility for our emotions and understand they emanate from within us, and not blame the other person for what we feel.

How to react

In response to our request, the other person may say yes. In that case, we can express thanks, and further express our emotions of joy and connection. If the other person says no, we can express thanks for the answer and the honesty (some people are afraid to say no because they are afraid that we would be disappointed or that our feelings would get hurt). We should not let our mind go into a self-defeating interpretation that we were “rejected”.

In some cases, the other person may react with verbal violence such as the accusation “You’re so inconsiderate! You don’t care about me at all!”, or with psychological violence, such as a passive-aggressive body language. How should we handle this?

First, it’s always difficult or at least unpleasant to receive a violent reaction, so it’s best if you take a moment of silence. This serves as a buffer that can prevent you from an automatic reaction such as attacking back. You can take a moment to give empathy, compassion, and support to yourself.

Then, you can remind yourself that the other person is acting out of pain and also out of ignorance regarding how to express themselves in a non-violent manner. Their violence is a tragic expression of an unmet need. Don’t take it personally – they would react in the same way to anyone else in a similar situation, because this is their current personality.

Adopting compassion and forgiveness towards the other person can be very helpful for you. It can help you see that the other person is hurting and is experiencing suffering. If you are able to, try to show empathy to their pain, rather than focusing on the attack. Listen for the hurt feelings they have behind their attack. Try to get curious about the reason they feel pain and what emotion they are currently feeling, and ask about it. For example, “I sense that you are very angry and hurt. Is that true? Do you feel so because you think what I said means I don’t care about you?”

You can also express the emotions that you feel at this moment, such as feeling hurt. You can express your desire for a non-violent communication, and pose a specific request for how the other person can express their message in a non-violent manner.

What not to do

Judgments and evaluations

Examples are outlining what you perceive as a character flaw the other person has: “You are too sensitive”, and stating as a fact what you think the other person’s feelings and intentions are: “You shouldn’t feel afraid”, “You did this on purpose”. These are merely your interpretations of reality, which the other person may not share, so they cause alienation and other negative emotions. Stick to a neutral description of the facts.

Blame

We should not blame others for our feelings or actions; we should take responsibility for them. Examples of violations of this principle are statements such as:  “He made me angry”, “Look what you made me do!”, and “I had no choice, I had to do it, I was just following orders, it was company policy”. No one can go into our brain and plant an emotion or an action there – all they can do is produce auditory and visual inputs for us, and it is up to us to process these inputs and react in a constructive manner.

Demands

We can make requests, but we should not pose demands, because that is verbal violence. No one likes getting a demand or being bossed around. The other person is an independent individual with a will of his own, and he always has the right to refuse our requests.

Make sure the other person understands that you are posing a request and not a demand, and that he is perfectly free to say no, and it’s fine with you. Also make sure you are not posing a demand disguised as a request (sometimes our tone of voice betrays our real intention). This is particularly important when the person posing a request has a position of authority over the other person.

Vague requests

When phrasing a request, we should not use vague descriptions such as “can you be more considerate?” or “please give me more space”. It is often unclear to the other person what we mean by such requests. Instead, we should explicitly specify what specific actions we would like the other person to do or refrain from doing. At times, it might be embarrassing for us to express our desires so explicitly, but unless we do so, our needs will not be met.

Jumping to conclusions

If the other person does not seem to understand our request, we should not jump to an interpretation that the other person does not want to comply with the request. Maybe he honestly did not understand it. To prevent misunderstandings or hurt feelings, make sure to inquire what the other person understood from your request, by asking something like “What did you understand from my request?”

More generally, do not assume anything about the other person’s internal feelings and intentions. You cannot really know. You may have guesses, but then you can act to verify or disprove them, e.g. by saying “it looks to me like you are unhappy with what I said – is that true?”. If you express it in a compassionate tone of voice, it shows to the other person that you care about their feelings.

Fear of failure

Like any new skill, mastering the tools mentioned here takes time. It is more difficult to do than it may seem when first reading about it. Be patient with yourself and practice.

At first, while trying to implement the guidelines here, it might come out more slowly than normal speech, or might sound unnatural. If you have a concern about it, don’t let it stop you from trying and practicing – that’s the only way to learn and improve. You can even express these concerns to the person you’re talking to by saying something like: “I have a need to express myself in a way which is faithful to what I want to say and which you will be able to hear and understand. But it’s something I only recently learned to do, so I’m concerned that it will sound unnatural. I’ll be happy if you allow me to try it out with you”.

Fear of emotions

Understandably, we may have an automatic fear of feeling unpleasant emotions. But we should not let this fear stop us from doing the right thing. Instead, we should learn how to accept and contain our emotions.

One direction is fear of what we might feel. We may want to request something, but we are afraid that the other person would say no, and that consequently we would feel hurt, rejected, not loved. So we might refrain from posing the request. But this only guarantees that we have absolutely no chance of getting what we want, because the other person doesn’t know what we want. Instead, we should understand that not getting a yes to our request is a natural part of life, and it’s ok if it happens, and it’s also ok if we feel bad. But at least we were courageous to ask and to try to get what we want. With this attitude, if we don’t let our fear of negative emotions stop us, then even if we experience them, they won’t hurt as much. And the benefits are enormous – we are not afraid to try, and try again, until we find how to satisfy our needs.

Another direction of fear is when we are afraid of what the other person might feel. We may not want to comply with another person’s request, but we fear that they would feel hurt or unloved, and possibly then we would feel guilty about it. So we reluctantly go along with their request, and end up hurting ourselves. Instead, we should be willing to accept that the other person may feel bad, but that’s ok, that’s part of life. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the other person to learn how to handle painful emotions like rejection. We can try to ease the pain by being compassionate and caring, but not by complying with something we don’t want, as that would ultimately be a disservice to the other person and to our relationship.

This understanding gives us the freedom to express ourselves honestly and respectfully about what we truly feel and desire.

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