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Compassionate Communication: Listening

How can we respond compassionately when someone talks to us in an alienating way?

After we learn compassionate communication and start using it, we may be tempted to start “educating” people who talk in an alienating way, and tell them that the way the talk is not “the right way”, and then explain to them how they should talk. When everyone is calm, it may indeed be a good idea to suggest to learn compassionate communication together. But it is counterproductive to do so when the other person is currently experiencing pain and is talking out of his pain, because our attempts to “educate” him will alienate him and sabotage our interest to get closer to him. Empathy is a necessary prerequisite before we can even start going into improving the way the other person speaks.

We need to remember that any scream, any use of an alienating language, is a tragic expression of a painful emotion and of an unmet need. It is tragic because this way of expression reduces the chances that the person would get empathy, understanding, and acceptance of his request. Even if he gets what he asked for, it might be due to a harmful reason, such as appeasement, guilt, shame, or fear of punishment, and this leads to a costly price that everyone is going to pay. It is even more tragic if we also interpret what is said as criticism, accusation, demand, manipulation, and react accordingly, because that would lead to war or alienation, to rebellion or surrender, and to everyone losing.

When we turn on our “compassionate ears”, we understand that the real message behind the alienating language is: I am in pain, because my needs are not met. It is best if we focus on that and not on the language. So that means expressing interest in what is going on inside the other person: “Are you feeling now [emotion] because your need for [guess a need] is not being met?” Remember not to include yourself in this statement, such as “are you sad because of what I said?” or “do you have a need for certainty that I will always be here for you?”

Even if we guess incorrectly what the other person’s emotions and needs are, we still create the opportunity for her to find out what are her emotions and needs and express them, and so we get important information. Our question also demonstrates that we care, and we express empathy. When the other person feels certain that we care about him, we can resolve together any problem. But as long as she thinks that we only want to win over her, she will want to fight or surrender.

When each side is able to listen to the emotions and needs of the other person, and repeat and reflect that in a way that the other person realizes he is being understood correctly, then we can reach a point where we can find together a strategy that would satisfy everyone’s needs. It is no longer necessary to resort to compromises, surrender, or concession.

Important emphasis

By using compassionate communication, we never hear criticism or judgment. We never need to fear what the other person says, because we always hear only emotions, needs, and requests. Since we no longer have any fear from criticism or judgment, we can express ourselves authentically.

Sometimes people who are in emotional pain will be suspicious or our use of compassionate communication. This is because they are used to live in a world full of coercion, and they might interpret our communication as a new kind of manipulation, especially if there is a history of alienating language between us. They may pass criticism on our new style of communication, they might say that it sounds like we are reciting sentences from a book, or speak too slowly. As a response, we can try to clarify our intentions, and gradually earn their trust. In some cases, we may need to express our thoughts in a compassionate manner only inside of our own head and not verbally, as the other person may not be ready yet to hear that, but still focus on the other person’s heart, emotions, and needs. This will change the nature of the interaction to a closer connection.

Sometimes, when people talk to us in an alienating manner, including criticism, accusations, and ridicule, we sometimes run out of patience, because we also want to express our own emotions and needs, such as feeling hurt, and the need for connection. But sometimes we need to be patient and not jump to quickly to that. The other person may not be ready for that yet, and needs more empathy. If they have a big emotional pain, they first need a lot of empathy, to feel that he is being seen and understood, before he is able to listen to our own emotions and needs. So in the meantime, even if we are in pain, we can give ourselves internal empathy. And if all this is still too difficult for us because we are still not skilled enough, we can stop the conversation and wait until everyone calms down, before resuming our conversation. We can also use the help of a neutral third party (such as a friend or a therapist) that will give empathy and understanding to both sides, and help them resolve the conflict.

An example for compassionate listening can be found in minutes 1:53:28 to 1:58:18 in this video.