From a young age, it has been central to my values to develop the attributes of compassion, kindness, love and understanding and to practice these virtues in my life, in my interactions with humanity. There have been times when it has been a strong focus and there have been times when I get off this track. A new chapter began in my life when I found the practice of Compassionate Communication, also called Nonviolent Communication, abbreviated to NVC.
My Childhood in the Dominator Culture
To some, it comes naturally to speak compassionately, to be empathetic and to be considerate and understanding of others’ feelings and desires. Although elements of this came naturally to me at a young age, much of it was pulled out of me by the Dominator culture. From a young age, I was taught to compete with my peers and, on fewer occasions, to collaborate. Through sports, educational competitions and many daily activities, I was taught to win. It was good to be the winner and bad to be a loser. This carried over into my day-to-day interactions where there actually were people who were called losers and often I was one of them. But through competition, I could become the winner, which I began to become in my teens and twenties.
I was taught that there was a right way and a wrong way. School was generally polarized – right and wrong. I was judged on my performance. When I did things that adults didn’t like, it was “wrong” or “bad”. At an early age, I began playing the game of “who’s right”. With my siblings it was always a competition. It was always a game of who’s right and who’s wrong. None of us ever wanted to be wrong.
I never had as much as I wanted to growing up. I was never good looking enough. I was never athletic enough. I never got the girls. Through comparing myself to others, I set out to be better. One way I learned to become better was simply for others to be worse. When someone else was better, I didn’t like it. But when I could play mental games to make people worse, I could feel better about myself, without having to actually improve myself.
This is part of the foundation for the Dominator Culture, a culture of oppression and exploitation which I was very much born into. I was taught to have racial biases and sexist biases, among many others. In much of the media I consumed, I was not taught the basic concept of consent. Instead, the movies and mainstream culture taught me that as a man I could get what I wanted. I was taught a lot of fear and hatred. Of course, I had many positive influences in my life and many lessons of equality and justice, but overall it was the Dominator Culture that programmed me the most. I was simply a product of my surroundings, in the small town of Ashland, Wisconsin – population 8,620. A mostly white, mostly Catholic/Christian society, influenced primarily by our own local culture and the mainstream society that dominated the airwaves, the magazines, newspapers and television.
It was “eat or be eaten”. It was climb to the top by stepping over others. With all of this domination and competition, there was not a lot of room for compassion and empathy – especially for boys and men. And rarely did I ever hear discussion of mindfulness, presence and true gratitude. Sure, both of my parents had compassionate practices and habits, but they both were products of the dominator society and they could only compete so much with the mainstream society that won me over.
More so than direct teachings, this was all subconscious programming, transferred to me from the adults in my community and country, passed to them from numerous generations of Dominator Society. I could write for hours about this foundation of my being, but I hope that what I’ve written has set the stage.
Breaking Free from the Dominator Culture in Early Adulthood
Yet, I continued to have substantial struggles in many of my relationships – with family, with partners, with friends, with colleagues and often with people I was only around for a matter of minutes or hours. Although not all of us will publicly say it, this is likely the case for most every human. One of the most challenging parts of being a human is simply getting along with other humans.
Asperger’s and How it Influences My Communication
I have two half-brothers who are are ten years apart in age, who grew up in different households and who have only met each other a couple times. They share the same dad, but have different moms and I share the same dad with both of them. Both were diagnosed with Asperger’s. I had always picked up on some of their similar qualities, especially in their communication styles, but I had never related to either of them. In my early thirties, I started to pick up on how similar I was to them in certain ways. I realized that perhaps I, too, was on the autism spectrum.
Asperger’s is considered a high-functioning form of autism. On the spectrum, it is on the far end, being generally more mild and less fully life-impacting. I would say that at this far end of the spectrum, I am even closer to the end of the spectrum. It is minor compared to many. But when I read the characteristics of Asperger’s, it was very much an “Aha moment” for me. This description described me in numerous foundational ways. I had never been much for labels or groupings, but reading this I felt a sense of relief in a way. I was able to understand myself so much more and make sense of some of my communication patterns and my consistent experiences in day-to-day life. Whether or not Asperger’s is a human-made concept, and no label applies to any human wholly, the label is irrelevant to me. What is more relevant is that there are certain ways that brains are wired and this was very much in alignment with my wiring.
I have long said that I was practically void of empathy. Lack of empathy is often a trait of people with Asperger’s. Instead, my brain generally functions more like a computer than one based on emotions. People were often confused. How could I care greatly about humanity, yet be void of empathy? The answer is simple: I’ve cared out of logic, rationale and the belief in basic human rights and equity. Empathy is not required for this care or to act on this care. I actually considered my lack of empathy one of my great strengths as a servant. I could help others who were struggling without being weighed down by the emotions of it.
I am a very direct, blunt and literal person. I say what I’m actually thinking. I say what I mean. I don’t use sarcasm or tell jokes. I don’t speak in encoded messaging. I don’t expect people to read between the lines. The lines ARE the content of my message. At the same time, I have often struggled when others use sarcasm or humor or in any way that is not literal, because I take words very literally. There have been countless times when someone uses a word and my brain focuses on the literal definition, not understanding what they meant. For example, when someone says, “I’m starving”, my response has most likely been “You’re not starving” because, indeed by definition, they are hungry, not starving. This has been a common thread and it has resulted in a lot of misunderstandings, miscommunications and hurt feelings. With this in mind, it has been especially difficult to have flowing conversations with many people who come from other walks of life who have different communication styles, especially those who speak less literally.
I am quite precise with my words and I generally mean exactly what I say. In a culture that tends to not practice precision and to speak much more loosely, I have often been frustrated when people don’t understand me, even though I’m using the words accurately. I’ve often wondered, “How could they not understand? I was so intentional about being clear.”
With my Asperger’s, I have been very sensitive to noises, often relatively minor noises that are not even noticed by others. I am sensitive to lights. I am also quite sensitive to being too close to people or to many types of touch. All of this has played a large role in my communication with others.
It may seem as if I’ve moved a bit too far away from my experience with Compassionate Communication. But these characteristics are central to how I have communicated throughout much of my life and these are some of the central characteristics that I have been working on through the practice of Compassionate Communication.
Struggles with Communication in my Adulthood
Through my adulthood, I have been trapped in my own communication struggles, patterns ingrained in me by a society that never taught me to communicate healthfully and patterns perhaps that I inherited. That never became more clear than when I started a community house in early 2021 to do community service projects. I was now managing about ten people and was responsible as a manager for not only their service, but their living situation and their food. I did not realize how much I was taking on. I found myself extremely overwhelmed and anxious. I found myself constantly in the midst of conflict with many of my teammates and people in the community. (Again, a reminder that this is part of most human experience in society.) I was struggling so much and I so deeply wanted to be in harmonious relationships. I was not seeking drama or conflict, but I sure was part of making it happen. I wanted to break free from my unhealthy communication patterns.
During that time, I came across the Myers Briggs Personality Types and this made a substantial difference in my relationships. I was always doubtful of these kinds of tools. How could I possibly fit into a category of humans when we are all unique beings? But when I read my personality type, INTJ-A, I was shocked by how much it described me. It described me accurately enough that I felt comfortable sharing it with anyone I wanted to better understand me. There were certainly elements that did not apply to me, but I could live with that. I started to have every person who was going to work with me read my personality type description first. I also used it as a tool to understand those who I was in relationships with – whether they were colleagues, friends or romantic partners. It was an incredibly helpful tool. (Note: I am aware that this tool was developed by white people, by studying primarily white people and is not representative or inclusive of many or all cultures. I believe that when it is used for hiring it can be problematic due to racist biases. I do see it as a valuable tool, but one that must be worked with wisely in relation to others.)
I was certainly making some progress on my communication struggles as I started to understand myself more and learn how others received my communication. I moved to Asheville, North Carolina that summer where I continued hosting a team in service to Earth and humanity. I thought that I had put much of the past behind me, but many of the communication struggles continued.
Beginning My Practice of Nonviolent Communication
In early 2022, I came across Nonviolent Communication. Actually, I had come across it before and had wanted to practice it for quite some time, but this is when I finally jumped in. Through Regeneration, Equity and Justice I hired NVC facilitator Steve Torma to work with my entire team. He came to the house once per week for a two-hour session for seven weeks. The class was a combination of lectures, group exercises, breakout sessions and homework which included reading, watching videos, listening to podcasts, written exercises and practicing with others. Within the first few weeks, I was absolutely elated with what I was learning and experiencing.
Compassionate Communication is not easy to summarize. It is a very unique approach to life compared to what plays out in the Dominator Culture. “The purpose of NVC is to make life more wonderful.” That is one of the main quotes from Marshall Rosenberg, the creator of this practice. NVC could be called a philosophy, or a grouping of many philosophies, but more so for me, it is a set of practices. NVC doesn’t just talk about how to live with compassion and empathy, it actually teaches how with step-by-step instructions.
NVC – A Language of Feelings and Needs
When I began NVC, I considered myself a person mostly void of empathy. At that time, my definition of empathy was “to feel what other people are feeling”. NVC has a different definition, which is to put attention on people’s feelings and needs. Self-empathy is to listen to our own feelings and needs. It’s much more than just words. This focus on what other people are feeling and needing creates a certain quality of presence. One of the core beliefs of NVC is that at every moment every human is doing the best they know how to meet their basic human needs. And with everything that another person says or does, they are trying to meet one of their basic human needs. Simply remembering this in every interaction is to put empathy in practice. When I practice this basic premise, I am no longer judging someone or thinking negatively about them. Instead, I am striving to understand them. I am no longer blaming, judging or criticizing them, but instead seeing them as humans with needs and feelings.
Over the course of seven weeks, I went from a person who considered himself to be void of empathy, to someone who was truly starting to experience empathy and practice it in day-to-day life. I diligently did my homework. I practiced with my teammates and my friends. I showed up for class excited for what I’d learn next. Here was a tool, a guide for cultivating empathy! I didn’t have to figure anything out. I didn’t have to turn philosophy into practices. It was all here for me and I simply had to follow along and practice what was laid out before me!
I saw great results in my mind and in my relationships immediately. Over the next year, I took NVC 301 and NVC 401 with Steve. I did NVC 101/201 again with new teammates. I went to NVC practice meetups. I went to Compassion Camp. I read the book at least four times. I did homework, listened to podcasts and watched videos. I practiced with teammates and friends. I incorporated what I was learning into nearly every facet of my life. All the while, I was experiencing incredible growth.
I used to believe that people were incompetent. Now I don’t believe there is such a thing as an incompetent person. Instead, what I see is that there are some needs of this person that are not being met and that is what is blocking them from being able to perform a task. Sure, someone can be unable to do a certain task, for example math just doesn’t work for some people, but that does not make them an incompetent human. Instead of thinking of someone as incompetent, I wonder what is going on for them that is making the task more difficult for them than it is for me. And I ask them with genuine curiosity so that I can understand their struggles and work more harmoniously with them. Of course, I don’t always manage to do this, but certainly much more often than I used to.
With every one of my relationships, when there are tensions or conflicts, I try to always ask myself what is the other person needing and feeling? I immediately feel a release of tension and I let go of some of my enemy images. In NVC, an enemy image is any thought other than “this person is doing the best they can to meet their needs”, which includes judgment, blame and criticism. Focusing on another’s needs and feelings, the judgments fade, the irritation and frustration goes away and I’m able to communicate from a place of compassion instead. Yes, my words are more compassionate, but so is my voice and my mannerisms. When I tap into this consciousness – what is called NVC Consciousness – it can often be felt by the other person.
One of my greatest struggles in life has been my tone. I am often told that it’s not what I say, but how I say it, in reference to my tone. Many people have “felt stupid” around me. Many people have thought that I was condescending. Numerous people have been disempowered in their experience with me, rather than empowered. And more often than not, it has been the people who work for me who experience these feelings and thoughts. For this I mourn greatly (Read my Letter of Mourning here). As I change my thoughts and as I change my language, my tone is changing as well, yet I am sure that I will need more growth to overcome this.
As much as it is about listening for another’s needs and feelings, NVC is about listening for our own feelings and needs. Through this practice, I have been able to get more deeply in touch with my own feelings. I have been able to understand what I truly need. And how my unmet needs result in conflict and stress in my relationships. For example, I have learned that if my needs for autonomy and space are not met, I may feel overwhelmed. I struggle to communicate compassionately when I am overwhelmed and my relationships suffer. I have learned that when my needs for effectiveness, efficiency or information are not met, I may become anxious or irritated. This carries over into my communication with others. I now know what basic needs I need to make sure I have met before having important conversations or meetings with teammates.
The practice of Compassionate Communication is not about sacrifice. Rather it’s about figuring out how we can both have our needs met. The belief of NVC is that we all share the same basic human needs, however, our strategies for meeting these needs may differ. So, in relationships, I have learned to always focus on what needs are not met and are still desired. Then we can come up with strategies for meeting these needs. In times of struggle, when I focus on needs and feelings, I feel a sense of connection to the person with whom I’m struggling. When I judge, blame or criticize, I am more likely to become disconnected. NVC is all about establishing and holding onto connection as a means of finding resolution and for making life more wonderful.
I am Responsible for the Meaning I Make
NVC is about taking personal responsibility. One of the core beliefs is that we are responsible for the meaning we make of things. In fact, perhaps the only thing that we have control over is our own thoughts and feelings. Nobody can make me feel bad. Nobody can make me feel fear. Nobody can make me feel joy. They can only be the stimulus. Then what I do with that stimulus can result in a wide range of feelings. For example, a Muslim woman wearing her traditional clothing could walk into a room. One person can feel love, while another person feels fear. The person who feels love associates the woman with her Muslim nanny who took care of her as a child. The person who feels fear associates the woman with images they saw on TV. Two very different feelings, from the exact same interaction. This woman didn’t make them feel anything, she was merely the stimulus. I now know that all anxiety, stress, irritation and frustration comes from inside of me. I have the power to overcome this through my thoughts and how I choose to react to the stimuli that I receive daily.
Radical Honesty While Speaking Compassionately
NVC is never about hiding our feelings, rather it is about radical honesty. That’s one reason why this practice works so well for me. I have always been straightforward and truthful. This has often resulted in hurt feelings. I now know that I didn’t make them feel hurt, I was only the stimulus for their hurt. However, I can communicate in a way that is more likely to not stimulate hurt, while being radically honest and getting both of our needs met! By sharing what is alive in me instead of sharing what I think is wrong with someone else, I am able to be completely truthful and increase the chances of being understood and achieving the desired outcome of the communication.
Marshall said, “When we stay connected to everybody’s feeling and needs, everyone expresses themselves fully, and we so deeply understand and empathize with the other person’s feelings and needs that we can reflect it back. Then the ‘solution will find you.’” I have found this to be incredibly true in my life.
This radical honesty includes saying no compassionately and setting boundaries. Saying “no” in NVC includes expressing real gratitude for them sharing themselves with me, offering empathy (what are their feelings and needs behind this request), understanding what their request is and expressing what is alive in myself that keeps me from saying yes. This is certainly a lot longer answer than simply “no”. However, by taking time in my communication, I have found that I save a lot of time by preventing miscommunications and hurts that need to be dealt with later.
NVC for Healing
I have found an incredible amount of healing in this practice. NVC is built on the belief that humans are happiest when they are giving and receiving from the heart because one of the deepest needs we have is to contribute to life. Operating on this framework has created so much healing in my relationships, both in past relationships that needed healing and in small day-to-day interactions that need healing in the moment to prevent disconnection and suffering. We are all operating on patterns that have been formed out of trauma. NVC helps us to overcome this trauma. I have struggled to meet my need for compassionate communication with people who have experienced a lot of trauma. This has resulted in suffering for both myself and the person who has experienced the trauma. By cultivating empathy, I am now much more capable of speaking gently and helping my colleagues and friends to overcome their own trauma through a healing relationship with me. And I have been able to overcome much of my own trauma through these radically honest, connective conversations.
Gratitude and Appreciation
I always struggled to share appreciation with people in my life. I didn’t hear a lot of it growing up and I always blocked expressing appreciation and even feeling it. This practice of NVC has opened the flood gates for feeling gratitude and expressing appreciation. In the past, I often felt fake sharing this, but now I know how to share what is truly alive for me when I give thanks.
Gratitude is an internal state of thankfulness. Appreciation is the art and practice of expressing that gratitude. Marshall Rosenberg’s nickname for gratitude is “Giraffe Fuel for Life” because he understood that giving and receiving gratitude with a certain quality of presence was the greatest source of energy for living a compassionate life.
I have found that gratitude creates more gratitude. Through the practice of gratitude my relationships have improved, I am more content and joyful and life is substantially more wonderful. Gratitude is now a top component of my life – right up there with food, water, sleep, movement and connection to Earth. Along with gratitude, I am able to celebrate life more. I am able to celebrate the little successes of those who work with me and are closer to me. I am able to sincerely appreciate the little things. I am able to focus on what I’m grateful for rather than a perceived lack in myself or other people.
Through Nonviolent Communication:
I am better understood and I understand others much more.
I am in touch with my own feelings and needs.
I have healed many relationships.
I have overcome much unnecessary personal suffering.
I have broken many patterns of thought that were not serving me well.
I have learned the skill of empathy.
I am communicating with much more gentleness and compassion.
I have reduced the occurrences of being the stimulus for others’ emotional pain.
I have reduced my judgment, blaming and criticizing of others.
I am living in a deeper state of gratitude and celebration of life.
I have continued my practice of living mindfully and presently.
I have seen the lives of many people around me improve.
The primary reason I have seen the lives of many people around me improve is because I have invited dozens of people close to me to join me in this practice of Compassionate Communication. I have provided training to nearly every person who works with me (free of cost for them). I have invited many friends and family members to take the classes. My mom and I took NVC 101 together and we have transformed our relationship. After 36 years of not knowing, I now really understand more of what my mom has gone through and what she is needing and feeling now. It has been so incredibly healing. Compassionate Communication is now a pillar of my life and my service to humanity and Earth. I invite you to join me in this practice.
Opportunities to Learn Compassionate Communication:
Compassion Camp each summer at Earthaven Ecovillage.
“Compassion Camp is a four-day event for adults and children where we create a community of people who learn, play and celebrate together, empowered to then send each other back into the world to spread these seeds of justice and love. Our time together is designed to foster community among the growing number of people in Western North Carolina and beyond who are passionate about living and promoting compassionate consciousness. Located at Earthaven Ecovillage, it is an opportunity to have fun, enjoy ourselves, learn together, and connect deeply in a beautiful natural setting.”
From an attendee: “I laughed hard, cried hard, hugged harder, sang heartily, felt ice cold water on bare skin, dewy grass beneath my feet, perfectly ripe juneberries on my tongue, sweaty people dancing around me, tender eyes taking me in, so much vulnerability, so much connection, and so so much love.”
We believe that the theory and practice of NVC is a life-changing tool for cultivating compassion in our hearts, communities, and the world. In addition to NVC, other topics may include: social justice, ecology, circling, restorative circles, healthy relationships, feminism, families and children, eco-sexuality, community, economics, and authentic movement.
Compassion Camp participants will likely experience:
Increased connection to self, others, and nature
A deeper commitment to being of service
A broader understanding of the ways you can live compassionately
More skill in creating supportive community in your life
More practical tools and resources to inspire yourself and others
Compassion Camp offers Equity Fund Scholarships.
PS. This picture is with my teacher and Dear Friend Steve Torma. I am so grateful to be learning from him. We are wearing the giraffe and jackal ears which are part of the NVC teaching. You can discover the meaning behind this by learning NVC!
I am so incredibly grateful for Steve. He has been one of the most positive forces in my life. My life is so much more wonderful because of his dedication and love for humanity and his dedication to me. Steve has been practicing NVC for over 30 years. Being in his presence is truly a unique experience. Meet Steve here.
Compassionate Communication with My Mother
At the age of 37 I feel a stronger love for my mother than I have ever felt in my adult life.
Over the last few years we have learned to communicate with each other and relate in a new way. It has taken substantial work that has been very emotionally difficult at times. But through this dedication a new chapter in our relationship has begun. A chapter of empathy, understanding, gratitude and healing.
In the past when I visited my mom, I would find myself frustrated and irritated very quickly. This resulted in me being short and harsh in many of my responses. It didn’t feel good for my mom and it didn’t feel good for me either. I never wanted to respond this way, and many times I did manage to be patient, gentle and calm but far too often we both felt the pain of our communication.
Two years ago I began the practice of Compassionate Communication and I made great strides in understanding my own communication patterns and how they are received by others. I began to understand empathy and slowly even embody empathy in my thinking and communicating. I saw improvement in my interactions with most people, including my mom. I nudged my mom to join me in Compassionate Communication classes and after a year she did join. Our relationship took a huge positive leap in just two months of class.
I’ve just returned from five months in my homeland and my mom and I spent a lot of quality time together. It was the most time we’ve ever had together since I left at age 18. In the entire 5 months, we never argued once, never raised our voices at each other and there was barely even a moment of frustration or agitation for either of us. I feel so much joy and peace reflecting upon this. We have both experienced a lot of healing together through the practice of empathy, gratitude, understanding and celebration of life. At the center is always listening for my moms needs and feelings, what is truly alive in her – not necessarily the exact words she says. I feel a stronger connection than ever before and a deep love and sense of gratitude for her.