Our repertoire of words for calling people names is often larger than our vocabulary of words to clearly describe our emotional states. I went through twenty-one years of American schools and can’t recall anyone in all that time ever asking me how I felt. Feelings were simply not important. What was valued was “the right way to think”-as defined by those who held positions of rank and authority. We are trained to be “other-directed” rather than to be in contact with ourselves. We learn to be “up in our head,” wondering, “What is it that others think is right for me to say and do?” ~Marshall B. Rosenberg
While on my last meditation retreat I picked up a book titled Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg. I’ve long since recognized that the way I communicate needs improvement. Therefore, I’ve spent the past year and a half working on this area. The book offers some very practical and insightful tools on communication. I would recommend it to anyone.
The biggest lesson that I took from the book is the power of asking for exactly what you want. The basic idea is to first be in touch with what it is we are feeling and needing, and then to express it clearly to the other party. The foundation for this type of communication is open honesty and non-aggression. The open honesty requires some level of vulnerability. The non-aggression requires a letting go of judgements, blame, coercion, and anger. All easier said than done, especially in situations of conflict. Yet Rosenberg illustrates that communicating in this way is the most effective way to diffuse conflict and create a space in which the other party is willing to be receptive to your needs. Rosenberg maintains that the tools offered in the book are to be implemented and put to practice, until non-violent communication becomes second nature. It’s really about reprogramming old habits and ways of thinking.
After I finished this book I got to really thinking and I came to the realization that many of us aren’t taught how to be in touch with how we are feeling. Even worse is the fact that we are often discouraged from asking for what we want. We drop hints, imply, or play games expecting others to catch on to what it is we want, only to get angry when they don’t. This eventually leads to resentment towards others, resulting in conflicts.
A few months ago I adopted the policy of asking for exactly for what it is I wanted. The trick was expressing my needs in a way that would not be perceived as a demand and to not get angry when the other party didn’t comply. It was a challenge but it was very effective. My ability to communicate in this way has improved my personal and professional life. Now that doesn’t mean I receive all of my requests, but at the very least those I communicate with have a much better understanding of my needs and expectations.
The most powerful thing about this type of communication is that it simultaneously absolves those involved from any guilt or shame while requiring them to take responsibility for their own feelings. The constant theme throughout the book is that other people aren’t responsible for how we feel nor are we responsible for how they feel. What we are responsible for is how we allow others to make us feel and how we internalize the feelings of others. Keeping this in the back of our minds allows us to not take situations and conversations so personal, thus helping to eliminate the hostility that can occur during some conversations. Remembering this also keeps others from being able to manipulate or coerce us into doing things that we don’t wish to do.
Overall this was one of the most useful books I’ve ever had the fortune to pick up. It showed me that there is no harm in asking for what you want. If done skillfully, you just might get it.