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February 25, 2024

The Art of Compassionate Communication

How we communicate with our children shapes the relationship we have with them…

…it also influences their behaviour and approach to communication through out life. Learning kind and effective communication early on allows it to become part of your child’s character. It has benefits throughout life, potentially helping them in their career and future relationships. If children can tell us in a clear way how they are feeling they are less likely to display boundary breaking behaviour.

What I am about to share is based on Marshall Rosenburgh’s Nonviolent Communication, often abbreviated to NVC. When my son was four years old, we moved into a shared house along with three other adults. We decided that we wanted to live well together by applying NVC principles to daily life and group decisions. Two of my housemates were NVC trainers so it was a perfect opportunity for me to learn. It was a steep learning curve however! I was not well versed in the needs and feelings language that NVC practitioners use. I felt as if no one had ever given me permission to have needs and I had barely any idea what mine were! Despite the challenges I am still grateful for the way that living in the NVC shaped not only how I communicate but my whole way of relating to others. I am now much more aware of my feelings and needs.

It has hugely benefited my son to be around adults practicing compassionate communication while he was at a formative age. He is able to express his needs and feelings in a kind and considered way.

I am going to divide this article into four key areas:

 

  • Full body listening
  • Understanding your own needs and feelings
  • The difference between requests and demands
  • Using language effectively

 

Full body listening

Learning to listen in a deeper way to our children is the foundation of compassionate communication. I like the phrase “full body listening” because it goes beyond hearing the words our children say. Full body listening includes, noticing your child’s facial expression and body language, noticing their tone of voice, understanding the needs and feelings which might be behind your child’s behavior.

Here are some ways we can fail to listen to our children:

 

  • Taking shortcuts – for example shouting from another part of the house.
  • Zoning out – not giving them our full attention because we are busy or distracted.
  • Reacting – letting our judgements get in the way of seeing what is really going on.
  • Self blame – allowing them to be in charge at the expense of ourselves.

Here are their antidotes:

 

  • Care – make sure you are in the same room as your child and warmly engaged where possible.
  • Self care – connect with why you struggle to be present sometimes. Does it put you in touch with some unprocessed emotional pain? Do you need support around this?
  • Awareness – if you find yourself having negative thoughts about your child, question where those thoughts are coming from. Are they things you truly believe or do they come from anger or fear? Be willing to step back and examine your judgements.
  • Grounded confidence – know that your needs matter too, teach your child to empathise with you. It is easier to listen to our children when we feel respected and cared for by them.

Using phrases like, “tell me more”, “what did it feel like when that happened” can help your child feel listened to. With younger children it is valuable to get on to their level physically and show that you are there for them with warmth and eye contact. Get low and slow. Put away electronic devices and just be together.

Understanding your own needs and feelings

Painful communication can arise when we don’t feel able to express our needs and feelings. If needs and feelings are being consistently overridden. An unmet need or unshared feeling can grow inside us until it bursts out of us, sometimes in a less than desirable way.

If you are like I was when I first started to learn about NVC you might not have spent much time thinking about needs. Marshall Rosenburgh taught that there are nine basic human needs. Everything else is a subset of these needs. Have a look at the list below, are there any needs which currently feel unmet for you?

  • Sustenance
  • Safety
  • Love
  • Understanding or empathy
  • Creativity
  • Recreation
  • Sense of belonging
  • Autonomy
  • Meaning

When are needs are met we feel, excited, engaged and alive, when they are unmet we feel depressed, despondent and frustrated. Is there a step you can take this week towards getting this need met?

When we feel positive and engaged with life it is easier to show up fully for our children. Ensuring our needs are met can, therefore, be a gift to them. You are also role modeling good self care which is beneficial to your child’s future thriving as they learn a lot from our example.

Take time to become more aware of your feelings – this article on emotional intelligence offers guidance around this.

The difference between requests and demands

It is important that we make requests of those around us rather than demands. It is nice when friends and family offer care and support but this should come from a place of choice rather than a sense of obligation. Stay out of F.O.G. – fear, obligation and guilt!

Demands, don’t give the other person the opportunity to say no.

People tend to make demands in the following ways:

Power under:

This can arise when a person either feels helpless or doesn’t know how to communicate well so feigns helplessness to try and get a need met eg. if you don’t do this thing I won’t survive, be able to cope etc. 

Power over:

Using force to get a need met: If you don’t do what I say you will be punished in some way.

Requests afford the other person permission to say no if needed and are free of a sense of obligation or guilt.

Power with:

I feel empowered to get my needs met and don’t need to rely on a specific person. Requests which come from this place might include phrases such as, “would you be willing”, “do you have the capacity to..”. It is important that we graciously accept a person’s no and don’t attempt to override this.

Many of us come from families where what appeared to be requests were actually more like demands or communication was passive or indirect: We might have had a parent who made us feel uncomfortable for not helping them or expected us to know what was needed without being directly told. This might have caused us to accumulate feelings of guilt or shame which damaged our self esteem. In the next section we will look at some ways to use language to help with clearer, more compassionate communication.

Using language effectively

There is a three part formula which can sometimes be helpful when communicating with friends or family. 

Acknowledge the other person’s feelings * share your feelings * make a request.

Here are some examples:

It looks like you are having lots of fun with that toy gun * unfortunately the noise it’s making is hurting my ears * would you be willing to play with it in the garden?

It looks like you are having a hard time at the moment * when you said you hated me it made me feel sad * I wonder if you can understand why I felt hurt?

I can see you are really enjoying that video game * I have noticed that you have come to the end of the hour we agreed you would be able to play it for. I find it frustrating when we don’t keep agreements we make together * would you be willing to stop now and play again tomorrow?

  • Acknowledging the other person’s feelings helps them to feel understood and therefore potentially more receptive to listening to you.
  • Sharing your feelings helps your child to understand your point of view and empathise with you. Many children have the capacity to empathise from a young age, communicating our feelings can support them to cultivate this capacity and develop emotional intelligence.
  • Make requests clear and manageable for your child, try to look for win win solutions which allow both of your needs to be met, for example, they still get to play with the toy gun but in a way which doesn’t hurt your ears.

This section comes with a warning! Be careful when you are communicating clearly that you are free of blame, a desire to coerce or control or unexpressed anger. NVC language should come from a place of compassion and authenticity. In my years of practicing I have witnessed it being used as a way of gaining power over others, if you find yourself doing this, self lovingly take a step back. What might be getting in the way of you communicating compassionately? There might be an underlying belief that you don’t deserve to have your needs met or feelings of judgment towards yourself or others. It is important to take time to process these feelings and..

make the most generous assumption, about everyone involved. It more often than not turns out to be the right one.

Learning the art of compassionate communication takes time and practice. If you would like support developing NVC skills, I can guide you step by step through the process. It is worth the effort to achieve healthy relationships and a happier, more fulfilled life. Reach out to nina@journeyintoparenting.com or book a free call here.

 

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