Deconstructing Enemy Images

We are living in a time when a lot of our public, and thus our private, language projects the image of “enemy” onto other people.  This is happening on all sides of the political aisle.  Projecting an enemy image onto another human is the act of making them not only an other, but also bad and a threat.

An “enemy image” is when we see our co-worker as “lazy” or “a jerk.”  When we see people of a different political persuasion from our own as “selfish,” “ignorant,” or “out to ruin our country/democracy.”  Or when we see people of a different race or religion as “bad” or “potential terrorists.”  These are all enemy images.

Projecting an enemy image onto another human immediately shuts down relationship and connection.  That enemy image in our head makes us scared of the other, or angry at the other, and we lose touch with our natural desire for relationship.  Instead we desire them to just be gone.  This breakdown in relationship can do real harm.

Perhaps the most damaging thing about viewing others as enemies is that it cuts you off from your own capacity for compassion.  If we view others as enemies, then when those same habits and flaws appear in ourselves, or a loved one, we are likely to see ourselves or those closest to us as enemies as well.  Turning off compassion in one part of your life affects all the other parts of your life too.

So let me talk about four ways we fall into the trap of projecting an enemy image onto the other, and ways to get out of those traps.

First, we generalize and universalize.  “My husband never thinks about anyone but himself.”  “My co-worker has never finishes a project on time.”  “Donald Trump has absolutely no empathy.”  These generalizations help us turn the person into a static object which we can hate.  The remedy to this is to think of and talk about a specific, concrete instance.  “When I got home my husband hadn’t cleaned the kitchen, and I found him in the back watching a movie.”  “Last week, my co-worker finished a project two weeks after I was expecting it to be finished.”  “Donald Trump signed an executive order banning citizens of seven countries from entering the U.S.”

Second, we avoid our feelings and fixate on our thinking.  Our thoughts are constantly constructing a narrative of meaning around those specific, concrete instances.  And we are likely to project an enemy image onto the other when we buy into those narratives rather than paying attention to our feelings and needs.  So we need to redirect our attention to our emotional experience.  “I felt really angry, hurt, and sad when I came home to the messy kitchen because I really just want some support and partnership.”  “I felt really anxious because I wanted to be efficient at work.”  “I feel really angry and scared because I want to live in a nation where there is acceptance and understanding.”

Third, we label what the other person has done as bad rather than seeking out what good value was driving their behavior.  It is easy to see someone make a mistake and sit back as an armchair coach pointing out their flaws and how wrongheaded they were.  It takes real work to try and understand what good value is motivating the others’ behavior.  “I know my husband experiences a lot of stress at work, and when he gets home he really is looking for rest and relaxation.”  “My co-worker maybe feeling anxious because she really wants my approval for her work and that’s why she spends so much time working on it.”  “Donald Trump maybe feels proud and glad because in his mind he thinks he is helping people feel safer.”

Finally, we make it a precondition that the other must change before we can work with them.  But if we refuse to engage with the other until they have changed, then instead of having rich relationships we’ll have disconnection and isolation.  We need to start with working with others just as they are with the needs and values they already have.  “I want to spend some time relaxing with my husband, and then we can clean up the kitchen together.”  “I want to tell my co-worker how much I appreciate their work, and see if there is a way we can get the work done sooner.”  “I want to create a space where people of different races and religions can meet and talk to one another, so people can feel safe without having to exclude the other.”

January 30, 2017Permalink

Time for Rest

You don’t have infinite energy.  But it is tempting to pretend like you do.

Especially during the hecticness of the holidays, with so much going on, so much to do, and cultural and family expectations to live up to, it is tempting to pretend that we can do it all.  We make long to-do lists.  We consume large amounts of caffeine and sugar to keep us working.  And then we beat ourselves up when we aren’t able to check everything off the list.

It is vital to your health, and your communication, to take time to rest.  I know this is hard to do this time of year, and that is precisely why it is so important to do this at this time of year.  When we rest we are able to recharge.  When we rest we are able to process all that we’ve done.  When we rest we have more energy to tackle the large to-do list.

So how can you tell that you’re over extended and need some rest?

For some people a warning sign is when their inner critic starts acting up.  When we’re tired and run down our inner critic is louder and harsher.  For others, it is might be constant lethargy.  Nothing seems exciting, just another thing “to-do.”  It takes more and more energy just to get out of bed.  And for still others, it is less patience and more judgment of others.  Other people are dropping the ball, getting in your way, and being general nuisances.

What is your tell-tale sign that you are in need of rest?  Do you know?

How do the friends, co-workers, and family members tell you that you seem overworked?  Do they?  How could you receive their feedback with less defensiveness?

And then what helps you actually rest?

For some it’s reading and taking a bubble bath.  For others it’s spending time in nature, whether taking a walk in the local park or taking a drive to the beach.  For others it is watching movies.  For others it is working on crafts.

What activities give you rest?

Rest is different from sleep.  While sleep is essential to being well rested, rest involves so much more than just sleep.  Rest involves play, relaxation, fun, peace and equanimity.  What kinds of activities give you those feelings?

Finally, what do you do to prioritize rest?

Rest is not a one-time thing.  Rest is a regular practice.  If we view rest as something we do only when we’re burned out, then we’re set for a cycle of burn out.  Rest needs to be integrated into your life.

For some people they schedule a day, or at least an afternoon, every week to rest.  Others look at the yearly calendar and note when throughout the year they need to get away, or reduce their workload, to recuperate after a stressful period.  And still others prefer a more spontaneous way of engaging in rest, but they still keep a watch on when they need that rest.

Rest is not laziness.  Rest is essential for a healthy mental and emotional life.  Rest is essential for consistent productivity.  Rest is essential to joy and living through life rather than working through life.

December 19, 2016Permalink

A Time for Healing

The election is over.

It was a long and bitter primary season and then election season.  On all sides there were angry and divisive attacks and accusations made.  And now living in the aftermath of a Trump’s election there are many seeds that could further the fractured and divided state of our nation.

Now is a time for healing.

Please, bring all that you’ve learned about Compassionate Communication into your political dialogues in the weeks and months ahead.  Remember that debating thoughts, interpretations, and evaluations always leads to debates over who is right or wrong.  And since no one wants to be wrong, whenever any of us perceive ourselves as being accused of being wrong we are likely to dig in our heals and become more entrenched in our opinions and thoughts, not less.  Debating our thoughts and opinions will not bring us together, but sharing our feelings is what naturally draws people into relationship with one another.

Remember that all actions are in pursuit of meeting basic human needs.  Voting for Hillary or voting for Trump were actions that were taken to fulfill common needs we have for safety, security, peace, growth, change, and help.  Don’t portray anyone’s actions as purely evil because they aren’t.  Everything humans do is in the pursuit of common human needs.

Remember that empathy is essential to creating the safety required to for people to be honest about the feelings and needs that drove their actions.  This primary and election seasons are the fruit of a country that is already divided and fragmented.  Moving towards more fragmentation and division will not end these kinds of elections; it will only create more elections such as this one.  In their election choices, people are expressing real and true pain in their lives; we need to listen to that expressed pain with empathy to build compassion and relationships.

And yet, we also must speak up about our own pain when we see injustice.  But don’t let your pain lead you into blaming others.  Expressing our pain directly is powerful.  “I am afraid because I want to live in a country where people are treated with compassion” is a much more powerful statement than “You are a ___.”

Now is a time for healing.

We cannot change what has happened.  But let us use what has happened to begin the process of building bridges and relationships with those we normally cast into enemy images.  The way out of this mess is compassion and empathy, vulnerability and intimacy.  We cannot end division by blaming and name calling; those are the very seeds of division.  And yet, authentic healing cannot happen without honesty about the pain we are experiencing.  So speak up about your pain, but do it with vulnerability that shares your authentic humanity.  Confront those who are expressing opinions and views that you’re afraid of, but do so with compassionate and empathetic curiosity about what pain this other person is in that they have such thoughts and views.

Now is a time for healing.

November 21, 2016Permalink

Empathy: What Brings Us Together

If you’re wondering why the world seems to be tearing itself apart, the answer is simple: lack of empathy.

Empathy is the art of experiencing the feelings and the worldview of another as if it were your own, without losing that “as if” quality.  Empathy is when your friend is angry at their boss and you can stand with them in their anger, and feel it with them, without trying to fix it or give advice.  Empathy is when your spouse says something hurtful, and instead of getting angry at them, you understand and can feel the fear and sadness behind their anger.  Empathy is when you encounter someone supporting a political candidate you detest, and instead of judging them, you stand in their shoes and experience their anger, fear, anxieties, and worries such that you see their full humanity.

Empathy is the art of recognizing and experiencing the full humanity of the other.  

When we perceive others as opposed to our own beliefs, desires, or needs we quickly construct an enemy image out of them.  “My friend is such an ungrateful employee.”  “My spouse is inconsiderate and doesn’t love me.”  “That person wants to elect a monster to president; they must have no morals and no empathy for anyone else!”  Our enemy images of the other reduce their identity to one negative aspect.

So how do we engage in this art of empathy? 

I’ll give two pieces of advice: stop thinking & start feeling, and ask introspective questions.

Stop thinking about all the ways this person is wrong.  To stop, you first have to notice and label your thoughts as just that, thoughts.  Take a deep breath, “I know I’m judging my friend as whining and ungrateful”…”I’m telling myself a story that my partner doesn’t love me”…”I’m labeling this person as an idiot and heartless because of the candidate they’re supporting.”

Awareness is always the first step.  And once we become aware of the judgments in our own head, we need to shift into feeling.  Feeling works completely differently from thinking.  Thinking is competitive; it seeks out truth and false, right and wrong.  Feeling is mutual; it seeks out what is going on in me, and what is going on in them.

For small situations maybe we just need to start feeling into their world: “Okay, so if I don’t judge my friend as whiny, what might they be feeling? Maybe angry because she doesn’t feel respected or recognized by her boss.  Maybe sad because she wants a healthier work environment.”  But for bigger situations we might have to begin by feeling into our world first, and then theirs: “Wow, I feel really scared and terrified of their candidate.  I’m really scared that my quality of life and the quality of life of my fellow citizens will suffer under their presidency.  I wonder if they feel that same fear about the candidate I support.”

And here is where my second piece of advice comes in: ask introspective questions.  If you’ve made the shift from thinking to feeling, and you have some guesses as to what might be going on inside the other person, don’t presume you’ve got them figured out.  Ask them!  Ask “are you feeling hopeless because you want a better work environment, but don’t know how to get it?”  Ask “did you say that to me because you’re angry and hurt and you want me to see that I’ve let you down in some way?”  Ask “are you supporting that candidate because you really want to feel safe, and the thought of the other candidate getting elected cause you fear?”  Don’t presume you have the other person figured out and proceed to give advice.  Seek to make sure you understand, and the only person who can tell you if you do understand them is that person themselves.

If we practice the art of empathy, then we don’t have to resort to judging and labeling others as bad.  If we practice the art of empathy, we can build bonds of trust and respect across lines of difference.

If we practice the art of empathy, we heal even the deepest wounds and divisions. 

October 24, 2016Permalink

Do We Even Know What We Want?

How often do I find myself upset and complaining about a situation to a friend, and they ask me ‘well, how do you specifically want it to be different?’ and I have no answer?  Uncomfortably too often.

Sure, I can say that I want more respect, or I want more support, or I want more help, but when pushed to get specific about what it looks like to have more respect, support, or help my ideas get slippery.  Too often I see clients who know they want some particular dynamic in the relationship to change, but they can’t name specifically what they wish the other person would do differently.  And this problem that I have, clients have, and I am sure you have from time to time is a huge obstacle to change.

Getting specific about what you want the other person to start doing or stop doing is essential to giving helpful feedback and making a request that is likely to lead to real change.  Instead of “can you help out more around house?” saying “can you do a load of laundry today and pick the kids up from school?”  Instead of “I need you to have a more positive attitude around the office” saying “when you are unhappy with some policy, can you present a concrete proposal?”

The problem with being vague is that it puts the onus on the other person to figure out what you really want.  If I tell my co-worker to simply “be more positive”, it is now up to my coworker to figure out what that means.  Does it mean make more small talk?  Does it mean don’t bring up complaints at all?  Does it mean leave my personal life at the door?  Does it mean take on more work?  And it’s likely that in the frustration of trying to figure out what you are asking them to do, this coworker will give up trying and will simply start ignoring your request for “more positivity.”

On the flip side, perhaps you do know what you want but you stay vague and non-specific because you’re afraid of hearing no.  “He might say no if I ask him to pick up the kids…but he’d only be a jerk to say no to helping out more around the house.”  But this avoidance of hearing no will only set us up for more disappointment.  Because when your partner says yes to your vague request, you think they are saying yes to your very specific desire.  But since they didn’t actually say yes to your specific desire, they may interpret their actions as totally being more helpful around the house even if they never actually do what you specifically wanted them to do.  This is a classic way in which we construct expectations, fail to communicate them clearly, and then get frustrated when our expectations weren’t met.

So it is important to spend time thinking about the specifics of what you’d like others to do.  Take time to visualize what it would look like for your co-worker to be more positive (what would they be doing?  what would they say?  what would they not do?  what would they not say?).  And remember that the best way to get your expectations met is if you tell people what your expectations are.

October 10, 2016Permalink

Marriage: How Do You Know You’ve Found “The One”?

I’ve attended a lot of weddings this summer (my own included in that).  And in going to so many weddings, the question naturally arises “how do you know when you’ve found ‘the one’?”

This is a very anxiety producing question in our culture.  Many of us were raised on a diet of fairy tale love stories, Disney movies, and rom-coms that depict moments where the light bulb goes off, things click, and suddenly the characters in the story just know that this other person is the one they want to spend the rest of their lives with.

And while that makes for a good story, real life doesn’t actually work that way all the time.  Often there is much more ambiguity.  “He makes me smile and laugh, but I don’t know how he’s going to be with kids.”  “She really understands me and I feel really close to her, but am I ready to commit to something for the rest of my life?”  “He is a great partner, I feel emotionally safe with him, we have fun together, I know he’s going to be committed and loving…but I always imagined there would be more passion, so am I settling?”

Deciding if it is time to get married, to move the relationship deeper, is difficult.  And yet, it is a decision that must be made because without movement and change, relationships stagnate and die.  So how do you know when you’ve found “the one?”

First, ask yourself if you feel safe and supportive in being your most authentic self around them.  This is jokingly called the “farting-in-bed test,” but really there is so much more to authenticity than normal human bodily functions.  Can you share your biggest regrets with this person without them putting you down or rubbing it in your face?  Can you exhibit all your shadow qualities in front of them and still have their unconditional love?  Note that my questions aren’t about your feelings.  I’m not asking “can you share your biggest regrets with this person and not be afraid of being put down”…I am asking “can you share your biggest regrets with this person and not be put down?”  You’ll always be scared that this other person won’t love the parts of you where you’ve fallen short, made mistakes, and do things that aren’t attractive.  So it isn’t about finding a relationship where you don’t feel that fear because you probably will never find that relationship.  It is about finding a relationship where that fear rarely or never materializes.

Second, ask yourself if this person helps you grow.  Does being in a relationship with this person push you to gain new relationship skills, dig deeper in understanding yourself, or be a more loving presence in the world?  In this relationship do you feel invited to grow or do you feel like you are just getting by?  The most meaningful relationships in our lives are the ones that lead us towards growth.  Every single one of my most meaningful friendships, past girl-friends, and relationships with clients are ones where I learned something about myself or grew in some new capacity.  Again, notice that my question is about being in the relationship, not about what your partner does.  It is not about your partner forcing you, pestering you, or shaming you into changing.  Even if they claim they are doing it so that you can “grow.”  If your partner pushes you to change, then go back and consider whether you can be your most authentic self with this person.

And finally, how do you know if you’ve found the one?  You don’t.  You don’t know because in part there probably isn’t just one person who is your soul mate and completes you.  Be wary of the notion that the person you marry should somehow complete you, or make you whole, that is the definition of co-dependency.  And in life there are no guarantees.  So this anxiety over “is this the one” is overblown.  There is no such thing as “the one,” and even if they are that “one” right now it doesn’t guarantee they will be that “one” for the rest of your lives.

So ultimately answering that question comes down to courage and trust.

September 26, 2016Permalink

Me & Not Me

I want to share with you one of my favorite exercises that helps people set boundaries.  It’s called “Me & Not Me”.

One of the key obstacles to setting boundaries is a difficulty in separating oneself from others.  Now, that might sound silly.  Of course you know who you are, and that you are a separate person from your partner or your friends.  But there are all sorts of sneaky ways in which that distinction become blurry.

One way is by taking responsibility for other people’s feelings, thoughts, or experience.  Do you feel like your partner’s happiness is your responsibility?  When you host an event are you so overly anxious about everyone else having a good time, that you in fact don’t have a fun time?  When you share your honest and respectful opinion with others, and they clearly are displeased, do you feel obligated to “fix it”?

If so, then the distinction between self and other isn’t all that clear.

Or maybe you have a hard time figuring out what you actually prefer.  When you’re among your friends are you acting like a chameleon, trying to fit in to whatever they want to do, and agreeing with whatever “the group” thinks or feels?  When you try to figure out what you really want, do you find yourself weighing what others think and feel about various options?

If so, then the distinction between self and other isn’t all that clear.

Maybe none of the above is true for you, but perhaps you are someone who simply leaps into action as soon as you hear that someone close to you is having trouble with something.  When a close friend or family member tells you about a problem they’re having at work do you immediately start giving advice, and perhaps even doing your own research to find solutions?  When you see a system that isn’t working at your job or an organization you volunteer at, do you immediately start trying to fix it, even if it doesn’t directly affect you?  Do you find yourself burnt out because you’ve been doing too much to help others and not enough to take care of yourself?

That may be because the distinction between yourself and others has become blurred.

So if now you think that there’s an area in your life where the distinction between self and other is blurry, then let’s dive in together into an exercise that will help make that distinction more clear.

First, bring to mind a specific person and/or circumstance where that distinction between self and other is blurry.  Do whatever you need to do to bring that “alive” for you in this moment.  Maybe there’s a word or phrase that really triggers your taking on too much responsibility. Or maybe you just need to play a specific memory in your head like a video.  Do whatever you need to do to bring that moment into this moment.

Now, I want you to close your eyes.  Take a few deep breathes and notice your body.  Notice that you take up space, and that that space is limited.  Go ahead and draw a circle around yourself, either mentally or just with your finger.  This is your personal bubble, some need more personal space, others need less, but whatever amount of personal bubble space you need is exactly right.  As you breathe let yourself take up the space of that circle.  Say to yourself “this is me.”

Now, picture this other person and/or circumstance outside of that circle.  As you picture them on the outside of the circle, raise your hands, palms facing them, and say “that is not me.”

Turn your palms towards yourself, bring your arms and hands in so that you are almost touching your chest and say “this is me.”

Repeat that process three or four times.  Turn your palms away from you and extend your arms, “not me.”  Turn your palms towards you, and bring your arms in, “this is me.”

After repeating that process check in with yourself.  Is the distinction between yourself and others more clear?  Do you feel less responsible for other people’s experience, thoughts, and feelings?  Is it more clear to you what your preferences are versus what their preferences are?

This is the foundation of developing strong and healthy boundaries.

 

 

September 12, 2016Permalink

Three Essentials to Staying Connected in Stressful Times

Relationships have seasons. Sometimes a relationship is in a season of peace and tranquility.  And sometimes a relationship is in a season of stress and frustration.

These difficult seasons are inevitable.  My now wife and I just got married in July (regular readers may have noticed a lack of blog posts that month).  And while it was a wonderful celebration, it certainly was a stressful build up.  If our relationships are going to last, then we need to know how to stay connected to our partners during those stressful times.  It seems to me that there are three essentials to staying together.

The first is patience & forgiveness.  When you, or I, are stressed we rarely behave at our best.  And this is also true about your partner.  When you’re stressed you might become more forgetful, or you might become much more focused on managing every detail, or you might have sudden outbursts of “grumpiness.”  You have a stress reaction and so does your partner.  That isn’t going away.

So instead of wishing your partner would stop doing that annoying stress reaction, we need to practice patience and forgiveness.  But how?  Next time you need to practice patience & forgiveness try one of these three exercises:

  1. When you’re near your limit, take a break.  Politely and kindly excuse yourself, and then go and do something comforting for yourself.  Even if it’s only for five minutes.  Go take the dog for a walk, listen to some calming music, enjoy some self-empathy.  If you can find a way to lower your stress levels your natural compassion will start to kick back in.
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  2. Repeat to yourself “this is my partner’s five year old.”  Our stress reactions are usually a learned habit from when we were very young.  We developed some coping mechanism when we were young that were very effective then, but at some point along the way became less effective.  If you can remember that when your partner is reacting poorly to stress they’ve reverted a younger version of yourself, then maybe you can show the same kind of patience and gentleness that you’d show a scared and upset five year old (but don’t ever tell your partner they’re acting like a child, THAT won’t help).
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  3. Don’t bring it up.  Notice when you’re about to bring something up from earlier, and see if you can just let it go.  This is a practice in meditation.  To do this you have to be aware of your thoughts and impulses, and then have the centeredness to allow those thoughts and impulses to float by without reacting.  This is possible, and you’ll be amazed at how many things can really float if you don’t react to them

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The second essential to staying connected in stressful times is generosity.  Generosity can take many forms.  Maybe we take on a few extra cleaning duties.  Maybe we pick up the slack that our partner hasn’t noticed and just don’t mention it.  Maybe it looks like taking our partner out on a date night.  We need to actively try to help lower our partner’s stress levels.  I know they are annoying you and you probably don’t feel like taking them out on a date.  But doing that extra nice thing can make a huge difference.

And finally, we need to take responsibility for ourselves.  The previous two essentials both dealt with how to address your partner when they are stressing out.  This final essential is about how to address the fact that you’re stressing out too.  You have to take responsibility for yourself and your reactions to stress.  It isn’t your partner’s fault that you’re grumpy or that you’re managing all the details.  It isn’t life being unfair.  Your reaction is totally your reaction.  So own up to it, let your partner know that you’re aware that your acting irrationally.  Take stock of when you need to unwind, and take that time.  If there are things that your partner could do to help you relax, be specific and ask them for help.  You are the best tool you have for helping yourself manage and navigate stress.

 

August 15, 2016Permalink

Feelings: The Language of Connection

Time and time again, the most powerful shift in couples I coach happens when they start expressing their feelings to one another.  Our emotions are truly the language of connection.  And so it is tragic that we in the West have mostly been cut off from our feelings.

Emotions are not simply whatever we put after the phrase “I feel…”  Unfortunately, we’ve learned to replace feelings with lots of thoughts.   “I feel like you don’t care about me.”  “I feel left out.”  “I feel judged.”  These are all thoughts presented as feelings.  A great litmus test to determine if you’re talking about a feeling or thought is the phrase “you ___ me.”  If you fill in that phrase and it makes grammatical sense then it is likely you are expressing a thought rather than a feeling.  “You don’t care about me”, “you left me out”, and “you judged me” are all thoughts and not feelings.

Alternatively “you happy me”, “you sad me”, and “you angry me” don’t make grammatical sense, and so are actually feelings and not thoughts.  Many of us use the words “I feel” as if they are magic words that make everything that comes after them a subjective emotional experience.  But humans see through that.  Saying “I feel judged” and “I feel hurt” have two very different impacts upon listeners.

So why does sharing our thoughts lead to so much antagonism and conflict, while expressing our feelings raises the probability of experiencing connection?  There are two reasons for this.  One is that thoughts inherently have a true or false value.  A thought is either “right” or it is “wrong”.  And none of us really want to be “wrong”, especially when we are in conflict.  This is because our culture shames us for being “wrong”.  When we are “wrong” we get bad grades in school, we sometimes subject to ridicule, and often we are treated with more mistrust.  And so it is only natural that we will do almost anything to prove ourselves “right”.

But unfortunately this “right” vs. “wrong” game is at the center of unhealthy conflict.  As long as you see conflict as essentially being about who is “right” and who is “wrong”, you will be stuck in a loop of conflict.  You may be able to win a particular “battle” but the war will never end.

The second reason why sharing our emotions helps create connection is because feelings are universal and illicit an empathetic reaction in others.  We all experience the same emotions.  We all know what it is like to feel sad, lonely, shame, hurt, and joy.  And so emotions are the easiest way for me to empathize with your experience.  And emotions naturally illicit that empathetic reaction because to express our feelings is a vulnerable act.  When we speak with vulnerability, others are naturally drawn to empathetic reactions.  While this isn’t a guarantee, it is much more likely for a listener to react with empathy to “I feel hurt” than “I feel judged”.

So consider building your feelings vocabulary.  Practice identifying and expressing your emotions, even if you start by just doing this with yourself.  You can even do the deeper practice of finding what emotions lie behind your thoughts.  Translating your thoughts into feelings is at the heart of the work of making your communication more compassionate and a bridge to connection.

June 27, 2016Permalink

Needs: The Signposts of the Soul

We all have needs.  And those needs go far beyond just air, food, water, and shelter.

We need love, warmth, acceptance, community, friendship, honesty, respect, connection, and the list goes on and on and on.  The Center for Nonviolent Communication has created a wonderful list of potential needs.  This list is not meant to be all inclusive, but it gives you an idea of all the various things we need.

Our needs are truly the signposts of our souls.  To unpack that statement I first need to be clear on the difference between needs and desires.  There is a helpful acronym: P.L.A.T.O. which stands for “person, location, action, time, and object”.  If at any point you are thinking about or asking for a specific person, location, action, time or object then you are talking about a desire rather than a need.

For example:  “I need you to stop talking so I can get this work done.”  That example is an expression of a desire not a need.  The statement includes a specific person (“you”), doing a specific action (“stop talking”) and presumably at a specific time (“now”).  So the real needs that lie under that statement may be things like “focus”, “help”, “quiet”, or “peace”.

But isn’t that just splitting hairs?  No, and this is where the signpost comes in, because YOUR needs are a sign for YOU of what YOU need.

In the example of “I need you to stop talking” the focus is on the other person.  Even though the sentence starts with the word “I”, the underlying message is “you need to stop talking.”  But in fact the other person doesn’t need to stop talking!  Clearly their inner most self is desiring maybe “connection”, “partnership”, or “play” so what they need is to talk.  The speaker’s inner most self is needing “focus” or maybe “quiet”.  Do you see that difference?

In this way we often project our needs onto others.  So going back to the example, if the person who needs “focus” or “quiet” owns their need, and doesn’t project those needs onto the other person, then they now have the power to take care of themselves.  Instead of relying upon this other person to “get with the program” they can take steps to meet their own needs for “focus” or “quiet.”

Of course, one strategy to get those needs met might be to ask this person to stop talking.  But when I own my needs, and don’t put them on other people, then all I can do is ask them to help me, not demand it.  So instead of “I need you to stop talking”, it might look like “Could we talk at a later time?  I’d love to connect with you, but right now I really need some focus so I can get my work done.”

But if the person says no, if I’ve owned that my need for “focus” is a sign to me of what I need then I can go about finding other ways to get it met.  Maybe I suggest to this other person “hey, let’s take a walk and chat, but when we get back I really need to focus” or “hey, I really need to focus so I can’t talk right now.  I’ll go back into the study/bedroom/living room/etc, and maybe you can call your friend to chat.”

You see our needs are messages, signposts, from our inner most self, our soul, telling us what we need.  They are not messages about what other people should, ought, or need to do.

May 29, 2016Permalink
Free Practice Group

Twice a month I lead a free Compassionate Communication Practice Group. Open to those new and advanced students. We meet on the First and Third Monday of the month at 6 pm. We gather at 640 Hawthorn Lane in classroom 8. Classrooms are behind the church and to the left, next to the parking lot. Practice Group sessions usually run for 2 hours.

The next one will be on July 6th at 6 pm.