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  • Vanessa Barajas, MPH

How to Resolve Conflict with Compassionate Communication

Compassionate Communication is a language of partnership which invites us to expand our perception so that we see ways to bring connection amidst conflict. It is an approach to compassionate living developed by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s. At the core of this expanded perception is the skill to focus our attention on the underlying human needs that are seeking to be nurtured at any moment, both within ourselves and within the people around us.

Compassionate communication provides easy to grasp, effective communication skills to get to the root of the conflict and pain peacefully. By examining the unmet needs behind what we do or say, compassionate communication helps reduce hostility, heal pain and strengthen professional and personal relationships.

Before learning any of the steps, it is essential to check your intention. You can use all the right steps, but if your intention is not purely to communicate your feelings and to understand those of the other, you can still come across as aggressive and/or without empathy. Don’t try to practice compassionate communication if you are boiling over with anger. Rather do something to get calm and centered first, then use compassionate communication to work towards a sustainable solution to the problem you are facing. Compassionate communication can only work if your intention is to communicate with an open heart.

Formal compassionate communication includes the following four components:

  • Observations (distinguished from interpretations/evaluations)

  • Feelings (emotions separate from thoughts)

  • Needs (deep motives)

  • Requests (clear, present, doable and without demand)

The process requires us to be able to be in the present, observe without judgment and be aware of, not just our, but also the feelings and unmet needs of the other person.

Observation: … is going on.

When it comes to the observation, it’s important to ensure that it is fully free of judgment and it is completely objective. For example, you might think that telling someone “you are not reliable” is objective, but they might not think that they were being disrespectful at all, and this communication will turn into an argument rather than a meaningful conversation. Instead, you can use the actual facts such as “you told me you would send the report this morning but I never received it ”, if this is what actually happened. Only use compassionate communication for what you have seen and experienced firsthand, to avoid adding interpretations of the facts and be able to stick to the actual observable events.

Feeling: I feel…

Here you need to express your real emotions. Often, we run away from this step and try to use blame instead to make the other person wrong to avoid admitting that we feel upset, or disappointed, or stressed. It’s only by being vulnerable and expressing the real feeling that we can get to the core of the problem and consequently to the solution. It’s important to start the sentence with “I” instead of “you”, for instance “I feel mad” instead of “you made me feel mad”. “You made me feel mad” is still assigning blame to someone else for a negative emotion that you are experiencing, rather than simply expressing it.

Need: I need…

Since at the basis of all negative emotions are unmet needs, here is your chance to express what need of yours isn’t being met that is causing you to have negative feelings. It could be

“I need accountability”, “I need more time”, “I need transparency” or any other unmet need that you feel is causing the problem.

Request: Could you….?

The request must be very specific, and it must be a question. It must be specific because your interpretation can be very different from someone else’s interpretation. You can say “could you send me the report by the end of the day today?” The reason why it’s a question is because you need to give room for the other person to say yes, no, or to suggest another course of action. You need to be open to whatever the response may be, but chances are if you have taken the above steps carefully and compassionately, the other person will be eager to cooperate with you at this point.

Talking about emotions isn’t something that most people are used to, and yet communicating about negative emotions is essential to being able to move past them instead of allowing them to build up and create negative repercussions for ourselves or others. The skills of compassionate communication can be learned and developed through diligent practice.

If you’re interested in learning more about compassionate communication check out A Mindful Moment Podcast with Teresa McKee and listen to the “Compassionate Conflict” episode.


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