I recently wrote a post about Christmas, Be Careful What You Hear During the Holidays, and got some interesting responses in the comments. The woman in the story who had corrected the child about saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” didn’t deserve “some bogus ‘understanding’ that Christmas is important to her. She’ll never recognize her prejudice that way … I can’t give slack in the form of an attempt at ‘understanding’ to someone so short-sighted. To me that’s enabling negative behavior.” To another, “this is bullshit. We don’t want to make excuses for others’ bad behaviors.” I realized they weren’t understanding the power in empathy.
The work Marshall Rosenberg has done regarding Nonviolent Communication is in part based on the Ghandian principle of Ahimsa, the power unleashed when the desire to harm is eradicated. In short, Marshall realized that by helping someone to self-connect, a power enters the discourse, a power to change the entire understanding happening in the discourse.
He tells a story about hearing a cab driver speak negatively about Jewish people (Marshall is Jewish) and what he went through with the cab driver to get him to a place where he could hear and understand the pain Marshall felt when he spoke like that. Marshall knew that giving empathy to the cab driver would help the cab driver get to the place where he could hear Marshall. That is the power of Ahimsa, nonviolent communication.
This is what I tried to explain to the commenters to my article. Empathy isn’t about “being nice”; it’s about connection and authenticity. I had just seen Ant Man recently and had a vision in my head of what I was talking about. The woman in my story that was angry about not hearing “Merry Christmas”, as well as the commenters that were angry I was trying to given empathy to this person, were like an angry giant, yelling and thrashing at everything, unable to hear anything.
Ant Man rides his flying ant around to the back of this thrashing giant where he can see wires that are disconnected. He jumps on the back and struggles to get the wires connected back into the giant. When this happens the giant shrinks back down to a normal human size and calms down; he’s able to listen now. This is the power, the force, of nonviolent communication.
I used that power when responding to the first comment. Her comment was very long, and full of frustration. I responded back by hearing that, “It sounds very important to you that people have awareness that we all may have different ways to celebrate this time of year and you are longing for a world in which we respect that. Am I hearing you correctly?” She replied back, “We can dream” and continued on with the response about enabling negative behavior. Her response was much shorter and didn’t have near the amount of frustration in it, she was being heard.
At that point I talked about the power of Ahimsa and why I was so invested in using it for change. I could have listened to her more, to help her self-connect even more. I could have responded, “I’m wondering if you want to be sure that the response to this woman won’t encourage her to do this sort of thing again?” and we could continue the conversation with my hearing her until she is understood well enough that she is open to hearing me.
That is the power of nonviolent communication. That is how we stop the pattern of yelling at each other, with neither of us really hearing what is going on for the other, and for that matter thinking that we haven’t been heard. That is how we stop seeing each other as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘teabagger’ or ‘libtard.’
There is an overwhelming creative, loving force that can be released when we engage in nonviolent communication, and we can change the world with it! To use a Star Wars analogy, “The Force” is “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.” Let’s tap into this force.
May the force be with you!
“Empathic connection can sometimes happen silently, but in times of conflict, verbally communicating to another person that we understand their feelings and that their needs matter to us can be a powerful turning point in problems situations.” Inbal and Miki Kashtan
Heather Schlessman, PhD is a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner who has spent her career either working with or teaching about families. She is also a mother who, like so many other parents, spent years muddling her way raising 3 wonderfully different children, one who happens to be experiencing a disability. Fortunately she has a life partner who muddled along with her. Spending most of her time trying to be perfect, as that would be the safest way to live, she became aware of a desire to be able to see people in a more compassionate way. Little did she know that the person she needed the most compassion for was herself. There is a saying that when you are ready to learn a teacher will appear, and so it was for Dr. Schlessman. She was introduced to the work of Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, the developer of Nonviolent Communication, and her world completely changed. She learned a way to have an intimate connection with herself and others, a way to truly contribute. Her passion now is to help others find their way to a more compassionate life. You can find more of Dr. Schlessman’s empathic expressions along with her husband’s, Rev. Mark Schlessman on their website.