What others say or do may be the stimulus for our feelings, but is not the cause of our feelings. Our feelings result from how we choose to receive what others say and do, as well as our particular needs at that moment…

Instead of habitual or automatic reactions, our words can become conscious responses based on awareness of what we are perceiving, feeling and wanting. We want to express ourselves with honesty and clarity, while simultaneously giving others our respectful and empathetic attention. 

Communicating our Needs and Requests

We identify and CONCRETELY describe what we want or need. We focus on four areas, observation, feeling, needs, request.

  1. The concrete actions we are observing that are affecting our well-being. We articulate our observation without introducing any judgement or evaluation, we simply say what people are doing that we like or dislike. For example: “I notice you are speaking to me in a loud voice.”
  2. How we feel in relation to what we are observing. We state how we feel when we observe this action, are we hurt? Scared? Irritated? Amused? For example; “I feel threatened when I am spoken to in a loud voice”.
  3. The needs, values, desires that are creating our feelings. We say what needs of ours are connected to the feelings we have identified. For example: “I need to be spoken to in a soft and neutral tone.”
  4. The concrete actions we request in order to enrich our lives. We follow with a SPECIFIC request. The fourth component addresses what we want from the other person that would enrich our lives. For example: “Could you speak to me in a calm and neutral manner?”.

The listener also uses these four components in receiving the communication. So here we pay attention to what is behind the other person’s communication. If they are miscommunicating we might feel irritated but we can wonder what is it they are feeling and needing, even if their delivery is subpar. In summary, good communication includes:

  • Observing the concrete actions that are affecting our well being
  • How we feel in relation to what we are observing
  • The needs or desires that are creating our feelings
  • The concrete actions we request in order to enrich our lives

Here is an example of using the above techniques: Let’s say someone is feeling frustrated about their significant others lack of attention or time. Normally, we might say something like “You are never around! I want more intimacy”. Obviously accusing someone will not get our needs attended to. Even the statement “I want more intimacy” is vague and indicates the other is failing in that regard. Instead, the person can first observe to themselves “My partner is going out on errands”. Next the person self-reflects that she is feeling needy and lonely. She notices her need or desire is for connection and affection. She then says to her partner “I am feeling needy and want affection from you. Could we spend 20 minutes cuddling on the sofa?” That is a concrete request, easy for her partner to understand. The partner might reply “okay I can do that, but after I return from errands”. The partner is still wanting to fulfill her request, but also considering his needs and timing. If both remain empathetic with each other’s needs, in the end both of their needs can be met.

It is important to express our appreciation when the other has met our needs and communicated effectively and compassionately. Say thank you concretely such as “this is what you did, this is what I feel and this is the need of mine that was met”. We tend to focus on what is wrong, instead of what is right. Positive reinforcement works much better than punishment.

Communication that blocks Compassion

Moralistic judgements are used to imply wrongness or badness on the part of people who don’t act in harmony with our values. As an example, if our partner wants affection, we may say she is “needy and dependent”, but if we want more affection then she is “aloof and insensitive”. Our attention is focused on classifying, analyzing and determining levels of wrongness rather than on what we and others need and are not receiving.

Making comparisons with others creates a blockage in the other having compassion for our needs and requests. If we want affection stating that our friend Mary’s spouse is so attentive in comparison will only serve to create a barrier to intimacy and not accomplish the goal of more closeness.

Denial of responsibility is another way to block effective communication. For example, we commonly use language like “you made me feel angry” which denies that WE are responsible for our own thoughts, feelings and actions. Nobody can make us feel anything, they can be the stimulus for our feelings, but they are never the cause of our feelings.

Taking Responsibility for our Feelings

When we are hearing a negative message, we have four options:

  1. Blaming ourselves: we accept another person’s judgement and blame ourselves. It lowers our self-esteem and causes guilt, shame and depression.
  2. Blaming others: when we receive messages this way, and blame the speaker, we are likely to feel anger
  3. Sensing our own feelings and needs: we can observe ourselves and become conscious of our feelings, and know they are ours to process.
  4. Sensing others feelings and needs: we accept responsibility rather than blame other people for our feelings by acknowledging their needs, desires, expectations, values or thoughts, as well as our own.

Here is an example to illustrate this. One person says to the other “You disappointed me by not coming over last evening”. Here is an example of blaming the other and not taking responsibility for our feelings. A better way to communicate would be to say “I was disappointed when you didn’t come over, because I wanted to talk about some things that were bothering me”. In the second instance, the speaker is not blaming at all, just stating how they feel and what they needed. In the first instance, the person attributes responsibility for the disappointment solely on the action of the other person, while in the second communication the person attributes the disappointment to his own desires not being fulfilled. The first sentence starts with “you” while the second sentence starts with “I”. The basic mechanism of motivating by guilt is to attribute responsibility for our own feelings to others. When we start a sentence with “I”, we need to be careful NOT to follow with “you” but rather with “I”. Here is an example: “I feel hurt because you didn’t say you love me” versus “I feel hurt because I need reassurance and wanted you to say you love me”. Feel into these 2 communications and it is easy to see which is more effective.

Judgements, criticisms and interpretations of others are all alienated expressions of our own needs. If someone says “you never understand me” they are really telling us that their need to be understood is not being fulfilled. For example, a wife might say “you work late every night, you love your job more than me”; what she is really saying is her need for intimacy is not being met. When we express needs indirectly through blame or criticism, the other is likely to defend or counterattack. If we want a compassionate response, it is self-defeating to express our needs by criticizing their behavior, instead we can express and own our needs directly. If we don’t value our own needs, others may not either. It can be especially difficult for women to voice their needs due to being socialized to ignore their own needs while caring for others. We are often taught to believe we are responsible for other people’s feelings (emotional slavery) when in fact we need to accept full responsibility for our own feelings but not the feelings of others, while being aware we can never meet our needs at the expense of others (emotional freedom). How do we request that which would enrich our lives? Use positive language when making requests, ask for what you want, not what you don’t want. Make requests in clear, positive and concrete action language. For example: Person says to partner “I can’t make your favorite dinner because we’re out of cheese” sounding frustrated. Here the partner will receive blame indirectly and pick up on the person’s sense of victimization and frustration and perhaps feel manipulated. Instead, the person could say to their partner “I noticed we are out of cheese, I want to make your favorite meal for you, would you please run to the store and get some cheese?”. Here the communication is clean, and gives the other person a request and also a choice to fulfill that request.

Requests VS. Demands:

Requests are perceived as demands when others believe they will be blamed or punished if they don’t comply. When people hear a demand from us, they will either submit or rebel. Either way, the person requesting is perceived as coercive, and the listeners capacity to respond in a compassionate manner is diminished. How do we know if it is a demand or request? Observe what the speaker does if the request is not complied with.

Here is an example to illustrate the difference between a request and a demand: Jack says to Jane “I’m lonely and would like you to spend the evening with me”. Jane says” I’m really tired, how about you find someone else to keep you company tonight”. We don’t know if it is a request or demand until we know how Jack responds. If Jack says “you are so selfish! You never spend time with me! Do you even love me?” then it was a demand. Instead of empathizing with her need to rest, he blamed her. If Jack says something like “So you’re needing some rest tonight? Okay, how about we spend time together tomorrow instead?”, it was a request, he respected her needs and choices. This will help Jane be more empathetic and try to meet Jack’s needs in another way.

Anger is at the core a need that is not being fulfilled. It can be valuable if we use it as an alarm clock to wake us up to what we are thinking, feeling and needing. It will backfire if we blame others, who will not respond to our needs but to the anger. Violence comes from the belief that other people cause our pain and therefore deserve punishment. As an example, Jack is upset because Jane isn’t coming over, so he “punishes” her by not answering her phone calls rather than feeling his own hurt and owning his own needs. Jack may create a pattern of distance if he continues to punish Jane for her perceived neglect, instead of dealing with his reactions and then enjoying Jane’s company the next day. Judgements of others contribute to self-fulfilling prophecies. Jack ends up pushing Jane away because he expects her to disappoint him and is pre-emptively angry, hence causing her to not want to spend time with him. Alternately, Jack spends quality time with Jane the next day because he empathized with her being tired and needing time to rest, making Jane more likely to want to respond compassionately to Jack’s needs

Receiving Empathetically

Empathy is a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing. Listening while not trying to fix it, give advice, explaining, sympathizing, correcting etc. is key, and requires focused attention on the other’s communication. No matter what others say, we only hear what they are observing, feeling, needing and requesting. After listening, it is a good idea to paraphrase what the other said back to them. If we accurately heard the other person’s message, it will confirm this for them, if not it gives them an opportunity to correct us. We need empathy to give empathy. When we sense ourselves being defensive or unable to empathize, we need to STOP, breathe and if necessary, remove ourselves from the interaction until we are back in balance.