The Nonviolent Communication (NVC) movement and American Buddhism grew up on the same block. In the 1960s, as Buddhist thought began to take root in the wider culture, Marshall Rosenberg left his psychology practice behind to create NVC, finding fertile ground in the peacemaking initiatives of the era. Rosenberg’s approach to communication is based on the view that all human beings share the same fundamental needs, and that our actions are attempts to meet those needs. Conflict occurs at the level of our strategies (our ideas about how to meet our needs).
In a 2002 article for Tricycle, longtime Buddhist practitioner and contributing editor Katy Butler described her experience training at the Center for Nonviolent Communication, remarking how NVC’s “emphasis on peacemaking, mindfulness, and nonjudgmental awareness complements Buddhist practice,” and noting that a number of American Buddhists had already discovered the overlapping values.
Now, a new book has brought the two practices together. Buddhist teacher and NVC trainer Oren Jay Sofer’s Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication serves as a field guide for communicating skillfully and ethically by integrating mindfulness and NVC practices into our personal lives. The book is packed with advice and exercises to help readers break old habits of thought and speech and communicate more clearly and authentically.
Tricycle discussed the debut book with Sofer and Sharon Salzberg, one of the co-founders of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS). Salzberg and Sofer explained how the work extends IMS’s project of making the dharma accessible in the West, the ways that NVC aligns with Buddhist teachings on right speech, and what we can do to bring the lessons of mindfulness into our relationships.
The book is titled Say What You Mean. Is that the heart of the matter—that people talk about something else because they’re either afraid or unaware of the thing that they actually want to say?
Oren Jay Sofer (OJS): A lot of the times, it’s not so much that we don’t say what we mean but that we don’t know what we mean. Often we’re not fully aware of what we want to communicate or why. In order to know what we mean, we have to slow down, listen, and look.
Meaningful conversation depends on our ability to be present, which is why contemplative practice and mindfulness are such essential assets for communication. We tend to think of communication as an external skill, but it depends on the level of clarity we have about our own experience and our ability to bring positive qualities like kindness, patience, courage, and balance to what’s happening inside. So if we want to have better relationships with other people, we need to have a relationship with ourselves. We can ask ourselves, “How do I really feel? Why is this important to me? What do I want this person to know, or what would I like from them?” And then inquire, “Am I being clear?” Thesse are some of the foundations for satisfying relationships.
Oren was trained, in part, at IMS. Sharon, do you see this work as an expansion of your work?
Sharon Salzberg (SS): IMS has always been defined as an intensive retreat center. And figuring out how to integrate the experience and values of the retreat into our lives has always been a creative process that is different for everybody. I’m very excited about this book because I think it is part of that exploration. We need our practice to be more than an intensive experience that’s over when we leave the retreat, something that is removed from our day-to-day life and looked at with nostalgia.
I think back to 1971 and meeting my first teacher, S.N. Goenka. One of the things that really got impressed on me was the difference between having a set of values and having skills to make it real. A lot of people say they want to be loving and kind, for example, but in the heat of the moment or in the face of adversity, compassion can be very, very hard to access. So we need skills training to help us have a life where our values are feeding our interactions and our interactions are feeding our values. And that approach is echoed in Oren’s work.
The book does not discuss dharma directly but is informed by it. How do these skills align with Buddhist teachings?
OJS: The Buddha was aware of the power and the role of speech in creating suffering or ending it. Ultimately, the aim of right speech is awakening, which is why it’s one of the factors of the noble eightfold path to end suffering. So much of the pain and anguish in our lives come from our relationships. When we can start to work on those relationships and shift the patterns there, there’s a lot of suffering that can end.
When you look at the early texts, there’s a matrix of guidelines around speech, but there’s not a lot of practical how-to. We have detailed maps of meditation that explain how to apply attention and intention in contemplative practice, but that piece is missing for right speech. I see this work as filling in that gap a bit.
This book is mostly geared toward interpersonal relationships. Sharon, among the many people who you have instructed in metta [lovingkindness] meditation, have you found that some have difficulty connecting that practice to their relationships?
SS: If you think about the kinds of relationships where we seek better communication—parent and child, colleagues, romantic partners—it’s a pretty wide scope (unless you’re a hermit, and then you’re probably fine). Often there is a power differential at work in the relationships that are the hardest to navigate, and we are constantly negotiating that disparity. What can you say to your supervisor that you can’t say to their supervisor? What can you say to the person working for you that is helpful to them? What do you say to your kid who is now 15 and driving you insane that lets them be a free spirit while keeping them from doing anything too crazy? It’s such tricky terrain, but so rich with possibility. I think that’s why people long for this sort of training. These skills are outward leaning; they take us out of more habitual patterns and expose us to another way of being, which we might find more satisfying in the end.
One way that these communication tools seem to differ from other advice is the way that they use the notion of intention. Does that mean these techniques will not work for someone whose intentions are impure—who means to manipulate, for instance?
OJS: The reality is that our intentions rarely are pure. We’re complex, so often our intentions are mixed. The question is: are we aware of our intentions? Part of our conditioning is to we want to be right, get our way, and be viewed positively. We can either let those motivations determine how we’re interacting, or we can be aware of them, which then lets us connect with deeper and most sustaining intentions, like wanting to work together or have compassion.
So, can these skills work if our intentions are off? The answer depends on what you mean by “work.” If your aim is to have meaningful conversations and develop healthier relationships, then no. These skills won’t ultimately produce those outcomes if you’re coming from exclusively self-centered intentions. On the other hand, if your aim is to get what you want at any cost, then yes, you could use these tools to accomplish that. But—and this is the key point—it comes at a cost.
Whenever we manipulate, force, coerce, or shame, there’s a bill that we have to pay. We lose the other person’s trust, we diminish the quality of goodwill, or the relationship suffers.
SS: Our motivation, whatever it is, can also change as we have different experiences. For example, I talk sometimes about being terrified of public speaking. But through lovingkindness and a shift in my attitude toward the people listening, I was able to give talks, which is a good thing career-wise. [Laughs.] Lots of things change in us as we venture into a new way of doing something.
How do cultural differences in how people speak play into this?
OJS: This question comes up regularly when I teach. I always start by acknowledging that I still have a lot to learn in this area. That said, the point of these skills is not to make everyone sound the same. I want people to have more awareness, choice, and flexibility and to find their own authentic way of being. That’s going to look different depending on the culture and society that we grew up in.
When two people have different expectation about the style of communication, there are really only three options. Either person A adapts to person B’s style, B adapts to A, or we name the difference and address it collaboratively. That last option is not always possible. But as we get better at communicating, in addition to having more options, we also begin to take more responsibility for making our conversations work.
SS: In many of these situations, mindfulness can help. We make a lot of assumptions, and often about other cultures or ethnicities. I was just reading an interview with Lin Manuel Miranda where he talked about being wearing a tuxedo at a film premiere, and because he’s Puerto Rican, a woman called him over and said, “My friend didn’t get her salad.” But there are other assumptions that we make all the time: “They don’t like me” or “They think I’m stupid.” Mindfulness can help us see when we’re assuming. Then if you can enter a medium of trust, you can talk about it. You can say, for instance, “You are interrupting me a lot, which makes me feel like you think I’m stupid.”
OJS: An awareness of our intention is also going to help us make that inquiry in a loving way rather than in a defensive or judgmental way. With lovingkindness, we can give someone the benefit of the doubt.
SS: Sure, because somebody could respond, “I just had to speak first because I’m so nervous. I had to get it out or I wouldn’t have been able to speak at all.”
The book discusses four common conflict styles that NVC can address. I was surprised that conflict avoidance and passivity were included on that list alongside the styles that we would traditionally associate with violence, such as passive aggression and competitive confrontation. In what way is not honoring your own needs a form of violence?
SS: Well, it’s certainly a lack of lovingkindness for oneself. In my book Real Love, I tell a story about a friend of mine. She was diagnosed with cancer and outlived her prognosis for 40 years before dying. Looking back at her life, she said, “I was the kind of person who would be sitting in the car with my husband boiling hot, and the most I could bring myself to say was, ‘Are you warm, dear?'” She couldn’t even say what she was feeling: “I’m really hot. How about turn down the heat?” She could only ask what he was feeling in the hopes that he felt the same way she did. It’s a pretty stunted way of living. She had to learn to say, “This is where I’m at. Let’s communicate about this. Let’s actually have a dialogue.”
OJS: I think overriding our feelings and needs is endemic in our culture. It happens through either lack of awareness or internal and external pressures that convince us to ignore, suppress, avoid, overlook, or push past our own needs.
When you talk about meeting your needs, do people ever object on the basis that Buddhism teaches us to tend to the needs of others and practice nonattachment?
OJS: There’s a lot of misunderstanding about both what’s meant by nonattachment and what’s meant by a need. It’s helpful to clarify both of those. One common misinterpretation of the teachings on attachment in the dharma is confusing it with the term attachment as its used in psychology, where it means a form of healthy emotional bonding. But what is meant by “attachment” in Buddhism is the tendency of the mind to grasp and to want to control things. Relating to our circumstances from a place of manipulation creates friction and tension for ourselves and others. But letting go involves honoring what’s true and present—and that includes our emotions and the things we value.
Then, the other side is clarifying what’s meant by the rather unfortunate word need in the system of Nonviolent Communication. It doesn’t mean being “needy.” It’s referring to what matters to us as human beings, our most fundamental values and longings. These are both physiological—food, air, water, shelter—as well as relational, such as the need to be loved and understood or to have a meaningful life.
The question is not whether or not we have needs. The question is how are we relating to them. Are we relating to those needs with the quality of grasping and control, or are we able to relate to them from a place of wisdom and openness? It’s important to have that flexibility so that when our needs are not met, we can adapt rather than cling. We don’t have to suppress or cut ourselves off from what we need; we have to address those needs in a skillful way.
What are some of the early pitfalls for practitioners of NVC?
SS: One pitfall is that you be incredibly boring. [Laughs.] On the surface, it feels like a formula. You have to say things in a certain way, like starting sentences with, “When you did this, I felt . . . ” NVC is not really that way, but it can start like that, which is phenomenally boring.
OJS: Yeah. In NVC, we talk about going through phases. There’s the formulaic phase of sounding robotic. Sometimes when people start to become more aware of their own needs, there can be this phase of being demanding because we suddenly feel empowered to say things like, “I have needs, and I want you to meet them.” There’s a judgmental phase: “You’re saying it wrong.” That can really backfire and create problems in relationships. That’s why I emphasize that it’s not about what you say. The real measures are: Where are you coming from? Are other people understanding you? Are you creating more connection?
One of the guiding principles in the book is to start small. It’s the same as in meditation. Start small and build up your capacity. That way you will be less likely to have a big blowout or lose a relationship because you’re trying to run before you can walk.
Learn more about right speech in Oren Jay Sofer’s Tricycle Dharma Talk, The Buddha’s Communication Toolbox.