Pathways to Peace

“Violence is a tragic expression of an unmet need.” – Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Nonviolent Communication

In a recent interview on the Shift Network, Roxanne Manning discussed the great need in these highly polarized times, to connect across our differences. Roxanne is a certified trainer in Nonviolent Communication, living in the SF Bay Area and originally from Trinidad.

“If we view everyone’s behavior as their best efforts to meet their needs, we can connect more easily,” she stated. When we are in anger or fear, our fight or flight response is triggered, which leads to demonizing and stereotyping the “other.” This can cause disconnection or even violence.

Instead, Roxanne suggests:

  1. Slow down, take a breath.
  2. Ask yourself, “What are my needs?” Our feelings can give us clues to discover our needs.
  3. Can I share that, or shall I find out what the other person’s needs are?

She offered an example of a time when her young daughter excitedly jumped on her when she came home after surgery. She was able to say something like, “Ouch, that hurt! I need care for my body. And I see you’re excited and want to connect with me. Please hug me gently.” (Notice that she shared her own feelings and needs, guessed those of her daughter, and made a specific request, all without any blaming.)

“We all need to know that we matter,” she continued. “When we say no, we can reassure a person: ‘I can’t do the specific thing you’re asking, and your needs matter to me. Let’s find another way to meet your need.'”

Shame, Roxanne believes, is one of the most excruciating and triggering emotions. When we go into shame, we lash out. Human dignity must always be tended to.

“Listen for a person’s needs, without an agenda, with your heart open,” she advises. “Hear what is real for the other. When your needs and mine are on the table, a solution becomes apparent.”

When speaking to someone across a political divide, it’s important to convey: “I know you want what is best for you, and I want to understand your perspective,” until they can say, “Wow, you got it, you understand me.” Then, they will be more open to hearing your perspective. You might be able to say, “I don’t agree with your strategy, but I’d like to know what’s behind that,” and look for their needs; notice which of those needs are also important to YOU, and join with them around those. “Here’s why I’m worried that that particular strategy won’t get us what we want and value… Would you be open to discussing other strategies?”

“Hold each person’s needs as universal, valid, and important,” she advises.

 

“At least…”

woman-with-shameHow Not to Give Empathy

It all came back to me. When someone tells you their problem, their story of sadness, and you want to give empathy, DON’T say, “Well, at least this or that didn’t happen” or “At least you still have…” That is just minimizing, or cheering up. Not empathy. Brene Brown says so.

But a few weeks ago, I found myself chatting with a friend with a young son, who told me about having broken up with her husband. I expressed my sorrow at the news, then heard myself say, “Well, at least your son had his dad for the first couple of years.” My friend looked at me for a moment, then looked down and said, “I don’t know much about how to give empathy, but I heard that saying ‘at least’ isn’t it.” I gulped, filled with embarrassment, looked back at her and said, “I think I need to take one of my own classes, right?”

And in a book study group on The Art of Empathy by Karla McLaren, a participant was talking about his sadness over not having as wide a circle of friends as he would like. I recalled having read the same section of the book and having had the insight (in high school) that just one close friend was all I really needed, so I began chirping about that insight, until another group member respectfully interrupted me and gently reminded me that this was not empathy for the first speaker.

As I apologized, I went into a full-blown shame reaction. Karla McLaren writes about shame. And here I was experiencing it, while watching myself, reporting on it to a group of people who were also interested in this emotion. I felt a wave of heat coming up my back and right up into my face, causing me to redden. McLaren says the action required by shame is: “Moderate your behavior so you don’t hurt or embarrass yourself or others.” The questions she suggests are: “Who has been hurt?” and “What must be made right?” I saw clearly how my talking had been diverting attention away from the first speaker’s sadness, minimizing his pain, and attempting to “cheer him up.” I took a few breaths, humbly acknowledged this behavior and how much I still had to practice, and brought back attention to the firt speaker’s needs.

Of course, he and the group forgave me, and even thanked me for being so open and vulnerable about describing my shame response.

These two experiences reminded me why I teach communication skills. The main reason is so that I can learn them better myself!

What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You (part 1)

An Empath’s View of Emotions and their Gifts

I’ve been reading and appreciating Karla McLaren’s book, The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings are Trying to Tell You. McLaren was molested repeatedly at the age of three, and suffered from dissociation and lack of boundaries, as many abuse survivors do. She developed amazing empathic abilities as a result, which was disturbing to her as she had no idea what to do with all she was picking up from other people—feelings that they often refused even to acknowledge. “Emotions are given very little respect,” she writes. “They are not honored as the brilliant messengers they are—vital tools of our greatest humanity and evolution…Much of the information we have tells us to stop the natural flow of the emotions.”

Through her work as a counselor, McLaren came to realize that feelings are an aspect of our innate intelligence, and that each emotion bears its own gifts, when we learn to channel it properly. Anger helps us recognize when a boundary has been violated, and lets us rebuild it to protect ourselves. Fear can increase our focus, resiliency to change, and intuition. Sadness enables us to let go of what is no longer useful, such as unworkable attachments. Shame and guilt can pinpoint boundary violations and help us break destructive agreements. Even a suicidal urge can illuminate and eliminate the soul-killing aspects of our lives.

Balancing Our Elements

McLaren draws on the metaphor of the four elements: air represents the mind, water the emotions, earth the body, and fire the spirit and visions. All four must be in a state of balance, she believes, for our full intelligence to operate. Often the intellect gets too much dominance.  Emotions are meant to flow, like water. Like water, they give life, and like water, they sometimes need to be channeled to avoid damage. However, we receive socialization messages that tell us some emotions are “good” and others are “bad.” McLaren writes: “Joy and happiness are lovely in their place, but they’re not by any stretch of the imagination better than fear, anger, grief or sadness. Each emotion has its own valid place in our lives…We can’t just pick and choose our emotions. That would be like picking and choosing only certain organs: I want only my heart and brain, none of those messy digestive organs!”

It seems easier to hide our honest emotions and shun them in other people. The problem is that we truly need our emotions, and can’t live functional lives without them. Emotions convey messages between our unconscious and conscious minds, and give us needed energy, skills and abilities to deal with life’s changes. Shoving emotions back into the unconscious without consciously processing them “creates a short-circuit in the psyche.”

Not Repression or Expression, but Channeling

Repressers cannot feel emotions, cannot address trauma with consciousness, but avoid, distract, and dissociate, hence suffer. Abusers hurl emotions onto and hurt others, destroying their own ego structure, cycling through rages and isolation, and often turn to addictive substances. Neither repression nor expression can heal our old traumas, but honoring and conscious channeling of the emotions heals us, and bolsters our relationships rather than destroying them.

A Buddhist saying: “Suffering is discomfort multiplied by resistance.” Spinoza wrote: “Suffering ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.” If we resist feeling an emotion (repress it), this may lead to depression or illness. In the case of anger, repression can cause apathy, depression, loss of energy, loss of boundaries, enmeshment with others (co-dependency), and self-abandonment; other people are damaged, when we allow them to violate our boundaries. We also resist feeling through addictions and distractions, which give us a temporary “fix” or relief but never let us resolve the issue or form a clear picture. A well-meaning adult may react to a child’s anger or sadness with distractions like cookies or cute toys; later we learn to do this for ourselves with food, consumer goods, or alcohol. Instead, we can learn to follow our emotions from imbalance to understanding to resolution.

“When emotions are allowed to contribute their brilliant and unceasing energies to the psyche, they provide a flowing conveyance into and through the underworld of trauma; they provide the energy and information needed in each part of the journey,” writes McLaren.

She believes that we need forgiveness, but first we need our anger to restore our boundaries; thus, anger and forgiveness, far from being opposites, can work together and support each other.

 Five empathic skills help us navigate through the emotions and move them through us.

  1. Get grounded, using healthy, flowing sadness and fear.
  2. Define our boundaries, using healthy, flowing anger and shame.
  3. “Burn our contracts” (such as agreements with people, expectations, beliefs, or behaviors that don’t serve us), to help channel emotions.
  4. Practice “conscious complaining” to shake off negativity or free clogged-up emotions.
  5. Rejuvenate ourselves with nature, or by imagining ourselves filling up with light.