Sharon L. Werner, MA, LLPC, DP-C
“Thinking based on who deserves what blocks compassionate communication.”
Marshall Rosenberg, PhD, founder of Nonviolent Communication Training.***
“It was one of those horrible, spiraling conversations that goes nowhere fast. Do you know what I mean?” Her eyes filled with tears as she described her frustration. “I’m trying to tell Bryan that I really need him to listen to me. He’s clearly not interested. This makes me so frustrated that I start to get upset, and before you know it, I’m yelling and crying. We end up at opposite ends of the house. I am fuming and he is confused. What do I do?”
What happened here?
Most of us have experienced the frustration of not feeling heard and respected. It’s human nature that when we aren’t getting what we want, there can be a tendency to escalate to be heard. We may need to push just a little harder, we think, then they will understand and respond. Yet, this strategy rarely gives us the satisfaction we desire.
Even if we can force someone into a show of compliance or cooperation, this victory comes at a cost: a loss of warmth and a loss of respect. Plus, we will probably have to push that much harder the next time! Beyond this, strong emotions tend to interfere with communication. It can distort our message and make it hard for the other person to hear us. They may even tune out! It is very common to find ourselves discounted when we are perceived as overly emotional or, worse yet, irrational.
What we are actually looking for at times like this is communication. A key phrase to keep in mind in a case like this might be “communication, not confrontation.” Even the idea that we might be walking into a confrontation can put us right into fight-or-flight mode. All of a sudden, our situation feels like “life or death.” When we think we must get this particular need met or cease to exist in some important way. Such thinking is bound to create undue pressure on us…and the other person.
To create the best possible circumstances for clear communication, we need to take the element of threat out of the encounter. We can help this process by taking a deep breath and getting clear about what and how we want to communicate our needs. Then, acting in a way that is most likely to get our needs and desires met.
It is helpful to practice the following steps:
- Get clear about what you want in this situation. What are you hoping to accomplish? What do you want to experience? On the other hand, what do you not want to experience?
- Decide whether there is room for compromise. If so, what are the limits to this compromise?
- Pick the right time and place. Choose a time when you are both free to speak without distractions and, as necessary, have privacy.
- Practice clear, compassionate communication. This requires the ability to practice assertiveness. This is the ability to assert our needs in a way that can be heard by the other person while respecting both our needs and the other person’s needs. Assertiveness is quite different than aggression. Aggression is an attempt to overpower another individual, or passive-aggression, in which we express our resistance in subtle ways. This may manifest in ways such as dragging our feet while appearing cooperative on the surface.
One useful and well-tried model for clear, assertive communication comes from Marsha Linehan, PhD, the developer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).
This model outlines communication steps that are clear, compassionate, and respectful. Called DEAR MAN, this model can be practiced and used with not only friends and partners but also employers, sales agents, etc. Anyone you may wish to influence in daily life. DEAR MAN is an acronym that lays out steps to assertive communication. Using this process we:
- use Mindfulness
- Appear confident
- and Negotiate
As an example, your roommate may have agreed to wash the dishes every afternoon this week. But, for three days in a row, you have arrived home to find the sink filled with dirty dishes. Rather than letting frustration grow, you choose to speak with your roommate about this issue.
D – Describe:
Describe the basic situation in a clear, straightforward way. Only the facts, no judgment.
When we spoke on Sunday, you agreed to do the dishes this week.
E – Express:
Express your feelings about the subject, sticking to “I” statements rather than blaming statements. Explain how this situation impacts you.
When I come home every day and find the sink filled with dirty dishes after you agreed to do dishes this week, I feel frustrated and disrespected.
A – Assert:
Clearly and specifically state what you need in this situation.
I need you to stick to your agreement to wash the dishes every night.
R – Reinforce:
If the person agrees to honor your request, reinforce (or reward) this behavior. Smiling and saying thank you is usually enough
M – Mindfulness:
This step reminds us to “keep our eye on the prize.” If the other party sidesteps or attempts to distract you with another issue, gently guide the conversation back to the intended topic.
I’m glad to talk about this other issue later, but right now I would like to resolve this issue.
As needed, use the “broken record technique.” This means repeating your request (several times, if necessary) using the same wording each time.
As I said, I’m glad to talk about another issue later, but right now I would like to resolve this issue.”
Repeat as needed.
A – Appear Confident:
Even if you don’t feel confident, it is important to show confidence with your body language. This may include standing up straight, avoiding fidgeting, speaking clearly and firmly, and making eye contact.
N – Negotiate:
If there is room for compromise and it seems appropriate, be willing to flex.
I understand that your work schedule has changed since you made this agreement. I would agree to wash dishes the two nights you are scheduled to work late. But in the future, once we make an agreement, I need you to communicate any need for changes as soon as you are aware of them.
Using the DEAR MAN technique increases your chances of being heard and gaining cooperation. Of course, as with any technique, there are no guarantees! But you substantially increase the likelihood of gaining cooperation by using an assertive communication style such as this.
Would you like to learn more about compassionate communication skills? Begin online therapy in Michigan!
Our therapists are trained to help you work with assertiveness and communication skills. If you or someone you know would benefit from learning more about compassionate communication, please contact us today. We would be happy to speak with you about how we may be able to help. We are happy to offer support from our Michigan-based therapy practices in Grand Rapids, MI, Alpena, MI, and we are expanding into other areas!
- Meet with a caring therapist
- Start improving your communication skills
Other Services Offered with Unity Counseling
The Center for Nonviolent Communication offers training and resources on nonviolent communication.
The High-Conflict Couple: A Dialectical Behavior Therapy Guide to Finding Peace, Intimacy, and Validation – Alan Fruzetti, PhD
Don’t Suffer, Communicate!: A Zen Guide to Compassionate Communication. Cheri Huber and Ashwini Narayanan.
The Art of Communicating. Thich Nhat Hanh
***The Art of Communicating. Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD