7 Rules for Compassionate Communication

"Another world is not only possible, she is on her way!
On a quiet day, if you listen carefully,
You can hear her breathing."
--Arundhati Roy, Indian activist and author

With the recent dramatic global events unfolding in the Middle East, including Osama Bin Laden's death, I am more passionate than ever that peace begins within each of us, then emanates to the world. Our focus must be on inner peace, not on the frail "successes" that come from violence, no matter what they are. Love is the answer. As a psychiatrist, I know how essential it is for us to heal the violence within in order to heal violence around us.

I wrote "Emotional Freedom" as an inner peace movement in which one becomes accountable for the fear, anxiety and anger that prevents us from finding inner and outer peace. The starting place is always you. The more peace you enjoy, the more that energy ripples out to everyone. Becoming liberated from the bondage of negativity lets you realize your tremendous value as a person. You'll be more connected to your heart and also feel a communion with the whole human family. With this awareness, you can treat others as kindred. Generosity and good will soon begin to seem natural.

Emotional freedom means not only living in service to the heart on a personal level but also pledging allegiance to the well being of the Earth. We are her guardians. To fulfill our duty, we must stay aware of our emotional motivations lest we unconsciously act out inner strife on a global sphere. It's daunting to grasp that one emotionally damaged person in a position of power can inflict cataclysmic planetary harm. As a psychiatrist, my diagnosis is that people with unresolved anger are more apt to wage war. We don't want to place the fate of peace in the hands of leaders whose decisions are distorted by rage from childhood or anywhere else. The fact is, happy people don't want to blow up the world. Rather, advocates for peace must know what it is to feel peaceful. Then we'll have a far better chance of attaining our goals. Alternatively, it won't benefit you to be a fearful whirlwind of unrest trying to save civilization. This will impede your mission. Therefore each of us must put our own emotional house in order.

Our world is the midst of a quickening. It feels like time has accelerated, that the years keep flitting by faster and faster. This quickening, however, involves more than simply our altered perception of time as we age, our frantic culture, or anxiety about fulfilling our goals in life. The Hopis say our world is sick and needs to get well. To prevent what geo-biologists call "the sixth great extinction" of Earth's species (akin to the disappearance of the dinosaurs), we urgently need to save the planet as well as our souls. Throughout history, human nature seems impelled towards turmoil, just as children by a tranquil lake will inevitably throw pebbles into the water to disrupt the calm. Even so, I have faith that with mindfulness more enduring peace is possible. Who knows the Lords of Peace better than an awakened heart? We're at a crossroads with choices to be made. We can either ride the momentum of this quickening to the depths of our love or to the edge of oblivion. Gone is the luxury of a middle ground. We need prophets who aren't afraid to speak out. It behooves us to heed Albert Einstein's admonition: "I don't know what weapons World War III will be fought with. But World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones." Emotional freedom tilts the tipping point towards goodness. It allows us to experience inner peace so that outer peace can prosper.

The key to addressing anger is compassionate communication. I'm defining this as an information exchange for the greater good that involves both expressing yourself and empathically listening to another. Then a relationship has the possibility of transformational bonding--the ability to grow deeper as a result of communicating well--rather than pulling away or silencing angry feelings. Of course, it's wise to pick your battles. You don't want to die on just any hill. But once you've determined an issue is worth addressing, the following exercise will yield the best results.

Here are seven rules for compassionate communication:

  1. Calmly express your feelings.
  2. Be specific about why you're angry; stick to one issue.
  3. Request a small, doable change that could meet your need. Clarify how it will benefit your relationship.
  4. Listen nondefensively to another's position; don't interrupt.
  5. Empathize with the person's feelings. Ask yourself: What pain or shortcoming is causing someone to act so angrily, to behave in a manner that doesn't meet my needs? Take some quiet moments to intuitively sense where the person's heart is hurting or closed. Then compassion will come more easily.
  6. Work out a compromise or resolution. Don't stay attached to simply being "right."
  7. If a person is unwilling to change, you can either accept the situation as-is and try to emotionally detach from it or limit contact.

While communicating, always speak to the best in people, to their intelligence, integrity, or intuition. This will bring out the best in you too. The worst in us is waiting to emerge, but don't go for it. Refrain from getting curt, condescending, or mean; it'll backfire. (Any waitress can vouch for the horrors of what happens to a rude customer's food, including being spit into.) Avoid generalizing, becoming vague, or asking for too much. Stay cool: Don't explode or issue ultimatums before attempting to find common ground. Compassionate communication is a holy exchange, a meeting of hearts that overrides the fascism of malice.



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Dr. Judith Orloff

Judith Orloff, MD is author of The Empath's Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, upon which her articles are based. Dr. Orloff is a psychiatrist, an empath, and is on the UCLA Psychiatric Clinical Faculty.

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