When Rachel French headed to work, she often felt a gnawing dread in the pit of her stomach. The funding for her job and those of other aides in the Michigan legislature came under scrutiny anytime the state passed a new budget or held an election, and that fueled anxiety and tension among her co-workers. Plus, she spent plenty of time on the phone with constituents who called to complain about her boss’s voting record. “Between the abusive phone calls and wondering if my job would last, I was constantly stressed out,” she says. Even worse than the stress was the disconnect French, 39, experienced between the person she felt she could be during her daily Kripalu Yoga practice and the one she became at the office.
It’s an unsettling revelation many of us have had. You can feel so open-hearted on the mat, then head into a meeting and find your impulse to speak squelched by fear that your boss won’t listen. Or a heated disagreement with a colleague leaves you feeling so distressed that instead of the light, easy presence you emanated during practice, you’ve adopted a heavy shield and are avoiding everyone. Or maybe your team has fallen into a dysfunctional group dynamic, in which gossiping about who’s to blame for what creates an almost unbreakable resistance to finding the solutions that would bring success and happiness all around.
Maintaining a sense of presence in the workplace—where your buttons often get pushed—is challenging. But given the consequences of acting in ways that may cause others pain and you regret, it’s undoubtedly worth the effort to tap into that underlying sense of connection and let it inform your communication. One tool that’s helping many yogis do just that is Marshall Rosenberg’s system of Nonviolent Communication (NVC). Designed to inspire compassion, Nonviolent Communication offers a model for honest, effective, and peaceful dialogue. It prompts you to stop and notice what’s going on under the surface of your communication and to tap into the deeper needs and feelings that may not have been expressed—both your own and those of the people you’re talking with. The process short-circuits the tendency to judge the person with whom you’re communicating. And the resulting interactions become, in Rosenberg’s words, “a flow between ourselves and others based on a mutual giving from the heart.”
After attending a Nonviolent Communication workshop, French tapped into that flow. She found it easy to feel compassion for her colleagues, with whom she shared the stress of job uncertainty, and even to connect with the constituents, who just needed to be heard. The whole mood of the office seemed to change once French started applying the NVC method to her communications. “I don’t know if other people are actually acting differently, but I feel a lot lighter,” she says.
A Peaceful Activist
Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist who left private practice in the early 1960s to promote peace and compassion on a wide scale, created the NVC technique while helping to integrate schools during the civil rights movement. In 1984 he founded the Center for Nonviolent Communication, a global organization based in Southern California; his model is now taught in weekend workshops and longer trainings all over the world. (You can connect with one of 200 certified NVC trainers in the United States through the center’s website (www.cnvc.org/train.htm). And in the past few years, Nonviolent Communication has gained a foothold in the American yoga community; courses are often offered at yoga studios.
Some yogis see the technique as an application of yoga philosophy that helps them practice the kind of nonattachment championed in the Bhagavad Gita or the tenet of satya (truthfulness) promoted in the Yoga Sutra. “It’s like a tool box for living a yogic life,” says Gail Carroll, a Watertown, Massachusetts, yogi who practices vinyasa and Iyengar Yoga and is now studying to be a certified NVC trainer. “One of my yogic principles is “to see God in one another.’ NVC is the practice of that. It helps me see that I can have my feelings and needs, and so can you, and they can be different and equal.”
The approach breaks communications down into four parts: observing (stopping to recognize what is actually happening in the moment, rather than voicing your opinion about it); feeling (identifying the feelings arising in you and your sense of the feelings arising in others); needing (getting clear about what needs you and others might have in the situation); and requesting (asking to have those needs met).
If you’re a salesperson nervously trying to close a deal, and you’ve studied NVC, you might stop and observe that in this moment you are sitting with a client who has valid concerns about how your product will benefit her. Rather than judge yourself for not getting the sale or your client for being difficult, you might identify feelings of fear—that you won’t close the deal, won’t make your quota, won’t succeed—and empathize with the client, who has her own fears about spending more money than she planned or not getting the desired results.
You could check in with your needs: You need to meet your quota, to build long-term relationships with clients, and to feel good about yourself. The client needs to get a certain result from the product and to trust you before spending a lot of money on it. She might request more time or information, and you might request that she consider making a smaller commitment that would enable you to work with her toward her goals and yours. In the end, you get a modest sale, but it’s a sale that meets everyone’s needs and sets you up for more sales and success over time.
The four-step NVC process for communication encourages you, just as yoga does, to let go of your emotional reaction to some imagined outcome and simply watch the situation. And if you’re really practicing Nonviolent Communication, you learn to be honest with yourself and others about the feelings and needs that a situation evokes.
A Different Approach to Disagreement
“I see NVC as a very yogic presence,” says Laura Cornell, founder and director of the Green Yoga Association, a nonprofit based in Oakland, California. The association uses the principles of Nonviolent Communication to help further its mission of fostering ecological consciousness in the yoga community. “It’s learning to separate our judgments from pure observation, learning to separate our opinions from what we’re needing and feeling.”
Cornell took several NVC courses and attended a weekend retreat led by Rosenberg before starting the Green Yoga Association. At its first meeting, she gave each board member a copy of Rosenberg’s CD Speaking Peace. By helping the association’s members stay connected with their sense of compassion, NVC has helped them encourage change in the yoga industry without being judgmental.
“We’d look at the person or company we wanted to criticize [for environmentally harmful behaviors] and see what beautiful needs they were trying to meet. For example, maybe the manufacturers of yoga mats that contain toxic ingredients are trying to meet the need of feeding their families and intending to provide a product the yoga community wants,” says Cornell. “So we ask, How can we meet the needs of our planet and the needs of the company, and have products to use in a yoga practice?”
It’s a very different approach to environmental activism than the “us against them” attitude that has led some groups to acts of violence and vandalism. To learn to listen empathically to those with whom you disagree takes real strength and courage, of course, and Cornell says it’s not always easy.
“Sometimes it happens that right away, in that moment, I’m able to understand and come from the heart space, connecting with my heart in order to connect with the other person. But sometimes it’s something I have to reflect on for days, a week, or even months,” she says. Even when the process isn’t smooth, she finds NVC is worth the effort. “If you’re able to connect from the heart 10 or 20 percent of the time, that’s better than nothing,” Cornell says. “If you have moments of connection and breakthrough, it’s worth it.”
A Frustrated Meditator
Ike Lasater, a lawyer by training and a cofounder (with his wife Judith Hanson Lasater and several others) of Yoga Journal, practiced yoga and meditation for decades before discovering Nonviolent Communication. Sitting on the meditation cushion, he would experience “how the world could be, and how I wanted to be in relation to the world,” he says.
But Lasater would often feel a contradiction between those experiences and how he found himself reacting to other people. Once, he says, he attended a five-day meditation course that left him feeling peaceful and grounded. But within hours of leaving, he noticed that he was already feeling judgmental and reactive. “In a stressful moment, I would forget and go into my habitual patterns. NVC is a cognitive way of reminding myself to act in line with my values.”
Lasater is now an NVC trainer and a co-founder of Words at Work, an organization that offers workplace coaching and mediation based on the principles of Nonviolent Communication. “Our culture teaches us to analyze a situation, to extract ourselves from it, and then decide who’s to blame: the other person or myself,” he says. None of which is very helpful if you’re interested in living in harmony with the Self you find on the mat or with your co-workers. Lasater finds that NVC allows people to get out of a battlefield mentality at the office and, eventually, to get good at recognizing the needs that must be met in order for everyone to feel good about a situation. The outcome can’t help but be positive both for workplace relationships and for the success of the organization.
And, importantly, you don’t have to sign your whole office up for an NVC training for everyone to benefit. “Over and over, clients tell me, “My workplace has changed so much, and the only thing that’s different is me,’” Lasater says. “They see people differently. They see their own actions differently. They create a space where compassion can arise.”
The business philosophy and mission statement of the company you work at may not align seamlessly with NVC and yogic values. But if you commit to a practice like Nonviolent Communication, your focus becomes changing the way you relate to the world rather than trying to get others on board.
An Honest Doctor
This has certainly been the case for Jody Scheer, who works as a pediatrician in a newborn intensive care unit in Portland, Oregon. She often finds herself coping with the difficult behaviors of distraught parents as well as the needs of fragile or sick babies. On the recommendation of a friend, Scheer went to hear Marshall Rosenberg speak. “I was really taken by NVC and the way it gets to the heart of connection,” says Scheer, who went on to take several NVC courses.
Scheer began using the four-step model at work and found that often, the technique gave her a way to see past combative or difficult behavior, empathize with the fear or sadness or anger the person was feeling, and connect with that person’s needs in a compassionate way. “Once I was called in to speak with a father whose baby had been born with a cleft palate, a condition that is treatable, but which can cause problems with breathing and eating,” Scheer recalls. When she approached the baby’s father—who towered over her at well over 6 feet and 200 pounds—he began to yell at her.
“My first response was to puff up and try to get on his level, which, of course, didn’t work,” she admits. “I stopped for a moment and thought, This is a perfect NVC moment! So I said, ‘Are you scared because you need your baby to be safe?’ That completely deflated him.” The father and Scheer went on to have an intimate conversation in which she learned that in his native country, babies with cleft palates are often left to die. “When I found that out, it was so much easier to have compassion for him,” Scheer says.
Incorporating NVC into her medical practice has had a tremendous impact on Scheer’s life. “I can’t fix every infant under my care, but I’ve learned to be present with the feelings and needs of their families. This has truly met my own need to nurture, to contribute to life, to be honest, and to have integrity,” she says. Of course, it’s made her work experience better, too: “The lovely side effect is that my job is easier and more rewarding.”
But that’s just part of what Scheer gets from practicing Nonviolent Communication. “You can use it superficially, just for more effective communication, but for me, it’s a spiritual way of looking at the world—seeing the good in all people, seeing the Divine. It’s really hard to be connected with somebody if they’re yelling at you, but the uglier the behavior, the bigger the unmet need. NVC gives me a pathway to access the heart energy instead of all the stuff that goes on in my brain.”
Ultimately, she adds, “it’s about being in the world the way I want to be, regardless of the other person’s behavior. NVC gives me a way to line up with my spiritual path in every moment.”