In this 3-part series, LIZ KINGSNORTH introduces the importance of effective communication, some principles of Heartful Communication, and how we can better understand our personal feelings and longings, and the feelings and longings of others. In Part 2, Liz explores why we think and behave the way we do, giving examples of how our communication will improve as a result of this understanding.
What are our feelings telling us?
Marshall Rosenberg suggests that underlying all our actions, words, and choices, are the human “needs,” aspirations, and longings that we want fulfilled. They are the motivators for our behavior. “Needs” may include safety, justice, belonging, to be heard, to have a sense of self-worth, to have purpose or meaning, to be accepted, to learn, to contribute, to have fun, to have peace. We do what we do and say what we say in order to try to meet a particular need. These needs are life-serving; in their essence, they positively contribute to life. Some needs are easy to understand, for example, going for a promotion to ensure security for the family, spending time on social media to meet a need for connection, complaining about loud music because of a need for peace to relax. Other behaviors are not so easy to understand, for example, not telling the truth. What needs might underlie this choice? I imagine each of us has said things at times that were not true, perhaps because we wanted to protect someone from hurt, or protect ourselves from criticism. Our motivation is to protect. If a child denies breaking a window when we know they broke it, our first reaction might be to scold them for not telling the truth. We might brand the child as a liar and thereafter doubt their word. If we feel into the child’s need underlying their denial, is it not self-protection? That is a need we all share. Perhaps they were punished in the past when they owned up to a mistake, so they have learned it’s not safe to tell the truth in such circumstances.
So, how might we support a child to be honest, other than by punishing them when they lie? Whenever they acknowledge they have made a mistake – “Yes I broke this,” “Yes it was me who ate Mum’s chocolate, ” – can we welcome their honesty, affirm how we all mess up at times, and then together think through how the mistake could be sorted out? In other words, replace the use of fear with trust, with respect, with love.
So here’s a key shift in our awareness – from criticizing a person’s behavior to trying to understand the underlying need behind their words and actions. What are the needs and values that are driving them? This awareness opens our hearts and enables us to realize our connectedness. It’s a choice. Awareness brings choice. This choice can be liberating for us and for those with whom we are relating.
Let’s take an everyday example of a family argument between a parent and their teenage child. The parent is frustrated by the teenager constantly being on their mobile phone with friends, even during mealtimes and late into the night, so they forcibly remove the phone. The teenager disappears into their room in a rage and refuses to come out. There’s a major stand-off. What each of them say and do to express their needs, in other words the strategies that they use, infuriate the other.
Strategies are what we want; needs are why we want it. The parent has needs for the teenager to be healthy, and to participate in the togetherness of family life. The teen has needs for connection and friendship with their peers – to belong. As a young adult, they also value autonomy and the independence to make their own choices.
The conflict lies at the level of the words and actions, the strategies, not at the level of the underlying needs. These are needs we all understand and experience; they are shared by all human beings – not necessarily at the same time, and not necessarily with the same intensity, but we can relate to them once we become aware of them. The parent understands their child’s needs for connection and autonomy, and the teen understands their parent’s wish for health and togetherness. In fact, the need for connection is common to both.
The solution to this conflict, and any conflict, lies in recognizing and respecting the underlying needs, then looking for different strategies, new creative ways forward, where everyone’s needs are taken into account. It is not A’s way or B’s way, but a third way. This is why families all over the world endeavor to come up with agreements about phones that everyone feels okay with.
The solution to this conflict,
and any conflict, lies in recognizing
and respecting the underlying needs,
then looking for different strategies,
new creative ways forward,
where everyone’s needs are taken into account.
To help us understand this concept of underlying needs as motivators for everything we say and do, let’s take a few examples:
- Why have you chosen to read this article? What needs are you hoping to meet?
- If you tell your partner how much you enjoy their cooking, what needs are you fulfilling?
When we express appreciation to another, isn’t this fulfilling our need, our wish, to contribute to someone else’s happiness? While we may also have an agenda of making sure we get dinner tomorrow too, I’m convinced that wanting to contribute to the well-being of others is one of the deepest human needs.
- What might be the needs underlying bullying behavior?
Do you sense that the person may have poor self-esteem and want to be seen as powerful, to feel that they are someone? Bullies have usually been bullied themselves and have felt the helplessness that turns to anger. So may they have a need for recognition or respect? There could be a wide range of needs, and often they are not conscious. Remember we don’t have to like or agree with certain behaviors in order to try to understand them more deeply.
Marshall Rosenberg offers us this thought: “Every criticism, judgment and expression of anger is the tragic expression of an unmet need.” It’s tragic because those forms of expression hurt others and hurt our own hearts. Learning to hear the unmet needs behind criticism or anger – whether coming from someone else or from inside us – will support a new understanding.
Deep attentive listening is a cornerstone of Heartful Communication. Often we want to be listened to more than we want to listen! In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey offers us a habit that can transform our interactions: “Seek to understand before you are understood.” If we have an intention to really listen and understand another person first, this creates a warm connection and opens the field between us for dialogue. Any communication starts with our intention. In Heartful Communication, our intention is to connect: with the Source, with our own heart, and with the heart of another person – what matters to them in this moment? So we listen.
To be continued.
Illustrations by ANANYA PATEL
Liz has been a Heartfulness trainer since 1992, and an internationally certified Nonviolent Communication trainer for 16 years. In Scotland, she integrates NVC into her work as an organisational consultant, leadership coach, trainer and counselor. In India, she spent ten years with the Omega School in Chennai, and is now training trainers in Heartful Communication... Read more