Note on Compassionate Communication

Photo of sculpture with human figures hugging.
Free Hugs. Image courtesy Hien Nguyen.

As a past working member, I’m devoted to the Honest Weight Food Co-op and shop there on a weekly basis. I’ve also been following with interest the institutional struggles that the Co-op has had lately. There have been many positive benefits with the movement to the new location, but that move has increased the complexity of the organization and big changes are likely to create many stresses and strains as the organization strives to adapt to those changes.

One of the best tools I’ve learned to help resolve difficult problems with other people has been “Compassionate Communications” created originally by Marshall Rosenberg.  At the simplest level, it is a communication tool to better understand another person’s driving motivations and needs.  Those motivations and needs generate emotional energy such as anger, rage, sadness, fear, curiosity, interest, excitement, and enthusiasm.  The challenge is connecting the feeling being expressed to the motivation or need.  When someone is angry for example, they could be motivated by a wide range of needs such as to be heard, to be cared about, to have autonomy, even to express a need for movement or food and water.

Something absolutely amazing happens when someone’s needs are recognized and acknowledged.  This is the hoped for result of careful listening and responding.  It is very, very hard to be reflective and responsive to others when your needs are not recognized.  When this happens however, movement can happen.

We tend to frame conflict as my needs against your needs. Usually in big conflict both needs are really important.  Recognition of and appreciation of the core driving needs on each side prepares the ground for finding resolution. Once all the needs are known, there are many ways that can be imagined to resolve those needs.  The task becomes a creative task rather than a fight over a limited set of my way-your way preset solutions.

Over my years in ministry I have seen a lot of conflict.  When anxieties are high, people act out in ways that create a lot of personal animosity.  People polarize against each other and dig in their heels.  It becomes personal.

The way I’ve survived as long as I have at Albany UU has been to move towards the people I sense conflict with to better understand their feelings and the motivations and needs that are driving them.  When I do, and appreciate their purposes and intentions, the anxiety goes down and we can communicate much more effectively.  Usually we have far more in common than we realize and can start a creative process to imagine our way to resolution.

I hope this process can happen at the Co-op too!

Editors’ Note: There will be a class on Creating Peace through Connection, an overview of Nonviolent Communication, at HWFC on Tuesday, May 17, HWFC, 6:00pm – 7:30pm, with HW member Jan McCracken.

Please contact Jan at jmccrack AT for more information.

Sam Trumbore is the minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany. He has also served in Port Charlotte, Florida, and was ordained in Niagara Falls, New York.