Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication

Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication

Boulder, Colo., Shambhala, 2018. 286 pp., paper, $16.95.

Words exist because of meaning.

Once you have gotten the meaning you can forget the words.

Where can I find a man who has forgotten the words

So I can have a word with him?

—Chuang Tzu

I grew up in a traditional Hindu household. Communication was a one-way road then. After a successful high-school graduation, the edict was “Thou shalt become an engineer,” and I did. Did I want to be a statistician? Well, after a detour of thirty years of career in U.S. industry, I finally did! Communication took on a different meaning for me as I practiced mindfulness and studied under Zen masters during the last forty years.

Oren Jay Sofer has written a wonderful book resulting out of his journey of over two decades of integrating Buddhist meditation and nonviolent communication (NVC). I could relate to the message. Sofer’s book is a “synthesis of three distinct streams of practice.” First is mindfulness; second is the NVC system, developed by Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg; and the third is a therapeutic technique, called somatic experiencing, developed by Dr. Peter A. Levine for resolving trauma. Sofer’s book does not present individual treatises on these streams but rather a holistic integration.

What is “communication” then? Sofer’s framework for creating effective communication contains three steps:

  1. Lead with presence.
  2. Come from curiosity and care.
  3. Focus on what matters.

Presence involves being mindful. Curiosity and care requires awareness of intention. Focusing on what matters means sharpening our attention. Sofer explores each of these in great detail with “practical suggestions on how to implement the tools and concepts.” Each chapter contains principles (“The more aware we are, the more choice we have”), practices (instructions for mindfulness of breathing), and a section on questions and answers. It is a useful map as one navigates the complex journey that is human communication. A fourth part brings it all together.

I found leading with presence especially useful. Being present means being mindful. Mindfulness is communication with oneself first. One tip is taking a single breath between every sentence we speak. Would this slow down our conversation? Yes, but it would also add a profound quality of awareness in the words we speak. Sofer mentions an acronym: WAIT, which stands for “Why am I talking?” There is a space between speaking and listening. The mindfulness practice provides a pathway to this space that Sofer calls “a choice point.” It is a moment of awareness when we decide when to speak and when to listen. It is also a way to avoid unconscious or impulsive choices in our conversations.

Coming from curiosity and care means becoming aware of our intention. Intentions are conveyed both verbally and nonverbally. How we say something is as important as, if not more important than, what we say. Sofer draws our attention to how we handle conflicts. This is where we learn to nurture our compassionate nature. Dr. Rosenberg says, “I developed NVC as a way to train my attention—to shine the light of consciousness on places that have the potential to yield what I am seeking. What I want in my life is compassion, a flow between myself and others based on a mutual giving of the heart.” This is noble communication.

Focusing on what matters means that first we become aware of our needs, because needs motivate our actions. Sofer stresses understanding the difference between needs and strategies: it is a “doorway to compassion.” The principle here is, “Conflict generally occurs at the level of our strategies—what we want. The more deeply we are able to identify our needs—why we want what we want—the less conflict there is.” Mindfulness teaches us to observe clearly. Sofer hasn’t forgotten about challenging situations. The section on bringing it all together has a chapter on how to handle difficult conversations.

This is not a book that you read once and put away. One will come back to it again and again to integrate the lessons present in daily communications, external or internal. Zen master Seung Sahn used to tell us that human beings are confused for a reason: “In our body, eye has only one job, seeing. Ear has only one job, hearing. Nose has only one job, smelling. But the tongue has two jobs, tasting and talking. Very confusing!” Sofer’s book offers help.

Dhananjay Joshi

Dhananjay Joshi, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for forty years. He is a regular reviewer for Quest and volunteers in the archives department of the TSA.