Compassionate Communication: Four Tools that can Vastly Improve your Relationships

By: Kathryne S. Hatch, Psy.D.

You walk into your house and see your husband has thrown his jacket on the table, his shoes in the corner, there’s dishes piled in the sink, laundry strewn across the couch, and he’s propped up in his chair watching t.v. “What is wrong with you John?? How many times do I have to ask you to clean up your stuff? How old are you! And you just expect me to clean up after you?!? What am I, your maid? You’re so lazy!” John shoots back at his wife with his typical response – “Jeez, leave me alone! I’m just watching tv. I was gonna do it later! Why are you always telling me what to do?? You’re so controlling!”

So often, the root of interpersonal problems comes from ineffective communication strategies. From my experience, people are prone to criticizing and judging others’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as negative. They are not able to accurately understand what another person is going through – instead of attempting to understand the other, they automatically resort to negative judgments, evaluations, anger, or blame. They speak from their emotional reactions. It’s so easy to analyze and judge another person during a conflict (i.e., “He’s doing this to me!”; “She’s so mean!”; “He’s manipulative!”)…

What if a person could improve communication regardless of what the other person was doing? It would not require any control or attempt to get the other person to do anything or necessitate motivation to improve communication. I believe it’s possible, but many people just don’t know how to do it!

What I firmly believe has the potential to solve so many conflicts is if people were conscious about the nature of what they were saying instead of automatically responding from an evaluative and judgmental place. I think that people can learn how to express themselves with honesty and clarity in a way that conveys what they are feeling, thinking, and experiencing while at the same time being empathic and respectful towards the other. This helps others to be less defensive and minimizes the chance they’ll shut down. It also makes them more willing to want to please!

Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine thinking in a way that is not evaluative or judgmental. These are natural experiences we all have. I think one piece is learning to recognize that every person has their own unique perception and experience of things based on their individual life history and how they have developed their sense of self. Another component to keep in mind is that feelings are natural, and they are based largely on one’s individual needs. Feelings or emotions stem from what one is needing or not needing in the moment, so how can they be judged as right or wrong? Thinking about these things can help to have empathy and understanding of another’s experience, while at the same time accepting inside one’s self that it is natural to have judgments. It’s whether or not we speak from those judgments that determines the impact.

So, in the heat of an argument or during any exchange of communication, consider these four easy steps that convey you are trying to understand the other person:

Step1: Communicate to the person what you are noticing or observing. Be SPECIFIC and don’t interpret!

Step 2: Guess what feelings the person might be having that are related to what you observed.

Step 3: Convey what NEED the person might have and is trying to fulfill.

Step 4: Acknowledge any requests the person may or may not be making.

Here’s what it looks like: “Okay, I want to understand and make sure I’m getting it. I hear you responding by telling me I’m controlling, and I’m thinking you might be frustrated with me because you need a certain level of independence to do things on your own time. If I’m getting it right, you’d like me to not say anything to you about cleaning things up so that you can decide when you’d like to do them?”

Alright, so let’s say the person says “no” and explains that it’s really something else. That’s okay, because the response provides clarification of what the person is really experiencing! Then, second part – use the four steps of compassionate communication to communicate one’s own experience. Here’s what an example of that looks like: “For me, I see various things around the room, the dishes in the sink, and I feel annoyed because I have my own need for organization and for things to be in order in the rooms we share in common. It’s really hard for me when I don’t have that order, so I wonder if you’d be willing to help me with the dishes and putting things away more often?” The request part addresses what one would like to make their life more enriching and wonderful. But, it is a request and not a demand of the other person to be a certain way.

This modality of communication promotes respect for each other and for each person’s unique needs. Therefore, it does not require control over another person or trying to get them to be a certain way to fulfill one’s own needs. It takes practice to learn to fulfill one’s own needs without relying on or expecting other people to be certain ways for them. Breaking free of needing that power and control over others to fulfill one’s own needs is enlightening! You can enhance the way you experience the world and others. Experiences seem less hurtful and painful, and you have an increased sense of independence and insight about your own functioning and about others’ experiences. A sense of peace. And the essence is in our consciousness! No words need be exchanged to compassionately experience each other.

The best part for me is that the more I can keep these principles in my awareness, the more others respond to me compassionately as well. Those around me figure out that there is no need to respond defensively. The open and productive communication leads John to want to please his wife, and the wife to respond compassionately to John. Relationships become particularly fulfilling regardless of struggles, because you feel confident in compassionately approaching whatever arises. And anyone can learn it with a little insight and practice!