Some people come to my workshops, and say: “Hey, this stuff is great, but doesn’t this stuff only work as long as the other person is also willing to communicate with compassion and honesty?”
And my answer is always something like: “Yeah…sorta. But even if the other person doesn’t want to engage in honest and compassionate dialogue, these tools can still help you in that situation.”
First, I am going to explain the limits of communication. The first big one is: People can always hear whatever they want to hear. You’ve probably experienced this. You try to deliver some criticism to your partner, child, or parent in the gentlest way you can. And then the person shoots back at you “Oh, you mean I’m no good at x.” That’s not what you said, but it is what they heard.
The second limitation is: other people have free will. Other people can choose to act and respond in whatever way they want! Someone can choose to communicate with malice and abusively. Someone can choose to not listen, shout their own opinion, and then storm out of the conversation (literally or figuratively) when they don’t hear what they want to hear. People have free will, and sometime people exercise that freedom in ways that really irritate us.
Finally, the third biggest limitation to compassionate communication: it’s almost impossible to use when you are triggered to a fight-flight-freeze reaction. Like every other animal, when we are overloaded with stress we get triggered to some sort of fight, flight, or freeze reaction. And once we’re triggered, all these communication tools go right out the window. The reason is that to use these skills of honesty and compassion we have to be in our rational mind. But the rational mind is shut down during a triggered state. So we physiologically cannot access the parts of our brain where compassionate communication is stored.
So those are some big limitations. And right now I’m feeling a little scared that I’ve scared away all my readers by laying those limitations out so clearly. But now the second part of my answer: “these tools can still help you out in these situations.”
For the first limitation, if you notice that someone isn’t hearing what you’re actually saying then it means they aren’t present with you, and that they’re probably triggered about something. So I’d recommend empathizing with them. Remember, empathy isn’t the same thing as agreeing. Empathizing is merely listening with warmth, presence, and acceptance of who they are and how they see the world. So if you can listen in a way that shows you care, that brings you into connection with the other person, then you are both going to be in the present moment. And once you’re both in the present moment, you have a greater chance that the other person can actually hear what you are saying.
For the second limitation, remember that everyone is responsible for their own feelings, needs, and behavior. So if the other person wants to choose to act in a mean, aggressive manner, and you know you’ve communicated with honesty and compassion, then this other person’s reaction has really nothing to do with you, it is really all about them. You are not responsible for their experience, and you do not need to internalize their attacks and abusive language.
For the last limitation, you’ll need to cool off alone before you can reengage your compassionate communication skills with this other person. And the best way I know how to calm down is self-empathy. Connecting with your own feelings and needs can help you release tension, discharge heavy emotions, and become more connected to yourself. Self-empathy helps you cool off so you can better reach out to the other person with compassion.
Finally, remember that compassionate communication doesn’t promise that you will always get your way, or that all conflicts from here on out will go smoothly. They won’t. Compassionate communication merely offers a different way for you to engage in conflict. And if you engage in conflict, and all aspects of conflict including the limitations, with honesty and compassion a new process will be born.
KindCommunication.org is a project by a close friend of Wiki World Order, Alex Leach. WWO fully supports the study, practice, and teaching of non-violent communication as one of the core solutions which already exists.