Title quotation

O come, you longing thirsty souls, drink freely from the spring.
--hymn paraphrasing Isaiah 55:1

Monday, November 15, 2010

Did They Just Say That?!

Here's a sermon I gave on Sunday on compassionate communication. Enjoy!


Rev. Laura


Did They Just Say That?!

The Rev. Laura Horton-Ludwig, Minister
First Unitarian Universalist Church of Stockton
November 14, 2010

Regardless of how you feel
about how the elections turned out this year,
I bet I’m not the only one
who was relieved to get the campaigns over with.
These days it seems every election season kicks up the vitriol. Candidates hurl accusations back and forth—
their opponent is a liar, too conservative or too liberal.
They argue over who’s racist and who’s not;
who’s trustworthy and who’s not.
All the while it seems the possibility of real communication
and cooperation recedes further and further.
We know where everybody stands,
but we have no idea how they’re all going to work together
and make things better for our country and our world.

Meanwhile, closer to home, the winter holidays are coming,
and if your family is anything like mine,
this is the time of year when the extended family gets together,
and that means the odds of getting into arguments—
about politics, religion, ethics, personal choices, whatever—
go up about a millionfold
with people you love
who may see the world very differently from you.

So, in the spirit of recovery from a bruising election season
and preventative maintenance for those family gatherings
with all their conversational minefields,
I’d like to share with you a tool that has been really helpful to me.
Marshall Rosenberg, the author of the first reading today,
has developed a set of communication skills
that he calls Nonviolent Communication,
that are designed to help people communicate more compassionately,
respect difference and diversity,
and defuse conflicts,
even in situations where violence has been endemic for years.
Rosenberg has worked with people all over the world
in places devastated by war—
Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East,
Serbians and Croatians after the war in the Balkans,
Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda,
gang members and prison inmates here in the U.S.

Rosenberg starts with the conviction
that all human beings have the same basic needs.
We all need food and clothing and shelter,
we need care when we’re sick,
we need to feel safe,
we all need to make a contribution to our world,
we need to feel connected and appreciated.
This is how it is for everybody.
And there is nothing wrong with trying to get our needs met.
But we’re living in a culture
that teaches us to try to get our needs met by judging one another,
labeling, criticizing, condemning.
And the tragic reality is that when we feel judged,
when we feel labeled and criticized and condemned,
it is so easy for us to react by lashing out right back,
with our words or even with physical violence.
So we fall into a vicious cycle of violence and hurt,
continual anger and wounding, and where is it going to stop?

Now, just in case you are lucky enough
not to have experienced what I’m talking about,
Marita and I would like to act out a little dialogue for you
so that you can see what I mean.
This is a scene between a mother and a daughter who’s in college,
visiting home for the weekend.
Remember, it’s not really us—we’re just pretending!

Mom: Hi, sweetie, it’s good to see you!

Daughter: Hi, Mom, how are you?

Mom: Oh, you know. Getting by. (Squinting) Did you just get another tattoo? What were you thinking?

Daughter: Oh, come on, Mom, it’s no big deal. Everybody’s getting tattoos these days.

Mom: Oh, is that so? You don’t see any tattoos on this neck, do you? (Pointing to herself.)

Daughter: Mom, don’t start. You know what I mean.

Mom: Oh, do I? So I don’t count, is that what you’re saying? My opinion doesn’t matter, is that it?

Daughter: Well, actually, Mom, no, in this case it doesn’t! It’s my body and I get to decide what I want to do with it, not you!

Mom: My own daughter tells me this? No respect. That’s the problem with you kids today. No respect.

Daughter (sarcastically, rolling her eyes): Yeah, I KNOW! I’m such a mess!

Mom: Don’t you sass me!

Daughter: Fine. I’m out of here! (She storms off.)

Not so fun, eh?
But not so uncommon, either, right?
I shudder to think about how unskillful I’ve been
with my own family at times.
I don’t think any of us really want to be this way
with the people we love, or with anyone, really.
So, having painted this grim picture,
let me introduce you to the four basic skills
of Nonviolent Communication.

The first skill sounds easy, but I find it can be quite difficult:
separate observation and evaluation.
If someone else does something that bothers you,
can you clearly state what you observe them to be doing
without evaluating or judging what you see?
An example of mixing observation and evaluation
might be if I say to my housemate, “You are such a slob!”
If someone says that to you, how do you feel? Defensive? Angry?
How likely are you to do what they want? Probably not so much.
But if I can stick with observation and say something like,
“I notice you left the dirty dishes in the sink for two days,”
it creates room for the other person to hear it
and maybe respond in a more constructive way
that we will probably like a lot better.
That’s separating observing from evaluating.

The second skill has to do with feelings—
how skillful we are at identifying and expressing our own feelings,
and how well we take responsibility for them.
Say your partner came home later than you were expecting
and you felt upset.
It’s very common for us to express ourselves by saying something like, “Your coming home late made me really upset.”
But do you notice how that makes the other person
completely responsible for your feelings?
And that’s just factually incorrect.
If your partner comes home later than you expected,
it’s conceivable you might have all sorts of different feelings about it.
If you’ve had a long day and you’re craving some alone time,
maybe you’ll feel grateful for that extra time by yourself.
On the other hand,
if you’ve been looking forward to sharing some time together
with your partner, you might feel frustrated and disappointed.

The thing is, either way,
your partner is not responsible for your feelings.
His or her behavior may have triggered feelings in you,
but it did not make you feel this way.
And if you can separate out your feelings from what triggers them,
you will have a much better chance of being heard and understood.
Think of how it might feel to hear something like this instead:
“When you came home late,
I felt frustrated because I was really looking forward to seeing you
and spending the evening together.”
There’s no judgment of the other person—
just an honest statement of how you are feeling—
and that is a lot easier to hear.

The third skill is hard, but potentially really liberating.
When someone is angry or upset over something you’ve done,
can you listen to the needs behind their words?
Can you take a step back from feeling defensive
and really try to empathetically connect with what they’re feeling?
This is hard, but it’s really important.
I want to go back to the dirty-dishes example for a minute.
Imagine you’re the housemate who’s left the dishes in the sink,
and your roommate comes home and says to you,
“You’re such a slob!”
What if you could really try
to stay present to your roommate’s needs?
What if you could say something like,
“It sounds like you really wanted me to clean the dishes up.
Is that right?”
And the other person, especially if they haven’t been trained
in Nonviolent Communication skills,
might say something sarcastic back, like, “Yeah, you think?!?”

But if you can keep your cool
and keep reflecting back empathetically,
it can really start to calm things down
and allow both of you to be heard.
You might say something like,
“It sounds like it’s very stressful for you to come home
and find those dishes still in the sink.”
Listening to the needs behind the words.

We can even do this for ourselves when we’re upset.
The next time we notice ourselves making judgments
and labeling other people,
whether it’s a family member or a friend,
or a coworker,
or a politician we don’t agree with, or whoever it might be,
we can ask ourselves,
“When I make that judgment of [that] person,
what am I needing and not getting?”
[Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion (PuddleDancer Press, 1999), p. 147.]
What am I needing and not getting?
Because that is a much truer place
than any judgment I can make of someone else,
and if I can stay in that place,
the chances of actually getting that need fulfilled are so much greater.

And, indeed, the last skill is about how to move forward
and ask the other person to help you get your needs met—
asking, not demanding.
Marshall Rosenberg calls this skill
“Requesting that which would enrich life.”
This is about asking for what we want in a way
that invites other people to respond compassionately to our needs.
Probably the most important thing to remember
is to ask for what we want, not what we don’t want.

One woman who was learning Nonviolent Communication
asked her husband to stop spending so much time at work.
A few days later, he announced that he had signed up
to play in a golf tournament with his buddies—
not exactly what she had in mind.
But she hadn’t said what she really wanted,
which was for him to spend an evening or two each week
at home with the family.
[Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication, p. 72.]
She got what she asked for, not what she wanted!

The good news is, we usually get to try again!
And the other good news is, it really is in our nature
to want to help one another.
We want to feel connected to each other.
We want to reach out in compassion.
It’s like the words of the hymn we sang:
“Can I see another’s grief, and not seek for kind relief?
Never, never can it be”—
as long as we can help each other communicate
what we’re really feeling and how we can help one another.

I’d like to invite Marita back up to the pulpit
for a “Take 2” on our mother-daughter dialogue,
this time with the daughter
practicing the skills I’ve just been talking about:

Mom: Hi, sweetie, it’s good to see you!

Daughter: Hi, Mom, how are you?

Mom: Oh, you know. Getting by. (Squinting) Did you just get another tattoo? What were you thinking?

Daughter: Mom, it sounds like you’re upset that I got the tattoo. Can you try to help me understand why it bothers you?

Mom: You think anybody’s going to give you a decent job looking like that? That’s your problem, you don’t think!

Daughter: So, Mom, it sounds like you’re worried that I won’t be able to find a good job because of the way I look. Did I get it right?

Mom: Yeah, of course I worry about you. This recession is so hard on you young people.

Daughter: Mom, can I tell you something? When you criticize my tattoos like that, it makes me feel really vulnerable. I really do care about your opinion. I want you to be proud of me.

Mom: Oh, sweetie. I am proud of you. I’ve always been proud of you. I just worry about you. Maybe I’m trying too hard to take care of you now that you’re all grown up. I know you do just fine on your own. I love you so much—I just want the best for you.

Daughter: Mom, it feels really good to hear you say that. I love you too.

Wouldn’t it be good to live in a world
where all of us could talk like this with one another?
And it’s never too late to learn.
Marshall Rosenberg tells a story about his own mother.
Once she was participating in a workshop with other women,
who were talking about how hard and frightening it can be
to express their own needs.
All of a sudden she got up and left the room.
Finally she came back, looking very pale.
He asked her, “Mom, are you OK?”
She said, “Yes, I’m OK, but I’ve just realized something
that is very hard for me to take in. I’ve just realized
that for 36 years I’ve been angry at your father
for not meeting my needs,
but I’ve never once clearly told him what I need.”
[Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication, p. 59.]

All this takes practice. It takes time—
though I hope it won’t take 36 years for you!
There’s another guy who learned Nonviolent Communication skills
and really wanted to work on them with his family.
He wrote little cheat sheet of reminders
that he carried around on an index card,
and every time there was an argument in his family,
he’d pull out the card and slow down and take his time
figuring out how he was going to respond.
And it really worked!
After about a month, he got confident enough to put the card away.
One night, he and his 4-year-old son got into an argument
about watching TV, and it wasn’t going so well.
“Daddy!” his son said, “Get the card! Get the card!”

So that’s why I’ve made up a little cheat sheet
for you to carry around—
this lovely insert in your order of service that reminds us to...

• Observe without rushing to evaluate.
• Say what you are feeling inside.
• Look for the human needs behind the words.
• Request (not demand) what would help the other person meet your needs.

If all this doesn’t work for you, then let it go. That’s fine.
If it does, if it gives you a sense of hope and possibility,
I rejoice in that!
In the spirit of healthy, compassionate, life-giving communication,
I wish you all abundant joy and peace.

Blessed be.

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