Language of the Heart

By Paul Tingen Out beyond ideas o/wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. /'II meet you there. When the soul lies in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase "each other" doesn't make any sense. Rumi

Imagine for a moment that you're on a peace mission in another country with a few Sangha members, speaking to people who live in the area. Suddenly someone in the audience jumps up and yells at you: "Murderer! Assassin!" Before you know it, most of your audience have joined in, and the situation becomes threatening. How would you feel? What would you do? Breathing and smiling alone may calm you, but may not be enough to calm the anger in the crowd. Most of us would be deeply grateful for a strategy to defuse the situation, and more importantly, to connect with the hearts of the people in the audience. Such a strategy exists, can easily be learnt, and has been proven to work. In the real situation described above, the technique was so effective that the person holding the talk was invited to share a holy meal with the very person who first shouted "murderer!"

A few years ago, peace mediator Marshall Rosenberg experienced this very outburst during a talk in a Palestinian refugee camp. In response, he used Nonviolent Communication (NYC), or Compassionate Communication-a practice of mindful speech and deep listening. NVC is also known as "a language of the heart," or "giraffe language," because giraffes have the largest hearts of any land animal. Giraffes also have long necks with which they can more easily see future consequences of their actions, and pea-sized brains that make it impossible for them to make heady analyses, criticisms, blame, shame, and judgments of their unfortunate counterpart, the jackal. In NVC, the jackal symbolizes habit energies of criticizing, blaming, and shaming that undermine even our best intentions.

Dr. Rosenberg, an American psychologist who studied with Carl Rogers, developed Nonviolent Communication as "a process that strengthens our ability to inspire compassion from others and respond compassionately to others and ourselves." Rosenberg noticed that certain people stay centered and loving in the face of the most challenging circumstances, even in a society that routinely expresses needs through coercive and controlling thinking and  language-blame, criticism, shame, and punishment. According to Rosenberg, this jackal approach is a "life-alienating form of thinking and communication," and the root of the immense suffering and violence that plague our planet. In a similar vein, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, "If you have a gun, you can kill a dozen people; if you have an ideology and try to enforce it, you can kill millions."

Meditation is one way of quieting the noisy judgments of our rational mind. Thich Nhat Hanh calls meditation our "appointment with ourselves." It is an opportunity to listen to ourselves, to listen to our heart, to practice compassion and deep understanding. Considering Thay's emphasis on relationships, families, communities, and reconciliation, one could call his path "a practice of the heart." My contention is that this "practice of the heart" and NVC's "language of the heart" are delightfully complementary and mutually reinforcing.

Like mindfulness practice, Rosenberg's "giraffe" language is simple and very powerful. In developing this practice, he looked deeply into the nature of the way we habitually think and communicate. The result, NVC, offers a radical and hopeful alternative for communication that fosters understanding. And like Thay's teachings, NVC strongly emphasizes non-duality, not taking sides, and reconciliation. The giraffe-jackal duality that NVC appears to create is illusory, useful only to meet needs for learning and clarity. In the end, there are no jackals, only giraffes with a language problem.

The practice of NVC does away with coercive and controlling language-words like right, wrong, too this or too that, should, ought, and so on. When I first encountered NVC, I realized that during my years of spiritual training, all I'd done was extend the limits of "wrong" behavior that I was willing to look at with compassion and understanding. I still felt that there were right and wrong behaviors, and I still labeled people and their behavior in critical ways. In contrast, NVC recommends eradicating every sense of rightdoing and wrongdoing, encouraging us to go all the way and not even judge murder or the destruction of our environment as wrong. We can immediately sense the enormous ramifications. For most people, this feels like a terrifying leap. How can we protect our freedom and safety, and peace and the beauty and richness of our planet, if we cannot say that cutting down rainforests, murder, or selling weapons is wrong? But by not judging, NVC does not condone these actions. Instead it offers a powerful language with which we can express our likes and dislikes, our values and our needs, in a non-coercive, non-blaming, nonviolent way--one that is likely to be much more effective in creating the understanding and change we seek.

NYC employs three techniques to cultivate powerful, loving speech. First, NVC encourages us to explore how our feelings relate to our needs, and not to events around us, as we may first believe. Secondly, it encourages us to recognize human needs as universal, divine qualities that all human beings share. And thirdly, NYC distinguishes our needs from "specific, doable, here and now requests." From these premises springs a common language of the heart that all human beings share and understand. This "giraffe language" is a way of connecting and communicating with the Buddha nature in ourselves and others.

To explain how NYC works, I need to spell out the fundamentals of giraffe language. It may seem a little bit complicated at first, and as with any new language, we must practice to become fluent. Once we get it, however, giraffe language will feel more natural than the habitual jackal language of blame, shame, and punishment.

Classic giraffe language employs four basic steps: observe, name feelings, identify needs, and make requests.

1) Observe. Identify what we see in purely descriptive language, without evaluation or interpretation. In mindfulness practice, Thay also emphasizes the importance of double-checking our perceptions, urging us to ask, "Am I sure?"

2) Name Feelings. Get in touch with how we feel in the present moment, and name pure feelings. "I feel rejected," or "I feel misunderstood" are feelings mixed with evaluations, and unhelpful. Instead, name heart feelings such as: sad, hurt, frustrated, happy, skeptical, resistant, touched, serene, mindful, intrigued, relaxed, open, scared, or optimistic. Simply naming our feelings without evaluation is also an aspect of our mindfulness practice---one of many practices that are complementary with NVC.

3) Identify Needs. Identify the immediate need causing our feeling. For example, "I feel scared because my safety feels threatened," or "I feel joyful because of the appreciation I'm getting," or "I feel frustrated because I'm not getting respect."

4) Make Requests. Ask for a specific action that is doable right here and now. This offers a practical opportunity for creating heart-connection and making each other's life more wonderful. It is a bridge that connects people.

In real life, the practice may sound something like: "When I hear you screaming, I feel scared, because I'm not getting the safety I want. Please would you lower your voice?" Note that the speaker does not use any judgmental language, such as that the person screaming is "wrong," or "too loud." The speaker simply expresses his or her own feelings and needs, and follows it with a specific, doable request. Or giraffe language could be: "When I see you smile  at me, I feel warm and touched, because it meets my need for being seen and appreciated. Could you tell me how you feel when you hear me say that?" mb28-Language

Note that giraffe grammar always puts "I" with "I" and "you with "you." I feel something because I want something, and you feel things because you want something. A giraffe never believes that her feelings are caused by someone else's actions, or that he can cause someone else's feelings. A giraffe has two choices of expression: honesty, i.e., expressing her own feelings and needs, or empathy, i.e., hearing the other person's feelings and needs regardless of how they are expressed. In contrast, jackal puts "I" in relation to "you," e.g., "I feel scared because you're shouting," or "I feel warm because you're smiling at me."

When Marshall Rosenberg was called a murderer as he addressed the Palestinians in a refugee camp, he responded with empathy. He realized that the speaker's exhortations might have had something to do with his American nationality, and the fact that the night before, tear gas canisters stamped with "Made in the USA" had been shot into the camp. Rosenberg explored the speaker's feelings and needs: "Are you angry because you would like my government to use its resources differently?" The man shouted more angry words in response. Rosenberg remembers, "Our dialogue continued, with him expressing his pain for nearly twenty more minutes, and me listening for the feeling and need behind each statement. I didn't disagree or agree. I received the man's words not as attacks, but as gifts from a fellow human, willing to share his soul and deep vulnerabilities with me. Once the gentleman felt understood, he was able to hear me as I explained my purpose for being at the camp. An hour later, he invited me to his home for Ramadan dinner." Rosenberg was able to practice compassionate listening and loving speech with the angry man because he was able to hear the man's needs, and because he did not immediately try to fix things by suggesting practical solutions.

Separating the expression of needs from the expression of requests for solutions opens up the common ground of our needs-needs for air, food, shelter, sleep, empathy, love, compassion, understanding, connection, community, etc. A request seeks help with solutions, here-and-now action. Arguments and wars do not begin because people  disagree about needs, but rather because of the way people go about getting their needs met. If we can see the universal need of another person, we may begin to recognize his or her humanity. It is sad how often we communicate our needs through a pointing finger, rather than an outstretched hand. NVC does not call this jackal behavior wrong, but points out that blame and judgment are tragic ways of expressing our unmet needs. Someone who uses jackal language is in pain and need. Recognizing this makes compassion and connection with the poor jackal- our own or someone else's-not only possible, but necessary.

NVC, like mindfulness practice, emphasizes focus on present moment feelings and needs. Rosenberg says, "Spend more than five words on the past and the chances that you'll get your present moment needs met diminish with every word." The crucial question for a giraffe is always "What is alive in you or me in this moment?"

Like Thay's teachings, NYC also recommends that we stop when we notice anger arising in us, and wait until we are sure that we can respond from a point of our choosing. It recommends that we use this stopping to watch the "jackal-show" in our head our angry tapes of judgment and blame-and to identify the feelings and needs that underlie our anger. Stopping is the core of our mindfulness practice, and conscious breathing is our wonderful vehicle. We can use this practice to look deeply, and identify our feelings and needs, meditating on the seeds of our anger. Once we have transformed our  anger enough, once we are in touch with our Buddha nature again, we can use giraffe language to express what we see, feel , and want. When we are ready, we communicate our feelings and needs. As Thay has said, our anger melts like snow in the sun when we have true understanding of a situation or a person. NVC makes the same point: When we are able to look deeply and connect with the human suffering that underlies another person's actions, our anger often vanishes. Sometimes, however, my anger does not disappear even when I understand the other person, and now this is a sign for me that I need to look deeply into and express my feelings and needs. Usually I need empathy and understanding.

For me, giraffe language embodies the Fourth Mindfulness Training, and the Eighth and Ninth Mindfulness Trainings of the Order Of Interbeing: "Aware that lack of communication always brings separation and suffering, we are committed to training ourselves in the practice of compassionate listening and loving speech. ... We will make every effort to keep communications open and to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small."

Thay often stresses the importance of engaged Buddhist practice. NVC hands us a language for peaceful engagement. Combining NVC's "language of the heart" with Thay' s "practice of the heart" gives us powerful instruments for transformation of ourselves and our relationships, and enables us to contribute to the well-being of communities and the world.

Paul Tingen, True Artist of The Heart, can be emailed at paul@tingen.co.uk. Marshall Rosenberg has written a book on the practice of NVC: Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Compassion (PuddleDancer Press, ISBN: 1-892005-02-6). More information about NVC is available from the Centrfor Nonviolent Communication website: www.cnvc.org, or by phone: (800) 255-7696.

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