When we don’t communicate our needs , it may be because we don’t have the skills to do it in a way that won’t be hurtful to either person. We’re afraid of what may happen, so we don’t even try.
Therapy is a safe place to work through these feelings and practice without risk, and there are also books and methods that we recommend to develop your communication skills and give you more confidence and comfort. For example, there’s What We Say Matters: Practicing Nonviolent Communication, co-written by Judith Lasater, yoga teacher and psychologist, and her husband Ike Lasater.
The book presents the authors’ own experiences and adaptations of nonviolent communication, a technique created by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s. This is very much aligned with my own communication philosophy, that you should speak your truth, with kindness and compassion. It’s hard to go wrong when you’re thinking of the other person and how they’re going to receive what you’re saying.
There are four components to nonviolent communication that are useful to understand.
- Observation versus judgement – Notice what is actually happening, without labeling it as good or bad, right or wrong.
- Feelings – Tune in to your own body sensation and emotions, rather than automatically playing out old thoughts and beliefs.
- Needs – Accept your basic human needs and evaluate where they are being met or not met; I also encourage people to look at how to meet your needs internally, independent of what’s happening around you.
- Requests – Make clear requests, rather than demands, without any “shoulds,” fear, shame, guilt, obligation, manipulation, or passive-aggressiveness. Even if the other person isn’t practicing this philosophy, WE can still do this. The other person doesn’t need to reciprocate in kind.
This last point reiterates that aside from how we choose to communicate our message, the other very important piece is letting go of the outcome – how our words might be received. Sometimes we’re so attached to getting a particular outcome that we change our own truths. We’re afraid that if we say what we really mean, someone will leave us, hate us, abandon us, or think badly of us. This takes co-dependency to a harmful level.
Another book we recommend is Taking the War Out of Our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication by Sharon Ellison, who encourages readers to ask non-defensive questions and get our stories straight.
Therapy, especially group therapy, is a very effective place to learn how to communicate more effectively, because you get to practice in a safe space. If you mess up, you get gentle feedback and you can keep trying again. The therapy session or group is a microcosm for the outside world, and what you practice here you can apply out there.
It’s not that all therapists are perfect communicators, but we’ve worked on and can model communication skills such as validating and encouraging, that you can use in how you talk to yourself and others.
You can also learn a lot from just going out into the world and watching how people talk to each other. Go sit in Starbucks and just observe. Notice where communication is effective or ineffective. Notice where what one person says is or is not what the other person hears. Discuss your observations with your therapist or group, or speak to a trusted friend about how you can use what you see to improve your own communication.