How to Say Delicate Things to Others

Years ago I had a series of encounters with a young woman who repeatedly told me about the harm being heaped upon her by her boyfriend. I listened with empathy; I expressed concern and compassion; I counselled; yet the encounters and the stories of what ensued continued. My head felt as though it would explode. So finally I very deliberately said to her, using the four steps of Non-Violent Communication: “When I hear these stories about your boyfriend my head hurts and I feel angry because I value knowing you are safe. If you aren’t willing to leave your boyfriend would you be willing to not tell me stories about him? I was expecting a torrent of anger, but she just smiled, said, “OK!” and bopped away.

Such moments have been hugely freeing to me. They have allowed me to speak the truth of what is going on with me without blaming or criticizing the other person. I have come away from these encounters knowing that even if I wasn’t fully understood, I expressed what I needed to with respect for both myself and the other person.

Again, it would be best if you could learn this process directly from the Non-Violent Communication work of Marshall Rosenberg , but I will give you an overview so you know how the four steps work and encourage you to pursue it further.

  1. Say what I actually observe about the other person: “When I (see, hear)…” Notice I didn’t say “when you go on and on about your boyfriend”, I just said, “When I hear stories about your boyfriend.”
  2. Say how I feel (a feeling or sensation): “I feel…” Notice rather than making a judgement about how she was behaving I told her exactly what was going on in my body and what emotions I was experiencing.
  3. Say what I need or value that has caused this feeling: “Because I need/value…” Notice I was claiming responsibility for my feelings by stating what need wasn’t being met for me. I didn’t tell her that she was making me angry because she was an idiot to keep returning to this man.
  4. Say what positive and concrete action would enrich my life and ask for a concrete action: “Would you be willing…” Notice I wasn’t telling her to leave her boyfriend. I had only asked her if she would be willing to not tell me of their encounters if she wished to stay connected to him. (I knew the police were involved and there was nothing more I could do.)

Hurray, hurray!

Because this isn’t the way we usually talk with others I find I need to practice it over and over again. Here’s a scenario you could take a stab at:

One of your friends repeatedly pulls their face mask down when the teacher is looking the other way. What could you say to them? Come up with your own answer to the four questions listed above. I’ve provided one possibility.

“When I see you pull your mask down three times since the start of class I feel uncomfortable because I value knowing everyone of us stays healthy. Would you be willing to leave your mask up for the rest of the period?”

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