Compassionate Communication

Highlights from a nine-day conference with Marshall Rosenberg on Non-Violent Communication

Author: Susan R. Johnson MD, F.A.A.P.

Published: May 6th, 2003

Updated: Oct 5th, 2017


1) Choose every moment of your life. There is no such thing as "I can't" or "I don't have time". We choose what we are going to do and not going to do based on priorities. We make choices so let our words reflect that truth. Don't fool yourself into thinking you have no choices in your life that is how we become stuck.

2) Nature gives us our emotions (joy, sadness, anger, fear etc.), so we can realize that we have needs that are being met or needs that are not being met. Feelings come from our needs. Feelings of joy, gratitude, and happiness tell us that our needs are being met. While feelings of anger, fear, sadness, and fatigue, tell us there are needs that are not being met.)

3) Some basic needs include:

  • SURVIVAL (food, water, shelter, touch, movement, exercise, rest, and health)
  • SAFETY (protection, security, dependability, consistency, order, and peace)
  • INDEPENDENCE/AUTONOMY (integrity, authenticity, emotional and physical boundaries, choice, solitude, and respect for one's personal tastes, values, preferences, interests, and lifestyle)
  • INTERDEPENDENCE AND NURTURANCE (connection, trust, inclusion, cooperation, equality, acceptance, honesty, respect, compassion, love, affection, tenderness, comfort, touch, warmth, understanding, recognition, support, appreciation, sexual expression, appreciation, and gratitude)
  • CLARITY AND AWARENESS (understanding, wisdom, experience, and knowledge)
  • CELEBRATION OF LIFE (creative expression, play, joy, sexual expression, aliveness, humor, passion, and mourning)
  • PURPOSE AND MEANING (fulfilling work, life purpose, goals, dreams, aspirations, commitment, competence, growth and development, and integrity)
  • SPIRITUALITY (beauty, inspiration, meaning, harmony, freedom from fear, order, peace, communion, fellowship, and honoring of life's key moments: birth, marriage, death, loss etc.)

4) At first (Stage 1), we are oblivious to our unmet needs and can become paralyzed by our own feelings and collapse in tears or have major tantrums and we don't know who to blame. Later (Stage 2), we begin to have an inkling of our unmet needs and we can become downright abusive in expressing our needs to others and blaming others especially if we perceive the other person as infringing on our space and blocking our ability to get our needs met (My needs are more important than yours!). Still later (Stage 3), comes mutual understanding that both of our needs are equally important and meeting both needs leads to a deeper connection with the Divine, ourselves and others.

5) If you state your feeling without giving what need of yours is not being met then you open the door for someone else to feel responsible for the feeling you expressed.

6) Expressing our needs in addition to our feelings keeps others from feeling responsible for our emotions. Doing everything out of a mood of joy also keeps resentments from building inside of us and keeps us from blaming others for our frustrations which really result from our own unmet needs.

7) We don't ever have to say "No" to another person. The word, "NO", disconnects us from the other person and as human beings we have a deep need and desire to help others. So state your own need that keeps you from honoring another's need, and then work to get both needs somehow met. You may not be the person that can meet their particular need at that particular time but you can brainstorm with the other person so that their need can be met as well even if it is by someone else. Your willingness to be with the other person during this process lets the other person know he or she is important too and that their needs are important to you. Be aware that with our children and ourselves, our big loud "NO's" are often autonomy tantrums. If we hear another's request as a demand (you should, you must etc.) this also leads to an autonomy tantrum.

8) When another person says "No" to your request then say "I would be interested in understanding what the no is about?". Keep the conversation and the connection with the other person alive.

9) Be aware of feelings that are actually our judgements or evaluations of others and are not really feelings. Words, like "I feel misunderstood", "I feel unappreciated", "I feel abused" etc., are judgements of the other person and are not true feelings. When we use these evaluative or judgement words we can cause the other person to become defensive and disconnect from us.

10) There are 4 feelings in us (anger, guilt, depression, and shame) that represent a big warning signal. We often will blame others when these 4 feelings arise in us, but they are a signal to us that we have underlying needs that have not been met. Find those unmet needs and the strong feelings will start to dissipate.

11) I am often triggered by those people that share some of my similar unmet needs (eg. not feeling worthy, having trouble connecting to others, having trouble finding my own boundaries).

It is said that like attracts like. I can no longer so easily judge another person. People in the past I might have judged as being heartless, cold, selfish, conceited, full of pride may have underlying unmet needs similar to my own. It is interesting to note that I go out of my way to not appear heartless, cold, selfish, conceited, and full of pride. Maybe it is time I own my dark side and realize that the people that trigger my judgements are actually helping me to become more aware of this dark side. I guess we are sisters and brothers of each other.

12) Any addiction to anything is actually someone's solution to an unmet need (such as loneliness, lack of connectiveness, lack of self-worth etc.) That solution may not be a life generating or life affirming one but it is a solution.

13) After expressing our feeling and need to another person, it is important to make a specific request. That request can even be for that person to repeat back to you what they have understood so far. If you only state your feelings and needs to another person you leave them in Limbo. They can feel overwhelmed and paralyzed. A request gives something for the other person to do. They may agree or disagree with your request, but even if they disagree then you can get curious and ask them to give a feeling and need as to why they disagree. The most important thing is to stay connected to each other in the conversation and hold both needs as important.

EMPATHETIC LISTENING (as opposed to just intellectual understanding)

1) The biggest journey we ever take in this lifetime is the one from our head to our heart.

2) When I forget to empathize with another's feelings and needs, I miss an opportunity to connect more deeply with them. Our eyes change (soften, get deep) when we are deeply empathizing (connecting) with another human being and the other person will see and feel this change.

3) If I only sympathize with the feelings of another person, for example, I just feel the other person's sadness within myself, then I am really only in touch with my own feeling of sadness, and I am not really connected or focused on the other person. On the other hand, if I only try and understand, intellectually, another person's needs and don't connect at all to the other person's feelings, then that person won't feel seen by me and won't experience any relief from his or her suffering. However, If I can get in touch with both a person's present-moment feelings and needs, then I am truly connecting and empathizing with that person, and that type of powerful listening is healing. It is said that one can actualize someone into existence with this type of listening.

4) We literally get ill when we don't empathize with ourselves and others. We detach and disconnect from our self and from others and this is what leads to illness.

5) When people are in pain and inappropriately expressing anger toward you, remember to connect their anger to their unmet needs. Don't take personally the inappropriate feelings they are dumping on you. You cannot fix it and you are not really the cause of these feelings. You cannot make another person's pain go away. Your presence just triggered something in them. When people become aware of the unmet needs that triggered their anger, then healing will begin. So as a friend and fellow human being, all you can do is to become a mirror for this person and reflect back his or her feelings and possibilities of unmet needs. When a person can finally identify his or her unmet needs, then the healing of the anger and pain can begin.

6) Try not to hear the anger in the words that are said to you (i.e. don't get caught up in the emotional brew). Instead, listen for the unmet needs behind the words that are being spoken. and reflect those needs back to the other person. In other words, if you find someone else or even yourself getting furious, then just get curious!

7) Be present to what is living in the other person, and what is alive in you. This is all that matters. If someone appears stuck in past hurts, and you are not enjoying the flow of the conversation and the words that are being spoken, then, for both of your sakes, interrupt that flow of words and bring that person back to his or her present-moment feelings and unmet needs. This brings connection back between the two of you, and this is where healing occurs. This is what it means to be alive and living in the present moment.

8) There are things we often say or do that often block empathy, our ability to deeply listen to another person's feelings and unmet needs. Giving advice or offering our opinions and suggestions, may be an appropriate response at a later time in the conversation. Just remember to fully listen, first, and you can even ask the other person, if he or she would like to hear your ideas and thoughts about the situation. You just want to avoid giving advice, too soon, before the other person has had enough time to fully share his or her feelings and unmet needs.

Here are some of the blockers to empathy:

  • Giving immediate advice/Trying to immediately fix the problem ("If I were you, I would...")
  • Explain it way ("I would have called, but...")
  • Correct ("But, you are the one who...", "I never said...")
  • Console ("It could have been a lot worse...")
  • Tell my story ("That reminds me of the time I...")
  • Shut down their feelings ("Quit feeling so sorry for yourself!")
  • Only sympathize ("Oh, you poor thing!")
  • Evaluate/Educate ("If you weren't so defensive....", "You should read this book....")
  • Investigate/interrogate ("How come you did that?", "Why didn't you call?")
  • A One-Up ("That's nothing! Listen to this...")


1) Raising children using external punishments or external rewards, just teaches children to play it safe. For to take risks in ones' life and make "mistakes" is how we learn and grow as human beings, and how we develop creative thinking. In addition, emphasizing external punishments or rewards, teaches children to develop an external, rather than internal, morality. In other words, children learn that something is only amoral, if they get caught doing it. Conversely, they learn that something is only worth doing, if they are acknowledged and praised for it. A life based on winning something or being rewarded has no meaning, except getting the rewards. Life becomes empty, and love becomes conditional (something that has to be earned outside of oneself). We end-up losing ourselves and our soul, when we spend our life seeking the approval of others.


1) Don't do anything that isn't play - find the joy in the activity or don't do it. There is a price to pay for things we do out of guilt, anger, shame etc. We make others feel responsible for our resentment.

2) Take time to express gratitude. Gratitude is the energy that fills us up and strengthens our will to do what we intended to do on this earth. The fuel from sincere gratitude gives us the energy to serve. When we are able to do the things we intended to do then we feel joy. Joy comes from fulfilling our need to contribute to life. So sincere gratitude is the secret for having joy in one's life. (Note: when people are in pain (have a lot of anger) it is hard for them to express gratitude. When a person's needs are not being met it leads to their criticism of others and an inability to express gratitude). Are you creating space in your life for gratitude?

3) "Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly". So often we don't follow through in expressing our gratitude or thanks because we think we have to do it perfectly. (ex. hand painted note card or a 3 page letter). We become overwhelmed with the task and often don't do anything at all.

4) When giving praise: ask yourself if you are saying something to get others approval or to truly express appreciation (for a need of yours that was met somehow by the other persons deed, words etc.). Let your love and appreciation for the other and life in general radiate out like the rays from the sun without any expectations of receiving anything back (the results).

5) When someone offers you praise, accept it with the same gratitude that was offered to you and remember The Creater, the One whom the praise really belongs too. A phrase once said to Marshall Rosenberg: "I kiss the God in you that gave you the power to give us what you did".


1) In our intimate and close relationships ask the other person: "How can I make your life more wonderful today?"

2) Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it.

3) When we are really free as human beings we no longer need to submit or rebel. Advice to teenagers: Avoid putting yourself in a situation where you give someone else the power to make you submit or rebel (don't take the bait). Create your own story.

4) When you or someone else makes a "mistake" remember to say to yourself or others "Oh what a beautiful mistake!"

5) Avoid the use of static (labeling) language in our writings and speech. Always leave open, the possibilities, by saying "I can't do it, YET" instead of just, "I can't do it". In addition, words like good/bad and right/wrong, as well as, words like stupid, idiot, immature, selfish, or idealistic are all static. The use of these words disconnects us from ourselves and others.

6) Love is a continuous process of revealing deeper and deeper truths. Love is the most joyous and most terrifying thing a human being can do.