In celebration of 10-years since the publication of the book "The Joy of Compassionate Connecting - The Way of Christ Through Nonviolent Communication,*" I'm exploring the thread of going beyond polarization to loving your enemies. This blog is based on the book, which describes a practical spirituality for communicating authentically in stressful times.
NVC stands for "Nonviolent Communication," which was developed by Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D. For more information on NVC, go to the Center for Nonviolent Communication.
* Parts of the book are quoted here with permission from the author Jaime L. Prieto, Jr. and the publisher "Compassionate Connecting."
** Indicates sections that were added, or significantly modified for the purposes of this blog post.
Admitting We Have a Societal Problem**
Our society is hyper-polarized right now — most of the conversations come from people at the extremes of the political and philosophical spectrum. I’m afraid of delving too deeply into the problems we have as a society. My fear is that if I give them too much attention, they will detract from the message I want to contribute. Instead of getting lost in specific examples of our societal problems, which could fill a book on their own, I focus instead on some evaluations of the problems. I do this on behalf of my needs for clarity, flow, and efficient use of words. I hope you can interpolate some specific instances that stimulate these evaluations. If you struggle with doing so, I suggest watching the evening news one night (any night), recording all of the instances of violence, and noticing how you feel as you hear about each one.
My perception is that things are so bad that I have decided to limit my exposure to TV programming and social media. I’m not saying that the news or TV programs are bad or evil, but they contain information regarding the conversations we have as a society and the state of disconnection with our hearts. We create static labels to classify our ideologies, separating us and de-humanizing the people behind them:
From this standpoint, it is easy to see why there is so much conflict. In each case, both sides are also making the limiting evaluation of “good” vs. “bad”, “right” vs. “wrong” -- this is what creates polarization. This post is an invitation to a conversation that goes beyond rightdoing and wrongdoing - a conversation that more authentically expresses the heart of our experience, making connection and love possible.
Redeeming the Societal Collective
Redemption is not something that we can do ourselves or demand from God. We could sit back in despair, blame others, continue to follow the path we’re on, or we could choose to follow the teachings of Jesus in our path toward God, accepting his grace, seeing the truth of our experience, connecting to others, and listening for the Holy Spirit’s guidance in finding strategies for meeting everyone’s needs. Once we have an awareness of needs, we can begin to have a dialogue about how getting our needs met at the expense of others is missing the heart of God. We can also talk about meeting someone else’s needs at the expense of our own. Both of these are forms of violence, also known as sin.
It is through the collective efforts at connecting through our hearts, embracing the wisdom already there, and spurring action from those awake enough to be the change they want that human institutions will be redeemed. Through this conversation of the heart and mind, we can taste the soul and strength from the living water of Christ. We begin to do things not out of duty, obligation, legal requirements, or to buy someone’s love, but with integrity because it brings us joy to participate in the banquet of life. We find our place at the table with our larger family of humanity, with Jesus smiling and passing the bread and wine around the table.
This is the journey to which you are invited in this book. I hope that at the very least, it will stimulate lots of dialogue about the nature of conversation and how Christ is alive, well, and present in our lives if we choose to let him in.
This book addresses the societal spiritual crisis by showing that Jesus’s message can help us re-frame our conversations and bring about deeper connection and intimacy with others. We can recover our hearts, both individually and collectively.
My hypothesis is that by healing our hearts and learning ways to communicate in which everyone’s needs are considered, we’ll find a path that leads to solving our problems; I wouldn’t be surprised if we also experience some joy along the way toward peace. This book is about empowering individuals with the tools to connect. The good news is that Jesus has been pointing us in that direction for a couple of millennia.
The Good News
The solution to our problems lies much closer to home than in Washington and all the other capitals in the world. It resides in the space that is closer to the heart.
Our natural tendency, when presented with a stressful situation, is to fight, flee, or freeze. More often than not, I have chosen to fight instead of flee. My experience tells me that everyone suffers when I choose violence—when I choose to sin.
Jesus presents us with a new option to transcend these tendencies. He invites us to connect to his spirit, offer the grace we’ve received, listen to others through love, speak our truth in love, and find new ways to address our current challenges. In fact, he said that he would send us a counselor to help us who is available to us now. We just need to be willing to let go of our worldly strategies and engage each other in a heartfelt conversation, discovering the truth of our collective experience. He is inviting us to a life fully lived in his presence and to experience the commonality of humanity through love. And to be invited to a banquet of the spirit is for me a glorious opportunity not to be missed.
Echoes of the Garden
In this section, we explore the creation story of Genesis. What is judgment? We’ll discuss two definitions: value judgments and moral judgments.
Take note that the source of information for a moral judgment lies outside us. When we make value judgments, we look inside ourselves for the source of information. This distinction is important and will be revisited many times in this book. The word judgment is most commonly used to mean moral judgment. In this book, the word judgment will mean moral judgment unless stated otherwise.
The Birth of Judgment
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” ...
“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:1-7, NIV)
In Genesis 3:7, Adam and Eve realized they were naked. They turned this knowledge of good and evil toward themselves and felt shame and covered their bodies: something within them was not okay anymore. Adam and Eve judged themselves right after eating the fruit. They lost their connection with God, and as a result, a part of them died.
The Effect of Judgment
It was only after they ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that they experienced separation from their hearts and thus from the heart of God. Before this they had shared an intimate communion with God. It is because of this separation that we now require words to describe the heart space. As we will see, heart-space words are essential to communication because they help us to connect.
Leaving the Garden of Eden - The Fall
And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:22–24 NIV)
As we play the role of moral judge, a role we were not intended to have, we also experience death in our relationships with others, making it difficult to connect and to find the love for which our hearts were created. We metaphorically continue to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and continue to experience separation from our Source, God.
A common reaction to an awareness of judgment is blind acceptance of all that is around us. Jesus invites us to consider a new way to life that doesn’t fall into the extremes of moral judgment and blind acceptance. He invites us into life through a path of love for everyone involved: God, others, and ourselves—to participate in the vine. Jesus invites us into a full integration of the heart and mind, considering both needs and strategies.
God has given us the power to discern something about his truth for us by listening to our hearts without judging others or ourselves as good or evil. Jesus showed us another option. We can discern the truth of our own heart with grace for all involved—this is the Way of Christ. Jesus shows us the way back to God, using something we already have: a heart made in the image and likeness of God.
We Are Part of the Garden
I find it helpful to remember our roots before the Fall. Adam and Eve lived in perfect harmony with God in the Garden and didn’t know any better. After having discussed the impact of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, it’s important to go back to the beginning.
The Image of God in our Hearts
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day. (Genesis 1:26–31, NIV)
These lines in Genesis point to the heart of humanity, the place where the gift of life speaks to us directly. Our hearts speak to us of the motivation and intent of our creation, and we get to experience God through the gift of life that he gave us. Our hearts are good! Actually, God says all that he made was very good, and this includes our hearts. At this point in our existence, we lived in constant communion with God, living from our hearts, which were created in his own image.
Jesus came to show us a path back to our hearts, where we are able to love not only our friends, but also our enemies. We need words to help us describe this heart of ours. As we use heart words in conversation, we may recover some of the intimacy we lost in the Fall.
Words that Describe the Heart Space
Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life. (Proverbs 4:23, NIV)
Searching into the depths of my own heart, I discovered a set of words that describe the heart space. In NVC, these words are called needs or values; I prefer to call them heart needs. And while the words themselves are concise labels, they point to a deeper place within us—a place where we can still hear the echoes from the creation of our being.
It’s important not to confuse the words with the meaning and the beauty they point to. You have probably heard the saying, “Don’t confuse the map with the territory.” Eckhart Tolle describes words as pointers to something real. In the case of needs, the words point to something divine within us that we inherited directly from God. Their manifestation in our lives speak to the experience we are having at any one particular moment. The meaning behind each word has existed since the beginning of time, at the dawn of the primordial soup. When God spoke, it all came into being. Greek philosophers called it the logos.
At the same time, we must recognize the limitations of language. Words are just the means we use to communicate; the meaning we give to words is important. We must be aware of our definitions, and we need to have images in our mind that connect the labels to something real. The purpose of this chapter is to define some of the words for our heart space—to explore the territory of our hearts so our labels can be pointers on a map of the heart, a sort of compass for connection, enabling love to happen.
Read the following list of heart needs slowly and contemplate your own vision of what the words in italics mean to you; it’s important that you have something that authentically works for you. Use what I provide as a starting point. Listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying to you about these things, and write them down in your own notebook.
Beauty. Think about staring into a meadow with a hundred different shades of green. Think of the majesty of ancient pine trees, or the simple rippling sound of a stream of fresh running water. Recall the soothing sound of the waves crashing on the sand at the beach and the green glow of sunlight through a wave just before it breaks. Think about gazing into the center of a rose and smelling its sweet, pungent fragrance.
Integrity. Integrity calls us to act in ways that are consistent with our hearts, ways to live outwardly in harmony with what we know to be true inside. This space within us is stimulated when we see others acting in ways consistent with their values. We are self-similar when we look at our lives in different settings within our various spheres of influence, both internal and external—and they’re similar. We authentically behave in ways congruent with our values. Integrity is the opposite of hypocrisy.
Contribution. I have an undeniable desire to contribute to the well-being of my son. The closer I am to God, the more I want to contribute to the well-being of others, and to share an abundant life lived to its fullest. I also enjoy receiving support from others, as they contribute to me. Contribution and support are two sides of giving that are essential to living in community. Sometimes, others are not interested in receiving what I have to offer—I respect their choices, realizing that my contribution would not be a gift unless it is openly received. As I have matured, I discovered my need for a meaningful contribution to the well-being of others; I have sought out my unique gifts, and explore ways in which to offer them.
Autonomy. We have the freedom to choose and to make choices that suit us best. Autonomy isn’t about living alone on an island but about having the comfort of honestly expressing our personal truth to another person—not at the expense of their needs or our own, but within an open dialogue. We resist any real or perceived pressure to comply with someone else’s requests or demands if they don’t work for us. We exercise our freedom to choose within a relationship.
Clarity. I was reminded recently of my experience driving over a hill after a heavy rain and clearly seeing the majesty of snow-capped mountains that were normally hidden by smog. I could see farther than I had before. Our need for clarity is met when we fully understand another person and what they’re saying because we reflect what we hear, and the other person confirms our understanding. Clarity can also occur within us. We see the world as it is, transcending any pain we may have felt in reaction to an event. We can integrate our thoughts and experiences because they’re consistent. Our understanding is refined through requests for more information, by further observation, or through empathy.
Meaning is a word that points deeply into our heart, which celebrates when things come together in unexpected ways. Our need for meaning is met when we are able to contribute to something bigger than ourselves. Our purpose is a specific way in which meaning speaks to our reason for being on the planet. It reminds us of the celestial celebration of our coming into being and of the gifts we have to contribute.
Everyone has their own definition of these words based on their experience and background. It’s helpful to remember that the words are just labels for a deeper part of us that we all share because we come from the same God and were created in his image.
A Framework for Focusing Our Attention**
"Every judgment is a tragic expression of unmet needs." - Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D.
Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a framework on how to focus our attention on what we observe (including observing our judgments), what we feel along with the needs that are present, and to make clear/doable requests with the intention of facilitating a natural compassion of giving and receiving. In the book, I call this practice a "discipline of love in conversation."
For now, by focusing our attention on our heart needs, we are able to look beyond our judgmental thoughts at the divine energy in us seeking fulfillment— what God has placed in our hearts as a compass for discernment. Heart needs are called universal human “needs” or “values” in Nonviolent Communication (NVC). Needs/values are also known as “intrinsic motivators” — the “why?” behind all human behavior. In other words, everything we do is an attempt to meet needs, to satisfy values. I’ve found it helpful to categorize needs into 4 quadrants — here are some examples (not an exhaustive list):
It should be clear from the list that our needs also include consideration of the needs of others. Needs are often confused with strategies. Strategies are "what" we do or use to meet our needs, which are related to People, Location, Action, Time and Objects (PLATO). For instance, some of my favorite strategies (with the needs met in parenthesis) are:
Confusing needs and strategies is a common source of conflict. Differentiating needs and strategies requires some skill, practice, and familiarity with a lexicon of needs.
Sin as Missing the Mark
In light of needs, we can talk about “missing the mark” (aka. Sin) as missing the heart of God given to us as our internal compass, giving us more clarity for showing up in integrity with our values, and enabling constructive conversations to take place. We are now clear that we “miss the mark” when choosing strategies:
Jesus Invites a New Way**
"If you follow my teachings, you are really my disciples." - Jesus of Nazareth, as quoted in John 8:31, NIV)
Jesus took us further outside of conventional thinking, inviting us to
Who Is Your Neighbor?
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.43 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. “Look after him,” he said, “And when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.”
Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, Go and do likewise. (Luke 10:29–37, NIV)
As we acknowledge our feelings and needs, we find healing from our pain, resulting in feelings of compassion and curiosity about others. After receiving empathy, we see that other people’s needs are as valuable as our own. We can contribute to others freely and meet our needs for autonomy, choice, and respect. We feel joy in serving others.
Jesus invites us to consider giving and receiving, not out of duty or obligation, not to buy someone’s love, but to give with integrity. It’s important that our external actions match the condition of our heart, for then we feel joy.
At the end of his journey, I’m guessing that the injured man was feeling deeply grateful, perhaps bordering on ecstatic, as his needs for support, caring, and health were met. He was humbly open to having his needs met. He was in a position to receive from anyone willing to offer assistance, and help would be welcome.
There’s a message here: it’s important to be humble, willing, honest, and open to one another with our needs. In order to live out this truth, it’s vital to recognize it within ourselves first and then verbalize it to others. In NVC, this is called honest expression.
For the injured man in the parable, his needs were obvious to all who passed by. He might have been crying in pain, with tears rolling down his face, perhaps bleeding. He communicated his needs using his voice, his tears, and his blood.
Our injuries are not only physical, but also emotional. We might be feeling hurt, pain, sadness, despair, anxiety, or fear. I would be the injured person in the parable when I’m willing to reveal my feelings and needs to those who are willing to listen and empathize with me. I can also be the Compassionate Samaritan for another human being. When they are in need, I can choose to be a willing participant in God’s master plan of love. With the simple act of being present, listening, helping them identify their needs, and being open to finding solutions that meet those needs, I am ultimately choosing to be the Compassionate Samaritan.
Empathy as Grace
Grace can be defined as unmerited favor from God; it is the outpouring of the love of God for humanity. In the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, our connection to God was lost when they ate from the Tree of Judgment. Through this act we assumed the role of judge, which we were not intended to have.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16–17, NIV)
Jesus came to extend grace to all of humanity by offering his message and teachings of love. Grace is related to the need for acceptance; God accepts anyone who accepts his love into their hearts. We were created as very good.
Grace is an important element of agape. Because of free will, in order to fully accept God’s grace I must extend grace to myself first. As I receive God’s grace, I begin to extend his grace to others through love by acting in concert with my heart needs.
For a period when I was young, I didn’t extend grace to myself; I experienced dark times as a result. When I was a teenager and moved from Puerto Rico to Kansas, I felt like I didn’t fit in. I told myself things like
Jesus shows us a different way. He tells us to let go of our judgments and to accept where we are. He invites us to listen to what we’re telling ourselves about our experiences. He wants us to see what is really happening around us and within us.
Jesus came to offer us a gift of grace and to teach us ways to find freedom from the fruit of the Tree of Judgment and connect to the heart and mind of God.
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, Let me take the speck out of your eye, when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1–5, NIV)
In the words “do not judge,” Jesus reminds us to let go of the role of judge and instead look inside ourselves at the plank in our eye. My interpretation of the plank is everything that goes on within us. Taking the plank out of your eye is a metaphor for becoming aware of our internal dialogue. Jesus tells us to listen to and question our judgments, interpretations, experiences, motivations, and actions in order to learn and understand. When we remove the plank, we are able to see more clearly what’s really going on.
This action of separating our inner conversation from what is really happening helps us to see the truth of our own experience, which then enables us help others so that they too can see their experiences more clearly.
The plank in my eye is much larger than the speck in my brother’s eye. This is a clear indication that our inner judgments must be taken care of first because they can blind us to the truth. After I remove my plank, I’m better able to help remove the speck from my brother’s eye, a metaphor for helping my brother become aware of his internal dialogue.
This discussion invites us to look inside. The following verses tell us what to do once we’re there.
Keep on asking and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you, for everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.
Parents, if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not. So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.
(Matthew 7:7–11, NLT)
Jesus invites us to ask, seek, and knock to remove the plank. This dialogue starts with ourselves and then proceeds to others. If we do this with a heart of a child, we will find what we seek, receive the clarity we ask for, and release the plank that weighs us down, blinding us to the truth of our experiences and keeping us from love. As we acknowledge the state of our hearts, we open the door to the Holy Spirit to work in our lives, allowing us to receive the abundance of “good gifts to those who ask.”
Loving Our Enemies
Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:44, NIV)
I’m curious—why would Jesus ask us to love our enemies and pray for them? What heart needs might be present in this request? It turns out there are a whole slew of them. In fact, without the ability to love our enemies, we’d have a hard time loving anyone, including ourselves, because when our needs are not met around someone in particular, it’s likely we would label them and treat them as an enemy. Then we would blame them for our discomfort. When you do this, you are creating an enemy image of them.
What comes up for me around enemy images? When I look inward, I quickly identify needs for safety, mutuality, peace, and harmony, and I want to contribute to meeting these needs. Also alive are the needs of the community, which are affected both directly and indirectly by violence. I begin to meet those needs by transforming myself and inviting others into a conversation that is life-giving and supported by the need for love; this transformation can also be a movement toward spiritual growth.
Having talked about the meaning of love and empathy as a form of grace, it seems appropriate to go back and consider our enemies. When Jesus said love your enemies, he wasn’t asking us to have fuzzy, warm feelings toward them, nor did he ask us to agree with them. Empathy is a way to love my enemies by engaging them in dialogue about their experience, inviting them into their hearts, and opening the door for them to our own hearts through honest expression.
Giving honesty to people we label as our enemies is difficult and requires a great deal of discipline and practice. When working to drive out enemy images we’ve created, we must first come to terms with our own tendency to label someone as an enemy, or as evil, incompetent, or stupid. How do we do this? Through self-empathy. For example, every now and then as I’m driving on the freeway in Los Angeles, someone will cut me off. My thoughts might go something like this.
I realize that I’m stimulated by the person’s driving and I hear what I’m telling myself about them. As I give myself empathy, I notice what’s going on in my mind, and I might ask myself some questions.
I continue this process until I notice a mood change and begin feeling curious and compassionate about the other person. After some level of self-connection, it’s helpful to guess at what’s going on for them. After receiving enough self-empathy, my curiosity might sound something like this.
Driving on the highway, I can’t know what’s going on for the other person. The important thing is to deal with my own internal dialogue and to explore what’s behind my labels and judgments. This points to the truth that we can’t control others. Whether we like it or not, people have free will. We—and they—have the freedom and opportunity to behave according to our own needs and values.
Once we’re clear about what’s going on inside, we can formulate a strategy for moving forward. We might choose to write down the make of the car and the license plate number and report the incident to the police.
In other situations, when the other person is within talking distance—for example, when a person that just arrived skips to the front of a line—we could tell them what’s going on to meet our needs for self-respect and honesty, provided we remain self-connected. It’s important to be aware of our motivation and the need that is alive for us in our desire to tell the other person about our experience.
If I find I’m still angry and wanting to teach them a lesson, and I’m aware of it, I can tell I need more self-empathy. To talk with someone from this posture would likely lead to conflict. Marshall Rosenberg calls this violent communication. Given where I am in my journey, if I sensed that I was angry, I would find ways to deal with my emotions that are more likely to lead to everyone’s needs being met without violence. Early on, when I was finding my voice and speaking my own truth, I did so in ways that met my need for expression, but usually at the expense of other people’s needs for respect, consideration, and mutuality. This time in my life taught me many valuable lessons.
Loving our enemies begins with transforming our enemy images through self-empathy. We are now free and curious about the experience of the other human being. We are present for them so long as our needs for safety, consideration, and respect are being met. Sometimes God helps us meet those needs while in a difficult situation. It takes a lot of practice and discipline to stay in empathy around people we have labeled as enemies, but the payoffs are tremendous once we make this internal shift.
If we happen to make a judgment and hear ourselves doing it, we don’t have to judge ourselves. We can choose to guess at the feelings and needs behind our judgment. We will know we have enough empathy when we feel curiosity and compassion toward ourselves and others. We can choose to guess at the other person’s feelings and needs, knowing that they may not be used to looking inside themselves for the cause of their discomfort. It may be scary or painful for them to do so and they may choose not to do it.
If our attempts at empathy with others are effective, then connection is possible. It may also be that connection is not possible at this time with this person. We might not have been as self-connected as we would have liked, or we might have chosen words that stimulated the other person in undesirable ways. We might feel regret afterward, but this is part of the process of communication.
The important thing is to have an intention to connect and to let go of the outcome. If the other person is able to look inside, and you notice a shift in their mood, then it may be time to move into giving your honesty.
Thanks for stopping by and making it this far. It would be connecting for me to know you were here, and to read how this blog landed for you. Would you be willing to post your thoughts, observations, feelings and needs below?
Links to purchase the book "The Joy of Compassionate Connecting - The Way of Christ Through Nonviolent Communication" are included below.
If you're interested in learning more about Nonviolent Communication, I suggest checking out my offerings page at Compassionate Connecting and the Center for Nonviolent Communication, which certified me as an NVC Trainer.
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