3 lessons on non-violent communication in relationships

This post was edited for clarity and additional details were added following the original publication date.

Communicating without listening can be very lonely
Communicating without listening can be very lonely

Earlier this week was Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day in the United States, a national holiday celebrating the American hero who fought passionately, in a non-violent way, for the civil rights of African Americans during the 1950s and 1960s.

MLK’s philosophy for the civil rights and social justice movement embodied a commitment to non-violent communication and resistance. Examples of his expression of non-violence include his leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott after the arrest of Rosa Parks in 1955 and his reaction to the bombing of his home in 1956.

In 1958, MLK wrote the following words (emphasis added):

“People fail to get along with each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other. They don’t know each other because they have not properly communicated with each other.

~ Martin Luther King, Jr., in “Advice for Living”, May 1958

The words “not properly communicated” really stand out for me as it recalls memories of my own relationship conflicts that could have been resolved with effective, non-violent communication. These experiences have taught me some painful and necessary lessons over the years.

Here are three lessons I would like to share with you, based on my own experiences and mistakes:

The first lesson: Being honest
The importance of honest communication cannot be overemphasized. This is the basis on which partners get to know and trust each other. In the most obvious sense, being honest means not lying to, cheating on, or deceiving each other.  This is pretty basic! But, more importantly, it means simply being yourself. If we cannot be ourselves with others, how can we expect them to love us for who we are?

In the beginning of a new relationship, we usually present the best picture because we want the other person to like us! At first we might avoid sharing weaknesses, character flaws, or problems. As time passes, and trust grows, we open up about them if we feel safe we won’t be judged or criticized. Or we share them in situations (like a disagreement) in which our fear or insecurity is exposed. Or maybe we share because we’re comfortable with who we are. Regardless of the context, it’s scary to share things that might disappoint or which aren’t very agreeable! That’s the risk. That’s the reality. Exposing ourselves to the vulnerability is the very essence of being intimate.

So, that is also the reward. Honesty, and the resulting dialogue, builds confidence in a relationship. By defining and communicating your ideas and your boundaries with your partner, you create a safe space in which to get to know each other. The only way that this works is if each partner commits to being honest with each other and accepts that disappointment is possible, even likely. This provides an environment to foster a strong and growing trust and communicate and resolve difficult topics with openness, patience, and compassion. What better way to create an intimate, lasting love for the long-term?

Remember that the reverse is also possible – saying something which is untrue in order to get what you want or achieve some outcome or desired response. This form of communication is known as manipulation. Let’s be honest: manipulation can sometimes occur blindly in an act of love. When committed unintentionally, it can be forgivable. However, intentional manipulation is a malicious and violent act of communication and is also a real breach of trust.

The second lesson: Admitting mistakes
Personally, I place a high value on a person’s willingness and capacity to be humble, admit mistakes, take responsibility, and learn from the experience – and I see this as an essential quality in communication in relationships. Effectively this is my life mantra: “Living Passionately” – to admit to and take responsibility for my mistakes and grow from the lessons I learn, accepting that sometimes they will hurt like crazy.

Saying Sorry by Forgotten Light @ Deviant art

Sometimes, the simplest way of resolving a conflict is to just admit that you are wrong or that you made a stupid, thoughtless, or careless decision, and explain WHY it was wrong or a bad decision. If you can do that, you have identified the lesson to be learned.

I would try to communicate this is in a non-violent, compassionate way so that it can contribute to a re-building of the trust and loving connection. But, even though I may have the best of intentions, over the years I have noticed that sometimes I try to hide my mistakes behind anger, suspicion, frustration, or jealousy. When I admit a mistake, I feel vulnerable: to rejection, to judgment, to attack. My natural instinct is to protect myself. But if I cloud my message with these violent emotions, I am not communicating effectively and my message may be missed. And worse – I may be hurting my partner. :(

It’s also difficult to admit mistakes in situations where I have not yet learned the lesson. It could even be an issue from my past which has not been dealt with yet. We all have our own unique experiences, relationship expectations, fears, dreams, doubts, and values. Our relationship successes (and our failures), the mistakes we have made, and the lessons we have learned (or not) contribute to how we handle conflict. Some people call this “baggage”.

If we have not dealt with our “baggage”, we may not yet have reached the point of being ready to admit our mistakes and learn our lessons. This is a tough place to be. To start, remember that no one is perfect, least of all ourselves. We will experience successes in our life and we will experience failures. We will commit mistakes and we will have regrets. We are human.

In my opinion, the most important thing is to have the willingness and the humility to engage in self-reflection and admit our mistakes and character flaws to ourselves.

Accepting that we committed an error is the first step.

Learning what we did wrong and building from there is another important step.

Finally, we need to be able to forgive ourselves.

If we can do these things, we can set ourselves free from our “baggage”. It will also give us the tools to be a better partner and to recognize when we are heading down a path toward similar mistakes in the future.

Admitting our past mistakes and being honest and open about this history with our partner will also help strengthen the trust and the bond with him or her.  It goes without saying that we should avoid judging our partners for their past mistakes too. It is important for partners to give each other the opportunity to show they’ve grown from their experiences.

The third lesson: Listening and learning patiently
Listening is not just an important tool for good and effective communication; it is also essential to reaching a positive outcome in a conflict. Can you imagine sharing something and finding out that other person was not listening to you? How lonely that would feel! Being a good listener and asking questions are important qualities for getting to know your partner. I am doing pretty well on the asking questions part… but I admit that I still need to get better at the listening part… :P

Source: https://www.pinterest.com/twocentguys/relationship-quotes/
Pinterest: Relationship Quotes

What I have learned and what I am trying to practice is to listen to everything a person has to say before I react. I keep in mind the wise refrain: “The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.” Asking questions helps too, as I can better understand the person’s perspective. It demonstrates that you want to know them better and everyone loves to feel that they are interesting to others. Ask questions which are from the heart and which are of genuine interest. This will create a fun and loving dynamic in which you can both get to know each other.

Sometimes, when I am engaged in a conversation, I find myself already thinking of the next thing I am going to say! As soon as I have a chance, I jump in with my prepared answer. Especially in an argument or a passionate disagreement where I interpret their remarks in an offensive or negative way.

This sort of impatient listening can be a form of violent communication if you interrupt or prevent the other person from finishing what they wanted to say. Its important to give them their space, not only for them, but so that you can have a fuller understanding of what it is they want to tell you. It is a valuable opportunity to understand them better.  I am working on this but still have some way to go.

If you are the person who is listening, try to remember to respond in a non-violent way and minimize emotions of anger, frustration, impatience, and judgment that can inflame passions or create further tension.

In your next conversation, when your partner has finished a sentence, why not pause, and then ask another question instead of responding? This is a good opportunity to dig a little deeper. :)

In heated discussions, if they say something negative or offensive, I find it can also be constructive to a peaceful dialogue if you ask them to clarify what they mean by their remark before you react. Sometimes it helps for me to take a deep breath, or to bite my tongue. Save your reaction for a few minutes and see if they have anything else to say. Maybe they will realize the hurtfulness of their comment.


In summary —

Relationships are not easy! They take good communication, hard work, and a willingness to forgive. A hard lesson I have learned is to be patient with my partner and listen carefully for hidden or quiet signals of discomfort and encourage her to share with me what she is thinking or feeling, reminding her that I cannot know what is inside her head unless she tells me.

Over the last several years, I have really come to appreciate the importance of good communication in my personal and professional relationships. There are various qualities which I am working on and which I try to practice in my communications: humility, patience, non-judgment, and respect. It has not been a perfect journey, but it has been very educational and informative! And I like to believe that it has made me a much more effective communicator. :)

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life

If you are interested in learning more about techniques for Non-violent Communication, I recommend you read the book on this topic by Marshall B. Rosenberg titled “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, 3rd edition“. You can also find online resources on the subject at the Centre for Nonviolent Communication.

Thanks for visiting! If you have anything to add, please comment below. :)  Click here to read more inspiring quotes on Live Passionately.

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