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How Compassionate Language Can Enrich Your Life

Whether improving our relationships with others or with ourselves, prioritizing compassionate language can be life-altering.

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“All that has been integrated into nonviolent communication has been known for centuries about consciousness, language, communication skills, and use of power that enable us to maintain a perspective of empathy for ourselves and others, even under trying conditions.”

Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD

Everyone is familiar with the old schoolyard saying: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” However, hopefully, by now we’re also well aware of just how completely untrue this saying is. How many times have we found ourselves feeling broken or injured by something hurtful someone has said to us? Or even worse yet, when our loved ones give us the silent treatment in an attempt either to punish us or to rectify a wrong we’ve done to them. 

The pain that comes from this can be overwhelming for most. Without words to bridge the gap, we feel disconnected from the people we love and care about. It’s clear to see that words — or even a lack thereof — can be violent and hurtful, and this violent language can cut us deep to the core of our being.

Harmful, or violent, language is any type of language used to belittle, judge, tear down, or hurt someone in some way. I sometimes question if people fully realize how truly hurtful and destructive harmful words can be. Yes, I think we’re all aware that insults and biting words make us feel “bad”, but oftentimes it comes out to being so much more than this, as violent words can have very real and destructive consequences. In many instances, these words can destroy any and all feelings of self-worth and self-love we have for ourselves. 

In the most extreme instances, these words become internalized and integrated into our inner voice. We repeat them, over and over ad nauseam, to ourselves, whether we mean to or not. The words then become embedded into our very being, where we find it nearly impossible to believe their inverse to be true. At this point, this is when violent language has become emotional and psychological trauma, which is perhaps one of the most insidious forms of trauma simply because of how difficult it is to detect. 

Simply put, there are some things we should just never, ever say — whether it be to ourselves or to each other. Because once violent words are used, then they can’t be taken back. However, the effects of harmful language can be diminished and — in some cases — eliminated completely with words of encouragement and empowerment. Words that come from a place of true love and kindness can be completely transformative in the most positive ways in a person’s life. 

This is where compassionate language comes in. I often think of how much humanity could accomplish if everyone showed more kindness and empathy to their fellow human beings, and one excellent way to do this is through our language.

What is Compassionate Language?

I believe that there could be many possible definitions of compassionate language. When hearing this term, most likely the first thing that people will think of is language that serves to show compassion to one another. This could be words of kindness and encouragement. I do agree with this, however, I don’t believe that this is the only form of compassionate language. We can still use a type of compassionate language, even when we are not happy with or don’t like the person that we are speaking to.

So in my opinion, I would define compassionate language as language that is used to communicate in ways that aim to fully understand one another — without judgment — regardless of what we think about the person whom we are speaking to. 

Whether talking with a stranger or a loved one, we can always use compassionate language in our day to day lives. It encourages us to choose our words mindfully, promoting an overall mindset of mindfulness in general. Compassionate language also allows us to communicate our feelings and ideas with one another, free from fear of judgment or ridicule.

One form of compassionate language, which I will continue to focus on, is known as Nonviolent Communication or NVC. NVC was developed in the 1960s by the American psychologist, Marshall Rosenberg. Rosenberg’s main objective for NVC was as a way to better communicate during an argument or heated conversation, but I believe all the tenets of NVC can be implemented in everyday conversation.

Rosenberg based the foundations of NVC on several core beliefs. They are as follows:

  1. All humans share the same chief desire, which is to feel a true connection with each other 
  2. All humans are naturally compassionate, and violence is simply a learned behavior by the prevailing culture
  3. All humans share the same basic needs, and when we are able to communicate compassionately what those needs are, then we can begin to live together harmoniously.

Clearly, the main basis which drives NVC is that humans naturally want to cooperate with each other, and that language is the chief way in which we can achieve this. 

I fully agree that when we feel free to show true empathy to each other, this also frees us to build real meaning and connections with one another. I also see this as being the ultimate function — the purest realization — of our language, as I do believe that humans ultimately evolved language to sustain our growing social roles and culture. Therefore it makes complete sense to me that we should use our language in such a way that further tightens and seals our bonds.

The Benefits of Compassionate Language

There are many benefits and reasons to encourage someone to incorporate more compassionate language into their everyday conversations. Firstly, compassionate language promotes social cohesion. 

Communication is a kind of collaboration between two or more people, with meaning being continuously shaped by both the speaker and listener during any given conversation. When people learn to express their needs in a healthy and honest way, as well as receive this information from others without judgment, then, in turn, this promotes wellness, security, and happiness. Not only to the individual but to the community as a whole. It builds trust and erases shame.

With NVC specifically, it isn’t solely about being mindful of the words we use, but it also takes into account the reactions we have in certain situations. NVC is about being mindful in all forms of converse, as both the speaker and listener. 

Oftentimes — especially during a heated or emotionally charged conversation — it’s important to take a step back and observe the conversation with partiality. This gives us a chance to fully absorb the meaning of what our conversation partner is trying to convey, and diminishes the potential of us becoming needlessly upset over misunderstandings.    

Secondly, compassionate language isn’t just something we can use with others, but with ourselves as well in our own self-directed language. And learning to use compassionate language with the self can be incredibly empowering. 

How many of us have a negative inner voice in the back of our minds? This is the voice that tells us we’re not good enough, that we’re unworthy of love or kindness — the voice that often grows from violent language that has been used against us. Practicing compassionate self-language, although certainly not easy at first, is a great way to combat this.

How to Practice Compassionate Language

In Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, he develops four basic steps the reader can use as a basis in implementing NVC into their life. These steps are:

  1. Observation
  2. Feelings
  3. Needs
  4. Requests

Let’s go over each step in Rosenberg’s guide and discuss how they can be implemented.

Observations

Observation is the first step. The key to this step is to remember to observe without judgment. The main intention behind this step is pretty simple: we want to simply observe the situation that we are in, free from our own judgments or feelings.

Observation includes all information that we get through our five senses, such as what we hear or see. It is important to distinguish objective fact from subjective emotions. 

Let’s give an example scenario. You and a friend have agreed to meet somewhere at a certain time, but your friend arrives 30 minutes late. It is the objective fact that your friend has arrived later than the agreed-upon time.

Feelings

This step is where we acknowledge the feelings we are experiencing in relation to our current situation. Observation and feelings are two separate steps, although they might happen simultaneously. While we are experiencing — and observing — our current situation, we are also going to have feelings in relation to the situation.

It is important that we are able to distinguish our feelings from the objective reality of what is happening. Which sounds easy in practice, but many times can actually be difficult. This is because our experiences are heavily influenced by our feelings.

This step also allows us permission to take note of and acknowledge our feelings, rather than keep them bottled up. This might sound silly, but sometimes our emotional response itself can also make us feel guilt or shame. But just as we observed whatever is going on around us in the first step without judgment, it’s important to observe and experience your own emotions in this step without judgment as well.

    Going back to our example, say that your friend arrives 30 minutes late to your meeting. This is obviously going to make you feel a certain type of way, whether that be frustration, anger, sadness, etc. Give yourself space to acknowledge how you feel.

Needs

In this step, we think about our needs and whether or not they are being met. And if they aren’t, in what way they are not being met. And what we can do to change that. 

It’s important to remember that all human beings have needs, and Rosenberg (among many others) believed that we all share the same needs. Not only do we have basic needs for food, water, and shelter; but we also have higher needs for friendship, connection, and self-actualization. 

When our needs are met, we feel happy and at peace in our lives; and likewise when our needs are not met, we can become sad, restless, or hopeless. And when we feel that others have failed to meet our needs in some way, we become upset with them, or hurt, or angry.

So when your friend arrives late to your meeting, and this makes you feel a certain type of way, try to think of which need has not been met. Maybe, for example, your friend being late makes you feel that they do not care about you. So in this case, the need that is not being met is the need for connection.

Sometimes, however, this step might not come easy, and it can take a bit of time to recognize which of our needs are not being met. This is perfectly fine, and I believe it is still possible to continue with the NVC process. The more we think about what our needs are, the better we become at identifying whether or not they are being met. So we will get better at this step with practice.

Requests

Finally, we think of a way to request our needs. According to Rosenberg, we should include our observation and our feelings when making our request. So going back to the example, you could say to your friend, “You are 30 minutes late to our meeting, and this makes me angry. I feel as though you do not value my time or my company. Next time, I would appreciate it if you could arrive at our meeting on time.”

Again, this is simply an example and I realize that speaking in this way could feel stiff or unnatural for some people. It would be silly to expect anyone to be a pro at this from the very beginning. If you would like to practice using NVC, I would suggest starting off with people you feel much more comfortable with. And it is not a necessity to master every single step. I believe that the ultimate goal of NVC, as well as other forms of compassionate language, is to simply be more mindful of our situations and the words that we use with other people.

Finally, an important point to remember when using compassionate language with people is that you absolutely do not have to put up with toxicity from others. If someone talks to you using hurtful words, then don’t take it upon yourself to continue to address this person. The best option — if you have the option — is to disengage from the harmful person altogether.

Compassionate language is a part of nonviolent living as a whole. Leading a life of nonviolence does not mean we tolerate violence from other people. Instead, I believe nonviolence is centered around trying to inflict the least amount of harm in our day to day lives as possible. I fully hope that by using more compassionate language, this inspires others to lead a more compassionate and mindful lifestyle overall.

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