I have had some interesting experiences with relationships, as I am sure most of us have. I decided to focus on this topic for a paper I was writing for one of my graduate classes in Transpersonal Psychology. It was for my Theories of Personality class and I combined some experience and research on relationships with personality and nonviolent communication techniques.
Nonviolent Communication in Relationships
Relationships give participants an opportunity to see themselves more fully and clearly than the members would individually. This clarity and insight enable relationship growth and self-actualization. This growth potential can be maximized or stymied based on the interplay between the individuals. Maximizing the growth potential requires an openness and desire for growth by all participants. It also requires self-awareness, commitment, and empathy. Self-awareness is important for understanding where you are coming from emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. It provides a context for your position and being within the relationship. Commitment carries the relationship through challenges. Empathy produces an understanding of someone else’s reality.
Reality differs for everyone. Reality refers to one’s experience of the world at a given time and in a given situation. Personality, spirituality, past experiences, overall life philosophy, and mentality make this a subjective experience, creating a perception of life. Therefore, reality is a subjective perception about life. Empathy is then understood to be the comprehension of someone’s perception. How do you understand someone’s personality, spirituality, past experiences, overall life philosophy, and mentality? According to the American Heritage Dictionary, understand means to perceive. It is a verb and denotes action or process. This process is the interplay between individuals known as communication.
Humans communicate in several ways: energetically, nonverbally, and verbally. All elements are important and whole studies in themselves. I am concerned with verbal communication since it seems to be the most widely used and supposedly understood. Communication, for all its importance and widespread use, does not guarantee a successful relationship. I define successful as the full actualization of the inherent potential – in this case it is the full actualization of the inherent potential of a relationship. Full actualization requires consciously communicating and implies working at these quality communications. Certainly not all relationships require this at the same level or to the same degree. I am interested in looking at those relationships requiring conscious and quality communications at the highest level: intimate relationships – long term endeavors between people offering the highest growth potential for the involved parties and containing high levels of synergy (cooperation) and love.
How do we consciously communicate? I propose three vital components to conscious communication: empathy, technique and completion. The technique or procedure I offer is non-violent communication. Completion refers to bringing closure to exchanges – leaving no loose ends - unexpressed thoughts and feelings.
I theorize that through non-violent communication brought to completion we can consciously communicate with each other successfully, especially in intimate relationships, and thereby facilitate our own and our partner’s actualization into our highest potentials. This paper will systematically explore the aforementioned key topics to attain fuller understanding. Relationships, communication, and empathy are all processes tied to the value or quality of our life experience.
Individuality plays a key role in understanding relationships because relationships are comprised of individuals. Alfred Adler developed individual psychology as a way of really delving into the uniqueness of individuals (Frager & Fadiman, 1998. p. 97). Adler understood behavior in the context of physical and social environments. He also made large contributions to family and group therapy. This suggests that by understanding relationships you can better understand individuals and vice versa. Alder believed life was about adaptation, cooperation, and altruism (p. 97). Adler postulated that “the hardest thing for people to do is to know themselves and change themselves” (p. 98). Empowerment of self and others is a key component to Adler’s work and foreshadowed the work of Carl Rogers who speaks heavily on the topic of relationships.
Relationships are a way to better know oneself since they mirror aspects of our self that we may not otherwise notice. Additionally, they shed light on how others might experience us. Rogers states, “Our personalities become visible to us through relating to others” (p. 413). People invest incredible amounts of time in relationships because they desire fulfillment of the biologically inherent need for affiliation. Rogers specifically looks at intimate relationships, those loving relationships of a potentially long-term nature, as being a vehicle through which development can occur. He associates four key elements to relationships: commitment, expression, avoiding specific roles, and personal sharing (p. 413). These four elements of a relationship directly influence the synergy or degree of interpersonal cooperation (p. 456). Synergy is necessary for the individuals in a relationship to truly get the full benefit of the relationship and self-actualization. The full benefit includes the notion that the combined effort of both parties – the partnership – yields greater results than the sum of either person’s individual efforts.
Abraham Maslow is well known for his hierarchy of needs. There are five levels to his hierarchy pyramid. On the bottom, the most basic level, are the physiological needs. The second level is safety needs. Psychological needs start at level three with belonging and love. Level four is self-esteem and level five, the highest level, is self-actualization. Self-actualization refers to the process of utilizing of talents and capacities. Notice self-actualization is a growth process and not an ultimate destination. Maslow believed very few people achieved self-actualization – meaning most people never even begin this process. Basic needs must be met before someone can approach self-actualization. Additionally, someone must want to engage in this process. Like any process, it takes effort.
Meta-motivation refers to “behavior inspired by growth needs and values” (p. 446). It takes the form of something outside of oneself and is common amongst self-actualizers. Self-actualizers share some traits. These traits include (a) comfortable relationship with reality and an efficient understanding of reality, (b) acceptance of self, others, and nature, (c) spontaneity; simplicity; naturalness, (d) problem-centering as opposed to ego-centering, (e) the quality of detachment; the need for privacy, (f) autonomy; independence of culture and environment, (g) continued freshness of appreciation, (h) mystic and peak experiences, (i) a feeling of kinship with others, (j) deeper and more profound interpersonal relations, (k) the democratic character structure, (l) discrimination between means and ends, (m) sense of humor, (n) self-actualizing creativeness, (o) resistance to enculturation; the transcendence of any particular culture (p. 448-449). Self- actualizers are not free of faults. They are strongly committed. Maslow developed eight general ways people can self-actualize: (a) concentration, (b) choosing growth over safety, (c) self-awareness - understanding one’s inner nature and making one’s own decisions), (d) honesty - taking responsibility for one’s actions and looking within for the answers to problems, (e) judgment - trusting one’s instincts, (f) self-development - the never-ending process of realizing one’s potential, (g) peak experiences - experiences leaving us more whole, integrated, and aware of self and the world, (h) lack of ego defenses - becoming aware of the ways in which we distort our images of ourselves and the external world and dropping these things when appropriate (p. 450-451). Effective relationships entailing conscious communication help us achieve growth in one or more of these self-actualizing processes. A vital component to conscious communication is empathy.
Rogers believed mutual empathy and empowerment lived at the core of successful (growth-enhancing) relationships. He stated that empathy contains four components: motivation, perception, affection, and cognition. Motivation refers to the desire to know another’s reality. Perception refers to the ability to understand verbal and nonverbal cues. Affection refers to the ability to resonate with another’s feelings. The cognitive component makes sense of the joining resonance (p. 263). Empathy allows for relationship enhancement in addition to the development of self. Relationship enhancement for intimate relationships may entail a deeper level of intimacy for both parties. This might take the form of deeper sharing, more cooperation, or deeper love. Again, intimacy is a complete study in itself.
Empathy requires that both people respect one another’s experience (p. 263). It entails understanding someone else’s reality while keeping the integrity of one’s own reality at the same time. Empathy does not mean agreement with someone else’s reality. It simply refers to understanding his/her reality, sometimes a daunting enough task in itself. Non-violent communication utilizes empathy. It views empathy as a vital component of the communication process. Maximizing empathy in communication yields the potential for growth, fulfillment, and intimacy. By utilizing the process of nonviolent communication one is simultaneously exercising empathy.
People communicate energetically, verbally, and nonverbally. Freud believed energy flow influenced things such as the unconscious, psychological development, personality, and neurosis (p. 37). Everything is energy so it makes sense that everything would be influenced by and through energy. People’s energy is communicated intuitively. Energetic communication occurs constantly however some people are more sensitive and aware of it than others. Most people do not take the time to understand the energy which is the core of their very beings. This concept of intuitively understanding someone better from their energy seems weird and elusive many. It is similar to a person who is color blind claiming colors do not exist simply because they cannot see them. Another example would be saying a particular language were weird and possibly non-existent because you do not understand it. The human body communicates with itself through energy, down to the various components making up the cell (Dzeja, et al. 2002). If the cells within the human body communicate energetically then why can’t the human body (made up of many cells) communicate with other human bodies energetically? Picking up on these communications occurs on an intuitive and somatic level. We may not always be aware of these communications unless we pay attention and tap into our intuition. Intuition refers to the realization of many subtle cues, some of them somatic but all occurring on an energetic level still undergoing much exploration and mysterious to most people.
There is a whole branch of yoga devoted to energy called Kundalini-yoga. According to Kundalini-yoga there is a subtle energy called Kundalini at the base of the spine. All energies of mind and body are Kundalini and can be consciously controlled if practiced (Frager & Fadiman, 1998, p. 492). This would allow for better understanding of one’s personal energy as well as others around them. It would facilitate a more conscious energetic communication between people.
Nonverbal communication occurs in several ways. Body language is the most obvious form of nonverbal communication. The expressive arts utilize many types of nonverbal communication through dance therapy, art therapy, music, etc. Nonverbal communication is becoming more popular as people realize more and more that sometimes words are ineffective in expressing what someone truly feels and/or thinks. Carl Roger’s daughter Natalie Rogers has achieved many breakthroughs with her clients through the use of expressive arts (Rogers, 2000). Art therapy is being used in more mental health facilities. Some incorporate art therapy as a sort of feng shui for decorating their facility. They utilize their staff in “creative cultural engagements” so create a more cohesive staff where members feel expressed, respected and special. It also makes it more cheerful for the patients (Webster & Collier, 2005). New research shows participation in arts has clear benefits for mental health (Secker, et al, 2007).
Verbal communication involves the use of language. Many people assume verbal communication’s effectiveness. There are several issues when using verbal communication which usually go unnoticed. First, if people speak different languages sometimes things get lost in translation. This can easily lead to a distortion of the original meaning. Secondly, within the same language many people ascribe different meanings to the same word. People place connotations on words due to social influences and personal experiences. The same word can then mean two different things to two different people. Third, when people are trying to convey a feeling or an experience their explanation is limited by the scope of their vocabulary. How many times do people settle for words that fail to truly capture the essence of what they are trying to express? Probably more than we ever realize. Despite these issues, we rely heavily on verbal communication. It is in our best interest to consciously communicate and make sure we are clearly conveying and understanding the verbal exchanges we engage in.
In terms of fostering actualizing relationships we need a language technique which values questions and seeks to gain empathic understanding of one’s partner via a dialogue that captures the other person’s reality or perception accurately. Nonviolent communication (NVC) achieves this goal.
Nonviolent Communication (NVC)
It is one technique gaining in popularity but still widely unknown. The idea of nonviolent communication has been around for quite a while. Ghandi is well known for his nonviolent communications in India. The westernized process of NVC was developed by Marshall Rosenberg as a way for westerners to relinquish the power of past experiences and embrace the moment to moment interactions with others. NVC has two main goals: (a) to create human connections that empower compassionate giving and receiving and (b) to create governmental and corporate structures that support compassionate giving and receiving (Rosenberg, 2003). Compassion is more important than fear. The dialogue between two people connects thoughts and feelings to underlying needs and values. Then both people can work on understanding what is necessary for those needs to be met. It formulates the needs into requests rather than demands. It respects both people’s personal space. The dialogue follows a formula entailing observation, feeling, needs, and request. There is not a set formula and it adapts to personal and cultural situations and styles (Rosenberg, 2003). Andrew Beath mentions nonviolent communication in his article Navigating the Future: A Guide for Conscious Activism as one of seven components of conscious activism. He refers to nonviolence as “kindness in the midst of passion” (Beath, 2006, 11). NVC emphasizes personal responsibility for actions and choices made when we respond to others. It also offers and emphasizes a cooperative and collaborative way to contribute to relationships. It empowers people to remain human even under trying circumstances and productively handles challenges through the use of effectively communicating feelings and needs. It does these through honing several skills in those employing this technique. These skills include: (a) differentiating observation from evaluation, (b) differentiating feeling from thinking so as to avoid judgments, (c) connecting with universal needs/values, and (d) requesting what we DO want rather than what we do not want (Rosenberg, 2003).
The other vital component to effective communication is completion. Completion refers to fully closing a situation or dialogue. This entails full disclosure on the part of the person sharing. It also entails active listening. The role of the listener is to help empty the large reservoirs of emotion, anger, stress, frustration and other negative feelings until the individual can see more clearly. Not until then, can a party consider the needs of the other. Perhaps we can think of it as listening first aid.
Completion consists of anything previously withheld (actions, words, sounds, movements, feelings, etc.). All these potential areas of withholding are energetic fields that stop flowing if not brought to completion (Berar, 2009). Bringing these things to completion is like massaging someone else’s tensed up muscles. Muscles store memories from life experiences. Until they are fully massaged the memories are stored there, affecting the ability of the muscle to perform optimally. Completion must be done in a domain of truth. If it is not done in this domain it will not work. If any piece of an experience is left incomplete in that domain of truth then you don’t receive the full benefits of that self-actualizing experience. It’s about following the energy of your truth rather than the energy of your expectations. If you look at any real spiritual pursuit by any of the masters what occurs is a letting go of attachments/expectations. If someone wants to be happy they need to be complete to obtain all truth and self-development and in following those truths to completion they will gain spiritual attainment, self-actualization, and the experience of happiness (Berar, 2009). What makes us not want to follow truth to completion? Vulnerability. Instead of steering us away from something it should take us towards it – serving as a roadmap pointing us in the right direction. Surrendering our vulnerability towards the completion of truth serves as an overall life enhancement (Berar, 2009).
Intimate relationships contain a large growth and transformation potential for the partnership and the individual members. Effective relationships require successful communication. Successful communication entails empathy, technique, and completion. The technique of nonviolent communication incorporates empathy, facilitating a clear expression of someone’s reality and what they need. It also employs active listening and urges the listener to repeat back to the speaker what they are hearing to better ensure accurate comprehension. Completion refers to making sure both parties have expressed everything within themselves regarding a certain topic or situation. Bringing conversations and situations to completion ensures both parties receive the full actualizing and transforming potential. This way of conscious communication allows us to maximize the benefit and potential of relationships for achieving personal growth.
Beath, A. (2006). A Guide for Conscious Activism. Shift, 12(10), 11.
Berar, N. Completion. Personal Interview conducted on March 24, 2009.
Frager, R., & Fadiman, J. (1998). Personality and personal growth. 4th Edition. New York: Longman.
Rogers, N. (2000). The creative connection: expressive arts as healing. Ross-on-Wye, UK: PCCS.
Rosenberg, M. (2003). The Center for Nonviolent Communication. Retrieved on March 22, 2009, from http://www.cnvc.org
Secker, J., Spandler, H., Hacking, S., Kent, L., Shenton, J. (2007). Art for Mental Health’s Sake. Mental Health Today, 34.
Webster, S., Clare, A., Collier, E. (2005). Creative Solutions: Innovative Use of Arts in Mental Health Settings. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing & Mental Health Services, 43(5), 42.