Sam, a software engineer, came to me recently, seeking to learn about how Nonviolent Communication might help him respond to a workplace situation that had become intolerable. Specifically, Sam's boss, Tom, was assigning more work than could be reasonably completed in a 50-hour week, not leaving enough time for training before new projects (causing Sam to have to re-do others' work) and laying off workers with no warning, although Tom knew weeks ahead that he probably would be letting them go.
Although Sam had raised these concerns with Tom, Tom believed that this was “just business” and he had little regret for the impact his actions were having on his employees. The workplace stress had begun to make Sam physically ill.
When someone acts as though they don't care how their actions affect you - when things they tell you seem so unrelated to who you are that you want to look over your shoulder to see if they are talking to someone else - it's hard to respond with compassion.
Sometimes a person is in so much pain, or is so traumatized, that he or she does not have the capacity to empathize with, or “see”, other people. Here are five concrete steps you can take to maintain both your compassion and your integrity in such a relationship.
Step 1: Take some time to notice your judgments about the person's seeming lack of empathy and selfawareness. If there is anger and frustration, express it in a safe way, to a friend, in a journal, in prayer, etc. Then look for the pain beneath your judgments by asking yourself what you wish for in the situation. Honor that pain with great self-compassion. Honoring the pain beneath our judgments usually allows us to release them.
I asked Sam what his judgments of his boss were, and what they might indicate about Sam's own values. Sam judged Tom to be uncaring and cold. It was clear to Sam that he wanted to work in an environment where people are treated with dignity, care, and respect. These values seemed to be missing in his workplace, causing Sam (and others) distress. In our session, Sam dwelt for awhile on how deeply he cares about these values – dignity, care, and respectful treatment for all people - and felt a softening in himself as he did so.
Step 2: Having let go of your judgments of the other person, open your heart toward them by guessing what the values driving their actions might be.
For Sam, it seemed that his boss probably wanted very much to matter in the world – to be important and to be treated with respect himself. It seems that the boss's strategy for meeting his need to matter was to have a thriving and successful business. Although Sam didn't like his boss's strategy for success in his business, it wasn't hard to have compassion for how much his boss wanted to matter.
Step 3: From this clear-eyed perspective and with tenderness toward yourself and the other person, choose how much interaction you want to have with the person. Make this choice in full awareness of your reasons for staying in connection, with little expectation that the person will reciprocate your care.
Having your heart open to the person does not mean that you must be in contact with them. In fact, avoiding, leaving, or blocking the person may be necessary if the other person's inability to imagine your experience might put you in danger.
The next time I saw Sam, he told me that he had left his job. He had told his boss about his discomfort at work in a way that implied no blame for anyone. Sam's boss had said that he was sorry to see Sam go and wanted to be sure to stay connected and touch base regularly, to keep track of one another's ongoing careers and hold open the possibility of future collaboration.
Step 4: If and when you are in contact with the person, you can give them empathetic, listening presence, allowing yourself to truly see and care for him or her. Do this while maintaining awareness of your own needs and values, acknowledging to yourself that the person may be unable to see you or really have any empathy for your experience.
Step 5: Finally – perhaps most difficult – you can give the gift of your open mind, periodically offering the person the chance to empathize with you, holding open the possibility that he or she may have experienced growth or healing and developed a greater capacity for empathy.
The insights of Nonviolent Communication were invaluable to Sam as he navigated this transition. By becoming aware of his own core values and holding with tenderness the pain of their absence in his workplace, Sam was able to see his boss compassionately even though the boss could not reciprocate. This allowed Sam to leave his job without rancor.
In the face of someone unable to recognize our humanity, we can stand up for ourselves while continuing to recognize their humanity. This takes courage and self-awareness, strength and understanding, and support from caring others, but no one ever said that nonviolence was easy; only that it is the best way to a better world.
Pam Winthrop Lauer is a spiritual director and a teacher of Nonviolent Communication in St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S.A. She explains: “I have been learning with Miki Kashtan on a regular basis for two years now, and most of the ideas I am presenting here are profoundly shaped by Miki's work and the work of the founder of Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg. However they are my take on my teachers' work. If you would like to learn more about their ideas directly, I recommend reading Miki's blog, The Fearless Heart, or any of her books, as well as books by Marshall Rosenberg.” Pam can be reached at wpdj (at) usfamily (dot) net.