I had the great pleasure of interviewing Marcia Christen in advance of her upcoming series, “The Power of Empathy for Supporting Connected Communication.” I found Marcia to be very grounded in both the practical application of her work with Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and the wider implications for social change, starting with our closest relationships. She brings a wealth of teaching experience, her own personal transformation story, and a tenderness for what it means to be a human in relationship to all we love. Read more about Marcia at her website: http://www.compassionate-language.com - Neva Welton
In Marcia’s words…
I met Sue Steindorf at a free class designed for parents interested in increasing resiliency in their teenagers. I was drawn to Sue’s energy and began coming to the Center. We started to brainstorm about a class I could offer the Dayaalu community based on my work with Nonviolent Communication. We discussed the challenge of maintaining awareness, especially with those we love, and the importance of being able to choose how we respond in relationships. In this way, our actions become a movement toward living in alignment with our values, which includes fostering loving kindness.
I came to NVC as a parent. It expanded my sense of personal empowerment and understanding and helped me to improve the relationships with my children, which was paramount to me. My kids were 8 and 10 years old at that time and I realized we had already developed deep patterns that did not align with my values. This awareness hit me very hard. I had been a parent educator before I had children but then my kids came along and I knew my parenting style wasn’t working. I didn’t know how to deal with my feelings. I didn’t know how to teach them about their feelings. All I knew is what I had been taught which was to tell them what they were doing wrong. So, when I came to the work of NVC, I began to understand myself. I gained more clarity and became calmer so I could be with my kids however they showed up. I’m so grateful to have found a more compassionate language. I thought I had done a lot of personal work, but somewhere inside I knew there was another way to be connected with my children. My soul needed this practice; my whole being needed it.
So, I started going to practice groups and trainings. Since I was teaching at the time, I jumped in with two feet and started using NVC in the classroom. The kids picked up on the ideas very quickly and we were able to develop a greater sense of connection. Once this happened, it accelerated our capacity to explore and learn. It was a wonderful feeling. After that, I became a certified trainer and began working in a women’s’ prison. I learned so much and was transformed by the experience. I began to see how the work ripples out. Once a person is heard, they’re able to hear the next person, and the next person, and so on. This is the essence of empathy.
Empathy is such a large concept and I really didn’t understand it until my work with NVC. It’s a quality of presence where you’re able to be non judgmental with yourself and others. A presence that says, “I’m with you in your experience.” Ultimately, the intention is about connection. Listening with your heart. Not the kind of listening that has us wondering what we are going to say next, or worrying about what we may be doing wrong, or thinking about how to console or problem solve. It’s being open and listening for emotions, for what someone is experiencing, and what is important to them. It’s listening for feelings and needs. Whether we reflect what we are hearing or simply acknowledge it within, there’s something that happens in that space that allows the other person to touch what is in their heart and what matters. Empathy is about meeting one another in our humanness.
Another dimension of empathy is self-empathy. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is one thing, but how do we show empathy for ourselves? It’s a very important piece of the work. It’s so grounding to say, “What am I feeling? What’s important to me right now? Why does this trigger me?” Our feelings are telling us something very important, so identifying them is key.
Before learning NVC, I thought feelings were just good or bad. I’m a very emotive person and was told all my life I was too sensitive. It was liberating to accept and welcome all of my feelings, but not have them control me. I could have feelings and connect into the deeper needs. In this way, I learned that if I want trust or reassurance, then I have the choice to move toward it instead of waiting for the world to give it to me.
People come to me and say, “Marcia, you want me to tell you how I am feeling, but I have no idea how I am feeling. I stuffed my feelings many years ago, so how do I find them again?” The practice is to come back to trusting that our feelings are giving us information. It’s about slowing down and becoming aware of what is going on in our bodies—a tightness here, a warmth there. It’s about getting our feeling vocabulary back.
I think NVC integrates so well with Dayaalu because a yoga practice has so many connections to this work. When we hold a position and we breathe, we know what’s going on in our bodies. I’ve noticed that yoga teachers seem to be very drawn to the work. The same is true for any kind of mindfulness meditation practice. Having the ability to attend is really helpful. Having said that, I have taught people from all walks of life and know the work has had a positive impact on their relationships.
My approach is to create a safe container, to share myself authentically, and to use gentle humor. The work can be challenging, and though I have much to contribute, I see myself as a co-explorer with participants. Sure, we need a form, and we need the framework and explanation, but I want people to feel and experience the work. This is a heart language. It’s about coming back into our bodies and what they’re telling us about our feelings and our deepest values. The work is done experientially, in a way that is comfortable for people, and we learn from the process. Together we create a space were transformation can happen.
My hope is that participants walk away with solid practices for grounding and increasing their awareness, to translate judgments of themselves or others and find more empowering ways to speak and listen from the heart. To access a deeper understanding of what empathy is and how they can listen to themselves and others in that way. Also, to understand their deepest needs and to see theirs and others behaviors more clearly. When they have that “needs” consciousness it helps to bring in a new perspective that allows them to not take things so personally, and to know people are doing the best they can.
I believe all of us want to have meaningful connections, to love and be loved. So how do we live love? How do we contribute love? MarshalRosenburg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication, spoke a lot about social change. He said families are our most basic social system. So, making changes in the family is important for healing the world. If a person has the skills to speak and listen in such a way that connects and it’s less about “us and them,” then that energy emanates out. When I go to the prison, for example, that’s what I concentrate on: How do I be love? It’s a harsh environment. So what if instead of coming to teach them something, what if they just felt that love as a fellow human, as a sister. NVC is not only about personal transformation; it’s also about how compassion and empathy affects our relationships at every level. I simply love the work and have seen it change lives.
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