This brilliant book opens with a perfect analogy: “Communicating is a bit like learning an instrument. Playing scales is essential, but the aim is to make music.” I smiled and entered the book with an eagerness that’s often lacking when I read other books that prescribe a rigid list of rules and “shall nots.”
Sofer encourages readers to use this book as a field guide, to try the suggestions and see how they work, and to start small, in low-stakes situations. Fluent, open communication develops with practice, he notes, and this book provides useful approaches to help you learn how to put your own nonviolent communication into practice, and into the world.
At the highest level, the book is organized in four parts:
- The first step: Lead with presence
- The second step: Come from curiosity and care
- The third step: Focus on what matters
- Bringing it all together
If you pause to let those concepts settle, the basic framework is clear: be present, be curious, and stick with the part that really matters. As I think about my own instances of difficult and ultimately unsuccessful communication, it’s easy to spot the places I went wrong. I got lost in my own stuff and was busy fighting old battles instead of talking to my conversation partner in the moment; I was defensive (or they were defensive and I reacted); or we got off track and I went down one rabbit hole after another, until neither of us even remembered where we started. I imagine any one of those experiences is familiar to you, too.
Were these “violent” communications? Perhaps not as we may think about it: I didn’t hurl the dishes against the wall or threaten my conversation partner, but neither did we come out of the conversation feeling better, closer, or ahead of where we started. As Oren notes, intimacy is born in conflict, and if conflict cannot be navigated, intimacy withers and dies.
Except for the final chapter, “Conclusion,” each chapter provides a clear and thorough introduction to the topic at hand, gives the reader lots of opportunities to pause and reflect, and presents practices to help the reader put the material into action. Each also ends with a set of relevant principles, key points, and a few Q&As that came from actual workshops and seminars.
For example, Chapter 6 (Don’t Let the Call Drop) focuses on listening — a critical part of communication, even if it’s not the one you think of first. Lessons in this chapter address listening wholeheartedly, staying connected, reflecting before you respond (I wanted to emphasize the word before), and identifying your own roadblocks to empathy. The chapter concludes with three ways to practice empathy.
The key principle noted at the end of the chapter recognizes that “People are more likely to be willing to listen when they feel heard. To build understanding, reflect before you respond.” The Q&A section for this chapter deals with the question of a conversation partner wanting advice, and dealing with others who expect you to communicate in a certain way — both practical, real-world questions and solutions. From beginning to end, Chapter 6 teaches the interested readers everything they need to know about how to listen effectively, which means learning ways to allow the other person to feel heard and understood, and ways the listener can understand what is really going on.
Every reader is likely to read one chapter that is their own long-term sore spot. For me, it was Chapter 11: If You Want Something, Ask For It. Oh, the many ways we have of “communicating” what we want, and oh, those many ways that fail to communicate what we want.
The opening example in this chapter involved a young woman with chronic pain. Her family was moving and she needed to pack her boxes, but her pain was so great that she could only lie down. Why hadn’t she asked her parents or friends for help? It had never occurred to her. People sometimes just hope that others will see and understand what they need without their having to ask, or they ask in a passive way, or in an “I don’t want to bother you” way. The other person might figure out what we’re hoping they’ll do for us, but there is a much easier way, and that’s simply to ask – a revolutionary idea!
Sometimes we’ll be asking for help (“Can you help me with this box?”) and other times we’ll be asking about understanding (“What are you getting from what I just said?”). At times we will need to say no to a request for help, and undoubtedly there will be times when someone else says no to our request. This helpful chapter covers the range of situations in which we ask for help or someone asks for our help, with clarity and compassion, and with the clear goal of understanding and connection.
The short concluding chapter integrates the basic principles outlined in the book, provides next steps, and leaves the reader with the understanding that communication is not about the words you say. It’s not about memorizing a set of rigid rules — say this and don’t say that whatever you do — but is instead about looking inside yourself; listening to others with openness and a heartfelt intention to understand; and saying what you mean, clearly and in the moment, and with a focus on what matters. I was left with a feeling of optimism and an eagerness to practice these methods.
The book also includes a useful set of back matter: a summary of principles, a set of useful communication phrases, notes, a glossary, a list of further resources, and an index of the practices collected in the book, many of which link to companion guided audio exercises on the author’s website.
This book is a great addition to anyone’s reference shelf alongside books about living mindfully, approaches to healthy communication, and finding one’s own voice. I have an extensive collection of books on these topics, and this one is already flagged and tagged with notes and comments — and a great many exclamation points.
Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication
Shambhala Publications, December 2018
Paperback, 304 pages