How to talk about feelings when others find it uncomfortable?
In Nonviolent Communication we are encouraged to express (and listen for) feelings and needs. Feelings and needs are a central part of what is alive in us in any moment, and when expressed we increase the chances of creating connection between us and others.
I was asked the other day….
“How can I talk about feelings with other people when doing so is often uncomfortable, people aren’t used to it. How can we handle that?”
Thanks for the question. Here are my reflections…
Assuming that others are available to listen
Talking about our feelings and our needs is a strategy. A strategy is a way of meeting one or more needs (I eat a piece of fish (strategy) to meet my need for nourishment). I find that sharing my feelings and needs with others is a strategy for meeting my needs for connection and self-expression.
When another person listens to and understands me then my needs for connection and self-expression are met.
So I need other people in order to meet my needs. Yes, I can on my own meet my needs for connection (self-connection via meditating) and self-expression (painting or playing music). Yet I very much enjoy meeting my needs with the help of others.
I enjoy experiencing the interdependence of all human beings. The reality that my actions impact on others and theirs on me.
In other words, if another is willing to listen to me express myself fully (my feelings and needs) then they are helping me meet my needs. When I experience interdependence I feel open heartedness and compassion arise in me.
So why am I saying all this?
Because in my experience it is easy to forget that when people listen to me they are giving me a gift. It is easy to think that people should listen to me if I have something important to say. Especially if those people are my partner, my parents, my good friends.
But when I believe that people should listen to me I am creating a demand on the other person.
I am coming at them with a demand type of energy – “you need to listen to me now” – and this energy creates resistance in them and it creates dependency in me. It is not the state of consciousness that I want to nourish nor live in.
So what state of consciousness do I want to live in?
A state of consciousness of interdependence. Where I come from a place that knows that all human needs are of equal importance. And that my well being and your well being are one and the same. When your well-being (needs) are met then my well-being (needs) is also met.
“The survival of our species depends on our ability to recognise that our well being and the well being of others are in fact one and the same” Marshall Rosenberg
So why am I saying all this? How is this related to the question?
It’s related like this….
In any conversation I have with another whereby I would like to express what is alive in me (feelings and needs) I don’t want to assume that they are available to listen to me.
I don’t want to demand that they should be able to be with me now.
I want to come from a consciousness of openness and curiosity. “I would so love to share what’s alive in me now, are you available to listen?”
Because I know that if I share without asking them and they aren’t available to listen then my needs for connection and self-expression won’t really be met nor will their needs for autonomy (saying “no” when they really want to say “no”) be met.
When I care for their needs for autonomy, by checking with them whether they would like to listen to me, I also care for my own well being.
So if I were to put this into a practical set of steps I would say:
When wanting to talk about feelings with another:
- Don’t assume that they are available to listen. First check with them – “I would love to share some of my internal experience with you, are you available to listen to me now?”
So as a direct answer to the question – “How can I talk about feelings with other people when doing so is often uncomfortable, people aren’t used to it?” –
I’d say that….
…Yes it can be uncomfortable for others to talk about feelings. Therefore before I begin doing so I first want to check with them whether they’d like that. I want to pave the way for them. I don’t just want to run in like a bulldozer and share my feelings. I first want to make sure that they are comfortable with that. And in doing so I achieve what NVC is all about – connection. Because before I share anything I take a moment to ensure we are connected, together. I check with them “are you open to listening?” and then I wait for their answer. We are together and this is NVC in action.
Expressing my feelings
If they are available to listen then we can move to step 2 – self-expression.
One reason why talking about feelings can be uncomfortable is that we believe that we can be the cause of other people’s feelings.
Our society and most people in it would not question these statements:
- You made me so mad
- You hurt me yesterday
- Her behaviour makes me so sad.
All of these statements imply that another person made me feel a certain feeling. And we are so used to thinking in this way (so am I of course) that we don’t even question whether the fundamental belief that these statements are based on is actually true.
Marshall Rosenberg holds as a key tenet of NVC that no one can make us feel anything. We are responsible for our own feelings.
When I went and observed whether that’s true for me I noticed time and again that it is.
One day my partner said to me “why didn’t you do the laundry today” and I felt hurt.
The next day my partner said to me the same thing “why didn’t you do the laundry?” and I didn’t feel anything. I just answered the question.
I could see that it wasn’t my partner that made me feel hurt, or indifferent, it was the internal state that I was in at that moment.
In the first example I was feeling sensitive during that day and I was telling myself my particular painful stories that “I’m not good enough”, “I’m not productive enough” and “I don’t do enough around the house”. So of course when she came and said “why didn’t you do the laundry.” I felt hurt. I was already hurting and so wasn’t able to hear her question as anything but an attack on my worth as a human being/partner.
Likewise the second time she said it I was in a different internal state so I didn’t feel hurt. I was feeling more content with myself and wasn’t telling myself stories about how I’m not enough the way I am. I was actually in a state of being relatively kind to myself and so I didn’t hear her stateent as an attack, rather just as a question that she genuinely wanted to know the answer to.
This example is one of many for me where I see how I am responsible for the feelings that I feel.
Others are triggers but not the cause.
Others are like a match lighting a gas stove. The gas has to be on in order for the match to have any effect. I am in charge of whether the gas is on and how much gas is flowing. If the gas is off (e.g. I’m in a calm and connected internal state) then the match will have no effect at all – the gas won’t light. But if the gas is flowing strongly (I’m in a troubled internal state) then the slightest flame from a match will lead me to igniting into a “boom”!
So how does all this relate to our question about talking about feelings being uncomfortable for people?
Because if I believe that I’m responsible for causing your feelings then I will be very uncomfortable when you start telling me how you are feeling. I will be afraid that you will tell me that you’re feeling hurt, or irritated or sad because I will be believing that if you feel those things it’s because of something that I’ve done or said. And that for me is an experience of unbearable guilt and pain. The last thing I want do is to cause another hurt.
Because if I’m responsible for how you feel and you feel hurt or sad, then that’s because of me, right? How tragic of a way to live. How painful.
Likewise I will be uncomfortable sharing my feelings with you. Because I really care about our relationship, our connection. I really don’t want to talk about my feelings because I’m afraid you will think that you are responsible for them and therefore feel guilt thus leading to our connection being weakened.
So when talking about feelings is done from a consciousness that says “I can cause another to feel something” then of course it will be uncomfortable. It won’t just be uncomfortable, it will be unbearable. All of the time we will be tip-toeing about trying to not offend one another and afraid that this conversation will be more hurtful than anything else.
So what do I suggest here?
I find two steps that are supportive for me:
- Be clear within myself that I am not the cause for another person’s feelings. If I carry this clarity it will be more likely that the other person will believe it too. I can stimulate another’s feelings but not cause them. They are the cause of their feelings through their own stories that they carry with them and underneath those stories unmet needs of theirs.
- Communicate this to them. I find it supportive, especially when talking with people that haven’t been exposed to this way of communicating, to let them know my take on things. I tell people “I really believe that you cannot be the cause of my feelings, that you can trigger them but that the cause is in me and that I am responsible for them. So when I share my feelings now I want you to know that I share from that place. That I have every intention not to imply any blame or accusation on you. That my sole intention in sharing is actually connect with you by revealing what is alive in me now. I’d love you to jump in at any moment that you hear my sharing as blame. That all sound ok to you?”
So to summarise the 3 steps. Before having a conversation whereby I share feelings with another:
- Inner clarity – I cannot be the cause of another’s feelings, nor they of mine
- Check if they are open – “I’d love to share my feelings with you, are you open to hearing them?”
- Share your inner clarity
I’d be glad to know if this post resonates with you?
I’m a certified coach therapist supporting and guiding those desiring more compassion and connection to themselves and in their relationships. I weave together nonviolent communication and mindfulness.