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Articles from Compassionate Leadership News


Taking the Dread out of Saying No

By Faye Landey, CL Trainer

As I began to write this article, I realized that “saying no” can be one of the greatest sources of conflict and consternation in relationships.   Saying no brings fear and trepidation to both the person saying no and the one who might be hearing that awful word!  

“NO” is embedded in the domination system.  You dare not utter the word to an authority or you will face harsh punishment.  

“NO” is often taken personally as an expression of not caring.   It may be seen as rejection and abandonment.

“NO” is an establishment of autonomy.   From the age of two we begin to express our independence by saying “no” and for many adults this response still prevails.  (I love Thomas D’Ansembourg’s saying “I object, therefore I exist”).

Taking care of our own needs may be interpreted as being selfish, being inconsiderate, and not being a team player.  In some situations, it has become taboo to say no even though it may serve us better in the long run if acquiescing turns into resentment, overwhelm, or woe down the road.

We don’t have to avoid saying no if we would stop long enough to determine what needs are involved for each, and how those needs might be addressed.  (This may well be the hardest part of all… getting in touch with what needs are actually present).

WHY IS IT SO DIFFICULT TO SAY “NO”?  What seems to happen when you are faced with an appeal or invitation from another that somewhere way down deep inside just does not feel right?

Here is what I hear from people who are conflicted when they want to say no and acquiesce instead: 

I don’t want to hurt anyone:  “I am afraid to say no because I do not want to disappoint anyone”.  I then ask what might happen if another experiences disappointment?  “They will be mad at me, they will think harshly of me, and they will shut me out of their lives”.  Or “if I upset them, then it will be MY RESPONSIBILITY to make it better and to make them happy again.  I don’t want that on my shoulders”.

I want to be a good person:  “Even though I am too busy, too overwhelmed, and really don’t want to do this, I am saying yes because I believe it to be the right thing to do.  I really would like to do something nice”.  “I really want to be seen as a generous and giving person”.

This is something I would really enjoy doing:  “This sounds like something fun for me, and even though I do not have the time, energy, or resources I better not pass up this opportunity to do something I would like.”  I ask what might happen if you pass up this opportunity?  “I am afraid that I would regret it and sad if I did not take advantage of this.  They all might have fun without me.  I would be left out”.

ANTIDOTE:  pause, ask yourself the questions:

  1. What needs of mine would be MET by saying “no” to this appeal or invitation? 
  2. What needs of mine would go UNMET by saying “no” to this appeal or invitation?
  3. If I say “yes”, what needs would be met?
  4. If I say “yes” what needs would NOT be met?

If you determine that saying NO would actually meet more needs, here are some tips that may help to say no in a compassionate way

Steps to saying no:  

I  Be sure the other person knows that you heard their request.

  1. “You would like for me to come to dinner tonight and you have made a special meal just for me.”
  2. Acknowledge what you see as the need behind that request"I appreciate your wanting us to get together (street giraffe for “are you needing connection”).  And I so appreciate your preparing a special meal for me (street giraffe for “you really wanted to contribute to my being nurtured”).

II  Get in touch with your own “need” that would prevent you from saying yes: 

"I am in such a state of overwhelm with my schedule and I promised myself I would not say yes to anything after 5:00 pm on a workday.  I so need quiet solitude which really helps me to get grounded."

III  To maintain the connection and relationship honor the other person’s need (for connection and contribution), make a suggestion that might meet both needs: 

“I equally want us to be together, and know how much joy you get from cooking a great meal.   Would it work for us to get together on a weekend afternoon for lunch?  Say this coming Sunday at noon?  I would enjoy being with you when I am relaxed.”

Remember that saying no does not have to be a source of consternation.  With some practice, it might actually bring a closer connection.


Tending the Field of Compassion: an NVC Practice Event

By Raffi Aftandelian

All that the thirty-odd participants (excluding the four dogs and one cat who wanted to join us but couldn't) did was sit in a circle, post topics that had the most life for them, and then got to work.  Longtime practitioners of NVC as well as complete newcomers to the practice gathered for a day at the nurturing home of Amy McQuillan, Compassionate Leadership participant and SDNVC Core Group member, to practice NVC intensively.

It was another application of Open Space Technology (OST), gathering people together to practice and learn NVC.  OST has been used for years in the NVC community around the world.  To the best of our knowledge, however, it's the first time it's been used in the San Diego NVC community.  For the uninitiated, OST is a very simple, powerful way of holding inspiring and productive meetings, conferences, and learning events for groups of any size.

The driver and the essence of OST is the “Law of Two Feet,” which is framed as “If you find yourself in a place you can neither learn nor contribute, you are responsible to use your feet and move to somewhere you can.”  Sometimes, it is framed as “Take responsibility for what you love as an act of service.”  This seems in alignment with following the NVC question, “What is alive for you?”

Speaking as the “caller” and lead facilitator of “Tending the Field of Compassion,” the process of organizing this event was a very rich learning experience for all of us.

I have worked with OST for close to 10 years in contexts as varied as a Chechen refugee camp to Eurasia's second-largest cellular services company. As someone very skeptical of impressive claims about a method, it took me several years to truly believe in the power of OST, not just as a conference and meeting method, but also as a vehicle for self-organizing, self-directed co-learning.  Although I've been practicing NVC for a little over a year, I've known about the approach for close to 20 years.  It has been delightful to discover the commonalities of these two approaches.  Perhaps the most moving for me is that at their core they are spiritual practices.

A primary motivation in extending the invitation to collaborate on this event is that I really wish deeply for partnership and have never really been satisfied with most trainings and workshops with a preset agenda. This daylong gathering was one means of taking responsibility for creating what I wish to experience in learning and practicing NVC.

It seems that everyone was delighted, inspired, and satisfied with the day. It was an opportunity to practice, teach, learn, and make new connections.  It was exciting that we saw there are many resources in the community to draw on, a wealth of experience.  And all it took was just to put an invitation out and people responded, including from Orange County, Los Angeles, and beyond.

While OST is a very simple meeting method which does not require a lot of preparation, we put a lot of care and time in the planning phase.  The originator of OST, Harrison Owen encourages people “not to work too hard” in organizing OST events and while we had this intention, we worked hard. Perhaps, we had a wish for competence in getting it “right” the first time around?

The biggest question for the group before a final decision was taken to move forward with the event as a team might be framed as:  “How can we be sure that NVC will be practiced with integrity if people are free to do anything they wish to in the course of the day?”

I found myself and others on the team giving this question a lot of thinking.  And as I type these words, I realize that this is probably a “ZEN-NVC” koan. There are two answers to this question. The first answer: “We can't.” In other words, this is the main challenge any sponsor of an OST event will find.

Can we really pay the (high?) entry fee to a successful OST event and let go? ...let go of our expectations, attachments, desire to control, and really trust everyone to operate from the living energy of needs?

The second answer could be a question, “How can the form of an NVC practice event using OST as its format be adjusted in such a way that invites the spirit and practice of NVC while maintaining the integrity of the meeting approach?”

We found ourselves giving extra care and attention to how we expressed the instructions and the invitation for the day in the opening of the event, so that it really was in line with the spirit of NVC.  This meant speaking more directly to how the Law of Two Feet might be practiced for this event, encouraging self-connection throughout the day and engaging with the group about how personal learning needs might be met.  We practicing how to express this a number of times with co-facilitator Nicole Pallai Green in the presence of team members, John Michno and David McCain. And this team practice was invaluable for setting the tone for what was a smooth, powerful opening that set the tone for the rest of the day.

Also, in the pre-event information and in the opening we invited people to hold two questions: 

  • “What could a fruitful daylong NVC practice event be?”
  • “How do I want to contribute to making that possible?”

These questions were inspired from the Art of Hosting community of practice, which like a number of process arts communities finds great utility in posing powerful heart-based questions as a way of inviting personal responsibility and leadership. And in this case, these questions were offered as an alternative to strategies that, while well-known, I resonate less with these days: “ground rules,” “group agreements,” or even “guidelines”.  No doubt, there are times when using these could be useful, especially when there is doubt about the safety of the space.

At this point, it is hard to know whether these questions “worked” - whatever that means!  However, my best guess right now is that for an NVC practice event using OST, using these questions in the opening is probably a good idea.

This article reflects the views of the author only and does not represent opinions or perspectives of the San Diego NVC Core Group nor of the other co-hosts of the North Park Compassionate Communication Practice Gathering, the event sponsor.

For further reading on Open Space Technology:

Open Space Technology: a User's Guide. 3rd edition. Harrison Owen. The nuts and bolts book on OST.

Practice of Peace. Harrison Owen.
Owen shares how OST is an approach to peacemaking.

Understanding Open Space. A 5 CD Audio series on Open Space from a training given by Harrison Owen.

Genuine ContactTM Program. GCP is an approach to holistically creating and sustaining healthy and balanced organizations and communities. This program includes a carefully considered approach to working with OST, which influenced the preparation, design, facilitation, and follow-up of this daylong NVC practice gathering. A book describing this practice was released this year.

Living Peace: the open space of our lives, an initial consideration of the personal practice of Open Space. Edited by Raffi Aftandelian
A collaboratively written e-book on Open Space as a spiritual practice, with contributions from around the world.

Author:  Raffi Aftandelian
858 736 4611

co-host of the North Park Compassionate Communication Practice Gathering.
Member of the San Diego NVC Core Group, San Diego, CA


Being Haole in Hawaii

by Marina Smerling, CL10 Participant

 "What Does It Mean to Be 'Haole' in Hawaii?     Haole, to clue you in, has meanings as varied as "white person," "foreigner," and "without breath" (stemming from the Hawaiians' references to the original missionaries who did not partake in the Hawaiian traditional greeting of pressing nose-to-nose to breath with another).  Haole, for the most part, however, is used to refer to a "white person."  

As part of my Compassionate Leadership Plan, I wanted to create an event here in Hawaii for “A Conscious Community Dialogue to Support Racial Healing and Social Change."  

My idea behind this event was, initially, to bring white people together to talk about what it means to be white in Hawaii, with the intention of contributing to awareness of our impact on the islands and cultivating a sense of respect and honor for the land, its peoples, and their history.  

To begin, the days leading up to the event were nerve wracking.  I had no idea who would show up (white, Hawaiian, or any other color), and if people would show up only to scream names and throw chairs at one another.  Two days before the event I received a phone call from a Hawaiian woman who was enraged, thinking this was going to be an event for white people to complain about Hawaiians and "reverse racism," and with no one to be held accountable to.  She screamed, "You want to know what it means to be 'Haole'?  It means people like you who own everything!  People like you who control everything!  You think you can come here and take over and have no respect for the Hawaiian people!"  

She announced herself as a Hawaiian cultural leader and said she planned to rally the community to come and protest the event.  She added, furthermore, "I'm six feet tall and weigh 250 pounds!  And I bet you're a skinny little white girl!"

My teeth clattered and bones rattled, fear struck straight into my heart, my worst nightmare - offending and isolating myself from those with whom I want to connect, and ultimately support in being empowered.

I pleaded with her to listen to me, to let me tell her who I am and what my intention was, and she calmed down and listened.  To my amazement and relief, there was then a shift in the conversation in which I experienced more openness and opportunity for dialogue.  In the end, we talked for a couple of hours on the phone while she gave me advice on how to make the event welcoming to Hawaiian people, and even volunteered to lead a Hawaiian chant, or oli, on the day of the event to properly begin the dialogue.

From there, everything got easier.  About 44 people showed up to the event on a Saturday afternoon, mostly white folks, with a handful of Hawaiian and Hawaiian/Filipino mixed folks.  

My new Hawaiian friend Anne led the oli, I explained my intentions, and then we went around the room sharing what had drawn us to the event.   No chairs were thrown, not even any violent words.  Rather everyone, it seemed, came with the intention to contribute to healing in some form or another.  

The most notable theme was that of white folks in the room saying that they wanted "harmony," "unity," "to see each other as human beings," and "to move beyond the past."  While there was one young Hawaiian man who shared this sentiment, the older Hawaiians, including a kumu, or teacher / source of knowledge, spoke of their desire for newcomers to the island to "learn the history," "to understand our call for sovereignty," and offered several good resources for brushing up on one's Hawaiian history, including the book, The Broken Trust.  

What I took from this was a strong message that while yes, we may all want unity, the Hawaiian people need a lot of empathy for the pain of their struggle and disenfranchisement, the pain of having lost their land and self-determination.  All the same, the elder Hawaiians were notably gracious with the white folks in the room, saying things such as "this is not about you personally," and "you are all our brothers and sisters."  I was touched by this beyond words.  Needs for hope for healing deeply met.

The press release prior to the event sparked a lot of angry back-and-forth comments online, which were further reflected in an email I received from a Hawaiian woman after the event, who had not attended, suggesting this was an event not needed by the Hawaiian community, and complaining that I had not consulted Hawaiian leaders before planning this.  This point has been a place of strong learning for me, as indeed, I believe it was a reflection of my white privilege to create an event on my own, like a pioneer, the "old-fashioned, self-reliant" way.  The irony in this is that I had felt incredibly alone in preparing for the event, able to find only one friend (for whom I am eternally grateful!) to help me set-up.  It would have served not only the Hawaiian people, but my own liberation, had I reached out to the Hawaiian community to seek guidance as to how to create this event and, in particular, how to word a flyer that would feel supportive to Hawaiians, rather than threatening.

At the event, however, I met several individuals with whom I will be collaborating in the near future to create follow-up events.  I will be meeting with the kumu this weekend to talk about next steps.  Am celebrating these newfound connections, moving forward in collaboration, community, connection.  Not alone.

This feels like a beginning, really, on Kauai - a door creaking open ever so slightly.  I heard it time and again, that I had opened "a can of worms" and "a hot can of chili."  I'm grateful that the can has opened in a way that has me hopeful that we can meet needs for learning, coming together, and, ultimately, healing of some of the pain of separation, of rejection, a sense of not being seen and not mattering that I see as having so infected many Hawaiians here.  Likewise, I have hope that this can happen in a way that meets needs for inclusion for those from the "mainland" or, as it is often referred to here, "da big rock."

More than a particular outcome, then, what I celebrate is this opening and a possibility that I see for people coming together.  I thank you for being my community and my support, for helping to stoke this fire of stepping into uncharted territory, and encouragement to follow my intention to bring about healing, not knowing how or what that will look like....


Journaling with Compassion

By Rodger Sorrow CL Trainer

If we want to reap the benefits of Nonviolent Communication, it requires that we practice, practice, practice.  My three favorite strategies for practice or increasing fluency and building skills are empathy buddies, journaling and practice groups.  Journaling has the advantage of being the one that we can do almost anytime and anywhere by our self. 

Journaling is a way to practice and deepen our self-empathy.  We can slow the process down, notice our jackals and translate them to needs.  With practice we become quicker and the process easier to connect to our selves.  There are a variety of formats that work well and my preference is that jackals, observations, feelings, needs and requests are included. 

This is a list of possible topics or areas to explore with journaling.  Enjoy the practice.

1.   Gratitude; noticing anything that brings me joy

2.   Appreciation for myself

3.   Moments of stuckness

4.   Moments of withdrawal or shut down

5.   Moments of anger

6.   Moments of discomfort

7.   Moments of uncertainty

8.   Moments when my heart is shut down

9.   Moments when I’m not present

10. What’s wrong with me?  This would be judgments of self

11. What other people do that I hate.  These are my judgments of others.

12. Fears; What I’m afraid other people think about me.

13. With-holds; this is those things that I am afraid to express to others

14. Regrets, this a list of those things I’ve said or done and wish I hadn’t.

15. The Beauty and Living Energy of a Need

16. Celebrations

17. Resentment

18. Mourning – acknowledging needs not met

19. Conversations from the past with a parent or loved one that aren’t complete

20. A recent Conflict

21. The feelings and needs of someone I have been mad at

22. Appreciation and gratitude for someone I want more connection with

23. Learning; what insight I gained


The Art of Defensiveness and Its Effect on Compassion

by Faye Landey, CL Trainer

A comment is made and in a split second something happens inside of us that triggers a reaction.  We are compelled to defend or explain ourselves as if some criticism or blame was imbedded in the comment.   Speaking defensively has become so widespread in our language that it is actually outside of our awareness, and yet the effect of defending ourselves can be an impediment to compassion when we jump to uphold our own position before we respond to the other person first.

Let’s take a look at how that happens:

The words spoken to you can be as innocent as, “the trash is still where I left it.” or “I called you yesterday and left a message on your voice mail.”  Suddenly something in you feels responsible to EXPLAIN YOURSELF, or you feel obligated to extricate yourself from any guilt!!  Look for your own “should thinking”:  “Uh oh, I should have taken out the trash myself.” or “Darn, I knew I should have returned the call.”

In the examples above, nothing has been asked of you in the words that are spoken.  And truth be known, you do not really know what the other person wants.  And it is what the other person wants that is the catalyst to COMPASSION.  

Using the example of “the trash is still where I left it,” in the purest sense there are no words that indicate a WRONGDOING on your part…just an observation of where the trash currently is.

Way beneath your radar of awareness--that’s why it is called SUB-conscious--a whole litany of conversation is going on: “Oh no, I have done something wrong.”  “When I do something wrong, they will get mad, and I will be punished.”  “I’d better clear myself of this wrongdoing or I could be banished.”

The internal subconscious conversation is getting worse by the millisecond!  

“And if I am banished, I will suffer annihilation and will surely die out there in the wilderness!”  

“Yikes!  I must do something immediately to protect myself!”   

Our neurophysiology has been wired to work this way as a result of the necessity of belonging to the clan thousands of years ago when survival depended on the protection of the collective community and the possibility of dying alone was quite probable if you were banished.  Today, even if you had agreed to take out the trash, and you did not, chances of your being banished and dying alone is remote.  Your protective brain wiring however signals otherwise.

Here are some sample DEFENSIVE statements that might blurt unconsciously out of your mouth.

“I was going to do that, but I had to rush to get to work and I just did not have time to do everything.”   

“I did not know today was trash day.  Nobody told me.”

“I was just so upset about my friend that I forgot.”

Your reactive brain is in full gear for defensiveness which can show up as “FLIGHT”:  (I must get away from this impending danger) or even worse, you can go into the protective mode of “FIGHT,” and your subconscious can move to attack:  (I can overpower this threat by fighting back).

Sample attack statement:

Take the *&^%#  trash out yourself if it is so important to you.”

“You are a compulsive neurotic neat freak—get a life.”

Uh Oh!  Now it has started…Once we defend or attack a person, what is their response? --- don’t be surprised if they go into a counter attack!  Their unconscious reactivity, like yours, also goes into action! 

And now what do we have?  A battle of wits coming from the auto-pilot subconscious level of protective defense.     


Antidote #1:  This could be the most difficult:   Put yourself on STOP/WAIT/PAUSE long enough to assess that you are NOT in danger of DYING!  And you really don’t have to say anything at this moment.

Antidote #2:  Breathe.  Deeply.  Several times, turning your focus on your breathing.  This will quell your reactivity.

Antidote #3:  Become aware that you are triggered.  (Yikes, I am feeling annoyed and if I don’t explain myself something bad will happen).

Antidote #4:  Get in touch with your own conscious negative thoughts.  (I cannot stand this nagging about the trash, and I have to stop it immediately).  Curtail your inclination to respond from this state!

Antidote #5:  Notice what YOU DO WANT rather than what you don’t want.  This will bring you to a positive state and get you out of attack mode.  (I want some peace and respect.  And I want to be appreciated.  I want to be free of criticism.)  Concentrate on how nice it would be to get what you want.

Antidote #6:  Give yourself some of that which you want.  Appreciate yourself by writing down something you are glad you have done today.  And remember to empower yourself on a daily basis - get in the habit of acknowledging yourself for what you appreciate about you!   Be sure to give yourself special time to rest, exercise, eat healthy fresh foods, and meditate every day for your own peace!

Antidote #7:  Get this – it is important.  The other person wants the same thing:  respect, appreciation, acknowledgement, for example.

Try this – rather than defending yourself, shift the attention to the other person with the intention to offer the same consideration you would like. 

You can jump into your compassionate mode by offering a simple response to the other person.  Acknowledge what the other person is saying and guess what they might be feeling.  “Are you bummed that the trash is still there, and you would really like to have it out of the house?”  Then the all-powering connecting question,  “What are you thinking might help you through this right now?”  “And how might I be part of that?”

-------------Be sure to catch our next newsletter for the sequel – “Saying no in a connecting way”

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