An inside job

The more I study and practice Compassionate Communication, the more I come to see that the key to this practice is the work we do in ourselves. I hear people express their frustration when they are not able to get someone to behave the way they want them to, and I hear others pronounce that someone they are in disagreement with will never want to connect. Evaluating another as unwilling to connect is in fact an alienating thought itself. It is so familiar to look outside of ourselves for the reason for our problems. We think that if only another person would change, then everything would be alright. The inner work of Compassionate Communication involves transforming our evaluations and judgments again and again until we are left with a connection to our common human needs.

Last summer, my beloved and I had a Union Ceremony, our version of a wedding. Surrounded by the support of family and friends, we celebrated our love and deepened our commitment to growing and loving together. In the weeks after our celebration, instead of a gloriously connected honeymoon phase, I was withdrawing and wanting more space. I didn’t know how to balance a deeper union with my partner while still keeping a sense of freedom and individuality in myself. I don’t know any easy answers to finding this balance. My beloved and I keep returning to a practice of taking responsibility for our inner work, and then deepening our connection together.

How do I know when it is time for inner work? When I’m not able to connect to and care about another’s needs equally with mine; when I have a story of judgments and blaming about someone; when I find myself avoiding or pulling away from someone without being connected to my needs, and without some understanding that the other person’s behaviour is the best way they know how to meet some of their needs.

When I’m attached to someone changing, I know I need some change in myself. Making clear requests of others to meet our needs is a very important part of relationship to be sure, but when they are subtle demands disguised as requests, we are unlikely to invite or deepen connection. I know I am making a request and inviting connection when I can hear a “no” from someone and my appreciation for them does not diminish, and when my intention continues to be connection- having both of our needs equally understood and valued. When deeper, core needs are involved, it can take some real effort and determination to get back to an intention of connection. I may need some time to myself or some support from an empathy buddy to help me to find connection to my needs and then with the needs of another.

When learning Compassionate Communication there can be a real focus on feelings and needs. Many of us have not had much education with feelings and needs and need to develop our awareness and fluency of feelings and needs. Also, because we all share the same feelings and needs, focusing on feelings and needs when relating to another is where we find heartfelt connection. Because we all see the world differently, it can be difficult to find agreement and connection when expressing our judgments, opinions, perspectives and beliefs. Therefore, in my experience, the “outer” work of finding connection with another comes in putting my attention on feelings and needs.

The “inner” work of Compassionate Communication involves transforming my judgments, opinions, perspectives and beliefs into feelings and needs, and from this self-connection looking past the judgments of others to their feelings and needs. Because we come from a culture of right/wrong, good/bad thinking, it can be easy to see feelings and needs as right or good and judgments and blaming as wrong or bad. So, in doing our inner work, we might want to go straight to exploring our feelings and needs and put aside any judgments we might have. If we remember that judgments and blaming are expressions of unmet needs, then we can see the value of paying attention to our judgments and blaming when we are trying to find inner connection.

If I have the inner space to witness my judgmental thoughts while in communication with another, then I pay attention to what needs these thoughts are pointing to. Once connected to my needs, I see if I can connect to the needs that are presently alive for whomever I am relating to. Other times, I need physical space in order to do my inner work because I have too much charge in me to witness and differentiate from my thinking: I don’t want to connect; I want to be right or get my way; I’ve forgotten that we are all connected. When I am in this state, it can be very helpful to give expression to my judgments by voicing them or writing them down. When I do this, I release some of the energy of holding them in, and I can look more closely at what needs they are trying to express. And hopefully I can see that none of my judgments are true, they are a story I am telling myself. After deepening my commitment with my beloved, a story that I had begun long before we met became stronger and more stuck in my thinking:

“I’m going to lose myself in relationship. There isn’t space for me to be me. She wants to control me. She thinks her needs are more important. Relationships don’t work. Love doesn’t last. I want to run and be alone.”

If I’m really stuck in believing this story, then saying the story again starting each sentence with, “I’m telling myself…,” can help me differentiate from my story. This is a helpful tool I learned from NVC Trainer Robert Gonzales ( If I look at my needs before differentiating from my story, then part of me will probably still believe the story and I won’t fully connect with my needs; my deep needs for individuality, autonomy, freedom, to know I matter, and to trust in loving another. So often, the story we are telling ourselves and the feelings connected to that story come from unmet needs from our past, especially when we are too charged to witness and differentiate from our thinking. Still, we just keep looking at the story we are telling ourselves, looking with curiosity and compassion, and then connecting in the present to the needs beneath the story.

Feelings that are attached to a story is suffering that helps keep me stuck as a victim waiting for the outside world to change. When I am able to be present with the feelings and sensations coming from my needs without any story, I am connected to my needs. There is an opening into the feelings instead of a tightening. They may be painful feelings, but it is pain connected to life, a sweet, spacious pain. This is mourning that helps me heal, connect to my wholeness, and create inner space – the inner space of compassion. Then I can ask myself, “How am I attending to these needs that are so precious to me? Am giving myself what I am wanting from others?”

What I need is to differentiate from my story that this inner work is work. It becomes inner play when I connect to how much more I enjoy life when I bring more consciousness to my stories, feelings and needs.

By Eric Bowers