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“Use your words.” As a kid, that’s the extent of what I was taught about communication. As the years went by, I learned about times tables, the French Revolution, and condom use. But somehow my education on how to communicate effectively with other human beings never evolved beyond, “when you have a problem with someone, you should talk about it.” To be sure, that’s great advice. But it begs the question: how?

It wasn’t until I discovered the work of Marshall Rosenberg that I found the answer. Here are his four steps to dramatically improving communication.

OBSERVE, DON’T EVALUATE 

The first step to effective communication is to learn to make observations instead of evaluations. Evaluation involves sweeping statements about a person’s character, assumptions about someone’s intentions, or the use of judgmental words. Observation means simply noting the facts of a specific situation.

Notice the difference, for example, between saying, “You’re a flake,” and “You called me to cancel half an hour before we were supposed to hang out.”

EXPRESS FEELINGS

The next step is expressing feelings. A very human tendency is to mix up thoughts and feelings. “I feel that you’re a flake” is a thought, not a feeling. Feelings in such a situation may include sadness, frustration, anger, insecurity, disappointment, or even relief.

Notice the difference between saying “I feel like you don’t care about me” and “I feel sad.”

CONNECT FEELINGS TO NEEDS

This step is critical. Our tendency is to blame other people for our feelings and say something like “I feel this way because you did that.” In reality, our feelings are the consequence of our needs, not another person’s behaviour.

Imagine our scenario. If our need is for connection, intimacy, or reassurance, then a friend bailing on us will probably leave us feeling hurt, sad, or disappointed. But if our need is for solitude, then we’re likely to feel relieved or even happy when our friend bails. Therefore, it is our unique needs that determine our feelings, not the situation. (Note: some needs, like safety, are not unique but universal and constant.)

In our example, notice the difference between “I feel like you don’t care about me because you bailed on me” and “I felt sad because I was really hoping to connect with you.”

MAKE REQUESTS 

We tend to expect people to know what we want and resent them for not guessing. Or we avoid asking for what we want so we don’t seem “selfish.” Or we tell people what to do. None of these are inherently wrong, but they’re also not very effective or sustainable ways of getting our needs met. Making requests, by contrast, gives us the best chance that people will respond positively to our needs.

That being said, sometimes people say no. And that’s allowed. If someone consistently says no to our requests, we may want to re-evaluate whether or not we want them to be a central part of our lives.

Putting it all together, effective communication would look something like this: “When you cancelled half an hour before we were supposed to hang out (observation), I felt sad (feeling), because I was really hoping to connect with you (need). In the future, do you think you could give me at least a few hours of notice (request)?”

Now that’s some badass communication.

John works as a therapist in Waterloo.