cultivating compassion

Practices for Cultivating Compassionate Communication Skills

by Marsha Rakestraw

Sometimes I have a dream in which I run door-to-door in my neighborhood. I bang on the door until someone answers, and then I grab them by the shirt and scream at them to stop doing things that hurt other beings and to start being compassionate RIGHT NOW!

Fortunately, I have better self-control in my waking hours.

When I was a newly-awakened activist, I didn’t know that castigating and arguing and trying to mentally will people into changing their behaviors weren’t effective strategies.

Surely once everyone knew what I knew, they’d want to change, too. Surely I could shame them into being more compassionate.

Dr. Melanie Joy says, “… when the beauty of well-chosen words is combined with zealous passion and steadfast self-righteousness, the result can be intoxicating.”

As much as it can make us feel temporarily better to vent our negative emotions at people we perceive as perpetrators (or at least condoners) of suffering and destruction, if we really want to make positive changes for people, animals, and the earth, we must learn not only to communicate with compassion, but to find our empathy and compassion for those who cause suffering and destruction.

One of the most important skills we humane educators and changemakers can cultivate is compassionate, effective communication.

There are a lot of important elements in compassionate communication. Here are several practices compassionate communicators use:

Practice daily self-reflection.
Examining and remembering our own paths is vital to our ability to communicate compassionately. It is humbling to remember that we, too, once ate animals or shopped at big box stores or regularly used disposable plastic. Having a daily practice of self-reflection (journaling, meditation, whatever…) gives pause to our ego’s ability to think we are in some way(s) better than others because we make this or that choice.

Self-refection also helps us to analyze the areas in which we’re not making choices that do the most good/least harm and to determine what we can do about it. Gently questioning ourselves is a more effective means of nurturing our own continued changes, rather than belittling or condemning ourselves (which can lead to condemning others).

Speak kindly and politely.
Speaking with kindness, even in the face of hostility, not only models our message of compassion, but it can help prevent escalation and facilitate others’ willingness to listen.

As Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Start from where they are.
We want positive change now. But to be more effective we need to start conversations from where people are, rather than from where we want them to be. We also need to refrain from making assumptions about what people know/don’t know. Asking questions can help us discern how to proceed. Starting from where people are in their knowledge and beliefs helps them feel more open to engaging with us.

Communicate without judging.
No one likes to be judged. And if we bring judgment to our interactions with others, they’re likely to become defensive and shut down. It’s important to remember that we’re all in different places along the compassion continuum, and building positive relationships is essential.

As Dr. Melanie Joy states, “We may champion a belief system of total liberation, but if our actions are judgmental, shaming, or bullying, we are oppressing rather than liberating.”

Listen for the underlying need.
Since we’re often not taught to communicate effectively and meaningfully, it can be challenging to understand someone’s motivation behind their emotional expressions. If we take time to pay attention to what others are saying (or not saying), and how they say it, we can often determine what their underlying need is.

For example, resistance to using reusable water bottles might stem from a concern for safety. Or, insistence on eating certain foods might be tied to important memories. Once we understand their hopes, fears, and needs, we can more effectively connect with them.

Acknowledge what others say without necessarily validating it.
People need to feel heard. We don’t have to agree with what they say, but we can let them know that we care about them and their concerns. Acknowledging that “I hear what you’re saying” or “I understand that you have a concern about that” can go a long way in building stronger relationships and opening minds and hearts.

Look for common ground.
It’s amazing how much we can find we have in common with others. Most people care about justice, kindness, and suffering. Most people want love and security. We can find what we have in common and build from there. We can also remember that what matters to someone can depend on their political beliefs, so how we talk about issues matters.

Share accurate, truthful information.
Providing accurate information is a key tenet of humane education. Our credibility matters, so we must never mislead, and we need to verify the facts we share. It’s also okay to say “I don’t know.” We can offer to find out the answer to their question and get back to them. That builds credibility. Admitting our mistakes when we’re in error also demonstrates our integrity.

Let go of an agenda or need to “win.”
It can be challenging to refrain from trying to argue someone into submission or “will” them to change their minds. But as effective communicators, it’s vital that we let go of any need to “win” or any particular agenda — other than the goal to educate, inspire, and make a connection.

Ask questions.
Asking questions is a powerful tool. When we invite people to “Tell me more,” we can often find out more about people’s beliefs and concerns. Asking kind, thoughtful questions of others can also lead them to answering their own questions and to thinking more critically about the issue being discussed. We also don’t want to present ourselves as all-knowing experts, as that can be a turn-off.

Inspire critical thinking.
Helping people understand the connections and complexities surrounding the issue can help spark critical thinking, which can lead to deeper understandings, and even changes in behaviors and beliefs.

Use humor and reflect joy.
Because we’re so passionate about stopping suffering, injustice, and destruction, humane educators can sometimes be perceived as humorless. Injecting humor into our conversations, while still respecting the seriousness of the issue, can be healing for us and appealing to others.

It’s also important that we model a joyful life. As IHE president Zoe Weil says, “… the more joyful and connected we are, the better we will be at making a difference, and the more likely others will want to join our rip-roaring, good fun, changemaking club.”

Pay attention to language and framing.
What we say and how we say it matters. The specific language we choose and how we choose to talk (or not talk) about issues influences how others perceive them. When we use “illegal alien” instead of “undocumented worker” or talk about “beef” instead of “cows” we can affect others’ worldviews. When we talk about taxes as an investment instead of as a burden, or highlight the connection of global warming to security and patriotism, we’re using framing.

Share personal stories.
Research shows that stories are more motivating than statistics. When the stories we share are our own personal stories, we are more likely to make a connection with others and to be perceived as more credible and approachable.

Offer positive choices and solutions.
When we share upsetting information, it’s vital that we also offer positive choices and solutions. While we don’t want to tell people what to think or do, we can provide them with options focused on doing the most good and least harm. People need to know that they can make a difference, so we must offer them choices for action and let them decide what actions best reflect their values.

Although these practices are useful for in-person conversations, they’re also applicable to online communication, when we don’t have access to social cues and nuanced body language.

Dr. Melanie Joy encourages us to bring mindfulness to all of our interactions with others. She says, “… before we communicate, we stop and ask ourselves, ‘Am I connected to my empathy right now? Am I truly considering how the world looks through the other’s eyes — how my words or actions will feel to her or him?’ Or, ‘How would I feel and how would I react if someone said this to me?’”

Other beings and the earth are relying on us. Cultivating our compassionate communication skills will help us inspire more people to open their minds and hearts and embrace choices that nurture justice and compassion.

Your turn!

  • Share an example of how your compassionate communication resulted in a positive outcome (i.e., positively influenced another).
  • Share an example of something that happened when you failed to use compassionate communication.
  • What’s your compassionate communication best practice?