Finding Compassion

[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]

Since the other name for Nonviolent Communication is Compassionate Communication, just what do we mean by compassion?

For me, as a “word nerd” (translate: delighted when learning word origins, loving to understand), I wanted to uncover the original meaning of “compassion.”  It turns out to be unexpected:  the capacity to stay present in the face of pain.  A friend says for her compassion is related to patience.  In a study class, she learned the Hebrew word for patience is salvunut which translates to forbearance.  So in the ancient texts of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, we are asked to see how much of someone’s discomfort (anger, fear, grief) we can bear, how much we can bear of our own suffering.

I think, for the most part, when someone is clearly sad, maybe crying, mouth turned down, perhaps trembling, it is easy for us to be compassionate – at least for a little while.  Longer can be harder.  I don’t think it’s harder because we don’t care.  I think it’s harder because we are so uncomfortable in our own heart, in our own body, that we want to move away, for it to be over.

Here is a case where our own discomfort arises. Can we take a few breaths and notice the contraction in our bodies?  Can we acknowledge that it hurts to see someone so sad, like the woman I met whose husband died today, or the person who told me her parents both are sliding down into Alzheimer’s?  Can we experience the spaciousness of how tenderly we long for all beings to be peaceful and happy, even though at this moment that is not what is happening?  This is what Marshall Rosenberg called the bitter-sweetness of unmet needs – both the beauty of their presence and the pain of their absence, together.

It can be much harder to stay present with someone who is expressing their suffering with bitter, angry accusations, or mentally spinning in terror.  Can we remember then that the person is suffering? Can we bear their discomfort, even when our own might be going through the roof?

Here’s something I saw Marshall do several times during role plays.  He would pause.  Sometimes he would rub the side of his nose and look at the floor, or scratch his head and look up toward the ceiling.  He interrupted the speed, rhythm and heat of the interchange.  As we have seen up here in the wine country, fire can move terribly fast (just like the heat of anger).  Slowing things down even a beat or two can bring both parties back to a possibility of choosing their response, rather than charging like a bull in reaction.

I asked Marshall once what he was doing while he rubbed his nose and looked down at the floor during a social change workshop. He said he was letting his jackals howl (he shared them with us loudly, with much detail!), catching his breath, then discovering what needs came alive in him when he was on the hot-seat.  This allowed him space inside to even want to understand the other person’s discomfort underneath their anger or upset.  When his own discomfort was acknowledged and tended, he had room to care about another.  Over and over, I have seen people who cared for themselves in this way experience a spontaneous curiosity and care about the other person’s pain.  I call this organic compassion.  It is not about a decision.  It just happens.  This is a biological inclination, supported by biochemistry because we are social animals.[1]  Got to love those brain chemicals.

I invite you to follow your needs, what matters to you, all the way to a place where your heart feels tender and open. Then there is room for all life, for yours and for another person’s.


Meganwind Eoyang has been a collaborative trainer with BayNVC since 2002. She offers NVC classes at colleges, organizations, for the public, and in San Quentin State Prison. She co-founded the Safer Communities Project taking NVC training in to California prisons and county jails and working with parolees and their families. She enjoys providing private NVC coaching and couples support work.


[1] “The neurobiological link between compassion and love”, Tobias Esch and George B. Stefano, Medical Science Monitor