Say It Right

2002       Winter
by Katy Butler


According to former psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, needs are never in opposition—only our strategies for meeting them are. A number of dharma teachers are finding that Rosenberg’s methods can serve as a support for the Buddhist practice of Right Speech.


It is midsummer morning and lam meditating with my parents in their living room. At my back my father sits in an armchair, his tight shoulder slumped from the stroke that threw him to his knees six months ago. My mother is upright in front of me on her seiza bench, her white hair falling over her shoulders.

I breathe in, making my whole body calm and at peace. The dial of the kitchen timer at my knee turns almost imperceptibly toward zero.

In front of us, sliding doors open onto a deck. Beyond the deck lie the white birches my parents planted thirty years ago and the sloping green Connecticut lawn. My parents are struggling to decide whether to stay here or move into assisted living, and most of my visit home has been spent on the phone with doctors, physical therapists, and lawyers expert in Medicaid and elder law.

Breathing in a long breath, I am aware that I am breathing in a long breath. Breathing out a long breath, l am aware that I am breathing out a long breath. Blessed silence.

A fly rock-climbs up the screen door, hairs, shifts a front leg, then a back one. My mother suddenly strips off a black flip-flop and lunges forward. Slap! Her flip-flop hits the screen door like a fly swatter. Bzz bzz. Slap.

What’s wrong with her? This is meditation!

Bzzz. Slap slap. Bzzz.

I’m annoyed, but try out “correct” phrases in my head: Val, I was hoping for some quiet time. . Val, would you be willing to...

Bzzz Slap slap.


A giggle rises as I put a hand on her shoulder and whisper something that isn’t exactly Right Speech. She smiles at me and sits down.

I am fifty-three. With both Buddhists and non-Buddhists - boyfriends, brothers, bosses, and carpenters, as well as my parents—I have been trying consciously to practice Right Speech for the past twenty years. Nevertheless, not long ago this family meditation session would have ended in a spat.

My Buddhist teachers have long impressed upon me the “what” and “why” of Right Speech. “It’s all a matter of art and timing,” Thich Nhat Hanh once told me. His version of this precept includes an imperative: “Always speak in a way that inspires self-confidence, joy, and hope.” I sincerely wanted to be both truthful and kind, but until recently I didn’t have a clue how to go about it. I muddled along, tolerating bickering, misunderstanding, and withdrawal, surprised by how often I felt flashes of real anger—at shop clerks and telemarketers, as well as people I knew intimately and loved.

There is an old friend who still avoids me. There is an electrician who hasn’t spoken to me since I left him an angry voice mail about unfinished work. And there are two teenage stepsons I struggle to live with and get to know.

Shortly before Memorial Day two years ago, I grew thoroughly tired of regretting what I’d said, or hadn’t said, in situations of discomfort or conflict. Too many times I had noticed something rising—a knot in my heart, a throbbing in my throat, a turning in my belly— accompanied by unspoken words that were a recipe for further suffering. How rude. Doesn’t he like me? went the critical inner dialogue whenever my stepson Ryan walked out of the house without saying goodbye. He is always invading my space went my mind whenever my partner, Brian, tried to kiss me while I was doing yoga.

The litany continued as I moved through my hours and days: ‘I’hat was so sexist. He’s so mean: That was so dumb of me. She takes and newer gives. Why does Ned (my other stepson) have to watch Jeopardy when I want to cook dinner in peace? And then, inevitably, I would blurt out something that couldn’t be taken back.

On the other hand, being a Buddhist Goody Two Shoes—taking a deep breath, smiling, and trying to see the other person’s point of view—often left me feeling that I’d been taken advantage of. After more than two decades of meditation practice, I was tired of my inner struggle between trying to meet a Buddhist ideal and the forceful rising of my still-chaotic inner life.

That was how things stood on the sunny day two years ago when Kathryn, a non- Buddhist friend, came to my Memorial Day barbecue wearing a beautiful straw hat wreathed in flowers. Kathryn is active in the Natural Death movement, and all afternoon, I watched in awe as she fielded baiting questions from a handsome, slightly drunk guest. I can’t remember the words she used, but instead of taking offense, Kathryn responded to him respectfully, without sacrificing her truth or compromising her dignity. She reminded me of an Aikido master—in motion yet centered, calmly melding with her attacker and deflecting his thrusts without harming him.

When I later remarked on how skillfully she had handed him, Kathryn credited something called “Nonviolent Communication” and lent me a book by its creator, a former psychologist named Marshall Rosenberg. She invited me to join a small group—part of a worldwide network accessible through the Center for Nonviolent Communication website, -  that practices this approach by role-playing situations from their own lives. Later I found out that a number of American Buddhists had already discovered an affinity between Nonviolent Communication and Buddhist practice.

Once a month, we sat in a circle of chairs in someone’s living room, observing and participating in the role play: a boundary dispute with a neighbor; a conflict between two singers in an interracial church choir; the disappointment of a man whose wealthier girlfriend did not take him on her trip to Europe. Slowly I learned to weather my intense emotions and translate my first, fear-driven thoughts into honest but non-confrontational language, scrupulously devoid of blame.

At the simplest level, Nonviolent Communication follows a strict protocol: observing and describing an external situation without judgment, evaluation, or blame; articulating the feelings the situation triggers and connecting them to a basic, unmet need; then making a “clear, specific, do-able request” of the other party or parties in the situation. Crucial to the whole process is learning to listen empathically and to strategize ways to meet others’ needs as well as our own.

Marshall Rosenberg was a clinical psychologist in St. Louis before he abandoned his practice in the late 1970s to, as he puts it, “give psychology away” by teaching communication skills on a wider scale. Like his mentor, the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers, Rosenberg emphasizes an empathic approach, maintaining that one of our deepest human needs is to contribute to others’ well-being, so long as our own needs are not compromised in the process.

Rosenberg’s fascination with peacemaking and effective communication has its roots in his childhood observation of miscommunication and pain. His parents’ marriage was unhappy and the family moved frequently as his father searched for work during the Depression. In Detroit, their neighborhood was the center of violent race riots in the 1940s; at school, Rosenberg was called names and beaten up because he was a Jew. These experiences, he recalls, inspired him to explore “what happens to disconnect people from their inherently compassionate nature, and what allows some people to stay connected to it even in trying circumstances.”

From his work with civil rights activists in the l960s, Rosenberg came up with the precise language of Nonviolent Communication, designed to minimize defensive reactions and maximize cooperation. Now based in Switzerland, he circles the globe, training educators, lawyers, clergy, government and law-enforcement officials, and families in crisis; he has taught his method everywhere from inner-city schools to a police station in Israel to prisons in the United States and Sweden. In Marin County, California, where I live, aspects of Nonviolent Communication have been incorporated into court-supervised anger management programs for men accused of domestic violence.

Last spring I took several workshops from Rosenberg, including one held in the Buddha Hall at the San Francisco Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm. Initially, the prescribed language of Nonviolent Communication seemed awkward and mechanistic. I remember listening to one woman struggle to string nonjudgmental words together as she practiced asking a family member not to leave the bathroom tap dripping. “Turn off the tap, would you?” came out something like “Yesterday I asked you to turn the water in the bathroom sink all the way off, and when I went in later, I noticed that the tap was still dripping. I also noticed it dripping the day before and the day before that, after I had asked you to turn it off. I don’t know why, it just bugs me. So I’d like to ask if you’d be willing in the future to—”

“Sure,” interrupted the man playing the role of her teenage son. Rolling his eyes, he added, “Whatever.”

At that point, Rosenberg stepped in. “We all know ‘Whatever,” he said, referring to the barely hidden contempt a teenager can pack into that word. “But what need is he expressing? For autonomy, maybe. And what does turning off the tap mean to her? Could be ‘caring.’ We all have a need for caring. Once they get in touch with their real needs,” Rosenberg continued, “they can figure out a strategy for meeting them. Needs are never in conflict— only our strategies for meeting them are.”

As a Buddhist attuned to the Four Noble Truths, I found this construction of reality based on needs problematic at first. For years I had practiced what the Christians call the via negativa—letting go of needs and desires as a path to growth. Needs, in that schema—and in Buddhism as well—are “attachments” that inevitably lead to suffering and unease. I tried to practice radical acceptance and to let go of personal preference, to the point of sometimes riot articulating how I felt, even to myself. But after two decades of that approach I was angrier—though less assertive -than I am now.

Nonviolent Communication has led me to the via positiva—an understanding that expressing my needs, without making them into demands, can be as much a path to growth as letting them go- Needs aren’t the problem; it is rigidly clinging to a particular strategy to meet them that produces suffering.

I realized that I could meet my need for quiet, for example, by taking a walk alone in the woods or meditating in my study before starting to cook dinner. Holding on to a strategy—insisting, for example, that my stepson turn off the TV—practically guarantees conflict or capitulation, leaving both of us unhappy. But Ned would never have to miss another installment of Jeopardy—and I could cook in peace—if we found a mutually beneficial strategy, such as extending the cable service to the TV set in his bedroom.

This distinction between needs and strategies is one the Buddha himself tacitly acknowledged when he stopped starving himself—abandoning asceticism as a strategy for reaching enlightenment—and gave in to his fundamental human need for sustenance, drinking the yogurt offered by a young village girl. (I like to think it was through this simple human interchange that the Middle Way, the strategy that led to the Buddha’s enlightenment—was born.)

On the surface, Nonviolent Communication seems simplistic, little mute than common sense. But just as watching one’s breath becomes something deeper over time, the practice of compassionate communication can lead to subtle but profound inner shifts. I label myself and others less frequently now, and I have developed a more fluid sense of self and others, one more aligned with the Buddhist view that there is no fixed or independent self.

The daily practice of “translating” my first judgmental thoughts into pure observation has brought mote clarity to my inner life. On a good day, my emotions are no longer problems to be suppressed or meditated away, but a source of useful information—the vapor trails of my unmet needs.

Last Christmas morning, when my stepsons left the house without saying goodbye while I was making breakfast pancakes, I felt crushed and insulted. In the vocabulary of Nonviolent Communication, however, “insulted” is not a feeling; it’s a tangle of emotions— surprise, sadness, and anger in this case—thoughts, expectations, and interpretations: What did I do wrong? Don’t they like me? They shouldn’t treat me like that. Their father should discipline them more. Teenagers are so rude.

Silently, I rephrased my inner dialogue to describe the situation factually, - articulate my feelings about it, and identify the unmet needs: When the boys walked out the door without saying anything, I was surprised and disappointed because I had assumed we would all have breakfast together on Christmas morning. My needs for contact, celebration and respect weren’t being met. Through Nonviolent Communication I was, in effect, practicing a meditation of disentanglement, teasing our the individual strands of thought and feeling that had arisen in a jumble, like snarled wool.

Later, when the four of us talked around the dinner table about our blended-family holiday angst, I learned that the boys had had longstanding plans to see their mother and exchange Christmas gifts. I understood their feelings of divided loyalty and their need to connect with her, and made a mental note to discuss their holiday plans in advance next year. I asked Ryan to routinely say hi and goodbye to me when he comes and goes. He does that now, and it’s made a huge difference in my daily comfort.

When I first started practicing Nonviolent Communication, I saw it primarily as away of putting the right words in the right order to get what I wanted. Last spring, when Ryan announced char he’d like to leave his mother’s house and move back in with us for the summer, my main goal was to figure out how to keep my study (formerly Ryan’s bedroom) without antagonizing him or looking bad. I got lost in self-justifring and self-attacking thoughts about whether or not my needs should trump his: I’m the adult, after all—but am I being selfish? He’s got another bedroom at his mom’s, and I need my space—but what am I doing to his relationship with his father?

Once I managed to couch my need as something anyone might want—a little nest of my own in my home—my inner critic fell silent. Instead of insisting on my way, I found myself truly listening to Ryan and seeing his point of view; his needs began to matter as much as my own. I considered the possibility of renting an office outside the house.

It turned out that Ryan wanted to move hack mainly because he had a summer job across town and figured that his father would be more likely than his mother to drive him to work. In the end, he decided to stay at his mothers, but we gave him a ride when he needed one.

Nonviolent Communication doesn’t solve every outer and inner conflict. But it softens and illuminates them, bringing to light hidden assumptions in my thought and speech. I am remapping my inner landscape now. What I used to call selfishness or stubbornness I reframe as a need for autonomy. What I called codependence I now describe as my need to contribute to the lives of others. What I called a fear of intimacy I now characterize as a need for private time.

On a spiritual level, I no longer see Nonviolent Communication as a technique for getting what I want but as a practice—a middle way between quietism and activity, acceptance and action, love and assertion, the bodhisattva ideal and human vulnerability. Nonviolent Communication complements Buddhist teachings with a language and approach that allow me to be gentler with myself and others, without sacrificing my inner truth.

And how is Nonviolent Communication working out down here on the ground? Last spring, in negotiations with an insurance company over a cat accident, I left on good terms—and with a $16,500 settlement, $11,500 more than predicted by the lawyers who refused to take my case. My two-week visit with my parents last summer ended without a ii ogle bruising fight, even though we talked every day about death, disability, and money. As for Jeopardy!, I’m getting used to it. While I cook, I even find myself shouting out some of the answers.


© 2002 Katy Butler.  All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.