How to be a Compassionate Communicator Great Lakes Psychology Group

How to be a Compassionate Communicator

Two men sitting in their kitchen, communicating compassionately. Learn how to be a compassionate communicator.

“It was one of those horrible, out-of-control conversations that goes nowhere fast.” Her eyes filled with tears as she described her frustration. “I’m trying to tell James that I really need him to listen to me, but I can tell that he is not interested. This makes me so frustrated that I start to get upset, and before you know it, I’m yelling and crying. We end up at opposite ends of the house. I am fuming and he is confused. What do I do?”

What happened here? Most of us have experienced the frustration of not feeling heard and respected; it’s human nature to escalate in order to be heard. Maybe if we push just a little harder, we think, they will understand and respond. Yet this strategy rarely gives us the satisfaction we desire. Even if we can force someone into a show of compliance or cooperation, this victory comes at a cost: a loss of warmth and a loss of respect…and we will probably have to push that much harder the next time! Beyond this, strong emotion tends to interfere with communication as it can distort our message, making it difficult for the other person to hear us and leaving us feeling discounted when we are perceived as overly emotional or irrational.

Compassionate Communication

What we really want at times like this is communication. A key phrase to keep in mind at these times is “communication, not confrontation.” Even the idea that we might be walking into a confrontation can put us right into fight-or-flight mode; suddenly our situation feels like “life or death.” We think we must have this particular need met or cease to exist in some important way. Such thinking is bound to create undue pressure on us…and on the other person.

In order to create the kind of space that enables clear, compassionate communication, it can be helpful to take the element of threat out of the encounter. We can help this process by taking a deep breath, getting clear about what and how we want to communicate our needs, then acting in a way that is most likely to get our mutual needs and desires met.

How to be a Compassionate Communicator: Two Compassionate Communication Methods

According to Michelle Becker, LMFT, developing a compassionate presence can set the stage for warm, loving and successful communications. Her recent book on this topic applies primarily to couples, but the techniques outlined below are helpful for any type of relationship. They help us to stop and consider our deepest intentions in a relationship, whether with a romantic partner, family member, colleague, or friend. By taking a mindful step back and considering our deepest values and intentions, we can move forward with wisdom, spaciousness, and compassion for all parties, which ultimately enhances our sense of mutual connection and trust. These two methods come from the newly released book Compassion for Couples.


This is a four-step process to interrupt the reactivity that can so often accompany interactions with those whom we care about most deeply. Who can trigger us faster and more deeply than those we care about most? The moment we feel the telltale rush of energy signaling a strong feeling, we can interrupt the reaction by Stopping, Taking a breath, Observing, then Proceeding with our communication.

Stop: We simply stop. We pause. Instead of responding, we take a moment before responding.

Take a breath: Having stopped, we take a breath – or a few breaths – to center ourselves and let our physical stress response settle a bit. When we are emotionally triggered, the calm, rational areas of our brain are temporarily pushed offline and our “emotional brain” (the limbic system) initiates what we can think of as a “hostile takeover,” which makes clear, compassionate communication pretty difficult!

Observe: We now take a moment to observe what is happening, asking ourselves, what is going on inside? Do we notice tension in our body? What thoughts are going through our minds? Then we notice what is going on around us: What is the context of the situation? What led to this particular situation and what is a likely outcome? Finally, we consider: What do I need in this moment? For instance, if our emotions still seem overwhelming, do we need to self-soothe in some way? In that case, perhaps we just need a moment to internally offer ourselves some calming words, or perhaps we need to remove ourselves temporarily from the situation to regain our calm with a short walk.

Proceed: Once the emotional fires are calmed, we can proceed with our interaction with the wisdom that comes from being mentally and emotionally centered. We can bring the warmth and understanding that truly reflects our deepest intentions to the interaction.


This exercise is most suited to relationships with a deeper sense of intimacy, such as couples or close family relationships.

Listen: In this first step, we put aside our own needs and goals for a moment to understand the goals and needs of the other individual in the interaction more deeply. We also attempt to hold our judgments and evaluations a little more lightly so that we can listen with open-minded curiosity. Remember, when the “emotional brain” is in charge, we are rarely thinking clearly. Strong emotions have their own “logic,” but as we know, our brain can be hijacked as described above in emotional moments. While the emotion-fired logic can feel somehow strong and “right” in the moment, it rarely is. It can also help to recognize that at least for this moment, our main goal is not evaluating who is “right” and who is “wrong.” We are listening simply to understand. Acknowledging this can help us set aside the pressure to be right.

Observe: We then take a moment to really look at the other person, noticing their facial expression, and perhaps noticing: Are there tears? A frightened expression on their face? Tension in their body language? We also consider the fact that regardless of how they are communicating in the moment, underneath any frustration, anger, fear, or even hostility is usually a desire to be happy, a desire to in some way be free of unhappiness and suffering. In the mindfulness traditions, the desire to be happy and to be free of suffering is considered to be a basic underlying desire, one driving most of the other desires we experience. In this case, the desire could be showing up as a desire to be heard, seen, felt, acknowledged. Whether their attempts to be happy in this moment are working or not, are skillful or not, we look more deeply to see that this is a person, just like me, who wants to be happy.

Values: As we notice the struggle and suffering in the other person, allowing our hearts to be touched by their struggle, we take time to consider our own values and how we would like to honor these values in this interaction. For instance, if one of our most cherished values is to treat others with kindness, even in times of difficulty, we take a moment to  reflect on this value and let it inform our interaction in the moment. (Remember that during heated moments, our emotional brain takes over, making it difficult to remember and act on commitments we have made to ourselves in calmer moments.) Noticing the other person’s vulnerability, we can also choose to consider what we value about this person when we aren’t feeling triggered by their behavior.

Express: Having listened, taken time to observe the other person, and checked in with our deepest values, we can now express our thoughts and concerns from a more wise and connected space.

Honoring Our Common Humanity

When we take the time for a meaningful pause using one of the methods outlined above, we not only create the best possible circumstances for successful communication, but we also learn to tune into our common humanity.  Humans have a fundamental desire to be happy and free of suffering. When we stop, observe, listen,  reflect on our values, and proceed with compassion, we not only enable warm, clear communication but we truly honor our humanity and the humanity of the loved for whom we care so deeply. This can create a ripple effect as we learn to bring this intention to communicate from a wise, compassionate space more frequently in all our interactions.

Would you like to learn more about compassionate communication skills? A therapist can help you work with assertiveness and communication skills. If you or someone you know would benefit from learning more about compassionate communication providers, such as the clinicians from the Great Lakes Psychology Group network, schedule an appointment today.

Resources for Compassionate Communication

Compassion for Couples: Building the Skills of Loving Connection. Michelle Becker, LMFT

Don’t Suffer, Communicate!: A Zen Guide to Compassionate Communication. Cheri Huber and Ashwini Narayanan.

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