Meet Oren Jay Sofer, and read an excerpt from his new book “Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication”
Interviewed by Marlena Trafas
Oren Jay Sofer is an author and teacher focused on mindfulness, meditation, and Nonviolent Communication. He’s been practicing meditation in the Theravada Buddhist Tradition since 1997 while earning a degree in Comparative Religion from Columbia University. He spent two and a half years living in Ajahn Chah Thai Forest monasteries as an Anagarika (renunciate).
Afterwards, Sofer began to explore the relationship between communication and meditation. He graduated from the BayNVC North American Leadership Training and has taught classes and workshops about Nonviolent and Mindful Communication. Sofer is a founder and Guiding Teacher of the online meditation course, Next Step Dharma, and is the co-founder of Mindful Healthcare, an organization that offers training in mindfulness, communication, and resiliency to those in the healthcare community. He is a CNVC Certified Trainer of Nonviolent Communication and has served as the Senior Program Developer for Mindful Schools where he taught and developed a mindfulness curriculum for educators. Below, he discusses digital communication, meaningful small talk, and the intersection of politics and mindfulness.
How would you define “Nonviolent Communication”? How is it different than “violent communication”?
On the surface, Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a communication technique. At its heart it’s a profoundly transformative awareness practice. NVC is a set of principles and practices that can help us integrate nonviolence into all aspects of our life.
Violence is more than direct physical harm. Sociologist Johan Galtung defined violence as “any avoidable impairment of fundamental human needs.” These practices help us explore perhaps the most pressing question of our times: how do we live in a way that attends to the interdependent web of life of which we are all a part?
What Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), discovered is that we’ve been educated to think and speak in ways that make violence enjoyable. When I see things in terms of right and wrong, good and bad, then those who are “bad” deserve to be punished. I want you to pay for it and suffer. This is retributive rather than restorative justice.
In no way does the philosophy of nonviolence abdicate morality, but it favors seeing things through a different lens that is more conducive to compassionate action. When we see life and behavior from the perspective of deeper human needs, we are able to stay connected to our shared humanity. The core premise is that conflict happens at the level of our strategies -what we want. Underneath that, human beings are motivated by universal, shared needs. At that root level of our fundamental needs, our commonalities outweigh our differences.
How has the digital age, for better or worse, changed the way we communicate with each other?
I believe that technology is creating a radical transformation in our minds, our communication, and our relationships. While digital technology has allowed us to stay in touch more easily (and sparked a revolution in information sharing, networking, and social movements), it has also been closely correlated with endemic anxiety, depression, loneliness, and social isolation. We are more connected on the surface, but less connected in meaningful ways. Someone might have 1,000 friends on Facebook, but no one to talk to in a difficult moment.
What’s more, our entire society is becoming attuned to the pace, rhythm, and character of our devices. Digital technology is fast and (mostly) superficial. So, we begin to expect the world to behave like that. One of the most tragic effects of digital communication is that we risk losing touch with our place in the natural world, with the organic rhythm of life. Communicating through a screen limits or removes altogether the gut level experience of feedback I get from a human body.
Conversation is an organic process. Speech is formed through shaping our breath. It’s not a push button kind of thing. It takes time. It requires space, listening, and silence. You have to breathe. There’s no breath, no mutuality in a screen. This is what we risk losing as more and more of our communication happens online. And when we lost that, the capacity for empathy and real dialogue begins to atrophy.
Can small talk with people we just met be worthy and mindful?
Absolutely. The social ritual in and of itself has limited value, but when our heart is connected it brings meaning and fulfillment.
One of our primary needs as human beings is for healthy social engagement. Light-hearted, easy-going contact with another human being regulates our nervous system. When we’re aware we can fully receive these benefits. Do we know why we’re engaging? Are we present and enjoying the contact, or are we doing it in an automatic, perfunctory way?
From your blog it’s clear that you see a connection between mindfulness, empathy, and politics. It’s reminiscent of the idea that what is personal is also political. How might the practice of mindfulness and nonviolent communication shape someone’s political identity?
The aim of mindfulness is to develop wisdom — to awaken to what’s happening within and around us and then to respond as skillfully as possible. Nonviolent Communication provides additional frameworks for both the inner investigation and its outer expression.
I can’t say how these practices might shape someone’s political identity, because I think there are so many other factors that would influence that — particularly one’s life experiences. However, there are a few things one can would expect in exploring these practices sincerely.
Mindfulness and NVC both reveal our vulnerability and interdependence as human beings. This gives rise to ethical sensitivity and a strong commitment to non-harming. Similarly, both practices and their underlying principles share values of harmony, peace, and understanding. This often translates to a willingness, even a preference, for dialogue and collaboration over the kind of divisiveness and polarization we see in mainstream society. Last, these practices put us in touch with our values and give us tools to manifest them in our lives. So, I would expect those following these paths to be actively engaged in their communities, expressing their values and working with others to improve things.
In the excerpt, you write about choice points in conversation and the freedom to remain silent in meetings. You don’t specifically characterize the meeting as a business one, but it’s safe to assume that many people might feel anxious speaking out during a business meeting because of the power dynamics. How does power play a role in mindful conversation and Nonviolent Communication? How can those in power be more aware when they are conversating with those not in their position? How do those not in power gain the confidence to speak freely?
This is a huge area of exploration and application of the tool, which ultimately allows us to work with others rather than against them regardless of the power dynamics. They offer us skills to transform the default systems of domination and power that structure our society without recreating them.
Leaders seeking to foster a collaborative culture will need to work against the structural power they have and actively undercut perceptions employees may hold about whether or not their voice matters. Those with less power may be reluctant to say “no” or express a different opinion for fear of reprisals. In that kind of environment, creativity, collaboration, and intrinsic motivation are curtailed. So, leaders would actively encourage them to come forward and express themselves.
They may explore ways to share power when possible, clarifying roles and expectations, or actively encourage dissent. For example, if a supervisor sets clear expectations about which phases of a decision-making process will be collaborative and which will not, staff are more likely to engage. Encouraging dissent means directly inviting feedback. Instead of, “Does anyone have any other ideas?” one might ask, “Poke some holes in this proposal. What’s not going to work here?” This stimulates creative energy and lets folks know we’re interested in their perspective.
For these techniques to be effective, the intention to collaborate needs to be genuine and it must be backed with action. When leaders follow up on feedback and close the loop on a collaborative process, it builds trust and willingness on the team.
If we have less power, there are two primary angles to recommend depending on the context. First, we can focus on creating a stronger connection and appeal to the moral conscience of those in power. This is often a key aspect of nonviolent action: revealing the hypocrisy of the ruling powers until the dissonance between their professed values and their actions creates change.
So, for example, in a professional context, an employee might approach their boss saying, “I know how much you’re guided by your values, and how important the integrity of the work we do is to you. It’s something I admire in you and one of the reasons I chose to work here. Because of that, I thought you would want to know about something that’s been happening that I’d like your help with…”
When that angle isn’t possible or appropriate, the other primary strategy is to position your requests in a way that aligns with shared objectives. How will what you are asking for ultimately serve shared interests? We can train ourselves to see beyond our own perspective, and frame things in terms of the benefits that will be experienced by everyone involved. This can inspire change and action, because we help the person in power to see the inherent value in our position.
Conversation & Choice Points
(excerpt from “Say What You Mean”)
[When it comes to conversation, the force of our habits and the pressure of social settings can make it exceedingly difficult to maintain awareness. Here, our mindfulness practice serves as a basis. We can use the arena of conversation itself as a training ground for presence, using techniques to anchor awareness within the midst of exchange and developing the capacity for relational awareness.]
Consciously choosing when to speak and when to listen is essential for meaningful conversation. In some respects, it’s the most basic communication skill. How many times have you said something only to wish you could take it back moments after the words left your mouth? Or hit “send” on an email when it might have been better to let things cool off? It’s equally important to have the courage to say our piece. When we don’t speak up, we can feel as if we’ve let ourselves or our loved ones down.
Conversation is a dynamic interplay between each person’s choice to speak or listen. When those choices are conscious and respectful, conversations tend to be more productive and enjoyable. If those choices are unconscious or impulsive, conversations tend to be less productive and more stressful.
I call this juncture the “choice point” between speaking and listening. With presence, every moment offers a choice. Our ability to maintain presence at the choice point takes practice. Sometimes the moment of choice races by like a road sign while we are doing seventy-five miles per hour on the freeway. The impulse to speak can be so strong that it impels us to verbalize simply to release the internal pressure. If we tend toward the quieter side, it can feel as if those openings in a conversation disappear before we can muster our voice.
This is where mindfulness comes in. In meditation, we learn how to observe unpleasant sensations (knee pain, a sore back) without immediately reacting. We develop the capacity to be aware of an impulse without acting on it.
The anxiety we feel in conversation is usually rooted in deeper needs to be seen or heard, needs for safety, acceptance, belonging, and so on. The less confident we feel in meeting those needs, the more pressure we will experience to speak up or remain silent. We might fear that if we don’t say something right now we’ll never be able to do so. Or if we do say something, disaster or disconnection will surely ensue.
The more ways we find to meet those needs (and to handle them skillfully when they aren’t met), the less pressure we feel to speak or remain silent; we can relax into the flow of a conversation. There’s no danger in speaking our mind and no rush to say it all at once. If it’s important, we’ll find the right time and way to say it.
This capacity builds slowly. As we practice honoring our needs, we learn to trust ourselves. Paying attention to any small successes helps our nervous system settle and reset. With a new baseline of ease, it can stop setting off false alarms that impel or prevent us from speaking, and our ability to make more conscious choices grows. We can then discern what’s going to be most helpful to move a conversation forward and how to balance all the needs on the table.
Practice: Choice Points
To practice, choose someone with whom you feel relatively comfortable. This familiarity makes it easier to learn the tool. During a conversation, notice when you choose to speak. If you find yourself talking without having consciously chosen to do so, try stopping and leaving space for the other person to continue. Notice what it’s like to actively choose to say something rather than doing so automatically. Pay particular attention to any urgency or reluctance to speak or any sensations of internal pressure. Use that pressure as a signal to make a more conscious choice.
There tends to be more freedom to remain silent in meetings than during one-to-one conversations. The next time you are in a meeting, notice how the impulse to speak can rise and fall as the conversation unfolds. If there is an important point you’d like to make, choose when to do so. You can always begin, “I’d like to go back to something we were talking about a few moments ago.” Notice how it feels after you speak. Is there relief? Anxiety or self-doubt?
Experiment with making conscious choices about when you check your inbox or social media feeds (“listening”). When you do engage, pause before replying to consider whether or not you want to “speak.” Is this the right time? Would it be useful to wait or to say nothing at all?
Say What You Mean, A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication is available December 11th!