By Janet Kaufman

Throughout the programs at Interfaith Sanctuary that support individuals’ growth and well-being—Project Well-Being, Project Recovery, Just Mad, and groups with parents and children—we are practicing communication to bring more compassion, understanding, and peaceful problem-solving to our community. No matter what challenges we face, it helps to address them with communication that is more likely to help us meet our own and our common needs. 

We use a couple primary tools to guide us, the Grump Meter—a tool for emotional self-regulation—and Nonviolent, or Compassionate, Communication. Each tool gives us different questions.

The Grump Meter’s question is: What color are you on? The Grump Meter is like a color ladder, with each color standing in for intensifying feelings.  Developing awareness about the state of your feelings or mood is the first step to communicating compassionately with yourself and others. Calm, peaceful blue sits at the bottom. If your feelings escalate and you land on red at the top of the Grump Meter, you might behave in ways that cause some damage or hurt, and require a lot of clean-up. So the goal is to avoid the climb to red. How to do that?

This is where Nonviolent, or Compassionate Communication is so helpful. Nonviolent Communication (NVC), considered a “language of life” by its founder, Marshall B. Rosenberg, is a way of being that fosters human connection and helps people meet their own and others’ needs with a genuine sense of care. NVC has blossomed all over the world. It takes as a basic premise that human beings, by virtue of being human, share some common needs regardless of where we’re from, the language we speak, our age, or the culture or religious background we grew up with. These needs are basic—like love, connection, respect, honesty, meaning, play, and freedom. They are fundamental to our humanity, and they reflect the beauty of our human spirits. All over the world, we strive to meet these needs to thrive. NVC inspires the question: How can we meet our needs in ways that help ourselves and others, and give us more satisfaction, wonder, harmony?

NVC offers a few points of focus to help meet our needs. One is our observation of what’s actually happening—not our judgment or evaluation of a situation, but the observable details as best as we can see them, as a camera would at its most objective. The next focal points are our feelings about the situation, and the needs we experience in it. Sometimes we sense our feelings in our body—even before we can name them in our minds. So if you feel fidgety, or get a headache, or clench your jaw, you can ask yourself what you might be feeling and needing. 

Do you want safety or protection? Help? Connection? Consideration? When basic needs like these are met, we tend to feel warm feelings like calmness, appreciation, delight, openness. But when our needs aren’t met, we tend to feel unpleasant feelings, like fear, sadness, anger, and overwhelm. Developing awareness of our feelings and needs, understanding that they are part of our human condition, and caring for them with kindness, tenderness, and respect, helps us find our way back down the Grump Meter, to harmony with ourselves and others.

Our feelings and needs can get tangled up with our thoughts and judgments, and it takes practice to get clarity about what we’re feeling and needing in a situation. We can help each get that clarity through careful listening. Then, there’s one other focal point to consider: requests of ourselves or others to address the situation at hand. Sometimes it’s surprising to see that we come up with completely new or unexpected approaches—because we’ve seen the situation with new eyes. 

In the many groups we have at Interfaith to support growth and well-being, we are making space to build skills in human communication and human being. We start from the premise that all feelings are normal and understandable, and that no human feeling or need is wrong. The way we express our feelings, and the steps we take to meet our needs, can create more (or less) connection, care, and trust. So we take the time to listen to each other, and practice hearing each other with care and compassion. The practice of our groups enables us to carry more effectiveness out into our daily interactions, to work, families, friends, and to ourselves.