How to Talk Like a Yogi

Posted by Suzanne Dulin on

How would a great spiritual master speak? What do you imagine she sounds like? To me, she's going to speak to people in a way that makes them feel cared for. She's going listen to in a way that is makes them feel really heard. When she talks she will be persuasive, because she is passionate about her ideas, and there would be something about their ideas that would really set me on fire. I wouldn't expect a great master to talk like a snake oil salesman. I wouldn't expect her to talk like I was stupid and she had to school me. I wouldn't expect her to act superior to me. I would expect her to see me as somebody that could be taught and that she was eager to share her ideas with. In other words, how do we speak to people that communicates love and respect, and that also expresses our passion for our values and our work?

My usual style of communication is like a tennis match. One person takes a turn then it's my turn. They state their case then I argue mine. I'm not really seeking to be heard so much as to convince the listener of my rightness.

Recently, I've felt that the tennis match approach to conversation is an epic fail. I'm not making people feel listened to and I am not getting my points across in a way that makes people want to listen. I have been seeking out solutions to change my speaking patterns.

See the bottom of this post for links to resources.

Assumption: Terrible Speakers and Terrible Listeners

The most important idea to remember when trying to communicate with compassion is that while we think that we speak a common language, actually we manage to communicate despite the fact that we often do not explain our intentions clearly and despite the fact that people misinterpret a lot of what we do say.

The very first principle toward creating compassion conversation then is to stop assuming that you're communicating clearly. Instead begin your communication with the understanding that probably you're screwing it up really badly, and that the listener is also probably listening poorly.

Now, with this new assumption, if you really want to reach across to the other person, you start from the premise that your initial exchange is a just good start that is likely to miss the mark. You'll need to stop and ask questions frequently to see how they are interpreting what you're saying, never assuming that you said it well or that they heard it well.

When you take this attitude, now  you are not judging how a person reacts to what you say; instead, you are curious about this feedback you are getting on your attempts at communication.

Speaking this way is yogic because in yoga we seek to be non-judging and non-reacting. When we see conversation as an experiment in communication, we take the same witness consciousness that we take during meditation. 

4 Steps Toward Better Communication

Once you start by being certain that you will communicate poorly, there are four steps toward nonviolent communication. 
  1. Observations
  2. Feelings
  3. Needs
  4. Requests
So, for example, let's say you want to talk to a Facebook friend about the proposed cut of Meals on Wheels from the budget. You could say:
When I learned that Trump's proposed budget cut funding from Meals on Wheels (observation), I became concerned (feelings) that our vulnerable senior citizens could be left without funding for their basic needs for food and companionship. I need to know that these elderly people will be safe from budgetary cuts (need). Can you please tell me what you are doing to make sure that this program is protected or that another program will cover the same benefits? (request)

The Devil is in the Details

Each of these pieces of communication has its own nuances. Here are a few of the biggest pitfalls to avoid when using 4 part communication.

When making an observation, the pitfall is the words always and never. If you say, "You Always" do this or "You Never" do that, that's not an observation about the person's behavior. It's a judgment about their character. When you use always or never, you are attributing their behavior to an intrinsic quality they cannot change. Avoid always and never.

The tricky part of the feelings portion of the equation is stating an actual feeling and not a judging statement couched in terms of feeling.  Just because you use the word feeling doesn't make it a real feeling because it's possible to use the English language in convoluted ways. If you say "I feel that..." you are likely into judgment territory, for example, "I feel that you are being a jerk." I feel that or I feel like are indicators that what you are expressing is a judgement and not a feeling.

The basic emotions are happy, sad, fear, and anger. It's useful to try to think of one of these core emotions if you are struggling to name the emotion you are feeling. Then you can adjust on the continuum from there. If you are angry, are you irritated or furious? You can also look up lists of emotions online if you are struggling to name your emotions.

It's hard for me to state my emotions in the moment. I find it easier to read what I think someone else is feeling about me than name my own emotions about them. This is where meditation is valuable. It helps me discern my own feelings

For the needs and requests portion of communication, the danger is not being clear. You want to be positive and you want to be specific. "I need affection" is vague. "I need you to kiss me when you walk in the door," is specific. "Don't tease me," is a negative request, it's better to phrase your request positively, such as, "I need you to be serious when I'm talking about our assignments."


The goal during the conversation is to keep the connection and avoid one person storming out of the room, or shutting the conversation down entirely, or changing the subject.

When you start a conversation using nonviolent communication techniques, do not expect that you just state your case and the other person will respond back with the same kindness and control  you used to talk to them. Instead, think of your statement of observation, feelings, needs, and request as an opening gambit in the conversation process.

How does the other person feel about what you said? Be willing to take their comments and then interpret them in a way that shows you sincerely desire to understand their point of view.

If the person starts attacking you, be aware that when people start going on the attack it's natural to freeze up against it. When someone starts attacking you, your response needs to be to notice how they make you react. Then choose to be curious about why they are reacting that way. When someone attacks you, there are a few strategies  you can use to defuse the situation. You can state how you are feeling, or you can restate their emotion. For example, you can say "When you use the word always, it makes you angry. I really want to hear what you have to say. Can you rephrase that?" Or if you want to restate their emotion, you can say, "It sounds like you are angry about what I said, is that right?"

Have you done any reading or other resources for improving communication? I'd love to see your thoughts and suggestions in the comments. 


Nonviolent Communication: A Language for Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Phd

Effective Communications Skills (audio course) Dalton Kehoe, Phd

Books by Deborah Tannen


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