Self-empathy first

I recently participated in a nonviolent communication (NVC) workshop in Antwerp. The workshop was hosted by an organization called Human Matters and led by Ike Lasater.


I discovered Ike Lasater’s work in a “Life Skills and Action” workshop offered by Tiffany Wood and hosted by the Tree of Life Yoga Studio in Tervuren, Belgium this past fall. Tiffany shared methods for compassionate communication in her workshop, which brought together many elements of my research and life study from my PhD, life events, therapy, yoga, and meditation.


Tiffany shared teachings from her own study and from a book by Ike Lasater and John Kinyon called Choosing Peace. From the title of this book, I was already hooked because it represented a paradigm shift in the language approach to changing ways of thinking and being in the world. Rather than avoiding violence, we could choose peace. This seemingly small shift in language choice offered an enormous shift in perspective.


Let me take a moment to say that I have been fascinated by language for along time. I can recall a deeply meaningful and transformative course I took as a graduate student, studying environmental education. The course was founded in the teachings of George Lakeoff and Mark Johnson from their book, Metaphors we live by. We were asked to deconstruct the metaphors we employ in our daily lives, as well as those chosen by supposedly environmentally friendly organizations. The professor also suggested that the point of any debate or dialogue with someone with a different set of values and beliefs is not to change their mind but to find common ground. Finding a space where our values overlap can help to build understanding and empathy. If we can at least begin to respect one another and allow for the existence of other views, this can be a starting point for dialogue about difficult issues we face as a community, both at the local and global level.


In following this course, I began to look more closely at language. I was really surprised to find such a violent nature to the English I heard and read and even spoke. Phrases were rife with it. To encourage someone to do well, one might says, “Knock ‘em dead.” The sports terminology was full of deadly intention. There was even this sense that suffering was required in order to progress and move forward. The phrase, “No pain, no gain” comes to mind. What if (and I know it is a radical thought) we practiced peaceful progress that did not involve pain? The phrase would become, “No pain, no pain.” Just a thought.


In yoga, there is a suggestion of intentionally placing ourselves in a space of discomfort and moving beyond our comfort zone in order to learn and grow. If we are always comfortable, we are not expanding into a deeper capacity of being. Discomfort and pain, while perhaps in a similar family of experience, are not the same.


In the yogic practice, there is a desire to avoid harm or violence—toward oneself and others—or what Patanjali referred to in the first of the eight limbs of yoga, the yamas, as Ahimsa. Ahimsa is generally translated as non-violence. Even within the study of yoga, there is an inclusion of the very word we are trying to avoid. I still recall studying the yoga sutras in my first 200-hour yoga teacher training in the spring of 2015 and reading the sutras as interpreted by female scholar, Nischala Joy Devi, the first to suggest that Ahimsa might be translated simply as love. If we remove the word violence, we remove it from our mind. If it is no longer in our way of thinking and being in the world, perhaps it might disappear altogether.




I continued this study of language and communication as a PhD student in a Sustainability Education doctoral program offered by Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona. We read Marshall Rosenberg. My eventual research focus shifted toward what I referred to as “self-sustainability.” My thought was that in order to achieve sustainability at the global level it was first necessary to begin with the individual. I found that if I met my own needs for sustainability in the different overlapping realms of my life—academic, professional, person—then I was more able to be available to help others on their path. It was also in learning how to create sustainability in my own life that I was then able to model sustainable behavior through my actions, or what is referred to in the United States as “walking the talk.”


I recall vividly the feeling that something was not right when my colleagues and I would come together to discuss our research and move through the stages of the doctoral program. We always began with a check-in, where each person would describe the challenges they were facing in their lives. Then, we would shift to how we were going to fix the problems in the world. I began to notice a trend in these check-ins. Each person, including the faculty, was overwhelmed and out of balance in their individual lives. They were themselves not living from a place of sustainability, and yet they were still attempting to create sustainability for others. It took several years and an entire autoethnography where I studied the events in my own life over the course of my time as a doctoral student to begin to recognize that sustainability needed to begin with the individual before it could expand.


In my research, I began to wonder if there might be a different way to approach wellbeing for each person. Generally in the US American culture we are encouraged to practice avoidance behaviors when emotions like stress, overwhelm, depression, etc. arise. What if it were common to pause and reevaluate; to learn to listen to our inner realm; to recognize why we were experiencing different emotions; and to find positive ways to alleviate our suffering?


Imagine if a mid-life crisis was not just something we anticipate happening as a natural part of the life cycle and shrug off as no big deal?


In my own research I looked at my own methods for transcending difficult emotions and discomfort. I found that creative methods helped me tremendously to return to a place of balance, thus allowing me to meet my own needs for self-sustainability and to be available once more to help others.


In a similar vein, the concepts from Marshall Rosenberg, Ike Lasater, and Tiffany Wood suggested a connection to the self or “self-empathy” before connecting and empathizing with others. In his renowned “Hierarchy of needs,” Maslow (1943) wrote about the idea of self-actualization being possible (and desirable for each person) only when fundamental needs are met. How can we begin to help others if we ourselves are struggling to survive? Flight attendants for every airline I have ever flown with always direct passengers to put on their own oxygen mask before attempting to help others.


This brings me back to this notion of NVC or compassionate communication.


In the workshop with Tiffany, we learned about the steps you could take to learn to respond with empathy to situations that trigger the desire to react. The linear stages were referred to as OFNR:


  1. Observation
  2. Feelings
  3. Needs
  4. Request


The first of these four steps is to simply pause and observe; to figure out first what is happening and to separate judgment from the pure facts of any turn of events or actions. Ideally this happens in the moment, but more often than not it is an observation after the fact once you have calmed down from the intensity of the emotions that have arisen from the experience. The idea is to practice this step and the others as often as possible when you are not triggered so they become more readily available when you are.


The second step is to determine what you are feeling as a result of the experience.


When the bus left two minutes early, I felt frustrated and anxious.


Next is to determine what need might resolve this feeling (or unmet need).


I have a need for respect. I have a need for grounding.


Is there a request I can make to meet this unmet need? It may be that the true resolution is not within my capacity. For example, I do not have control over whether the bus driver adheres to the schedule. I might not be able to make the request of the bus driver to for respect. However, I can make a request of my self for an action that will help me experience grounding.


Marieke, would you be willing to close your eyes, stand with your feet hip width apart and parallel, and take several rounds of breath until you can settle your nerves?




The steps of OFNR can be practice on a regular basis. Following Tiffany’s workshop, I did practice them, several times throughout the day. I then began to employ them in my communications with my husband. I found them incredibly helpful in how I began to frame my communications via text and email with my tenants in Alaska and other people in my life.


The idea is to speak from my own needs by way of explanation or justification for my choices or requests. This alleviates the triggering that can happen with finger pointing with the use of “you,” which can instantly put someone on the defensive rather than inspiring empathy and understanding.


For example, when my tenants asked why I did not trust them to do repairs on my house, I could explain my own experiences and the need for boundaries and self-care.


This is a general overview of a weekend workshop, which was packed with information. This is also a practice that takes practice. There are many instances where I do not succeed in responding rather than reacting. Luckily, every day brings myriad opportunities to continue to practice.


This brings me to Antwerp, Ike Lasater, and the one-day workshop I joined two weekends ago.


The decision to join the workshop already placed me in a state of discomfort because I knew that I would be going to a new place and taking transit to get there. I experienced anxiety, stress, and panic.


My request to self was to leave early enough that I would have plenty of time for way finding to reduce my stress level and not add to it by feeling rushed because I was running late.


I did eventually find the venue, though it was not readily apparent that the building was actually the place for the workshop or how to get into the building. The restaurant was a strange architectural structure set right alongside the river in Antwerp. I did not realize for some time that it was a restaurant or that this was the venue for the event.


It was grounding to find others who were also in the same state of confusion, one of whom made a phone call and found that we simply needed to go down to the ground level (we were up on a little bridge above a parking lot that led to the main entrance) and to enter from a side door. We followed the instructions and were met by one of the hosts for the workshop, who led us into an elevator that brought us to the very top floor, then down one floor to a room with chairs set in a circle.


I was invigorated by the setting beside a large body of water, as well as the weather, which was intensely dynamic with strong wind that set my hair flying in all directions and filled my soul with possibility, along with some groundlessness.


The wind pummeled the building throughout the day, setting my energy a bit on edge. I kept my feet firmly rooted to the floor and my attention on the presenter and the other people in the room to help keep me grounded and focused.


I find that the teachers who inspire me the most are those who in whom I see what is possible. These are people who have gotten to a place I wish to travel to “on the path,” and yet they are also authentically still on the path. They share their wisdom and also their experiences (recent ones not just those from the distant past) where they are still in the process of practicing and learning.


Ike Lasater shared many stories over the course of the day, and his stories helped me to see him not only as someone very accomplished, wise, and renowned (and who I might be intimidated by), but also as a person. He shared stories of feedback from participants, which had taken him decades to fully digest and appreciate. Also a recent experience where he had met a person he greatly admired and who he had put on such a pedestal that he was rendered essentially speechless.


There were many takeaways from this day, and I filled half of the little notebook they gifted participants.


Connection is the key piece.


It is connection with our Self and with others that allows us to be present in the presence of conflict. This [our ability to be present] actually changes the conflict.


The need for participating in these workshops is to creation connection with ourselves and other people, and we attend them when we feel disconnected. According to Ike, if we practice this connection we will ultimately get to a place where the workshops are no longer necessary.


Is this what it means to be enlightened? I loved Ike’s response. He said he had asked many an eastern guru, and every time they responded in a similar way. At this point, Ike made this gesture of discomfort with arms and hands and made a kind of groaning sound, which of course elicited the response of laughter from the group because we all felt the exact meaning and a kinship to it.


What is enlightenment? What is connection? What is empathy? What is sustainability?


These are questions I think about a lot, and it is true that I reflect and write about what the answers might be for me and that I seek opportunities to study with people who ask similar questions and from whom I hope to gain insight.


More notes from the day:


Learn to engage in a way that will hopefully create connection.


We get so much input about what is important [external input rather than internal knowing] that we forget to look for whether connection is present.


We can have skills but not be capable of using them in stress moments. It takes practice to “in the moment” make a difference.


Ike told us, My entire life is training for those few moments when I can make a difference.


Ike explained the need to practice these communication techniques because, We lose our capacity to use our skills when we are triggered. In other words, when our biological response kicks in—fight, flight, freeze—it becomes vastly more difficult to respond from a place of empathy and connection.


Ike spoke a great deal about the notion that it is between the moments when we are triggered that we can figure out how to do better the next time.


I loved his way of describing it: We are always in the process of being after and before doing.


When you are triggered is not the time to figure how you want to act.


Much of the information echoed the teachings I have gleaned from studying sustainability, yoga, and meditation. There was overlap with my own discoveries regarding creating sustainability in my own life and how to create, what I referred to in my dissertation as “a moment of sustainability.” This was what I described as a moment of balance when my entire system is in a state of equilibrium. In particular, I found that there were specific steps I could take to return to balance when an external force caused my system to move into a state of unbalance.


Ike referred to this notion as learning how to return to a state of being present and connected; the process for people to become more often connected with themselves (and can get reconnected) and reclaim balance.


In this workshop, he presented a 3-step process that he had been developing beyond OFNR. The goal was to notice when you’re not present, choose to return to presence, and choose a methodology to return to presence.


In my research I found that the more I practiced healthy methods for returning to balance, the longer these moments of sustainability lasted. In terms of yoga or meditation practice, this would mean the longer the bliss from the practice can be sustained before I am triggered again.


In Ike’s words: If I do that [the practice of returning to balance] the length of time between being and not being present lengthens. With practice returning to being present, the time between disconnection and connection lengthens.


What I love about NVC and compassionate communication and teachers like Tiffany and Ike is that they not only share the goal but also a means for getting there. I love yoga, and I know that the more I practice the more grounded overall my system will become. I know that with the practice of asana I can create balance, but I am not always in a space where I can kick up into a handstand or take child’s pose. I have a need for specific techniques that I can put into play when I am sitting on the bus or in a conflict situation.


Ike posed the question: Can I have a process that helps me return to presence without signaling that I’m doing it?


He shared the example of being at a family dinner with a relative who triggers us. You can’t exactly ask them to wait a moment while you do this practice. Instead, you find a way to practice it internally in order to create the space of balance and presence and connection to respond from a place of intention rather than triggered reaction.


The method Ike shared included the following three steps:


  1. Mourn
  2. Celebrate
  3. Learn, Plan, Practice


Before going into the details of this process, I want to share something Ike spoke about, which I found fascinating. I am always really interested in better understanding why my brain and mind and body work the way they do, both together and separately. Somehow, I feel better armed with knowledge (there’s another military language and metaphor). I may not be able to instantly shift my behavior or my body’s alert response, but I at least have a better understanding of why.


Daniel Kahneman wrote a book called Thinking, fast and slow, in which he explicates the difference between our fast mind (the sensory awareness that is happening all the time so we can figure out if we are safe and how to adapt to changing rules for a situation in which we find ourselves.) and the slow (or conscious) mind. Most of the participants in the workshop were native Dutch speakers, and they shared the title of the book translated into Dutch, which seemed to make more sense than the English: Ons feilbare denken (Our fallible thinking).




I mentioned that in my research on self-sustainability I found that I was far more able to be available to other people when I had created balance in my own life. When my life was far from a place of sustainability, I found it very difficult to make time and space for anyone else to share their problems with me. For example, when I was going through a divorce, I could barely function I was so overcome with grief, exhaustion, and pain. I would have had a lot of trouble making the space to invite a dear friend into my life when she was going through a similar transition, but I was able to make that space after taking the time for self-care: process my grief, create balance, and make the necessary changes to my personal and professional life that would allow me to continue creating positive change.


Compassionate communication parallels this finding. According to Ike, When a person is in pain, it’s difficult to be empathetic to other people. You cannot come into the process of connecting with another person when you are not connected to yourself.


This seems to be a tenet for compassionate communication and Marshall Rosenberg’s NCV. Meet your own needs for self-empathy before trying to understand the unmet needs that might be causing another person to act or say something and to empathize with them.


Back to the three steps.


  1. Mourn


The first step has its origins in Marshall Rosenberg’s teachings. It is the idea of mourning or grieving for our needs that were not met in any conflict situation. In expressing our disappointment, we honor ourselves and are also more able to move on to the second stage: celebration. A participant asked the steps do not begin with celebration, and Ike explained that it seems like people have trouble letting go until they have processed their sadness. In other words, the voice of disappointment—what Ike referred to as intrusive thoughts—is strong and demands attention. Therefore, we can attempt to push the voice and those thoughts away or we can make friends with them.


  1. Celebration


The second step is to celebrate the needs that were met.


  1. Learn, Plan, Practice


The third step is a three-in-one process. We begin by noting if we have had any insights from the experience. What did we learn? Ike explained that when people move through steps 1 and 2, they tend to experience a shift in chemistry that they can then express in step 3. The plan refers to the question: Is there anything you want to take on or commit to doing in a similar situation that might arise in the future? Then, how can you practice to make sure you are able to succeed?


We were asked to find a partner to practice these three steps. Ike explained his hidden agenda in asking us to pick a partner, and his explanation was incredibly insightful. He began saying that this seemingly small action was a life exercise of choosing and being chosen.


He asked if anything was arising for us just by virtue of being asked to choose a partner:


Feel what you feel.

Notice it.

Notice if this may be a pattern in your life.


Do you choose fast to avoid the feeling of discomfort? Do you hand back and wait?


Holy shit! Literally just from these few words, my mind was completely blown. I had participated in dozens of workshops and trainings and even yoga classes where I had to choose a partner, and I was certain that I had experienced thoughts and emotions around the process but I had never stopped to feel them or consider their deeper meaning.


For this first partnering, I decided to hang back and wait. Eventually, I made eye contact with a person—a man—who I had briefly met at the start of the day. I felt disappointment arise and judgment. I had felt a bit awkward around this person when I met him, and I was worried that the exercise would be uncomfortable.


I write this honestly because I felt shame around this response. I also share because the pairing with this person turned out to be exactly what we both needed in this moment in our lives. In addition, even though I know from years of experience that my first impressions are often completely wrong I still form instant judgments. Something I loved about Ike and that stayed with me in the wake of the training was how he described his own process of coming to terms with his propensity to form judgment.


I was the first to share an experience that was recent and present in my mind. Very quickly, my judgments dissolved and were replaced with gratitude and ease. My partner had an incredible ability to guide me through the process. I learned a great deal just from the ways he responded to my telling of the stories; the guiding questions he asked; and his gentle presence. In addition, his English was impeccable and I told him as much. His suggestions that I perhaps had a need to trust the universe and myself were exactly the same as the insights offered by my current therapist. It turned out that my partner also had a need for trust in his abilities as a presenter of NVC in English. He had had a negative experience that caused doubt to arise. My telling him what a wonderful job he was doing and that his English was very good helped to assuage some of his doubt. In other words, it felt a bit like we were meant to partner together for this exercise. I felt very cared for, which I expressed and my partner expressed in kind. A bond was formed, which felt deeply meaningful and authentic.


The second exercise was The Enemy Image. I learned this practice in the video chat sessions that Tiffany offered after our weekend workshop together. We seemed to approach the process a little differently.


In the workshop with Tiffany, we spent a lot of time noting the words we shared that we thought of as emotions but that were actually what she referred to as “faux feelings” and judgments. Essentially, these were perceived emotions to which we were adding a storyline that placed blame for our emotions on the actions of another person.


For example, the phrase, I feel attacked.


Tiffany would ask what unmet need I was experiencing and to phrase it according to the OFNR steps: When you do ____, I feel _____. I have a need for _____. Would you be willing to do _____.


So instead of feeling attacked, I could say I feel unsafe.


Another example that came up quite often was the phrase, I feel criticized. Another way of stating this as a true emotion could be, I feel self-doubt.


For this enemy image process, we were asked to begin with the judgments we felt for a person that caused us to be disconnected from them. We called out our judgments and then dug deeper to figure out what action a person was taking that were causing us to feel those judgments.


Judgment: My boss is a jerk.


Rephrasing: When my boss does not adhere to a previously agreed upon course of action, I feel frustrated.


The steps for this practice were similar to our first exercise:


  1. Empathy for Self—when my needs for empathy are met, then I get curious about the needs of the person I have judgments about.
  2. Empathy for the other—what needs might this person have that are causing them to behave a certain way, which I don’t like?
  3. Learn, Plan, Practice


With the revolutionary paradigm shift in my thinking from Ike’s explanation about the process of choosing a partner, I decided to also hang back a little bit and not try to choose a partner right away to alleviate any discomfort and allow for the process to unfold.


I looked around and observed other people choosing their partners. Eye contact was made, smiles, gestures. People were having the experience of being chosen. Eventually, I looked across the room and a person returned my gaze. We smiled and nodded, and through these gestures a silent pact was made.


Also in this process, I noticed right away the intrusive thoughts that were arising for me. I remembered this person sharing a very positive experience with his partner from the first exercise. I felt self-doubt and fear that I might not be able to offer an experience that was equal to or that transcended his expectations. I was also creating a storyline that he had this expectation in the first place. This storyline was likely a projection of my own feelings of insecurity, and yet I still felt it quite acutely.


Once again, this partner process was a little bit of synchronicity and serendipity. We decided that I would be the first to share a person I was experiencing judgments about because my partner couldn’t think of anyone from his own life. By the time I finished, he had thought of a former boss. Each of our shares felt deeply meaningful. As I moved through my share, I noticed that I felt an increase in my willingness to consider the unmet needs of the other person. This increase was happening in very small increments, but I did notice that it was there by the end. I felt a my own need to offer support had been met through the process of working through my partner’s share.


At the end, I even expressed my initial feelings of fear that he would not find our partner practice as inspiring as the previous one. And he shared with me his reasons for choosing me as a partner, which alleviated my fears entirely and filled my heart.


He told me that I had an energy that had a lightness to while at the same time I was very sharp in my comments and insights. I was able to point to the essential things in a light way and with humor. Additionally, my energy had kept him awake and uplifted throughout the day.


I shared that I had felt a kinship with him because when I had looked across the room and made eye contact, I could sense an authenticity and kindness in his own energy when he smiled.


This communication method is important for learning how to respond to events that are triggering from a place of connection, presence, and empathy. Another piece that is key is to create space for healing and forgiveness for our selves.


I tell myself quite often that I should not regret my past actions or feel like a failure at life because all I can do is make the best choice with the information I have in that moment. Even with this knowledge, I often put a lot pressure on myself to succeed in a certain way as defined by external expectations. It is challenging not to regret past actions and choices when they do not turn out as I anticipated. I have to let go of my attachment to life plans.


Ike echoed this idea and shared it in a way that spoke to me: It can be the best choice in the moment, and it can turn into a train wreck because we cannot predict the future.


He also spoke to the healing aspect of NVC: The past is gone, but I can have a therapeutic, healing moment now (about that past experience).


There is healing in self-empathy. Communication is about being present with my self and what I am feeling. It is about honoring the authenticity of those feelings and thoughts rather than trying to hide from them. In hearing them and empathizing with them, I can let go of my attachment to them.


At the very end of the workshop, the person from the organization that had hosted Ike Lasater posted a question for everyone to consider and respond to. I am sharing this question because I think it is one that could be beneficial for me to consider every day and so I thought you might appreciate it as well: What did I learn today, and what do I really want to remember for the rest of my life?

3 thoughts on “Self-empathy first

  1. Wow, this was a great read.

    “When you are triggered is not the time to figure how you want to act.”

    This resonated. So many times when my sons have lost their tempers in an argument I’ve lost mine. It’s been better since December because I am working to shift my response to one of never losing my temper. That’s a replacement for “justifiably” losing my temper. Figuring out that I didn’t want to lose my temper with them at all, no matter what they were doing, was key.

    Arguments can still get heated, but I keep things focused on the issue, not on my emotional reaction to their complex emotional reactions. This summary provides so many more tools that I’m going to try out with them! Especially when it comes to their interactions with each other, which are often needlessly hostile due to petty or imagined transgressions.

    1. Wow!! Thank you! It took me a looooooong time to get this one out, and there were still pieces that didn’t quite make it in. This practice is super challenging, I think, and also so important. I imagine it is very challenging with your kids, but I think it is really incredible and insightful to choose the end goal and pave the path to get there with your intention, learning, and practice, practice, practice. Be gentle with yourself if you do lose your temper. I would be happy to share reading recommendations that I have been collecting through this and other trainings. I found the teachers who speak to me on the deepest levels to be very authentic, learned, and human at the same time. xoxo ❤

  2. This reminded me of this TED talk:

    The way we think is influenced by the words we use and the languages we know. To such a degree that it’s hard to know what thoughts are ours and what thoughts are placed there by our culture.

    And yet, despite having only the barest understanding of how our brains actually work our focus remains elsewhere, like putting a man on the moon. We did that, we spent a ton on that, but can’t explain why we think the thoughts we do or even how much more we don’t know about our own consciousness or what influences it. Mind-boggling.

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