When Rachel French headed to work, she often felt a gnawing dread in the pit of her stomach. The funding for her job and those of others in her government department came under scrutiny anytime there was a new budget or an election aproached, and that fuelled anxiety and tension among her co-workers. Plus, she spent plenty of time on the phone with people who called to complain about her boss’s voting record. “Between the abusive phone calls and wondering if my job would last, I was constantly stressed out,” she says. Even worse than the stress was the disconnect French, 39, experienced between the person she felt she could be during her daily yoga practice and the one she became at the office.

It’s an unsettling revelation many of us have had. You can feel so open-hearted on the mat, then head into a meeting and find your impulse to speak squelched by fear that your boss won’t listen. Or a heated disagreement with a colleague leaves you feeling so distressed that instead of the light, easy presence you emanated during practice, you’ve adopted a heavy shield and are avoiding everyone. Or maybe your team has fallen into a dysfunctional group dynamic, in which gossiping about who’s to blame for what creates firm resistance to finding the solutions that would bring success and happiness all round.

Maintaining a sense of presence in the workplace—where your buttons often get pushed—is challenging. But given the consequences of acting in ways that may cause others pain and you regret, it’s undoubtedly worth the effort to tap into that underlying sense of connection and let it inform your communication. One tool that’s helping many yogis do just that is Marshall Rosenberg’s system of Nonviolent Communication (NVC). Designed to inspire compassion, Nonviolent Communication offers a model for honest, effective and peaceful dialogue. It prompts you to stop and notice what’s going on under the surface of your communication and to tap into the deeper needs and feelings that may not have been expressed—both your own and those of the people you’re talking with. The process short-circuits the tendency to judge the person with whom you’re communicating. And the resulting interactions become, in Rosenberg’s words, “a flow between ourselves and others based on a mutual giving from the heart.” (See “Work It Out,” below.)

After attending a Nonviolent Communication workshop, French tapped into that flow. She found it easy to feel compassion for her colleagues, with whom she shared the stress of job uncertainty, and even to connect with the public, who just needed to be heard. The whole mood of the office seemed to change once French started applying the NVC method to her communications. “I don’t know if other people are actually acting differently, but I feel a lot lighter,” she says.

A Peaceful Activist

Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist who left private practice in the early 1960s to promote peace and compassion on a wide scale, created the NVC technique while helping to integrate schools during the civil rights movement. In 1984 he founded the Centre for Nonviolent Communication, a global organisation based in California; his model is now taught in weekend workshops and longer trainings all over the world. (You can connect with a certified NVC trainer in Australia through www.nvcaustralia.com) And in the past few years, Nonviolent Communication has gained a foothold in the yoga community.

The approach breaks communications down into four parts: observing (stopping to recognise what is actually happening in the moment, rather than voicing your opinion about it); feeling (identifying the feelings arising in you and your sense of the feelings arising in others); needing (getting clear about what needs you and others might have in the situation) and requesting (asking to have those needs met).

If you’re a salesperson nervously trying to close a deal, and you’ve studied NVC, you might stop and observe that in this moment you are sitting with a client who has valid concerns about how your product will benefit her. Rather than judge yourself for not getting the sale or your client for being difficult, you might identify feelings of fear—that you won’t close the deal, won’t make your quota, won’t succeed—and empathise with the client, who has her own fears about spending more money than she planned or not getting the desired results.

You could check in with your needs: you need to meet your quota, to build long-term relationships with clients and to feel good about yourself. The client needs to get a certain result from the product and to trust you before spending a lot of money on it. She might request more time or information, and you might request that she consider making a smaller commitment that would enable you to work with her toward her goals and yours. In the end, you get a modest sale, but it’s a sale that meets everyone’s needs and sets you up for more sales and success over time.

The four-step NVC process for communication encourages you, just as yoga does, to let go of your emotional reaction to some imagined outcome and simply watch the situation. And if you’re really practising Nonviolent Communication, you learn to be honest with yourself and others about the feelings and needs that a situation evokes.

A Different Approach to Disagreement

“I see NVC as a very yogic presence,” says Laura Cornell, founder and director of the Green Yoga Association, a nonprofit group based in California. The association uses the principles of Nonviolent Communication to help further its mission of fostering ecological consciousness in the yoga community. “We’d look at the person or company we wanted to criticise [for environmentally harmful behaviours] and see what beautiful needs they were trying to meet. For example, maybe the manufacturers of yoga mats that contain toxic ingredients are trying to meet the need of feeding their families and intending to provide a product the yoga community wants,” says Cornell. “So we ask, How can we meet the needs of our planet and the needs of the company, and have products to use in a yoga practice?”

If you’re really practising Nonviolent Communication, you learn to be honest with yourself and others about the feelings and needs that a situation evokes.

It’s a very different approach to environmental activism than the “us against them” attitude that has led some groups to acts of violence and vandalism. To learn to listen empathically to those with whom you disagree takes real strength and courage, of course, and Cornell says it’s not always easy.

“Sometimes it happens that right away, in that moment, I’m able to understand and come from the heart space, connecting with my heart in order to connect with the other person. But sometimes it’s something I have to reflect on for days, a week or even months,” she says. Even when the process isn’t smooth, she finds NVC is worth the effort. “If you’re able to connect from the heart 10 or 20 percent of the time, that’s better than nothing,” Cornell says. “If you have moments of connection and breakthrough, it’s worth it.”

A Frustrated Meditator

Ike Lasater, a lawyer by training and a co-founder (with his wife Judith Hanson Lasater and several others) of Yoga Journal, practised yoga and meditation for decades before discovering Nonviolent Communication. Sitting on the meditation cushion, he would experience “how the world could be, and how I wanted to be in relation to the world,” he says.

NVC allows people to get out of a battlefield mentality at the office…recognising the needs that must be met in order for everyone to feel good about a situation.

But Lasater would often feel a contradiction between those experiences and how he found himself reacting to other people. Once, he says, he attended a five-day meditation course that left him feeling peaceful and grounded. But within hours of leaving, he noticed that he was already feeling judgemental and reactive. “In a stressful moment, I would forget and go into my habitual patterns. NVC is a cognitive way of reminding myself to act in line with my values.”

Lasater is now an NVC trainer and a co-founder of a coaching and mediation consultancy firm based on NVC’s principles. “Our culture teaches us to analyse a situation, to extract ourselves from it and then decide who’s to blame: the other person or myself,” he says. None of which is very helpful if you’re interested in living in harmony with the Self you find on the mat or with your co-workers. Lasater finds that NVC allows people to get out of a battlefield mentality at the office and, eventually, to get good at recognising the needs that must be met in order for everyone to feel good about a situation.The outcome can’t help but be positive both for workplace relationships and for the success of the organisation.

And, importantly, you don’t have to sign your whole office up for an NVC training for everyone to benefit. “Over and over, clients tell me, ‘My workplace has changed so much, and the only thing that’s different is me,’” Lasater says. “They see people differently. They see their own actions differently. They create a space where compassion can arise.”

An Honest Doctor

This has certainly been the case for Jody Scheer, a pediatrician in a newborn intensive care unit. She often finds herself coping with the difficult behaviours of distraught parents as well as the needs of fragile or sick babies. On the recommendation of a friend, Scheer went to hear Rosenberg speak. “I was really taken by NVC and the way it gets to the heart of connection,” says Scheer, who went on to take several NVC courses.

Scheer began using the four-step model at work and found that often, the technique gave her a way to see past combative or difficult behaviour, empathise with the fear or sadness or anger the person was feeling, and connect with that person’s needs in a compassionate way. “Once I was called in to speak with a father whose baby had been born with a cleft palate, a condition that is treatable, but which can cause problems with breathing and eating,” Scheer recalls. When she approached the baby’s father—who towered over her at well over six feet and 100 kilos—he began to yell at her.

“My first response was to puff up and try to get on his level, which, of course, didn’t work,” she admits. “I stopped for a moment and thought, This is a perfect NVC moment! So I said, ‘Are you scared because you need your baby to be safe?’ That completely deflated him.” The father and Scheer went on to have an intimate conversation in which she learned that in his native country, babies with cleft palates are often left to die. “When I found that out, it was so much easier to have compassion for him,” Scheer says.

Incorporating NVC into her medical practice has had a tremendous impact on Scheer’s life. “I can’t fix every infant under my care, but I’ve learned to be present with the feelings and needs of their families. This has truly met my own need to nurture, to contribute to life, to be honest and to have integrity,” she says. Of course, it’s made her work experience better, too: “The lovely side effect is that my job is easier and more rewarding.”

But that’s just part of what Scheer gets from practising Nonviolent Communication. “You can use it superficially, just for more effective communication, but for me, it’s a spiritual way of looking at the world—seeing the good in all people, seeing the Divine. It’s really hard to be connected with somebody if they’re yelling at you, but the uglier the behaviour, the bigger the unmet need. NVC gives me a pathway to access the heart energy instead of all the stuff that goes on in my brain.”

Ultimately, she adds, “it’s about being in the world the way I want to be, regardless of the other person’s behaviour. NVC gives me a way to line up with my spiritual path in every moment.”

Work it Out

Use Marshall Rosenberg’s model of Nonviolent Communication to bring clarity, compassion, and resolution to any difficult work situation.

Imagine that you and your co-worker, Sue, are supposed to give a joint presentation, and Sue shows up unprepared. Thoughts run through your mind: How could she let you down? Now the boss is going to be annoyed with you, even though you did nothing wrong. You might lose a promotion, all because of Sue! The more you dwell on Sue’s mistake, the more stressed you feel. Your anger makes it hard for you to focus during the meeting. Then you feel bad about your own poor performance. Finally, you take your anger and anxiety home and unleash it on your family, which causes you to have trouble sleeping.

To find a new approach to just this kind of moment, you might want to try NVC. Using Rosenberg’s four-step model, your response to the situation could be quite different.

Observe. First, take a moment to observe the situation without judgment. This can be tricky if you’ve created labels or assumptions about the people you work with (my boss is impossible to please; my colleague is inept). Assumptions like these create feelings of anger, fear, or defensiveness that can colour your interactions. So cut through them and simply observe what’s going on.

Instead of judging Sue for her lack of preparedness and blaming her for possible future outcomes, you focus on the facts: “I’m at an important meeting. Sue didn’t bring the information I thought she would. My boss is expecting us to give a presentation together. I need that information to do a good job.”

Notice your feelings. Next, get in touch with the feelings that come up. This isn’t always easy to do in a work environment, where the culture may be “all business, all the time” and not leave much room for expressing emotion. The first few times you try this technique, it may take a while just to identify what, exactly, you’re feeling. Take a few minutes alone, if possible, and notice your body’s signs. You may realize your hands are clenched, your shoulders hunched, your jaw tense with anxiety or your stomach is aflutter. Keep in mind that feelings are about you, not the other person. You can feel “angry” or “frustrated,” but words like “cheated,” “blindsided,” or “bullied” place blame and judgment on others. Focus on how you feel, not on what you think “made” you feel that way.

Identify needs. Now, take a moment to look at your needs. Maybe you want to win your boss’s favour by being perceived as a competent presenter: you need to feel successful. You may want to present information that you feel justifies your job: you need to feel secure.

Remember that your needs have nothing to do with judging another person. Your need isn’t for Sue to be prepared. Go deeper, and think instead in terms of basic human needs that we all share, like respect, acknowledgment, creativity, security and stability. By identifying your needs, you open yourself up to lots of possibilities for getting them met. Then focus on Sue and empathise with her needs, too. You can see that she is stressed. Maybe she needs for you and your boss to show her some patience, or give her more guidance or even recognise that she has too much work to realistically get it all done on time. When you step outside your own self for a moment to consider the needs of the other person, it gives you space for compassion to bubble up and often allows you to find a solution that meets everyone’s needs.

Make a request. The final step is to make a request that can help you get your needs met. You might ask your boss if it’s possible to reschedule the presentation. You could also talk to your co-worker, Sue. “I’m feeling upset and worried because we aren’t prepared to give our presentation. I need to be able to show the boss why this project is so important. Can you commit to a new deadline and get me the information a few days before the next meeting?”

For more information on Rosenberg’s model, read any of his books, including Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, available at www.nvcaustralia.com

Speak up

Emotions often get in the way and cloud the truth. Here are four tips for getting what you really need from a situation.

Talk straight. Ask for what you want—not what you don’t. If you want your boss to show you more respect, don’t say, “Would you stop shutting me down in meetings?” Instead, try, “Would you be willing to listen to my ideas and give them careful consideration before you respond?”

Don’t manipulate. If you want to request something, do so, but don’t make demands or threats. “You only want it from the person if they’re willing to give it freely,” says NVC trainer Ike Lasater, “not out of a fear of punishment, guilt or shame.”

Be creative and courageous. Remember that your needs can be met in ways other than the one you might first think of. But sometimes, a workplace or the people in it simply can’t meet your needs. In order to preserve your integrity, you may have to make a bold move—including looking for a new job.

Look within. Sometimes when you look at a situation that’s causing difficulty, you can work through it without making requests of anyone but yourself. You might feel completely stressed and overwhelmed at the office, and so you go through the four steps of NVC. “Say you identify that your needs are stability and order,” says psychotherapist Ann Marie McKelvey. “Then you can ask yourself, What request could I make of myself to get those needs met? How can I create order and stability in my life? Maybe I say no a couple of times today so that things aren’t as frantic.”

Meagan Francis is a freelance writer and the mother of four, who practices NVC in her own relationships at work and home.