When Hearts Speak

By Dorian Martin for Jennyoga 

Is it better to speak from the head or from the heart? Research suggests that the latter may offer some real benefits at the individual, familial and societal levels. 

A Different Approach to Communicating

Also known as Nonviolent Communication or Compassionate Communication, heart-based communication is grounded in the concept that people are compassionate by nature. However, during their lifetime, many people may have moved the locus of their communication from the heart to the head.

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, who developed the Nonviolent Communication approach, believes that many people are taught early in their lives to speak from their head. This approach often involves subjective judgments (right vs. wrong, attractive vs. ugly, good vs. bad) as well as demands for specific action based on the listener’s guilt, shame or fear. Head-based communication can lead to defensiveness, resistance and fighting and can make it difficult for people to live in harmony with one another.

Speaking from the heart offers a viewpoint that is not judgmental. Instead, a person voices what is happening in his or her own life and makes a request (instead of voicing a mandate). This form of communication promotes well-being both for the person who is voicing the statement and the listener. People who use heart-based communication do not place blame on another person; instead, the speaker believes that his own thoughts, wants and wishes are the basis for any feelings of frustration or anger that are being experienced.

In his article for Northwest Compassionate Communication, Dr. Rosenberg offers an example of a mother who wants her child to clean up her toys. He notes that in heart-based communication, the mother would say, “I feel angry because I want the living room to be clean and instead it’s a mess.” She would then ask her child for a different outcome by making a statement such as, “I’d feel so much better if you’d just put these toys away.” This approach runs counter to head-based communication, which might involve the mother saying, “How nice it would have been if you had cleaned the living room last night.”

Research into Nonviolent Communication

Researchers are finding that heart-based communication offers surprising benefits in multiple settings.

– A 2015 study found that the use of parental empathy in a relationship with adolescent children that offers a variety of benefits to both parties. An empathetic approach was significantly associated with an adolescent’s ability to regulate emotions and also lowered markers of systemic inflammation in the teens. Parents who practiced empathy were found to have greater self-esteem and purpose in life (although researchers found that these parents did have higher systemic inflammation).

– Two studies published jointly in 2014 looked at prisoners who had been trained by the Freedom Project in nonviolent communication and meditation. The first study found that prisoners who had received the training were less likely to return to criminal behavior. In the second study, prisoners who were trained in these strategies had improvements in self-reported anger, self-compassion and certain forms of mindfulness. They also showed increased social skills.

– A 2012 study reported that Nonviolent Communication helps participants build trusting personal relationships in on-line mentoring programs. This type of communication helped offset the communication issues such as silence and a limited sensory environment that can hamper the creation of online relationships.

Learning to take a heart-based approach to communication may take some effort since the head-based communication style is so ingrained in U.S. culture. However, learning to speak from the heart offers numerous psychological and physical benefits – as well as the potential for healthier and more collaborative relationships with family members, friends, neighbors and colleagues.

 Sources for This Blog:

Rosenberg, M. (1995). Compassionate Communication. Northwest Compassionate Communication.

The Center for Nonviolent Communication. (ND). NVC Research.

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