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Sometimes it’s hard to say what you mean. Oren Jay Sofer says, “Communication is a learnable skill and it’s one of the most powerful levers for making change in your life and the world.” Non-violent communication is about taking responsibility for what we are experiencing using empathy, deep listening, know how to make requests.

Author and renowned meditation instructor Oren Jay Sofer regularly teaches a mindful approach to non-violent communication. spent two and a half years of living as an Anagarika (renunciate) at branch monasteries in the Ajahn Chah Thai Forest lineage. Today, his teaching combines classical Buddhist training with the accessible language of secular mindfulness.  Since the early 2000s, Oren has had a deep interest in the relationship between contemplative practice and communication. A graduate of the BayNVC North American Leadership Training, he has taught classes and workshops in Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC) nationally since 2006. His innovative retreats and online programs in Mindful Communication offer one of the only opportunities in the U.S today to explore the intersection between formal meditation practice, Right Speech and NVC.  Oren  is the founder and Guiding Teacher of Next Step Dharma, an innovative online course focused on bringing the tools of meditation to daily life, and co-founder of Mindful Healthcare.  Oren has created mindfulness programs for organizations, companies, and apps including Apple, Kaiser Permanente, Lumosity, Calm, 10% Happier, Simple Habit and others.

I loved his book, Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication.  In the book, a main theme is that every thought or feeling is there to try to meet a need.  If you can try to figure out what need your thoughts are tied to, it’s easier to articulate what you need to those around you.  It’s also useful when listening to someone in a disucssion or conflict to tease out what need they are trying to have met.  I also enjoyed learning about conflict and viewing it as a way to deepen relationships. I also learned that non-violent communication and conflict resolution isn’t necessarily to try to get someone to do things your way, it’s about deepening understanding of one another because sometimes we simply can’t agree to have the same viewpoint.   Non-violent communication has a framework of observation, the feeling, the needs and values to be met, and the request.

Three questions you can ask yourself are what happened, how do I feel about it, and why?

I also loved learning about how to use mindfulness in listening and communication as well as how to ground yourself in your own body when tensions rise.

Topics Discussed in the Podcast 

  • From childhood actor to meditation instructor
  • 4 types of conflict avoidance
  • Self-empathy
  • Tools for internal pressure
  • No mud, no lotus
  • Addressing the voiceless and gender constructs
  • How to make requests of others

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Sonya Looney: Hey, Oren, welcome to the show.

Oren Jay Sofer: Thanks, Sonya. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Sonya: I was so excited when your book came out. I think it was last year because I’ve followed a lot of your guided meditations and then to see a book that had so many useful pieces of information that we can immediately apply to our lives is super exciting.

Oren: Yeah, it was a real accomplishment for me to write it. It was my first book, and it felt really gratifying to have it out there and hear how many people it’s helped and how many lives it’s touched.

Sonya: Something I like asking authors that read their own audiobook is how did you get through that? Because I hear that’s a very difficult challenge.

Oren: Yeah. So, fun fact, I was a childhood actor, and so it’s was actually really fun for me to read the book. And I was told by the audio producer who was there in the studio with me that I did an excellent job, that I was at a professional level in terms of the pace at which I read and my vocal stamina. So it was fun to do.

Sonya: And how do you get from the life of being a childhood actor to a meditation instructor and this amazing life in this space?

Oren: Yeah, great question, thank you. Lots of different conditions, many beyond my control. So just to start, I think that the structure of our society and being a white guy who was able to go to college at a good university all played a role because I was exposed to a lot of ideas that opened my mind. I had the flexibility to study abroad, so there are a lot of opportunities that I received just through privilege that are of no merit of my own and particularly aware of that and grateful for that. The transition from being an actor to devoting my life more to meditation came through a series of disillusionments, actually, and some heartbreak. Parents getting divorced, relationships ending, getting mixed up in a lot of drugs, and just kind of my life falling apart while I was in college for the first couple of years and needing to kind of clear the slate. You know, I was living a really unhealthy life in a lot of different ways, not just physically, but emotionally and psychologically in some ways. I had a lot of anger from my childhood growing up that I hadn’t dealt with. And so I turned to meditation based on some classes I had taken in Asian religions that really opened my mind to different ways of looking at the world. I like to talk about my first introduction to Asian thought was combination of the transcendentalists reading Thoreau and Emerson, but also this wonderful little book called The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. Any of your listeners who are familiar with it will smile and anyone who’s not, I highly recommend getting that lovely little book. I found it in a library when I was about 15 or 16, and it changed my life. So I ended up going to India and living in a monastery and doing the study abroad program in Buddhism and really immersing myself in another practice and tradition and lifestyle, and it totally changed my life. I kind of came back to the United States and realized that the career of Hollywood and acting was not what I wanted to be doing, and that it was predicated a lot on convincing people that they needed things that they would want things that they didn’t really need in order to keep the economy going and produce more consumption. And just at a very fundamental level, that did not sit well with me, both in terms of ethics and also the planetary crisis that we’re in with the environment. And so, obviously, that’s not the only aspect of the arts or show business, but particularly trying to make it as an actor, you end up doing a lot of commercials and TV things that are really just about perpetuating stereotypes, and a consumer is a lifestyle. And so it was kind of in a face that I ended up pursuing contemplative practice more and trying to just understand what it is to be human and make a difference in the world in a different way. And I can share one more, just kind of the parallel and the synchronicity between them was that my original inspiration to become an actor as a child was this insight I had after watching Back to the Future Part Two, or something like that. It was one of the Michael J. Fox movies. All those who grew up in the 80s will get the reference, but it was just something about that movie at the end. I had some kind of insight around, like, you know, time, because the movie is about time travel. And then the insight kind of flipped to this next level of realizing, whoa, okay, I just had that insight and how many people saw that movie and how many people actually started thinking about their life in a different way from that movie. And it touched me, and I thought, wow, I could really make a difference. I could really get so many people to think about something in their own life differently. So that was the motivation originally for becoming an actor. And without realizing it, I ended up doing the same thing in a different way.

Sonya: Yeah, there’s so many things that I would love to talk about in regards to that. And I feel like we could talk for an hour just about switching things in life and the implosion that happens sometimes. And I think it’s so interesting that you from a very young age, as a child actor, you wanted to use your voice to communicate things. And we do like acting as a way of communicating, but you completely switched around to communicating differently and then teaching people about communication. My first question about communication is the communication that we have with ourselves is a really important relationship. The things that we say to ourselves, our self talk, the way that we interpret the world, and that also helps us communicate outwardly once we can figure out what we’re saying to ourselves internally. Where did you start with communication and did it start with the internal or the external?

Oren: Oh, lovely question. Thank you. Just so touch that you start there because so many people think of communication only as something external and don’t recognize how important our self talk is and our capacity to be aware of what’s happening for us, which, as you very aptly put, is the foundation, right? It’s one of the things I say in my book is, okay, how do we say what we mean? Well, to say what you mean, you have to first know what you mean. How do we know what we mean? Oh, we actually have to listen very closely and deeply and understand what’s happening inside in order to communicate something meaningful and clear to someone else. I think it kind of started together. I don’t think it was one or the other. Perhaps in some ways you could say it started with the internal because I started with meditation and trying to understand my own emotions and my own life and how I could be of service in the best way possible. And what I realized after five or six years of meditation, living at a meditation center, really immersing myself, was that the stuff that was happening in silence internally wasn’t translating into my relationships and conversations. And so that gave me pause because I was like, wait, okay, it’s great that I can sit and meditate and have some insights and feel peaceful and loving towards people, but if I can’t have a conversation with my coworker about how long to steam the broccoli without getting into an argument, I was working in the kitchen at the time, what good is this meditation stuff? So I started seeking other resources because there was this gap. So I took a local communication class. And I was living in western Mass at the time. And some of the foundational skills of that class with a woman named Sandra Boston in her method of teaching came from Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, who is the founder of this technique called nonviolent communication that’s rooted in nonviolence, rooted in an understanding of how do we transform not only our own lives, but the world in a way that makes it work for everyone. So that kind of gave me a bridge to translate the internal values of meditation into my relationships and communication. And what happened over time, which has been very fascinating to observe, and it’s kind of how I teach, is that the internal and the external actually support each other. Not only aren’t they separate, but when we start working on our communication from a contemplative perspective with an interest in our own heart and mind and when we’re doing internal spiritual work, self improvement, transformation work, and we include our relationships and communication, that the two start to support and inform each other. They create this synergy where the internal work that we’re doing shows up in our relationships and the relational work that we’re doing supports a sense of clarity and integrity and stability in our internal transformation.

Sonya: I think that that’s so important to say. They are interconnected. And the tools in your book really help bridge that gap because if you don’t understand how you’re showing up in the world or you haven’t actually pulled up the hood and look at what’s truly happening on the inside because it’s scary to take responsibility for yourself and ownership of things that you’ve done, said or thought and then translate that into how you want to communicate that into the world.

So you talk about four types of conflict avoidance. And communication is more than just about conflict. But I think that’s probably what most people are thinking of is, oh, like whenever I try to have conversations with my boss or my partner, we have disagreements and then so and so acts this way or they’re passive aggressive or they yell at me. Can you talk about those?

Oren: Yeah, absolutely. So these are just certain ways that we learn and become our habits, our habitual kind of defenses or responses, not just to conflict, but even to difference. When we have a difference of opinion with someone, when we view things differently, when what we want seems to come into conflict with someone else. The way that the dominant systems in our society function that shape how we’re socialized. So all of us were children and part of the process of being a child is the painful passage of socialization where we are forced to fit into a world of adults. And you’re a new mom, right? So you’re probably going through so much right now as a mom and kind of navigating those interactions with a child. Our parents do the best they can to prepare us for the world. And yet what is the world they’re preparing us for? It’s a violent world. It’s a world where some people don’t matter, where might makes right. And so we learn and internalize these lessons and these messages from our society that essentially when there’s a difference, someone wins and someone loses. Either you’re right or you’re wrong. This is a win lose proposition. And generally the person with more power wins. Those are the rules of the game in the dominant society. So we internalize that. And if that’s the field that we’re entering, well, we learned very quickly some strategies to survive and the way those strategies constantly tend to be around these four patterns. The first that you mentioned is conflict avoidance and these are not in any particular order. So one of them is conflict avoidance and that’s what it sounds like. It’s basically the strategy of let’s just pretend this isn’t happening and it will go away on its own. Right? And so we change the subject, we avoid the conflict, we maybe avoid the other person and we might have very good reasons for doing this. We might be trying to keep the peace. We value harmony. We might have had experiences where addressing a conflict actually leads to more harm than good. It causes a rift in a relationship because the skills or capacity aren’t present. And so we might, with very good intentions, try to avoid a conflict because we believe that it’s only going to lead to more damage or there’s no way that my needs are going to get met so why bother? I’m just going to pretend this isn’t here. It’ll go away on its own. The costs of that over time, it can deaden our sense of aliveness. It can lead to more disconnection and distance in relationships. We don’t actually deal with the underlying issues and so they fester. So this is a very common one, very common in spiritual communities because of the values for peace and harmony and so forth. At the opposite end of the spectrum we have what is sometimes called competitive confrontation or aggressive confrontation. And this is the type A strategy that we see plastered across the news, the media, the entertainment industry. It’s that kind of alpha male, I will bulldoze you and do whatever I need to get my way. I’m just going to use as much force as possible and control and dominate to try to get my needs met. And this strategy too has its benefits. It can produce results, right? We’re really clear about what’s important to us when we have this approach. So we tend to be self connected in that way. Obviously there’s a cost. We lose relationships, we lose trust, we lose collaboration, wisdom, goodwill. There’s many, many costs of this overtime. Just to name here, just a nuance is that this particular approach is different from being assertive and we can be confrontational in a way that is still connected to a sense of shared humanity and open to dialogue. That’s not what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking about here is dominating, is using our power over others without regard for the effect it will have in order to satisfy our own agenda. Then a third constellation, a third way these habits show up is passivity or acquiescing. And this one can seem very similar to conflict avoidance on the surface but it’s actually quite different. So this is where we give up our needs in order to resolve a conflict. So conflict avoidance I’m still aware of what’s important to me. I know there’s a conflict and I’m just not dealing with it. I will do anything to avoid it. Passivity actually is trying to resolve the conflict. And the method is I will now give up what’s important to me and defer to you. I will erase what matters to me and minimize its importance in order to resolve the conflict and try to keep the peace. So this often creates a feeling of powerlessness inside and over time can lead to even a sense of self doubt. Like I stopped even knowing what’s important to me because I preemptively give up what matters. I might find myself saying, oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, before something even happens. Or as soon as the slightest suggestion that there’s going to be a conflict or a difference, I deferred to the other person, oh no, it’s fine, whatever you want, don’t worry about it. So the irony here is that it takes a lot of strength to suppress our needs, but that strength is often unacknowledged and unintegrated. And then the fourth of these is passive aggression, which is this kind of combination of them where we recognize there’s a conflict. We know it’s important to us, but because we don’t think that the situation can be resolved outwardly, it goes underground and we pretend everything is okay, but take steps subtly, nonverbally, behind someone’s back to communicate that we’re displeased this isn’t working for us or we don’t like it. So those are the four. And then what my whole book and my teaching kind of suggests, and this whole kind of field of conflict resolution and mediation and organizational development suggests, yea and human beings have thrived and survived because we can collaborate and we can cooperate. And that there is this other way of relating to conflict and disagreement that actually leads to more synergy and creativity.

Sonya: Something that I really enjoyed hearing and reading was that conflict is actually a way to deepen a relationship, even if you cannot come to a winner and a loser and just have differences.

Oren: Yeah, absolutely. One of the first communication trainings I ever went to through the Harvard Negotiation Project, one of the trainers said, intimacy is born in conflict. And that really gets to the heart of it because how do we get to know each other? How do we really see each other and test the strength of our relationship? It’s when we have a disagreement, it’s when we see things differently. There’s that friction and we start to differentiate. We recognize, oh, that’s how it is for you and this is how it is for me. And when we can acknowledge that difference, there can be more of a sense of appreciation and a deeper knowing of one another. That said, there are limitations to our abilities to grow closer and come out the other side because we don’t control the context and we don’t control the other person. So it’s important to recognize if someone else is blocking, if they really are not willing or available to engage in dialogue to explore the conflict, then of course there’s a limitation to the capacity to get to know each other better or use the conflict to deepen relationship and intimacy. But I think we’ve all had experiences where we have a disagreement, we have some kind of tension with someone in our life and somehow we’re able to talk through it and work it out. And what happens is the relationship is stronger. We actually recognize, oh, I can trust you because we had a break in trust that we were able to repair. That’s how trust grows and strengthens. It’s not that we never make a mistake, but our capacity to actually repair the trust and come back together.

Sonya: So empathy plays a huge role in all of this, especially when you are having a disagreement or just a difference of opinion in something. How can we be empathetic in these situations whenever somebody might be attacking us because their need isn’t being met?

Oren: Yeah, you’ve done your homework. I love it.

Sonya: I also have spent my, I guess, adult life trying to understand communication because in my family there are some interesting personalities that have created this environment for me to really think about what communication means and how I want to communicate in my life.

Oren: I love that; it’s so empowering when we have that realization that the way that I show up and communicate is about what I choose, not about the way the other person is treating me. That’s so empowering. And empathy is a huge part of that, a huge tool for that. Okay, so someone’s attacking us, someone’s coming at us with judgments, blame, projection, assumptions, all the different things that we deal with as human beings in our lives. I think the first and kind of most essential foundation for not taking the bait, not playing the game that they are instigating and actually stepping outside of that binary that says, okay, now I’m going to fight with you about who’s right and who’s wrong and I’m going to defend myself. The first step to being able to do that is actually being able to have empathy for ourself. So in nonviolent communication we talk about this kind of somewhat odd phrase, self empathy, which is akin to the practices that we see coming out of the Buddhist tradition that have been translated into mindful self compassion by Kristen Neff, Chris Kermer and other folks. But essentially it’s the capacity to connect with our own experience in a loving and understanding way. So I’m trying to think of an example where someone was upset with me recently. So big thing in the field of mindfulness is around cultural appropriation. Mindfulness practice comes from Buddhist origins from Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, other countries in Southeast Asia and Asia. And very kind of lively debate around is this commodification of spirituality, is this cultural appropriation? And so my work kind of stands right in the middle of that debate because I teach Buddhism, I teach in very clearly religious context and I also do a lot of work in secular mindfulness, translating those practices and tools for public defender office, local nonprofits, working with families, you name it. And so someone was recently attacking me, saying, you make your living from cultural appropriation and capitalism and… There’s a lot there. So the first step is for me to connect with what’s happening in my own heart and recognize, wow, I feel a little shocked and scared. I want to be known, I want to be seen and understood for my intentions. I want to be respected. I want respect for my deep commitment to ethics and to honoring the roots of the tradition that I practice in. Okay, so in a moment, I can get clear on that because I’ve done these practices. I can connect and know, okay, this is what’s happening for me. And what that’s doing is it’s giving me just enough space inside to metabolize the initial reaction of defensiveness. Because I’m offering myself, even in a moment, just a tiny dose of the understanding that I would like from the other person. When I can do that for myself either cognitively or emotionally or even somatically in my own body, just relaxing my jaw, relaxing my shoulders, feeling the weight of my body, something settles. My nervous system goes down a notch because there’s this it’s like having a good friend or a companion right there at your side going, hey, it’s cool. We got this. I got your back. We know what’s going on here with ourselves. So then something settled inside. So that’s the first step, self empathy. Then the next step is being able to shift our attention to the other person and see things from their perspective. That’s one of the definitions of empathy, is to feel into another person’s experience cognitively, emotionally, at a deeper level and sense, okay, underneath the views, underneath the ideas and the blame and the narrative that you are proposing, what’s actually happening? And the key question here that we use in nonviolent communication to kind of strengthen empathy and help us make that shift, is what matters. What matters to this person? Or the way Marshall Rosenberg used to talk about, is what do they need? What are the deeper, fundamental, universal human needs that this person has? That is the key to connecting to our shared humanity, to accessing compassion and to stepping outside of the binary right wrong system to recognize, okay, even if I can disagree with your views, I can disagree with your assessment, I can still empathize with and connect to what actually matters to you. And so in this situation, I might connect with it. Sounds like a sense of integrity is really important to you. And are you really valuing honoring the communities that these practices and traditions have come from and making sure not only that they are represented, but that some of the resources that are generated from this work is actually going to support the communities that have kept these practices alive for generations. So I’m connecting underneath the story to what actually matters to the person. So defusing this kind of aggressive, attacking, blaming energy starts with one self regulation, my capacity for self empathy, to shift my focus to the other person, sense what’s going on for them, what matters to this person. And then, three, offer my understanding back to them. And that’s the key. That’s where the deescalation comes in, is my capacity to engage with this person from a stance that says, let me see if I understand you. Here’s what I’m hearing matters to you. Here’s what I’m hearing you say. Am I getting it right? And then immediately we’re in a different conversation. Now, the other person may continue with their diatribe. They may continue to lay into us, particularly if they feel like, oh, you’re listening? Great. Let me really give it to you. It might take more than once, and often does, before things de escalate, but if we can maintain that stance of offering understanding, generally, as people feel heard, they deactivate and things settle. There’s another caveat I want to make here, but I want to pass it over to you first.

Sonya: Okay. Something that I love about this and that you are very articulate about in your book was every thought and feeling is a barometer for our needs. And you mentioned that someone was making these claims towards you, and you stopped and you looked inside and said, I feel this way. And then if you start feeling defensive when somebody is attacking you, asking if you’re going to be defensive, what need am I trying to protect if I’m being defensive?

Oren: Right.

Sonya: Because if you can’t identify that, then you can’t get to that step three of understanding because you’re too busy trying to defend yourself. Now, it’s easier said than done in the heat of the moment to do that. So how can we deal with this internal pressure that happens when someone starts attacking us so that we can respond appropriately?

Oren: We need to build capacity. We need to build capacity. We need to build inner strength. Stamina resilience. So your audience is into cycling, right? Yeah. So we were talking about this beforehand. I love bike riding. I use that analogy in the book. I’m not sure if it’s the beginning of the end, but I used to love, even as a little kid, just riding around the block on my bike, and to this day, I love taking bike rides. And as anyone who’s ridden for longer distances knows, you hit a point where you’re like, oh, gosh, the stamina comes where’s the stamina come in? What does that mean? It means we build the capacity to be with discomfort. As your thighs are burning, your lungs are burning, we’re starting to get out of energy. Whether it’s going up a hill or doing a long ride, you hit this zone where it’s uncomfortable, it’s unpleasant. Right. Well, stamina is that staying power it’s the ability to bear with the discomfort without collapsing. So it’s the same in relationship and conversations when things get difficult, and let’s be real, there’s a lot of difficult conversations to have today, whether we’re talking about politics or the environment or Black Lives Matter or oppression, or the continued threat of nuclear war, it’s just over the top. And these are not easy conversations to have when we have differing views. So we need some method to increase our capacity to be with discomfort. And this is where mindfulness practice comes in. Mindfulness practice is a way of being aware of our direct moment to moment experience, without reacting, without spinning out or freaking out or collapsing or getting lost. So various mindfulness practices can help us to build the capacity to tolerate the inner pressure that we experience, to defend ourselves, to snap back, to fire back degrading comments to someone else. And there is a physiological response happening; there are neurochemicals being released, our nervous system activation is increasing. You can’t just flip a switch and say I’m not going to handle that. You have to actually learn to work with the energy in your body. So a few of the tools that I suggest people explore to build these capacities and conversations and relationships, one is to feel the weight of your body. So the sense of gravity tends to be very grounding. Just feel your feet on the floor or the overall weight of your body. That downward force of gravity can help to stabilize the upward rush of nervous system activation that comes in. Another really powerful tool or practice is to just take a breath, just pause and take one breath. And in particular focus on the outbreak. Because the outbreak is a natural deactivation of our nervous system. So we take that out breath and something settles a little bit. And the more we can really soak into the feel of that sense of some settling or ease or unwinding, the deeper it goes inside. A third really helpful tool for staying grounded in conversations and not getting into the reactivity is exploring the pace of your speech. So we use the breath to speak and the breath is directly tied to our nervous system. And what happens when we argue? We start speaking more quickly, we start raising our voice when we’re speaking more quickly, we’re taking breaths more quickly, we’re forcing our air out. All of that is tied up with our nervous system. So if we can dial the pace of our speech back just a little bit, that helps to slow the breathing. And slowing the breathing calms the body. Again, going back to biking, it’s like when you’re going up a really large hill, you have to control your breathing a little bit. You have to sort of pace the breathing so that you don’t run out of air. It’s the same thing in a conversation. You have to pace yourself. So the other thing I wanted to say before that now might be a good time around empathizing is always important for me to name or acknowledge that responding with empathy is not a dogma. People can listen to me or other people teaching communications talk about these tools and say like, oh, just offer some understanding, reflect back to the person what you’re hearing, active listen, all these very powerful, wonderful tools. But what I’m interested in is helping people feel more empowered, have more choice and more flexibility in their speech and their relationships. Because there are no rules, there’s no one right way to do anything. And every situation is different. And in some situations it might be harmful to actually respond with empathy. If someone is really being abusive, if someone is speaking racist ideas or ideas that are perpetuating or justifying kinds of physical harm, the first response might actually be setting a limit, setting a boundary, saying like, hey, I’m totally open to talking about our views, but when you say that, that’s not okay for me because I want everyone to be treated with respect for who they are. And comments like that have led to direct violence in our communities and I stand against that. Being able to make a firm statement. So in any conversation, if we are aware, if we are present, we always have a choice. We have a choice of whether to speak what’s on our mind in a clear, direct, open, hopefully non blaming way or to offer understanding, to listen and try to offer understanding. Now, how we make that choice, whether we choose to speak with on our mind or respond with empathy and understanding depends on what needs we’re trying to meet. So bringing it back to needs, right? So in any given moment, are we aware of, what’s important to me right now? What’s my aim in this conversation? Am I wanting to build understanding, to build trust, to build relationship? Am I needing to stand up for my own integrity, to protect someone? So with these tools that I teach, the invitation is to prioritize connection and understanding. Most of us know how to fire something back and respond, right? That’s our habit. But very few of us have trained ourselves to remember the option to offer understanding and empathy. And that’s where the skill comes in. And what’s so powerful about it. It’s just remembering that we have the choice to do something different. And so before I actually respond, let me see if I’m following.

Sonya: Yeah, and I want to actually talk about whenever you don’t feel like you have a voice because we talked about using your breath to speak faster, louder, like trying to argue. And that is one type of conflict. And then there are other types of conflict where people feel disempowered to say what they need and their reaction isn’t… they still stop breathing and they still feel constriction in their body, but they aren’t able to vocalize. And this tends to happen a lot with and, I’m generalizing, but different gender and racial constructs in our society and people feeling uncomfortable speaking up for what they actually need and the stereotype around that. So I know it’s a really big question and it’s a very big conversation, but how can people start finding their voice if they feel like they don’t have one?

Oren: Thank you for that profoundly beautiful question, Sonya. I’m just taking a moment to just the deep sadness around the reality of our world that so many don’t have a voice, just even in the way our world is structured. So I appreciate your acknowledging the depth and complexity of this area because it’s obviously more than we can cover and however much time we have left. But I can share a few things just to kind of sketch out my own understanding of the territory. I think the first thing to acknowledge for me is that there are real risks in different situations with speaking up. And it’s important to take those risks into account and to start to differentiate between perceived risk and actual risk. So, I mean, let’s take race for an example. I’m a white man. I get pulled over by an officer. Me speaking my mind in that moment and having a voice carries a very different risk than if I had dark skin in the United States. So it’s not as simple as speak your mind, have a voice. But actually, okay, what’s the context you’re operating within and what are the power relations that are present and what are the actual risks versus what are the perceived or internalized risks, the risks that we are imagining or projecting based on internalized oppression, whether it’s as a woman, as a queer gay person, or black, indigenous, person of color. So all these various ways that our society has taught us that we don’t matter. So I think one of the first steps is, again, this internal process of reclaiming our own beauty, our goodness and the dignity of our needs and differentiating the internalized stories that say you don’t matter and you don’t have a voice nd trying to access some of the internal resources that there. And that in and of itself is a huge journey that involves education, healing, strong relationships, hopefully having others who we can look up to and mentor us and encourage us and reflect back to us our goodness and our strengths. Super important to have those kinds of healing experiences, both internally as well as relationally, to kind of create a new baseline of our sense of mattering. And I think this is like one of the most pervasive illnesses in our world today is the epidemic of not mattering. We feel powerless and helpless because our society has become so focused on individualism and we’re so disconnected from one another that it feels like I can’t make a difference and I don’t matter. And so we don’t actually engage in our community, in our workplace, in our world. So reclaiming that sense of mattering I think is essential. 

The next sort of area, I guess I’ve named two things just to be clear. One is perceived versus actual risk. Second is reclaiming our sense of mattering through internal and relational work. I think the third then is having new experiences in safe circumstances where we have the information of our voice mattering. So this is one of the training principles that I talk about in my book to start small. And anyone who’s interested in athletics and strength training and exercise knows, right, you train, you start small, you work up the challenges. It’s the same with our conversations and relationships. So if I’m someone who’s been told my whole life by whether it’s our society or my family or my colleagues that I don’t matter and what I have to say doesn’t count. I’m not going to start by trying to challenge my boss about the next proposal that the company is taking on. That’s like trying to lift 250 pounds your first day of strength training or do a 90 mile ride on the first day on your new bike. It’s not going to happen. You’re going to injure yourself. So we want to work up to the challenges. And so the thing to do is to look for situations in your life where there is enough trust, enough safety, that you can risk trying something different and then just inch out a little bit, put yourself out there, take a risk and say, I was really hoping we could do this instead, or I see it kind of differently. Can I tell you a little bit about the way I see it? With someone that we trust, where we have a pretty high degree of confidence that even if there’s a little tension, we’re going to be met with respect and love. What we’re doing there is we’re giving different information to our brain and our nervous system. We’re trying to create a new pattern, relationally, that sends a signal that says you can speak your experience and share your needs and be met with acceptance and be seen as a whole human being. And it’s that trust that not only do I matter, but that I can give voice to what’s inside me and it will have value that there is somewhere for it to land out there in the world. To have that trust requires, if not a kind of deep inner transformation, that inner transformation is supported by and hastened. The pace is increased when we can get that external confirmation from certain situations. And then we build capacity. We use some of the tools we’ve already mentioned of feeling our body. Another tool that I didn’t mention, particularly if you’re looking at claiming your own space and finding your voice, is to feel your spine, feel your backbone. We talk about this idiom of having a backbone or someone who’s spineless. They have no spine. What does that actually mean? It’s that sense of being upright, of having your own back. What does that mean, someone’s got my back? It’s that sense of there’s something strong and stable inside that we can rely on. And that comes somatically through a sense of awareness of our own core connected to the Earth, rising up to the sky, and the strength of the skeletal structure. So that’s a powerful kind of internal awareness practice that we can use to claim our space and hold our own in a conversation and start to have more of a voice. So that’s a few different ideas kind of in the terrain there.

Sonya: I think that when building self confidence and self efficacy in other areas of our life, it’s easy to say, I’m going to look back at previous successes where I had to start small. Like if you want to use cycling as an example, I can make it up the small hill by my house. Well, now I feel like I could try taking on the bigger hill. And that trust you build with yourself, and in this instance, we’re talking about relationship with others, building trust in others, it’s something that can grow. But what about whenever somebody feels like they’ve built this trust in themselves and they found their voice and then they lose that confidence because something happens. They get lashed out at or maybe they’ve had more serious consequences for saying what was on their mind.

Oren: It’s not a linear path, is it? Right. It’s more like a labyrinth and a labyrinth or a spiral. We keep coming back to the same thing, the same area again and again from a different place. And I think it’s helpful to have that frame, that understanding that our progress, whether we’re talking about spiritually or relationally, it’s not going to be linear. It’s rarely going to be a steady incline upward of growth or setbacks or challenges. We take three steps forward and two steps back. And the more we can understand that that’s just the nature of growth and development in these kinds of complex areas, the more patience and forgiveness and resilience we can have when we do have a setback. So a setback almost kind of assumes, to call it that assumes a framework of linear progression. Whereas if we assume a framework of, say, cyclical or spiral or even kind of like fractal or chaotic progression, then when we have what we would refer to as a “setback,” we understand it actually as a deepening it’s actually an opportunity to strengthen our resolve, our self confidence, our vision for the way we would like to be in the world. It shows us the unpredictable nature of life, that things are beyond our control. And two, it shows us where our edges are. It says, ahh, I see. We look back at it and we go, where did I lose it? When he said that to me, I just totally went back to being a young child. It was that, okay, that’s the place I need to look at because that’s where I lost myself and I crumbled inside. It teaches us, it shows us the places that we still doubt ourselves; the places where we are still carrying a bruise or a wound that got stimulated. And so then we give attention there to heal that. And then the cliche saying, if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger, then that “setback” actually becomes nourishment and fuel for our continued growth. And this is the beautiful image that comes out of the Buddhist tradition – no mud, no lotus. The image of enlightenment and awakening as a lotus flower opening on a pond. And the saying is, the lotus grows from the mud. If there’s no mud, there’s no lotus. So those setbacks are mud. That’s the compost. That’s the fuel for the beautiful growth that’s occurring.

Sonya: I’m smiling just because there’s some fun pictures from some of the races I’ve done where people are pretty upset about the weather and they’ve chosen to say that this is a bad thing, that it’s raining and it’s muddy and I’m going to be cold, I’m going to be wet. But no mud, no lotus. It’s your choice how you want to do that. And I’m smiling because I love those days because they are hard. And the opportunity to get out there and face that choice over and over is something that really brings resilience and ability to connect with yourself on that level when other things get hard in life that aren’t as black and white as it’s raining and it’s muddy. Thanks for sharing that. To wrap it up, there’s lots of really great resources at the end of each chapter that you give relative to what the chapter is about, but something about making requests, how to make requests, how to ask for things that you actually need. What is a good way to ask for what you need and to make a request?

Oren: Sure. This is one of the trickiest parts of the nonviolent communication model, which maybe I can just kind of in a sentence or two summarize for those who are less familiar with it. So I’d say one of the core intentions behind the practice is to create the conditions in a conversation for more collaboration. We’re looking at how can we build just enough understanding so that we can work together to meet as many needs as possible. Okay, so the method for doing that is to train ourselves to focus on four different areas of our experience. And the idea is what Marshall Rosenberg discovered is that when we can pay attention to these four things and have them inform the conversation, it makes it a lot easier to understand each other and work together. So what are those four? The first is observations. What happened, not what we think about what happened, why it shouldn’t have happened, why it’s wrong or right, but what actually happened, as direct and clear and neutral as possible of an observation. Then second, how do we feel about it? What are the emotions that are actually getting stirred inside and not the blame of I feel attacked or ignored or misunderstood what your stories about what the other person is doing to me, but the actual feelings I feel on the inside – hurt, confused, irritated, annoyed, shocked, surprised, so on. What happened, how do I feel about it? Why? What matters to me? This is the essence. We only feel things if we care about something. So what actually matters to me in this situation or matters to the other persons is identifying our needs. And then the fourth component, which is what you’ve just asked about, is where do we go from here? What now? And this is about making requests. So requests are strategies to meet needs, their ideas, their suggestions. They’re different from demands. You have to do this. This is what has to happen. This is what we need to do. This is what must be. No, rather saying, okay, given everything I understand about the situation, what matters to me and what matters to you, here’s one idea for how to move forward. So the spirit behind the request is really the key and what I would want to emphasize here, which is how do you make a suggestion that tries to take into account what’s going to work for both people? Many times we feel reluctant, afraid, anxious to ask for what we want because we don’t want to come across as demanding. We don’t want the other person to feel obligated. We’re afraid they’ll say no. And what will that mean about us or about our relationship? What’s ironic is that so much of those reasons for not doing it are rooted in believing that the only way to ask is this either or they have to do it or not. Versus what if we just approach this as an exploration, as a brainstorm? So some of the requests that are most helpful to learn how to make are the kinds of requests that help us hear each other rather than the solution, how we’re going to resolve this, what we’re going to do going forward. Actually, these kind of, like, micro requests back and forth in a conversation of, I want to make sure I’m being clear because I just said a whole bunch. What are you getting from what I said? And making a request for the other person to tell us what they’re hearing or offering empathy. Can I just tell you back what I’m hearing? I want to make sure I’m following. That’s a request so we can build understanding with these small requests throughout a conversation. And then as we hear each other more, once we have more of a sense of the situation, what’s at stake with the various considerations we need to account for, then making a request is about holding that spirit of how about this? It’s a suggestion, it’s a starting point. And if the person says no, that’s information, we say, okay, great, tell me more about what’s not going to work for you so we can come up with something else.

Sonya: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for all that incredible and insightful information. Where can people get more because we just barely scratch the surface? Where can people find your guided meditations and your book?

Oren: So my book, Say What You Mean, is available online, at bookstores, anywhere. Lots of guided meditations articles and other free resources on my website, which is And for folks who just want to stay in touch or get some inspirational teachings during their day, I’m also on social media @orenjsofer

Sonya: Awesome. Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.


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