Communicating With Compassion

February 5th, 2013

My quote of the week comes from personal growth and communication expert John Powell.

The genius of communication is the ability to be both totally honest and totally kind at the same time.

That really speaks to me. We all want to know and be known, love and be loved. We all want to be able to speak up and express even tough truths in a way that is effective. The words you use when you speak up are just as important as the choice to speak up. Choose words that come from your core values, and words that empower others to live their highest values. Speak your mind, and mind your speech.

In Powell’s book Why I am Afraid to Tell You Who I Am, he describes five levels of communication.

Level 5: Small Talk. This is surface communication, like “How are you?” as you pass someone on the street. There’s nothing wrong with it. It helps to break the ice, but if communication remains on this level, it can be frustrating. Authentic intimacy requires greater depth, and tough truths require much greater depth.

Level 4: Factual Conversation. This is when the conversation stays at a head level. It lacks feeling. At this level you might describe all the rational reasons why something is true for you, but not explain why you care so much or how it affects you personally. Again, facts are important in conversation. But including emotions takes communication to a new level.

Level 3: Ideas and Opinions. This is where authenticity and intimacy begin. You start to expose yourself at this level, sharing opinions and hopes that go beyond the factual. Its amazing how much ice is broken at this level, when we really hear each others hopes (and fears) and dreams.

Level 2: Feelings and Emotions. This is where tough truth is expressed, as well as exciting vision. This is when you describe why you feel the way you feel. You describe what is going on inside you, including feelings of frustration, anger, resentment, or happiness.

Level 1: Deep Insight. This is the gold of communication where you bring together facts, opinions, feelings and depth. You speak honestly AND kindly, clear about who you are but not needing others to agree. When you connect at this level with another person, or a group of people, you have really struck the gold of authentic intimacy.

If we learn to communicate with compassion, we can know and be known in effective ways.

Two other authors are helpful when it comes to healthy communication, Marshall Rosenberg and Sharon Ellison. Marshall Rosenberg writes about non violent communication, by which he means communication that comes from a compassionate heart. He points to four steps in expressing yourself non violently-

  1. Observing- State what you observe, from your own perspective, and without judgment.
  2. Feeling- Explain how what you observe makes you feel without blame.
  3. Needs- Explain what is at stake for you and others you care about.
  4. Request- Ask for specific, concrete, changes.

Sharon Ellison’s book is called Taking the War Out of Our Words. She identifies some war-like communication traps.

Surrender-betrayal: Where you give in and take responsibility for a situation that you are not directly responsible for. You betray yourself.

Surrender-sabotage: Passive aggression is a classic example of sabotaging your own hopes and needs as well as confusing people around you.

Withdrawal-Escape: You avoid, or simply leave a conflict situation without saying anything.

Withdrawal-Entrap: You avoid in a way that forces someone else to do or say something inappropriate.

Attack-Justify: You rationalize and make excuses for what has happened.

Attack-Blame: You don’t hold back and use your speech to attack and judge.

Finding your balance of clear communication, conviction and compassion is liberating. But it takes mindfulness. Thich Nhat Hanh offers this awesome statement about truthful and loving speech-

Aware that words can create suffering or happiness, I am committed to learning to speak truthfully and constructively, using only words that inspire hope and confidence. I am determined not to say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people, nor to utter words that might cause division or hatred. I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain nor criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will do my best to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten my safety.

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  1. I enjoyed the article so much. It’s really well outlined and worded. If you care to read some funny but insightful piece about communication, you are welcome to check my site.

  2. Patty says:

    Excellent short article. Much to take to heart. A great daily guide.

    I enjoyed the “blast from the past” with excerpts from Powell’s text, which I read in college when it was first published. I have just read Debbie Ford’s book on courage, which is actually a program to find our courageous warrior within. (

    What I have learned from books like those written by Powell and Ford, and through daily prayer and journaling with Scripture is that this type of communication begins with how I communicate to myself about myself. For example, I need to take the excellent advice above, and become aware of how I speak to myself in these ways. If I change this through awareness and courage to face my self honestly and kindly, then how I communicate with others will flow from this personal transformation.


  3. Rev. Patty says:

    When we communicate we create our exprecies.  This is part of the Co-Creation  Process! With or with out words we are always saying somthing.  Somtimes we just create with our own thoughts that we don’t even share. 
    This article is great.  

  4. Erwin says:


    The well chosen banner showing the penguins made me wonder how many levels of communication such animals use after I automatically assumed aggression was being shown, and that is a reflection on my behavior.


  5. Diane Ramirez says:

    Great article, Ian. Thanks for posting. 

  6. Jennifer says:

    Ian, you literally just saved my life.  I have been struggling to write letters to my friends about joining me in bringing Roots of Empathy to North Carolina.  I am challenged to form a committee (which I have zero experience).  My first idea is to write personal letters to my friends.  I can’t believe how difficult that actually is.I feel like the character George VI in the King’s speech every time I put the pen to paper.  Even though I have been blogging for years, I’m terrified to ask for help. THANK YOU.  I’m going to write the letters now.

  7. ian says:

    Awesome Jen, do it. You have a great vision. People will love to support you.

  8. Jennifer says:

    Thank you Ian! I’m so inspired to do it.  And by the way, my very close friends and family call me Jen!  So that made me smile inside my heart.  

  9. Ian, thank you so much for such a wonderful and clear post on communication. I really enjoyed hearing how you tied together works from others and also quotes to clearly present how we can improve communication, and be honest with ourselves and others while being kind and connecting to our humanity at a deeper level. 

  10. Elaine says:

    Thanks Ian, that is of much help for my present moment.

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