Communicating with your child using Compassionate Communication

by Lori Grace Star, M.A. (Psych)

Compassionate Communication, based on Nonviolent Communication(TM), a system of communication developed over the last 30 years by Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D., is a way of communicating that has made a tremendous contribution to my life and the lives of many others, helping us to empathize more fully, to feel more empathic with ourselves, and to feel deeper connections with others.

The intention of Compassionate Communication is to support true understanding and deep connection. Part of this process happens non-verbally through tone of voice and facial expression. The other part is supported tremendously by a form of verbal communication that helps one get one’s needs met by expressing needs directly and making requests, Often people try to motivate others to meet their needs by using judgments, criticisms and analyses.

For example: If a person says “How could you be so inconsiderate as to leave without saying good-bye!,” the speaker may be using this judgment because he or she wanted more consideration and communication. The speaker may have thought that by using this judgment, he or she would be able to motivate the other person never to leave without saying goodbye again.

Instead of using such judgments, a person practicing Compassionate Communication will choose to express what they were feeling and needing at the time they felt frustration or pain.

They might say instead, “I felt sad when you left without saying good-bye because I really wanted to have a sense of completion in our dialogue”. Or the speaker might choose to first ask the other person what that person was feeling and needing when he or she left without saying goodbye. Asking questions about the other persons feelings and needs can create an amazing amount of deep connection between both parties.

A Compassionate Communication is made up of four parts. Awareness of these fours parts is important when communicating with or listening to others and even when communicating with oneself. These four parts are the following:

1) An Observation

2) Feeling(s)

3) Need(s)

4) A Request


Let us say the parent has just observed her son, Tom, take the ball away from a much younger boy on the school playground without asking Donald if he could have it for awhile. Instead of saying something like, “Tom, how could you be such a bully grabbing the ball away from little Donald in that way! Now go return it to him right now!”, the parent might choose to communicate compassionately using the four steps.

The parent might say: “When I saw you take the ball away from Donald without asking him, I felt sad, because I wanted to see you treat him with gentleness and respect. I am feeling confused right now and need to understand what you were feeling and wanting when you took the ball away from Donald. Would you be willing to tell me what you were thinking and feeling at that moment?


“When I saw take the ball away from Donald without asking him,” is the observation. As you may notice, the parent owns the observation (“When I saw…”) and is also reporting it without judgment (“…take the ball away from him without asking him”). Sharing an observation in this way tends to be easy for someone, and especially a child, to listen to.


“I felt sad…” (When a parent shares his or her emotions, it can tend to stimulate more connection and empathy between parents and children as well.)

After that the parent refers to feeling confused.


The first desire the parent expresses is to see Tom treat Donald with more respect. This statement is simply an expression of a desire. There is no judgment or demand attached to it. The second need that is expressed is for understanding. The parent is confused- a vulnerable state. Understanding is the general need that the parent has at this moment. It is a universal need. Anyone might have a need for understanding and clarity at any given moment.


“Would you be willing to tell me what you were feeling and wanting at that moment that you took away the ball? The parent is making a “connecting request,” a request to meet his or her need for understanding. Another kind of request is called an “action request.” This kind of request is only made if both the parent and the child seem to be viewing a situation in a similar way. An example of an “action request” might be “Would you be willing to tell Donald that you are sorry that you took the ball from him without asking for it and that you want him to have a turn as well today in playing with it?” A parent would only make such a request of the child if she heard her child express some sincere regret.

If the request is more vague or is one that cannot be responded to quickly, it is not useful. For example, a request like, “Would you be willing to telling me what is happening with you on a more regular basis?” is not a do-able request, because it is vague and unrealistic; it refers more to a general behavior pattern than an action.

A question that you might be asking is: What if the child says “no” to my request? I am afraid I might say something punishing or hurtful if my request is denied. In Compassionate Communication, if your request is denied, you can do several things to remain in connection rather than to judge, get angry or withdraw from your child. Instead, you can ask the child, “What are you needing right now that is making you choose not to tell me how you are feeling or wanting at this time?” or you might ask “What are you wanting right now that would help you feel good about telling me how you were feeling when you took the ball away?”

On a different note, you might try empathizing with your child instead, especially if he is not responding to your other requests. You might say something like:

“I imagine you might be feeling afraid right now to tell me what you were feeling?” or “Are you wanting to be reassured that you will be really heard and treated fairly?” Even if you guess incorrectly, your child will feel appreciative that you are caring about what he wants.

Another action you may wish to do before communicating with your child is to give yourself empathy; especially, if you are feeling yourself get very angry. You might want to have a conversation with yourself to get more connected to your own needs, as well as to attempt to understand your child’s, before speaking out loud to him. Let’s say your son was named Tom, your internal dialogue might go like this:

“I notice that I am feeling really angry at Tom right now. I even feel like slapping him, but I won’t, of course, because slapping him is not really an appropriate response. And it would certainly make it much harder for us to communicate. OK, what am I wanting and not receiving that is underneath my anger? I want to see Tom treat little Donald with respect and with fairness. I notice that I am telling myself: ‘How could I have raised such a bully?’ Wow, I notice I am judging myself right now. I wonder what I need underneath my self-judgments. I am needing to remind myself that I am a decent parent. I really have talked with him about the importance of taking turns. Let me see, what else am I feeling and needing underneath my desire to reassure myself? I am feeling confused and need to understand the situation more clearly. I really do not understand what Tom was feeling and needing when he took the ball away from Donald. I think that I will ask him.”

After giving yourself empathy and understanding in this way, you would probably be able to ask your son about what was going on for him without the anger you were originally feeling coloring your communication. Thus, if Tom hears you speak to him out of your desire for connection and understanding and without thinking he is being blamed or judged, he will be much more likely to hear you and to look at his own behavior.

In summary, you can practice empathizing both with yourself and with your child using the same four step process: observations, feelings, needs and requests. In so doing, you can really create more connection with yourself and anyone else, including your child. Though learning new ways of communicating can take time, they can be learned, and re-enforced, more quickly when you receive feedback.

If you are interested in live experience, come to our upcoming workshop for parents in Compassionate Communication, on May 30 (Intro session) and June 1 (full-day workshop). Or come to one of our twice-a-month evening practice groups at Sunrise Center in Corte Madera. Please contact us at 415-924-7824 or For a listing of all our classes and workshops, you may also visit

Lori Grace has been studying and teaching Nonviolent Communication for nine years. She is a mother of a 20 year old son and has also been both a stepmother and foster parent. Lori is trained to teach PET (Parent Effective Training) and has participated in numerous Family Camps, including camps with a focus on NVC. She has had much rich life experience in communicating with parents and children and is excited about teaching families how to better communicate with and appreciate each other.She maintains a private practice in Marin, counseling couples, parents, blended families, teenagers and children. For more information, or to schedule an appointment with Lori, please call 415-435-2583, or contact her through Sunrise Center, 415-924-7824.