Mark Medicoff: Communicating Compassion

By Sara DeLoach (PWRT ’17)

Mark Medicoff, our Small Group Communications (COM 230) professor at Champlain’s Montreal campus, remembers as a child growing up in Montreal that very little was taught or discussed regarding the ways in which people communicate. Now a professor of business at Concordia University in Montreal as well, Mark notes that the understanding of compassionate communication began only in the last few decades and is still not fully integrated today. Introduced by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg and originally finding its place in business and the workplace, the movement was born of the question “why are our groups failing us?” The answer, a focal point of Mark’s teachings in the classroom today, is that effective communication is “fundamentally against the way we’ve been growing up, thinking rewards are important, punishments are important — but these things don’t teach us at all about how humans really intrinsically function in a joyful manner or a meaningful manner.”

Functioning in a “joyful or meaningful manner” — something that in western society we are not taught to seek out or recognize the value in — is a cornerstone of effective functionality in all groups. “If you want to get your organizations or your groups functioning effectively today, you have to take care of the individual and it means the individual’s feelings and needs. Connection is of critical importance in making groups function successfully today.”Mark Medicoff

Mark stresses the importance of identifying feelings and needs, particularly in small group interactions. “When you identify what people really need, and introduce their feelings behind it, people cooperate more effectively. They collaborate, then people are invested in the outcomes. If people aren’t invested in the outcomes, teams will never be as effective.” Generally, when we think of a business or any place of work, we don’t consider it a nurturing environment. Our bosses and coworkers, who are in fact our team members, aren’t tasked with being concerned with our feelings and we don’t consider that they should be. This lack of connection fosters limited investment by members of the group and ultimately leads only to a cycle of faltering communication. As Mark puts it, “People are really bright. It’s making them work together as a team that’s the hard part,” and compassion is an essential component of this. It is through this compassion, the recognition of the value of the individual, that effective teams are built.

The methods Mark teaches in the college classroom, originally introduced in Rosenberg’s book “Nonviolent Communication”, are an invaluable means of affecting nonviolent communication. These same techniques are applied to conflict resolution in disputes as global as those between Israel and Palestine, and between the Tibetans and communists, to great effect.

From a massive, global scale down to the family home, the same principals apply and succeed in easing tensions. Mark uses his own life as an example, saying relationships with loved ones have “improved dramatically” with compassionate communication, “because I started to forget just about my own needs. And to become really concerned with how other people are feeling. And when that happens, people just lighten up and they brighten up and solutions are much easier.” He describes this skill as not only effective in times of tension but, as a whole new way of being.

The shift in relationship can be felt immediately when we pinpoint and acknowledge the needs of another, showing genuine care. The simple result is that people feel this warmth and are able to open up in a meaningful way. Mark touches on how rare it is for one to possess the ability to listen empathetically, without trying to steer the person in crisis toward solution or making attempts to fix it for them, which is often the easier route to take in conversation. Giving advice is often only helpful to the giver, making the conversation more comfortable for themselves rather than simply providing the other person with the comfort of truly being heard.

Rewiring the fundamentals of one’s approach to communication in order to grasp these principles can be a challenge in and of itself but putting the methods into practice proves even greater. Medicoff notes, “The hardest part is not to be reactive.” Meditation, however, can be a building block in learning to allow an emotion, acknowledge it, process it, and let it go. Mark puts emphasis on anger in particular as a symptom of some unmet need, something unfulfilled. The root of the emotion is a few questions away– What is not being fulfilled in me? Once located, Do I have to be angry? The answer being no, I don’t have to be angry, I don’t have to be reactive. These reactions are futile while determining the root cause can lead to productive change.

Meditation can aid emotional capacity as “a very important point of departure.”–allowing oneself time for nothingness. It is a kindness to the self and, in turn, to others, as it can improve our every interaction. By allowing ourselves the break we require, it fuels us with the ability to interact in a more empathetic, emotionally resourceful manner. But, as Mark expresses, “We’re not taught to do that. We’re not taught to consider our needs as being really important first and foremost.”

He provides an example familiar to us all – the anger that we sometimes experience when being cut off in traffic. But when you take the time to work through the root of that emotion, he says, “you’re only becoming reactive based on what another person did who doesn’t even know you. So you become influenced by someone else’s behavior when you don’t have to. You don’t have to be reactive to their behavior when you’ve identified what it is that you’re really feeling…if you can do that.” This idea, to quell negative emotion by turning inward rather than acting out, is simple to understand but difficult to execute.

Given his experience with compassionate communication, Mark asserts that many of his own painful situations could have been avoided had he been familiar with and had access to the appropriate techniques, which entail “sitting with the unhappiness, anxiety, depression… feeling it and respecting it, and then moving forward.” This is true resolution, acquired through a mindfulness that is cultivated through compassionate communication. Concerning any anxiety or stress that may invade anyone’s life, Mark demonstrates how compassionate communication positively affects his own well being. “It doesn’t have to linger. It doesn’t have to stay with me. I can recognize it for what it is, discover the reality of the situation, live my reality, and then move forward.”