Compassionate Communication And Subpersonality Article for AAP

Combining compassionate communication and subpersonality work has been as natural as putting peanut butter and jelly together for me.

What is compassionate communication (CC)? Compassionate communication is based on Marshall Rosenberg’s work with Nonviolent Communication (NVC). Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD, (1934-2015) was the founder and director of educational services for The Center for Nonviolent Communication (www.CNVC.com). Nonviolent Communication is more than a therapy technique—it’s a way of being in the world. A structured process for engagement, processing, and connection, NVC is an intentional way of working through the imperative question, “Why do I feel this way?”

What are subpersonalities? They are a core concept in the work of Roberto Assagioli, an Italian psychiatrist and pioneer in the fields of humanistic and transpersonal psychology who founded the psychological movement known as Psychosynthesis. The simplest description of a subpersonality is that it is a distinct part of our personality that is often formed in our childhood and that remains unconscious to the adult self until it limits us in some fashion and we decide to seek out a resolution. We often find the first subpersonality, or split, emerged from a conflict in early childhood between the inner child and an external parental figure. Assagioli’s work emphasized the possibility of progressive integration, or synthesis, of the personality. He created systematic exercises for developing every function of the personality. One of these exercises has become a cornerstone for working with the integration of our parts: the “personality dialogue” with our subpersonalities.

When I first trained in Psychosynthesis in 2009, I immediately found a beautiful fit between CC and subpersonality work. Compassionate communication is based on the following principles: 1) All actions are attempts to meet needs; every action is motivated by a desire to meet a need (or several needs); at each moment, we are doing the best we can to meet our needs. 2) Human needs are universal; we all have the same needs; we often have different strategies for meeting our needs, and it is at the level of strategies—not needs—that conflicts occur. By focusing on needs we can prevent, reduce, and resolve conflicts. 3) Everyone’s needs matter equally. Neither my needs nor someone else’s needs matter more. We aim to understand and meet all people’s needs. We can give and receive to meet the most needs for everyone. 4) Feelings result from needs being met or unmet. Our feelings are important messengers, telling us when our needs are fulfilled and when they are not. When we pay attention to our feelings and listen to their messages, we get important clues about how to meet our needs. When we pay attention to the feelings of other people and listen to the messages they give, we get important clues about what they value and what they need. 1

Subpersonality work relies on the basic premise that personal synthesis is always trying to happen. We have a certain awareness of who we are in this moment, but something greater than us is always nudging us forward into an even greater awareness. A common understanding of synthesis is that we cannot integrate parts of ourselves until we’ve become aware of them and disidentified from them. So getting to know our “parts” becomes a very important part of our work. I would say that without knowing and learning to love all of my parts, I would cease to grow. I have a strong desire for growth and wholeness, and I believe we all have that innate desire; it is just a matter of whether it is conscious or unconscious at this moment in time.

The integration of CC and subpersonality work comes when we apply the basic principles of compassionate communication to a specific subpersonality. Is it attempting to meet a need? Are its needs universal? Do its needs matter as much as another part’s needs? And finally do the feelings of this part point you in a direction of understanding whether its needs are being met or unmet?

As I have worked with myself and many travelers over these years the answer to each of these questions is always a resounding, “Yes!” Subpersonalities are always limited in some way, and we notice them because of this limiting factor. As a guide I may notice the “sub” in body language as well as in the “story” from the traveler. So as I combine compassionate communication with subpersonality work, I always reference the story being told and start to help the traveler notice it also. Once I have asked the client to notice that a part of them either feels this way or is telling me the story, we have accomplished stage one– the recognition stage of subpersonality work. Once we have identified a part, I often bring out my feelings cards (a classic element of CC) and ask them to see what this part is feeling. I find that this increases the disidentifying process. The subpersonality is now recognized as distinct and having its “own” feelings. Thus, increasing understanding and the likelihood of a relationship with this part begins. Often I will ask travelers to think back to an earlier moment when they felt these same emotions, and before that; or I just say; “what is the earliest memory you have of feeling these ‘sets of feelings’ before?” This brings us to an even further disidentification, now noticing that they might be working with their wounded child self.

Stage two of subpersonality work is acceptance. During this stage we are accepting this part of our personality and understanding how it may limit us now. “I have this part and I am more than this part.” Once they have recognized the feelings, we might look together at what this part might have needed then, and now. As I use the needs cards (another classic element of CC) I have found that true compassion for ourselves and our subpersonalities is not something that many of us were taught as children. Often we were brought up with the unconscious belief that having needs is the same as being “needy.” It is a great revelation to see universal human needs listed and tangible in card form for my travelers.

Stage three is called the coordination phase. Remember that this is not a linear map, but one that progresses at the pace of the client. Accepting and recognizing their parts as well as grieving for the child self takes time and it is unique from person to person. I have found that healing work happens on many levels, quite quickly, when you combine compassionate communication with subpersonality work. The idea of being the “nurturing mother” or “protective father” to your parts is deep work and changes one’s inner dialogue. This profound work has changed the course of many people’s lives. I believe that every part is always trying to do something important for the good of the whole. It is just that its strategies are often outdated and do not work. When I come into a session holding that belief for the travelers I see, it makes room for their “I space” to expand, to reconfigure itself around the emerging new self. It truly is the process of synthesis, the ‘being’ growing into more wholeness, right in front of my eyes.

The final two stages of subpersonality work are called integration and synthesis. As the ‘sub’ integrates into the whole, it is like a younger part growing up, now knowing that it is valued and loved and no longer needing to use outdated survival strategies. At this stage of the work, the traveler can name the part, dialogue with it, and direct it to serve in a mature fashion or use visualization to have ‘it’ go out to play while the “adult” self takes care of whatever ‘it’ was worried or afraid about. In the final stage, synthesis, the part no longer acts as a semi-autonomous part; instead its qualities are fully available to the most mature “I” or self of the person.

Assagioli states; “It is self-consciousness that sets man apart from animals.” I believe that compassionate communication and subpersonality work are beautiful compliments to each other. These systematic exercises have helped to serve the synthesis process of many travelers on this great evolutionary path called life. I am very grateful to Marshall Rosenberg, the developer of Nonviolent Communication and to Roberto Assagioli, the father of Psychosynthesis. I feel they have provided us with the tools to heal ourselves; which ultimately will heal the world, one person at a time.


Robin White is a board certified (BCC) Health/Wellness and Life Coach and Psychosynthesis Counselor. Robin is an adjunct Psychosynthesis teacher for The Synthesis Center in Amherst, MA, as well as the owner of Curves of Brattleboro, VT. Robin is also a 500 hour Yoga Alliance Teacher and offers workshops in Compassionate communication & Psychosynthesis, incorporating these modalities in her Wellness and Yoga retreats. She has developed a software app that is based on the compassionate communication card system often used in her therapeutic situations—Time For You will walk individuals through their feelings, needs and next steps. TFY will be available for sale at both the apple and google app stores fall 2016. To reach Robin: www.refillingyourwell.com, refillingyourwell@gmail.com, or call 802-275- 2682