February 18, 2020

Ep. 7 | Jamil Popatia | Creating Space For Non-Violent Communication

"Working on oneself is a prerequisite to everything; be it parenting, be it social change, be it ones professional showing up. Whatever it might be, working on oneself seems to be the most primary task - and life long."
~ Jamil Popatia

In this episode, family therapist and nonviolent communication specialist, Jamil Popatia, discusses a paradigm for mitigating conflict through the understanding of universal needs. Drawing on the work of Victor Frankl (Man’s Search For Meaning) and Marshall Rosenberg (Nonviolent Communication: A Language Of Life), Jamil explores tolerance and difference through dignified dialogue.

Episode Guest

Jamil Popatia

Jamil Popatia

Jamil Popatia is a wise voice and advocate for dignified dialogue. He writes, “All conversation begins with what we are saying to ourselves, thinking within our minds and feeling within our hearts.”

Jamil is a specialist in Non-violent Communication. His work as a therapist offers a journey toward connection, compassion and community, particularly when life veers in unexpected directions.

For more information on Jamil Popatia, please visit him on LinkedIn.


Transcript | Episode #7 | Jamil Popatia | Creating Space For Non-Violent Communication

Rachel Cram – Well Jamal Popatia, you are a family therapist and a learned man.  And I thank you for being in the studio today.

Jamil Popatia – Thank you. I’m glad to be here. It’s a pleasure. 

Rachel Cram – You are a leader in conversations on Non-Violent Communication. But before we jump into that really important topic, I’m just wondering if we can connect before you direct, as you have used that terminology with me.

Jamil Popatia – Yes. I’d like that.  Yes, connection before direction. Yeah. 

Rachel Cram – Can you tell us a little more about yourself?

Jamil Popatia – Yeah, I’d be happy to.

Rachel Cram – So Aristotle stated, “Give me a child at 7 and I will show you the adult.” Is there Jamiel, a story or experience from your childhood that has shaped the adult that you are today?  

Jamil Popatia – Yes. I’m a child of two immigrants that came to Canada from East Africa in the 70s and they struggled. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen anybody protect their children better than my parents from those struggles, be it financial, emotional struggles, just readjusting to a new world. And I had the opportunity from a very young age to question all of it. And I mean everything. I mean people leaving their country very quickly due to the turmoil in East Africa at the time. 

Rachel Cram – Is that why your family left?

Jamil Popatia – Yes. What’s the point. Where do I derive meaning from all this. My parents fight. They have struggles. Kids don’t accept me all the time. It wasn’t easy. But a lot of those experiences have shaped and formed who I am today, which is someone who looks past much of the outward to say, what’s alive in somebody or what’s alive in me? How do I keep something from my parents in terms of passing on of tradition, if you will. And yet still have autonomy for myself and the individual choice of how I want to show up. Who I am.  What I want to claim is mine. And I think those rich questions to have at any age.  

Rachel Cram – Thank you. You’re now raising children yourself. 

Jamil Popatia – Yes. I have two children ages 7 and 10. 

Rachel Cram – Do you find that changes your perspective at all to be raising children born in Canada now. It’s a whole different scenario than your growing up experience. 

Jamil Popatia – Right. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s a generational gap not a cultural gap. So compared to what my parents had to go through in a new environment with completely different customs, morals, expectations around family, gender, everything, I don’t have to do that. 

Rachel Cram – Such a sacrifice.

Jamil Popatia – It’s such a sacrifice. It is. 

Rachel Cram – It’s such a pleasure to be having this conversation with you, just broadly speaking as a Judeo-Christian woman speaking to a Muslim man. I feel like this is actually a big part of what this podcast is all about.

Jamil Popatia – It’s exciting for me too. I mean we don’t really sit together too much. If there’s a benefit that can be derived from sitting together and there always will be, I’m all for it. 

Rachel Cram – Yeah. Well let’s go for it then. So your focus is on nonviolent communication. Can you explain a little bit about what you mean by that.

Jamil Popatia – Yeah. So the founder of nonviolent communication, the late Dr. Marshall B Rosenberg, was a clinical psychologist from the era of the 60s riots in Detroit, Michigan. And he was from a Polish Jewish family of immigrants. And what troubled him was the fact that communicating with people would be quite smooth and natural for some and deeply challenging and confrontational for others. And he spent his entire professional life exploring this and wrote the book, Nonviolent Communication; A Language of Life. How do we get past the labels of people, the labeling of people’s actions as right and wrong, good/bad and look at what’s alive in a person.

Rachel Cram – Compared to the 1960s when he wrote that, how far do you think we’ve come?

Jamil Popatia – It seems like we haven’t come all that far. And it seems like there’s a lot to unlearn. How do you get past generations old violence in the way we connect with each other? Violence in the way we discipline our children? Violence in the way we correct people’s wrongs, including nation states? It really is asking a major paradigm shift and it’s challenging. However, I think that people are wanting it. It’s hard to find a person that doesn’t want peace right. I think the yearning is there.


Rachel Cram – So Jamal You’re saying that a major paradigm shift is necessary.  Does the practice of nonviolent communication have a framework for that?

Jamil Popatia – The nonviolent communication process is about certain steps. We call it OFNER.  Observation. Feeling. Need. Request. That’s the heart of nonviolent communication.

Rachel Cram – So it starts with observation.

Jamil Popatia – Yeah. Observation as opposed to evaluation. So just seeing what’s going on. Observing with your senses what’s happening in an interaction, in a conversation and noticing how you feel as a result.

Rachel Cram – And then it moves to feeling. Ok. 

Jamil Popatia – Noticing how you feel. And it’s not necessarily, I’m angry, I’m happy, but noticing even the somatic experience, the physiological response of feeling tight in my stomach for example. Those are signposts to what Marshall Rosenberg called universal needs. For example, support, connection. Physical needs like shelter, food. It’s not that they’re all going to be met all the time but that we all experience them as necessities.

Rachel Cram – So in this paradigm then of nonviolent communication, it starts with observing. Then it moves into feeling, so paying attention to how it feels inside of us. 

Jamil Popatia – As a result of what you’re observing. 

Rachel Cram – And then how do you make the shift from what you’re feeling to that to these needs.

Jamil Popatia –  Yeah. That’s where the bread meets the butter in nonviolent communication because the heart of it is universal needs. Most of us are not raised with the language of needs. Were raised with; Do this.  Do that. Here are the rules of life, et cetera et cetera. And so to give you a very very simple example, I might be feeling tired because I have a need for rest. Hungry because I have a need for food. It’s much more complex when I’m feeling lonely, even though I’m in a family.  Or, I’m in a relationship. But still knowing some of those needs are not met despite the fact that they ought to be met perhaps people might say. And moving away from the language of what should and shouldn’t be. 

So I often tell people, in my work with clients, that in our language, if we can get past four dichotomies; right/wrong, good/bad, deserve/don’t deserve, should/shouldn’t. We’ll get to nonviolent communication. We’ll get to it. It’s not to say that we don’t have a moral compass of right/wrong, good/bad, what we should and shouldn’t do, but just to get around that in our language will help us reach the needs.

Rachel Cram – It’s so interesting isn’t it because we fall into that kind of language so easily and as you describe it you can see why it’s so limiting because, if you’re not in touch with your needs to get to the request is difficult. 

Jamil Popatia – Yes, a request from yourself to yourself, or to outsiders, to someone else. If you’re not brought up in the language of needs, saying that ‘this is the need that’s alive in me,’ then it’s very easy to be in blame language.  

‘He did this to me. She did this to me. Therefore, they’re a wrongdoer.  They oppressed me.’ And you become a victim. And there’s no benefit ever, in seeing yourself as a victim, or oppressor.

Rachel Cram – I feel right now there is a lot of language around victim and oppressors. 

Jamil Popatia – I do too. I don’t resonate with it. 

Rachel Cram – No. 

Jamil Popatia – Because what that does, it says, there are people who are wronged and those who do wrong. And who isn’t both of those.  Yes, there’s historic wrongs, I recognize that. But to simplify into binary wrongdoers or oppressors and victims of oppression.

I think we can move beyond that and say, you know, what is it about ourselves that’s enabling us to see ourselves as a powerless victim.

If you do that. You are kind of removing yourself from being an agent of change. Not societal change, social movement style change but personal change. Seems like a whole lot of shouting about other people’s wrongdoings.

Rachel Cram – Well our political system is rife with that now. 

Jamil Popatia – Exactly. 

Rachel Cram – And I think it’s probably almost hitting the crisis point. Is so great that we will have to change.

Jamil Popatia – Right. I’m longing for the change where there isn’t, us and them. There isn’t, the good side, the bad side, the rights the wrongs, them and us, foreigners and locals. It’s really simplistic and dangerous. 

Rachel Cram – Dangerous how? 

Jamil Popatia – Dangerous in the sense that you really contribute to greater divide among populations whatever those populations might be. In the North American context, that’s certainly the case with newer Americans and Canadians versus older Americans and Canadians who have been here generations. That’s alive and well right now. And the dialogue is anything but dignified. So what NBC, 

Rachel Cram – Non violent communication 

Jamil Popatia – Yeah, nonviolent communication, excuse me, and even the spiritual paths of the world, our wisdom traditions, ask us to stop pause and wait. Something bigger than what you see is happening.

Rachel Cram – And where does that come in this paradigm.

Jamil Popatia – Yeah. So observation, feelings, needs and the final one is requests. The request is to yourself, to another person or to a group of people. You’re exploring what can be done to meet the need that you’ve just identified.

Rachel Cram – Can you walk us through this paradigm and show us where the shift happens? Is there a simple even family kind of example?

Jamil Popatia – Yeah, I can think of an example right now if you want a personal example with my own son. 

Rachel Cram – Love it. 

Jamil Popatia – So, as my son got older, seven, eight, nine, I started to think, “Here’s my chance to put him in basketball, track and field and things that I can coach him in.  And I would say, “Okay, son. We can go into this camp and go into this program,” Out of an excitement.”

Rachel Cram – What would he be saying to you when you said that to him?

Jamil Popatia – “I don’t want to play basketball Dad. I don’t want to do track and field. It sucks. It’s not for me. You like it.” I’d have to pause and check in with myself. Why is my son rejecting these things that I so badly want him to do?

Rachel Cram – So is this the beginning of a shift of the paradigm?  

Jamil Popatia – Yeah. This is the inward. So now I’ve observed that he has rejected offers that I think are so wonderful. 

Rachel Cram – And how are you feeling? 

Jamil Popatia – Exactly.  I check in with how I’m feeling.  Frustrated, angry and sad. And physiologically you can feel a tenseness.  Like, this is my son, I’d like him to do this. My daughter’s on the way too. She’s got to do that. And when I caught myself there, then I would go from noticing my own feelings, how I felt about it, to exploring the needs that are alive both for him and me. And working through those feelings of frustration, anger, sadness etc, I came up with the idea that he’s not necessarily rejecting me but rejecting my offers of support in these sports because what he’s wanting is some autonomy.  That’s a universal need. Some choice. 

So I caught myself and said, “Look, if it’s squash that you prefer, if it’s running around chasing dogs in the park, whatever it is, the need for exercise is alive in all of us. For movement.”  I knew it was for me, it was the need to contribute, the need to to give. 

Rachel Cram – This was your need.

Jamil Popatia – This was mine. The need for sharing. Shared reality. “Oh, I’m excited my son can do what I did and I was pretty good at it.” And just checking in. It doesn’t mean that those needs will be met the way I thought they’d be meant. And then being less attached to the strategy for the need for exercise for him. Movement. And giving him that choice and autonomy. Then, the final step of nonviolent communication, turning my demands into requests. When you make a request you’re open to no.

If he’s saying no to that he’s saying yes to one other need of his. As it were he’d come back to those very things that I want him to do but not because his dad told him to. It was a huge lesson for me to say, “Don’t be too attached to strategy and don’t think your children are extensions of your arm.” So, the key is to pause at that time.

Check in with oneself. It’s as much an interpersonal process as an interpersonal process.

Rachel Cram –  It requires a slowing down and an introspection that can be hard to find.

Jamil Popatia – I completely agree with you. Slowing down is a prerequisite to doing the process of non-violent communication, with oneself and with others.

Music interlude  

Rachel Cram – Recently in New Zealand we had the shootings at Christchurch and when situations like that happen it shocks us into slowing down and people change. People rally in an incredible way.  

Jamil Popatia – The shootings at the two mosques in Christchurch. They moved a lot of people. The world was watching. And when tragedies like this happen people do pull together. So this gives me hope. You know I once heard Marshall Rosenberg say, there’s nothing that human beings want more than to contribute to one another’s well-being. I really do believe that. It’s hard to find people who cannot show compassion to an animal on the street in need, let alone another human being. That inner pull towards contributing to people’s well-being, I think it’s alive and everyone.

Rachel Cram – I wonder, if when a big event happens like that, it is so huge that we can see the need. We can feel it inside of ourselves. And on the more subtle daily things, maybe because it’s not as drastic, we’re not in touch enough to notice. Because I think you’re right. People will stop when you see a big need. You’ll stop when you see an animal hit by a car. You’ll stop when you see a family whose car’s flipped over at the side of the road. It does not matter for a second.

Jamil Popatia – Yeah. Which team they belong to.

Rachel Cram – No. 

Jamil Popatia – Exactly.

Rachel Cram – But it’s recognizing those things on the daily little neighbor to neighbor.

Jamil Popatia – Yeah

Rachel Cram – Dorothy Day, the journalists and social activist, she experienced in 1906, the San Francisco earthquake when she was eight years old.  And she writes about remembering standing on a street corner and just seeing neighbors of all ethnic backgrounds, of all ages, flooding to help one another.  And for week after week, just giving in such an incredible way. And she remembered at eight years old thinking, “Why can’t we always live like this?” 

And she went on to write, “The greatest challenge of the day is how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us.”

What, what do you think it is Jamil, that impedes us from living like that on a daily basis? 

Jamil Popatia – I think it’s a few things.  What comes to mind first is the ridiculous schedules we have and the lack of time for contemplating this kind of stuff. We’re so walking in a somnambulance  state of; get this done, get that done. If you have young children, like I do, you’re going from activity to sport, to this. And there’s no place to breathe.  There’s no space to think, “How did I meet my need for contribution today. What did I do for somebody?” 

The other thing I would say is, perhaps limiting beliefs.  That it’s not of paramount importance if I don’t go knock on my neighbor’s door to see if somebody is hungry, to see if they can smell our food and they want a bit of it. It’s not of immediate importance to us. But the example you gave, we saw this with 9/11. People came together because of the enormity of what they were all experiencing.

Rachel Cram – Well life was disrupted. 

Jamil Popatia – Yes 

Rachel Cram – You’re using the word contemplation. In Judeo-Christian beliefs that’s a big word. Is that a big word in Islamic beliefs as well?

Jamil Popatia – In Islamic theology, contemplation is one of the biggest spiritual practices, to think about not only connection with other people but just the sheer beauty of the world. The beauty of creation in every aspect of it. 

Rachel Cram – So that would bring me to a place of ultimately loving myself, loving the creator, loving the creation. Where would that bring you to? 

Jamil Popatia – Exactly that. It starts with loving the creator from where all of this comes and also loving all of creation. Even creation which gets on your nerves.  Like the person who dumps his trash on your yard. Seeing at the end of the day, that, that person is not less or more cared for by God than you. And just having that understanding at that moment, there’s a potentiality of people to connect. It’s a great tragedy if we can’t see and really move on that potential. And it’s possible with people we vehemently disagree with.

Music Interlude 

Rachel Cram – You’ve written an article on tolerance which grabs my imagination. Because I think it’s a word that we have chosen to use as an opportunity to work with diversity. In talking about contemplation, I think that goes far beyond tolerance.

Jamil Popatia – Yeah. When I think of the word tolerance I’m thinking there’s an aspect of tolerance in any civil society that’s foundational to that society’s difference. And we’re going to come across difference every moment of every day, with our spouses, with our neighbors, with people of different backgrounds and faiths and values and morals et cetera. And I see tolerance as a way to interact with people. Not necessarily be converted or convert. And I don’t mean convert in a religious sense. I mean, this comes up in arguments about integration. That in order for new immigrants to integrate, they ought to become more like the majoritarian community. That’s not healthy integration at all. In fact, that’s saying there’s a superior way to doing things, and being, than what you’re coming with. So drop that which doesn’t fit well. Pretty simplistic thinking if you ask me.

Rachel Cram – How would you define tolerance?

Jamil Popatia – Interacting with that which is very challenging for you. And that challenges your way of seeing things, your paradigm and it’s triggering for you. And yet, there is some space that you have to allow for that. So tolerance is like a stepping point, a beginning. 

Rachel Cram – Because it seems barely adequate to me. To me the word tolerance means putting up with.

Jamil Popatia – Right. Exactly. I accept that definition. 

Rachel Cram – Yeah. 

Jamil Popatia – And yet I’m OK, I’m at peace with it.

Rachel Cram – Really. 

Jamil Popatia – I’m at peace with it because inevitably, as I wrote in that article, some things we will have to be just simply tolerant of.  Not necessarily accept. Now I differentiate between behaviors, actions, and the people. Embracing people is a whole other thing. That’s possible no matter what.  The tolerance is for, perhaps, actions, beliefs, morals, behaviors that don’t sit well with you for whatever reason.

Rachel Cram – It kind of feels like you’re missing the whole point. To me the word tolerance gives access to this condescending focus on the very few things that divide us as opposed to the magnitude of the things that unite us. 

Jamil Popatia – Right. Maybe that would come down to, those few things that divide us, how much weight do you give them? As an example, my family and I, as devout practicing Muslims, we don’t serve alcohol or consume it. Does that mean I cannot go to a dinner, a place where it’s consumed and not sit there with the people out of disdain for those people. No, not at all. Yet, it wouldn’t be for me a morally acceptable place to encourage, serve or enable that to happen in my home because my home’s a safe space for my morals, and my views and my compass. 

So I would say that there is room for tolerance and intolerance. And I believe that any society that has the diversity that we have, in any modern industrialized society, there will have to be a starting point of tolerance. Then build from there. And yet that might focus on differences but it could be that those small few things, and I agree with you that they are very small few things, are really holding weight for some people. So long as they hold weight, that will be labeled tolerance or intolerance. 

If they can move past that, and it’s a request I would say, in nonviolent communication, to ask people to move past that, in order to see on the commonality. But that takes us down a path that I see as problematic in focusing on similarities only. It’s already very easy to see how we can connect through our similarities. We’re flesh and blood. We’re human beings. But connecting despite the differences. That’s where the tire meets the road.

Rachel Cram – I see what you’re saying with that and I’m willing to tolerate our difference of opinion. No, I hear what you’re saying. Difference is important. It’s what makes our world interesting. It’s what makes life an adventure. 

Music Interlude  

Rachel Cram – Regarding our differences you’ve written our world seems to be characterized by an ever increasing divide amongst its inhabitants. That’s alarming. 

Jamil Popatia – Yeah. I mean I I see such polarization between people who hold these views and they don’t want to mix with those people over on that side who hold those views. And you have liberals on this side and they won’t even sit in the same room as conservatives on this side. No one steps out of their comfort zones and walks a path that is a little risky. I would relate to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who said,”No one who is comfortable with his identity, be it a faith identity or otherwise, is threatened by people of other paths.” 

Rachel Cram – Yeah 

Jamil Popatia – We talk about authenticity. Being authentic means you’re not scared of someone who differs from you. I’m not walking this earth with fear. I’m curious. In counseling we call that compassionate curiosity or appreciative inquiry. And just to, ‘Hey, what?  Something there is very different from me, among these people, among that person. But I want to know what’s behind them.”

Rachel Cram – So we need to have a certain level of comfort with ourselves before we’re ready to be uncomfortable to step in to a new way of experiencing things. 

Jamil Popatia – Right. I one hundred percent agree with you. 

Rachel Cram – One of the quotes that we built this whole podcast on, was one by Mahatma Gandhi, where he says, “If you want to reach peace in the world, you must begin with the children.” And you work with children. 

Jamil Popatia – Yes. 

Rachel Cram – I’m wondering with that whole level of comfort, how do we start with children? Giving them that kind of comfort so that they can become people that can step into the uncomfortable? 

Jamil Popatia – I like this question. 

Rachel Cram – Thank you. I hoped you would

Jamil Popatia – Because I love children. I love being around them. And I think that what a lot of us like about children is innocence and spontaneity. Children will naturally mix together. They have a very healthy, innocent aboriginal nature.

I’m familiar with that statement from Gandhi and I think that’s what he was alluding to, the clean slate of children before they’re polluted by the world. When they’re taught who to hate. Who not to hate. What to tolerate, not to tolerate. Who to mix with. What they ought to be doing, what they shouldn’t be doing. 

And he said, ‘“To be that change that you want to see happen around you.” I think parenting is so much more what we do and how we are in terms of how we show up, than it is telling them and teaching them. But it’s not an easy task to tell parents, and I know this as a parent, to sit back and let your children just grow morally, physically, emotionally and don’t jump to save. Don’t jump to correct. 

There is a sense of urgency I have, especially with children, because with so much programming, programming what they should think. How they should feel when they cry. “It’s nothing to cry about.” 

How can we say that to a child? And we correct their emotions. Emotions aren’t to be corrected, they’re to be caressed. And so often, I find myself veering from that because I get into what’s called, ‘habitual patterns’ versus ‘natural patterns.’ And the natural pattern is what I’m longing for.  Habitual, is what I’ve been given.

Rachel Cram – From you’re family of origin. 

Jamil Popatia – Exactly.  And my parents were given.  And that comes down and it’s just second nature, knee jerk. And it takes quite a bit to challenge that but that’s where I would start. And so in other words, parenting, is as much about self exploration. Self, I wouldn’t want to say ‘self-improvement’ but the idea of checking in with oneself before saying, “How am I going to work with my kids?” 

Rachel Cram – Doing your own work first. 

Jamil Popatia – Doing your own work. Doing your own work. Absolutely. I know this by experience.

Rachel Cram – Jamil, as we start to wrap up this interview, I’m just thinking from a parental point of view and even referring back to Gandhi’s, ‘beginning with the children’. What would be a crucial piece of information when we think about raising our children for peace.

Jamil Popatia – I’ll share with you a quote from Victor Frankl that is meaningful here. And he said something to the effect of, “If we find ourselves unable to change a situation, to look to changing ourselves.” and starting with that change inwardly first. That’s very applicable in the parenting realm. It’s very applicable in our work lives, our professional lives and in our society. Wanting to change our society we really rush to a lot of social change and I think that’s the wrong order. So I guess what I’m getting at is, working on oneself is a prerequisite to everything, be it parenting, be it social change, be it one’s professional showing up.  Whatever it might be working on oneself seems to me the most primary task and lifelong.

Rachel Cram – Well Jamal thank you so much for your time today. This has been such a pleasure and I really hope we’ll talk again.

Jamil Popatia – It’s a pleasure to be here and I’m hoping that we can have more connection like this. 

Rachel Cram – We need more conversations like this. 

Jamil Popatia – I would love it.

Episode 4