By Alison Rose Levy
Lately, I’ve begun to wonder what I can do to create peace in a world fraught with dissent. Although the causes of unrest often seem way beyond my influence, looking to the root of any conflict be it interpersonal, organizational, legal, societal, or international, I see basically one thing: Two people or groups who aren’t communicating.
When people don’t feel heard, or don’t listen, things go from bad to worse. Misfired communications breed hurt feelings, distrust, and discord, which often results in conflict. Family tensions, marital squabbles, work place struggles, lawsuits, political contests, or even wars, basically boil down to two parties, with differing needs, not hearing and understanding each other. Although their needs may seem irreconcilable, that’s not necessarily so, according to clinical psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D., who, for the last twenty years, has traveled the globe mediating intractable conflicts, using a method he calls Nonviolent Communication, or NVC. With active NVC programs offered in such global hotspots as the Middle East and Serbia, the technique—taught in workshops, trainings, and Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication (PuddleDuck Press, 1999)—NVC is equally effective in every day conflicts. When people cultivate NVC skills to communicate honestly, respectfully, and empathically, Rosenberg finds, the differences between them melt.
But, as Rosenberg explains, NVC takes work, because most of us learned to communicate in overtly (or subtly) violent ways. Proving our rightness, judging others, characterizing adversaries as bad, or denying our emotions, causes violence to ourselves and others. In a society where scores are commonly settled via lawsuits, and Hollywood resorts to violence for dramatic resolution, is it any wonder that violence also pervades our thoughts and communications with others?
NVC develops awareness of what you say and how you listen. The four-step process (detailed below) activates empathy for yourself and the other person, enhancing the potential to meet everyone’s needs. It can be used in any type of interaction and NVC practitioners are a varied group. An organic farm manager, a singing teacher, a body worker, and a corporate manager, as well as others, shared their experiences for this article.
Every morning, after Jonas ** left for work, his wife, Hillary, picked up his dirty socks from the floor where he dropped them. “What a pig!” she complained, “Who does he think I am—the maid?” Yet, apart from a snide comment, muttered when Jonas asked her to do an errand for him, Hillary never clued Jonas in to her annoyance. Why? She didn’t like “being a nag.”
Reiki practitioner, Marlee Strom, always spoke in a soothing voice, trying to spread good vibes. Unless she was on the phone with customer service reps from her health insurance company! Then, passed from person to person, with no one addressing her problem, Marlee turned into one of the furies, resorting to sarcasm and curse words for emphasis. This reaction did not help resolve her problem.
Bill Daniels, sent multiple emails to Gene O’Connell, requesting a written response to detailed questions for a timely report. Instead of providing the answers, O’Connell instead proposed meeting in person weeks after the report deadline. Daniels emailed back to justify the urgency of his deadline, but O’Connell didn’t seem to get it. Daniels felt frustrated, and didn’t know how to proceed.
Like many people, Hillary, Marlee, and Bill were unable to communicate effectively in order to get their needs met. Hillary shut down, Marlee went on the attack, and Bill justified his request—all to no avail. Here’s how they used the NVC process to communicate more effectively.
The first step in NVC is to relate your observation, in a neutral, non-judgmental manner. The second step is to say how you feel about what you observe; the third is to express your unmet need in that circumstance; and the fourth is to make a request from the other person—based on your need.
Before learning NVC, Hillary might have told Jonas, “How could you leave your disgusting socks on the floor for me to pick up as if I had nothing better to do?” Instead, after coaching from an NVC trainer, Hillary shared, “When I saw your socks on the floor this morning, I felt frustrated.” Next, she explained why, revealing to Jonas her desire for order around the house, and for his support in creating it. Since she did not accuse, ridicule, or lay guilt, Jonas was able to hear her without feeling the need to defend himself. Now, they were ready to move forward to Hillary’s request, “Would you be willing to commit right now to making a concerted effort to pick up your socks?” Jonas agreed, and followed.
It may sound too good to be true, but the simple NVC formula makes a big difference. Without realizing it, people commonly fail to identify specific needs and many do not recognize the importance of requesting help in a non-blaming, non-demanding way. Why are needs important? While psychotherapy and marital counseling encourage people to share feelings, unless the underlying need and request are expressed, the other person will almost always feel dumped on. A respectful request defines a path of action. (But remember to use the four-step process as a guide, not as a rigid rule.)
Marlee’s first step was recognizing her own anger and frustration with the health insurance reps. While directing anger towards others is not constructive, feeling anger is totally natural. Here’s what to do. First, give yourself empathy for your feelings. In NVC, this core skill is not about “being nice,” expressing sympathy, or faking what you don’t feel. If you find empathy doesn’t flow with ease, it probably means you haven’t received enough empathy yourself; in many cities, NVC offers “Empathy Groups,” where you can join people to receive and offer it.
In giving herself empathy, Marlee discovered that she felt hurt at the lack of human connection with the impersonal company wielding power over her health. Since the company reps were people, too, Marlee now recognized an opportunity for human connection within the bureaucratic monolith. During their next conversation, she told the rep, “I guess it must be frustrating for you not to have clarity about how to help me.” Cynthia, the rep, felt surprise and relief when Marlee offered her empathy. In response, the two began to chat, and ultimately, Cynthia went out of her way to resolve Marlee’s problem.
Bill wondered how NVC could help him. He’d already communicated his requests, and justified his reasons for them repeatedly. With little information, the most constructive solution, said the facilitator in Bill’s NVC group, was for Bill to “guess” O’Connell’s needs and then check them out. Since people often have difficulty identifying their feelings, needs, and requests, “guessing” can break the impasse. Bill emailed O’Connell, “I’m guessing you must be very busy, which is why you haven’t found time to answer the questions.” In addition, he shared his feeling and need, “I’m worried that I may not be able to meet my deadline.” Then, he made his request, “Would you be willing to designate someone else in your department to work with me on getting these answers?” O’Connell responded promptly to Bill’s accurate “guess,” and agreed to Bill’s solution, which met both their needs, allowing Bill to meet his deadline.
Although expressing feelings in the workplace may seem scary, sharing vulnerability often helps people connect, and work together more productively. According to New York NVC Organizer, Gail Taylor, “We can bypass feelings and get nowhere, or we connect with each other and really get somewhere that works for everyone.” Due to its focus on meeting needs, NVC supports reaching goals in any context.
When I asked NVC Founder, Marshall Rosenberg, about what he sees as the biggest obstacle to practicing NVC, he responded that, “Up until now, we’ve all been programmed to communicate in a non-constructive way. We are in communication with others who also share that programming, and we’re within organizations that function according to that programming.” His solution: Imagine a world where supportive nonviolent communication is the norm, and then, step by step, create that world around you.
Be kind to yourself. Changing old habits occurs gradually. When I recently began to use NVC, I became aware of all the harsh, self-righteous, and defensive statements that wanted to come out of my mouth. Still, I’ve found, that if I take a moment, and try to find the way to communicate, it makes a big difference, both in building warm connections to people, and in achieving my own goals.
Long-term NVC practitioners, like Meganwind Eoyang, a Northern California-based NVC teacher who works with non-profits and prisons, report that NVC changes your actual consciousness as well as your communication, making it a form of spiritual practice. Some develop the capacity to offer empathy even when someone speaks abusively, looking beyond the anger, to the person’s poorly expressed needs. But how does one find such compassion? Are these long-term practitioners saints? “Did you grow up in an exceptionally nurturing family and community?” I asked Eoyang, whose every word radiated caring and empathy. “Not at all, I grew up in a Chicago street gang,” she told me. Hearing me gasp, she added, “That’s why I really needed NVC.” According to Eoyang, whatever your history, situation, or conflict, NVC can lead you to a better resolution right now, because, “It’s never too late to choose caring.”** All names have been changed to respect the interviewee’s confidentiality.
To learn more about NVC or find a group in your area please visit www.cnvc.org.
To order Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg visit www.NonvolentCommunication.com