How did I get to be forty one and need a piece of paper to figure out what I’m feeling and what I need?…
Until very recently, I considered myself a skilled communicator. Most of my training and professional experience is directly related to communication – advocacy, PR, marketing. I love talking with people, I love to write. And yet three weeks ago I spent a weekend learning a process of communication which has left me feeling a mix of things – disconcerted, excited, transformed and empowered.
Non-Violent Communication (the marketer in me at this point mutters ‘terrible name’ – but see below for the reason*) was developed by American psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg. It is, simply put, a way of communicating from the heart. The foundation of NVC is about connecting with what you’re feeling and what you need, in the present. Doing your best not to get caught up in the stories of the past or assumptions about the future, this is about what are you feeling now and what you need.
Pause for a moment and think about that. No, really, stop. Now. What are you feeling?… Curious, happy, relaxed, tired, edgy, stressed, distracted. What do you need?…Rest, space, fun, competence, understanding, cooperation. Sounds easy doesn’t it?…But I’m finding it surprisingly challenging.
And it’s not just me. There were seven of us participating in the weekend workshop and all of us (in our thirties and forties) in our different ways, successful and accomplished. Yet more than once I caught myself observing, astounded and amused (most of all at myself), a group of highly competent people standing around staring at a piece of paper trying to connect with what it is they were feeling in that moment and what they needed. “I am feeling….hmmmmm….because I need….hmmmm.”
Part of my skill as a communicator is, I suspect, a result of being an only child and only Wellington grandchild of highly articulate and intellectual people. From a very early age I sat at the dinner table and was expected to engage in conversation. But it was conversation of the mind not the heart. This is of course a generalisation, but I find it hard to reflect on thirty plus years of family conversation and remember a time when feelings were at the centre of the table. This was reinforced by my formal education at a highly academic school and then a law degree. I am trained to use an analytical, judgmental and strategic mind to communicate. I am not trained, not practiced, in communicating from the heart.
If feelings and needs are the foundation of NVC, empathy is the core. For this is not just about connecting with my own feelings and needs but those of the people I’m communicating with. During conflict, I’m learning to listen to – without judgment – what my colleague, partner or friend is feeling and needing. Without getting caught up in blame and shame and responsibility.
The trouble is that having opened the door to a heart based process of communication, I find it impossible to close, let alone pretend I haven’t seen it. Now, just a few weeks into practicing a new way of communicating, I find myself in the middle of conflict suddenly and acutely aware of how much I’m caught up in my own story. The story of long playing family dynamics or assumptions about how the other person is going to behave based on past experience, rather than what we’re both feeling in the present, what we both need.
It’s not quite that simple of course. This feels like and in fact is, learning a new language. I’m still unskilled at connecting with my own feelings and even more unskilled at connecting with my needs. Partly because I am a caregiver by nature and nurture (my pattern is to care for others first and not connect with and take care of my own needs) but mostly because this is not the way we’re trained to communicate with ourselves and with each other.
By the way, if this all sounds too woo-woo for you, bear in mind that Marshall Rosenberg has used this process working in conflict ridden places around the globe, include Nigeria, Israel and Palestine, Afghanistan, Bosnia and the list goes on. This is a powerful and well-used tool. If you’re interested you can read about some of his work here.
I’ve talked (ok, probably raved a little) about NVC since its crossed my path, but honestly this stuff is GOOD. One of the things that seems to capture the imagination of those who’ve been on the receiving end of my enthusiasm is the notion that what you say to me – particularly in conflict – is not necessarily what I hear you say. So often I translate what you say to me through the story I’m caught up in at that moment and my assumptions about you. Harsh but true. There is considerable benefit in simply asking someone who is reacting emotionally/negatively to what you’re saying by asking them gently if they would tell you what they heard you say. You might just be surprised…
Look, I could go on. But let me finish with this. I feel (huh) given my background in communications that I can say without hesitation this is one of the most powerful tools I’ve encountered. I can share with you how revealing it is to sit quietly next to the lovely man I share my life with, after a night of lying awake struggling to connect with what I’m feeling and what I need, and be able to say to him “in this moment, this is what I’m feeling, this is what I need” and have that simply heard and responded to with his own feelings and needs. Without judgement, without blame, without expectation.
I’m excited by the potential, at home, at work, at play.
Watch this space.
P.S. Our NVC teacher was fantastic. If you’re interested in learning more, email me at email@example.com and we’ll hatch a plan.
* Marshall was inspired by the writings and actions of nonviolence activists like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Apparently the word nonviolence is the closest literal translation that Gandhi found to the Sanskrit word ahimsa. Although in English this word appears as a negation, in Sanskrit naming a concept or quality through negation instead of directly is sometimes a way of suggesting it is too great to be named.