‘When we stop competing against one another and choose instead to cooperate., we strengthen the community to which each one of us belongs.’ ~ Craig and Marc Kielburger, Me to We: Finding Meaning in a Material World
My Churchill Fellowship began with a three-day training course at the New York Center for Nonviolent Communication facilitated by Thom Bond. The course was an effective blend of the theoretical, experiential and the reflective.
Participants were from mixed professions – health care, social workers, teachers, artists, students and it attracted people from around the world. Most participants voiced both professional and personal motivations for attending; some noting that coming to the course was prompted by a need to change dysfunctional relationships. I was there to see if this particular methodology could be applied in online communication- could kids practice nonviolent communication as a way of reducing the destructive relationships that are increasingly found online?
What is NVC?
Firstly, Nonviolent Communication (hitherto NVC) is a process, awareness or way of being that creates and maintains connection between individuals and groups. It is sometimes also known as Compassionate Communication. It is a methodology that allows effective communication with ourselves and with others in a more compassionate, constructive manner through identifying and articulating core human ‘feelings’ and ‘needs’. Essentially, it asks us to be human in a different, life-affirming way that may be counter to our habitual methods of communication. Some of us have developed styles of communication that are based largely upon judgments and criticisms.
Beyond being a personal development tool, NVC is valued as a mediation practice that is implemented in hundreds of schools worldwide as part of restorative justice programs. These schools report decreases in interpersonal conflicts amongst students and staff as well as improved student engagement, responsibility for their own learning and increased levels of mutual respect. In addition, NVC is practiced globally in assorted projects from as diverse countries as Africa, India and Eastern Europe as a way of helping communities heal.
NVC addresses two key questions –
- What happens to disconnect us from our compassionate nature, leading us to behave violently and exploitatively?
- What allows some people to stay connected to their compassionate nature even under the most trying circumstances?
What is the purpose of NVC?
NVC provides practitioners with a shared vocabulary of feelings and needs that goes beyond the limited ‘happy’ and ‘sad’. Knowing feelings and needs more fully then allows us to select from a broader range of strategies that allows us to meet needs in ways that promote connection.
The process draws attention to the extent to which we engage in moralistic judgments in our day to day communication based around whether our needs are met or unmet and offers alternative approaches. Such judgments include making comparisons, denying personal responsibility for our actions – ‘She made me do it..’ ‘You made me feel…’- and affirming certain actions with rewards and other behaviours with punishment.
What are needs?
NVC has, at its core, recognition that human beings have needs. This is a radical notion for some who have been raised suppressing personal needs for the sake of the needs of others. Needs in NVC are not personal but universal. Needs are phenomena that everyone strives and yearn for. Needs or Values, in the NVC sense, go beyond our wants and desires for material goods and even pleasure – they are universal impulses common to all.
Needs are generally listed as abstract nouns rather than as concrete objects. Thus, some common overall headings for human needs are Connection, Play, Peace, Physical Well Being, Meaning, Celebration, Spiritual Communion and Integrity. Under these there are many subtle variants that we can only discern by frequent reflection. However, it is difficult in some cases to discern needs, particularly when many might be present in any one moment. Needs are at the core of all human action.
Here is an example: When we say to someone, “You don’t listen to my opinions. Clearly, you are not interested in what I have to say.” We may be thinking that our need is clear- we need our opinions heard by others: it is up to others to do what we want. What NVC suggests is that the need is not in ‘being heard’, rather we are over-emphasising the strategy we use to get our needs met- in this case the strategy is to talk about our opinions to certain people. However, a strategy is not a need. In this instance the needs could be a wish for Acceptance, Appreciation or even Mutuality. Indicating that one is or is not ‘being heard’ places the responsibility of the need being met on the shoulders of others. It also predisposes the other person’s internal response – that they are not interested – which is only an interpretation of their behaviour and may not reflect their true experience. This kind of interaction does not build connection as it based on blame and judgment; it is a strategy that we have habitually employed to attempt to meet out need for, possibly, Acceptance, Appreciation and Mutuality. It could also be the case that this particular listener may not be capable of assisting the speaker to meet that need and that need might best be met in communication with another individual.
What are feelings?
Feelings are the sensations and emotions we experience that arise in dependence on the degree to which our needs are met or not met. Like needs, they are hard to identify; being able to discern feelings is a skill in itself. Feelings are an indication of how our present experience is meeting our needs. Fulfilled and Unfulfilled Feelings have distinct qualitative tones and, like Needs, are classified under some overarching themes. When needs are met we may feel – Affectionate, Self-Connected, Inspired, Engaged, Refreshed, Grateful, Excited, Joyful, Peaceful or Hopeful. When needs are unmet, we may feel Afraid, Confused, Annoyed, Angry, Embarrassed, Disquieted, Fatigued, Tense, Vulnerable, Pain, Sad, Disconnected.
Referring to the previous example, in a meeting where we interpret another’s behaviour as dismissive of our opinion we may actually feel frustrated, irritable, disappointed and angry which are sourced from a number of the headings listed above. Knowing what we are feeling provides us with a guide, as instrumentation, to then make more informed choices about the most appropriate strategy to meet the fundamental Need.
What are judgments?
Judgments are the comments, either internal or spoken aloud, that cause disconnection or maintain distance. They are an attempt, a strategy to meet a need that does not actually succeed in fulfilling what a person truly values. In essence, these comments tend to block empathic communication. When others speak with us, we can interrupt the speaker’s process in any number of unconstructive ways. It is easy to see that in the illustration above, the speaker is making a judgment of the other person. Using the example above, but from the perspective of the person accused, she or he might respond in any of the following ways-
- ‘But I do listen to every word you say.’ (Discounting)
- ‘I feel exactly the same way about you. You listen to me even less.’ (Comparing)
- ‘You know what you should do? You should stop talking about yourself all the time and start asking about my day for a change when you walk in the door. Why don’t you count to ten before launching into recounting your day?’ (Fixing)
- ‘If you talked about something more informed, something more worthwhile then of course I’d be more interested… Try reading this great new book about meaningful conversations called…’ (Educating)
- ‘Is it only when you talk about that topic that you feel this or is it all the time? Is it just with me or is it more pronounced when you are at work?’ (Data Gathering)
- You think you have it bad! No one listens to a single word I say- I may as well not exist!’ (One-Upmanship/Competition)
- ‘Oh you poor thing. It must feel awful to think you are so insignificant…’ (Sympathy) (More on Sympathy and its distinction from Empathy in a later post)
These statements take away the opportunity for the speaker to forge a connection and actually meet their need for Acceptance, Appreciation or Mutuality. It shifts the emphasis and attention to the new speaker.
The diagram below models the terrain of human communication. At the core of our beings are a vast set of Universal Needs that, depending on their degree of ‘met-ness’ give rise to certain feelings – some pleasant, some painful and some just neutral. These feelings are indicators of the degree to which our needs are being actualized. Feelings can give rise to criticism and judgments of others that when expressed or internalized build barriers. Now judgments are not the only strategy that can be engaged to respond to feelings and needs. Some more constructive, connecting responses will be explored in the next posting.
I see all of these things happening in the communication I observe between young people today. They are extremely vulnerable to acting/speaking based on feelings alone. They constantly react to stimuli rather than take a more creative, if time-consuming approach, to forge connections and mutually meet needs.
I’ll write more of this in the next posting which outlines the differences between Sympathy and Empathy as well as outlining the process through which young people might use NVC in communication.