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Tag: judgments

Reactive -> Creative Part 2 – Reconnection

Knowledge of other people’s beliefs and ways of thinking must be used to build bridges, not to create conflicts. ~ Kjell Magne Bondevik

The last posting recounted the general situation in which many find ourselves – despite best attempts at trying to live a fulfilled life, there are times when our actions don’t connect us to our deeper ideals or deeper ideals that others hold. In that posting I summarised the universality of human needs and the way in which we strategise to meet them, often with undesirable results.

The practise of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) suggests that we need to contact our true needs in any given moment of conversation so that we speak from them. Drawing attention to our feelings, those responses to needs being met or unmet, we can then amend our course so that we can be more fulfilled. Much of what we do in conversation can be judgemental – building barriers rather than bridges between people.

This posting will examine how we might best forge connections and assist others and ourselves to meet needs. To start we need to generate Empathy.

What is Empathy?

Let’s start by saying what Empathy is not. For a start it is not a synonym for Sympathy. Sympathy arises when we encounter another’s difficulty and imaginatively co-experience what it might be like in their position. So, when someone says they feel miserable because nobody listens to them, we might adjust our volume to be parallel with the speaker and adopt a tone based on how we might feel in the same situation. ‘Oh, you must feel awful, you poor thing…’ we might even say, thus assuming and pronouncing a judgment on their inner experience. Thus, it becomes about us commenting on and approximating their moment. Essentially, when we are sympathetic, it is about us. This is not to say that sympathy isn’t useful overture to empathy – it can help draw people closer together, but it can involve the listener colluding with the speaker’s situation and not necessarily assist them to move beyond it.

Empathy is a subtly different but altogether more profound option. Empathy provides an opportunity for the listener to help the speaker come to know his or her own feelings and needs while concurrently affirming their own need for connection.

Empathy, when practised effectively, embraces all the people present in the communication. If not, it can give the impression of being akin to a therapy session. Therefore it is important to frequently touch in with one’s own feelings and check to see what one’s own needs might be when offering Empathy.

How do you offer Empathy?

Firstly, for people unfamiliar with this model, it might be best to ask permission to try it before launching in, as it is rather like switching into another language in the midst of a conversation and, as such, it can be bewildering. Also when starting out with NVC, there is a standardised way of phrasing empathic speech that may appear stilted or unnatural. Over time, through extended practise, people tend to find their own more intuitive voice to communicate empathically.

Empathy begins by listening to both what is alive in you at the time and to the other person as they speak. As mentioned above, most important of all is to know what is going on within yourself- you cannot offer Empathy if you are wanting Empathy yourself. When the person is speaking, pay attention to more than the words – observe their behaviours and mannerisms with a kindly intent. Then begin by asking questions, not out of a desire to guess correctly so as to appear wise and ‘Empathic’ but rather as a gift to the other person that will help them unlock the secret of their unmet needs. The questions asked have two parts: you identify what they might be feeling and then suggest why they might be feeling this, though we need to phrase this in terms of their need rather than on any storyline or strategy.

In many cases, NVC is employed as a mediation tool where a third party might intercede and assist others to reach some form of mutuality. Thus, using the previous example of the person who does not feel heard in meeting I have brought in a person practising NVC – let’s call him Marshall.

Brad: “You don’t listen to my opinions. Clearly, you are not interested in what I have to say.”

Marshall “Are you feeling frustrated because you value appreciation?’

NOTE: This is not an opportunity to affirm the storyline for the person and side with or against their antagonists so one doesn’t offer…

Marshall: “Are you feeling frustrated because you value appreciation and you believe Janet is am not capable of seeing you?’

The underlined section is an analysis and a judgment which blocks Brad from connecting to his core need and draws him into the situation, into the troublesome narrative. We do not need take Brad into the conflict, but rather into what he needs.

Again, it must be highlighted that this is not an opportunity to be clever and ‘do’ NVC on somebody so that we might guess their states correctly like some perverse game. We are not reducing another’s experience to point-scoring, rather we are assisting the other person to come into contact with what lies at the core of their pain. Sometimes we do not touch on their feelings accurately, and that is perfectly acceptable, in fact, it might assist the person to look for themselves to see what they are actually experiencing.  So, for example-

Brad: “Janet doesn’t listen to my opinions. Clearly, she is not interested in what I have to say.”

Marshall: “Are you feeling embarrassed because you believe in working in  partnership?

Brad: ‘Um… not, not embarrassment exactly but more feeling agitated or, exasperated that Janet doesn’t take my ideas seriously.’

Marshall: ‘ Exasperated. Ok. (pause) Are you feeling exasperated because you value acceptance and would like to have more appreciation in your life?’

Brad: ‘Yes! I’d like to be appreciated for what I say. Actually, I do just value appreciation – its important to me. ’

At this point it could be valuable for Marshall to approach Janet and see if she would be willing to accept some empathy.

Marshall: ‘Janet, can you tell me what’s going on for you in your relationship with Brad?’

Janet: ‘He’s a pain! Well, it’s not that I don’t appreciate what Brad has to say, it’s just that he takes so long to say anything of value. I get lost in all the stories he tells that I lose the original point.’

Marshall: ‘So, Janet, do you feel confused when Brad shares his ideas because you value clarity?’

Janet: ‘Exactly. If he could just get to the point… I mean, I’d say something to him but I don’t want to hurt his feelings, but clearly I have by doing nothing. He’s so needy!’

Marshall: ‘I guess that you are feeling irritated because you value independence and efficiency.’

Janet: ‘Yeah… why doesn’t he have confidence in himself? People like that frustrate me. I like working with confident, self-actualised people.’

In this example, drawn from practice sessions during the course, Marshall has been able to allow the combatants to access their core needs through skilful observation of their behaviour, through reading their tone, listening to their words and reflecting on what might be alive in them at that moment. We have ascertained that Brad has a need for Acceptance, Appreciation and Mutuality, whereas Janet has a need for Clarity, Independence, Efficiency and possibly Community in as much as she wants to be with like-minded self-actualised people. Are their needs in conflict? Both have a need for Connection that is not being met in their relationship. At this point the conversation with Marshall needs to take a different direction and move into the participants making requests.

What is a request?

Requests are a do-able, realistic, positive action that one asks of another in order to assist the meeting of a need. Requests are not demands but negotiated suggestions for future behaviours. They are always specific so that there is minimal room for ambiguous interpretation.

Marshall: ‘Janet, I wonder if you would you be willing to ask Brad when he is speaking if you are confused about the point he is trying to make?’

Janet: ‘Isn’t it rude to interrupt someone when they’re speaking?’

Marshall: ‘When I hear you say that, I hear that you value respect for other’s feelings.’

Janet: ‘Well, yes. I do. I don’t want to interrupt him because it might hurt his feelings.’

Marshall: ‘Brad, I wonder if you would be willing to accept an interruption from Janet when you are communicating your point of view?’

Brad: ‘If it helped Janet hear what I have to say, then, sure. How she interrupts would be important to me, though.’

Marshall: ‘Janet, would you consider saying to Brad that you are lost or confused and that you need some clarity?’

Janet: ‘Sure. (smiles) I could say, maybe, “Skip to the end…?” ‘

Brad: (laughs) I think I’d get the point if you said that.’

In this example, we can see that both of the people’s needs can be met. Though Brad’s storytelling is not appreciated, the need for his point of view to be accepted will be, if Janet takes the move to interrupt him. Perhaps a follow up could be for Marshall to check in what everyone has agreed upon so there are no remaining misconceptions. Also, if the storytelling is an important way for Brad to be heard, then perhaps finding others who appreciate that aspect of his communication might be a way to meet that need.

This posting has been an overview of the Reconnection process. We begin by observing our own feelings and needs then observing/ guessing what they might be for others. From a place of Empathy we ask questions, not provide solutions, that allow the other person to contact their own feelings and needs. Once there is that connection, there is an opportunity for correction in the form of negotiated requests.

The next and last posting in this series will contemplate implications for educators and the young people in their care.

Reactive -> Creative Part 1 – Disconnection

‘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 –

  1. What happens to disconnect us from our compassionate nature, leading us to behave violently and exploitatively?
  2. 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.

In summary

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.

Screen shot 2010-10-07 at 12.47.05 AM

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.

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