I want to tell you about a magical tool I use particularly for navigating challenging situations. It’s called Non violent communication (NVC). It’s a way of understanding and communicating that I’ve found particularly useful in situations of conflict. I’ve hyped it up in the first sentence as a magical tool but like all useful things, it’s got its limitations too. I guess the key is how and when to use it. So what am I talking about?
NVC, which was developed by a psychologist called Marshall Rosenberg, asks us to focus on people’s underlying feelings and needs behind their words and actions. Classically in NVC we are asked to divide any situation we find ourselves in into four things (1.) The facts about the situation; (2.) What we feel; (3.) What we need or value that lies behind our feeling and (4.) What request we might want to make of ourselves or others.
So if, for example, 1) my letting agent for where I live does not respond to an email I send him about a damp patch in my home: I might be 2) feeling frustrated and worried because I 3) need good communication and a safe healthy place to live in. I might phone him up and 4) request he responds and sends round a builder to look at the damp problem. Incidentally, in this example as well as in NVC, I have found CCing the owner of the house tends to get better responsiveness from the letting agent.
For the purpose of this blog I am going to focus on identifying feelings and needs as this is what I have found most useful about NVC. When I was eighteen I was attending a psychiatric day hospital. I was often asked by the staff in the daily morning community meeting what I was feeling. I did not know what to say. I had grown up in a society that encouraged boys not to express their feelings, unless it was anger. One of the useful things NVC does is have a list of feelings we can look at that can help us develop a language for what we might be feeling (see here).
We can see feelings or emotions as messengers that tell us about our needs. Another way of talking about needs are the qualities that make life worth living. Examples are our needs for safety, belonging, and to be seen and heard (again a useful of needs is list is here). If some of my needs are met I am likely to have pleasant feelings like calm or joy or excitement. If some of my needs are not met I may feel more difficult feelings like sadness, anxiety, or anger.
In general, I think women are better at talking about feelings. There might be lots of reasons for this. Many people argue the female brain is generally more able to process interpersonal information. Maybe, but what is very clear to me is how, growing up, most men learn to associate talking about feelings as unmanly. I think that in Western culture, in many institutions such as work or school settings, both genders are encouraged to block out feelings and muscle on. Therefore many of us have worked long and hard at not having a language for our emotions.
However, our emotions and the needs they relate to are worth listening to for a number of reasons. If we don’t listen to them they tend to become a lot more unmanageable. If we do find ways to listen to them, I think this can help us negotiate the world more easily and also develop a clearer understanding of ourselves and each other.
I can see three ways around the problem of being disconnected from our feelings. We can learn new ways to talk about our feelings. Secondly, we can find non verbal ways to tune into and express our feeling such as through meditation, movement and creativity. Thirdly, we can focus on sensing and articulating what lies behind our feelings; our needs.
I met an NVC teacher who had worked with Australian miners and she had found that while the men there were uncomfortable talking about their feelings, they were more comfortable talking about their needs. I also met a Samoan woman who also said that for her culture, feelings were not talked about but it made more sense to her to talk about needs. So it makes sense to me to use NVC flexibly and adapt it to the different circumstances and contexts we are operating in.
Why is it hard for us to talk about our needs in conflict situations? One reason is that we have a strong blame culture that is applied to many conflict situations. So, returning to my letting agent example, instead of identifying and communicating my needs to be listened to and for a safe home to live in, I can easily focus on describing what is wrong with my letting agent. For example, I can think he is lazy, selfish, thoughtless, elitist, greedy — the list could go on. While these thoughts might help me temporarily feel secure and in the right, if I let them dominate my thinking they may block me from being able to communicate effectively with the letting agent.
If we are having lots of judgemental thoughts about ourselves or others, it may be useful to focus our attention on the needs that lie behind this inner talk. It is this part I have found magical. For example, a few years after I had moved from London to the north of England, a friend posted some angry messages to my Facebook wall. At first I felt angry and embarrassed. My need for respect and consideration was not being met. A part of me wanted to fight fire with fire.
However, instead of blocking him or getting into arguing with him online, when I had calmed down a bit I used NVC to think about what his feelings and needs might be. I thought he might be angry with me because I had moved away from where we had grown up together. His anger might be related to his need for the close friendship we had had when we lived near each other, no longer being met. I had a phone conversation with him and this seemed to be the case. It seemed important for both of us to acknowledge the change in our relationship. It didn’t fix the situation but it did reduce the tension between us.
I have grown up in a society that is built on domineering ways of relating, as well as more caring ways of relating. As a consequence, parts of me enjoy competition and arguing. Rather than try to be a totally peaceful person, I have found it valuable to create places for the parts of me that like more violent or boisterous communication to play. It seems if I try and become a fully compassionate and understanding person I usually get a backlash, where after a while of behaving gently, I get very angry and obnoxious. I prefer then to let this part of me out at regular intervals. For example I like practising and watching martial arts including boxing. I like watching football, and as an Arsenal supporter there are teams like Chelsea that I enjoy disliking. I also let myself have a good rant about politics and the faults of people I disagree with from time to time. So part of me enjoys domineering ways of relating and I think the trick is, rather than to deny it, to be very mindful of how and where I express it.
So, to summarize; NVC helps me try and better understand complex situations by paying attention to my and others’ possible feelings and needs. Nevertheless I’ve found it helpful to use the language of NVC flexibly and make playful spaces for more boisterous ways of relating.
In Part 2 of this blog I will look at how I have found it helpful in mental health settings.
See here for our forthcoming 2 day training workshop on using Nonviolent communication in mental health settings
Recommended further reading: Nonviolent Communication, a Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg
Thanks to Elisabeth Svanholmer for editorial advice.