What lies behind the question?
When I talk about Nonviolent Communication (NVC), people often say ‘that’s all very well, but it wouldn’t work with …’ and then describe something they’ve mentally filed in the ‘impossible to change’ drawer.
When I started out with NVC, I too was thinking about where it would ‘work’. I was in an ‘instrumental’ mindset that said ‘If we do A, we will get B. So if B is what we want, we just need to learn how to do A’.
This was fuelled by my first encounter with Nonviolent Communication (NVC), which got me hooked. Here, it seemed, was the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything (apologies to Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).
I’m joking of course, but NVC did make a big impact on me. I lay awake at night, full of ideas about where it could be most useful.
The story that really grabbed my attention was on Page 12 of Marshall Rosenberg’s book ‘Nonviolent Communication: A language of compassion’. He describes an incident in a mosque in a refugee camp where he was talking about NVC to an audience of about 170 Palestinian Moslem men. Their attitudes to Americans at the time were not favourable. One man began shouting ‘Murderer! Assassin! Child killer!’ Others followed in the same vein.
By listening for feelings and needs, Marshall was able to respond empathically. The eventual outcome was that he was invited to a Ramadan dinner with the man who had been the first to express his fury.
This story convinced me that NVC ‘works’. I saw it as a means of deflecting aggression, defusing conflict, handling criticism – and much, much more. It seemed to be a magic key to a more peaceful life! I was still in that ‘instrumental’ mindset.
But then I realised that thinking about NVC in terms of whether or not it ‘worked’ came from a mindset that was way outside NVC.
The ‘instrumental’ mindset is about me using a process to make something happen. But this doesn’t take other people into consideration. It doesn’t say ‘let’s find a way forward that works for you AND me’. Nor does it say ‘at the very least, let me understand where you are coming from, so that even if our way forward isn’t your #1 preference, you can still live with it’.
Let’s look at how that instrumental mindset shows up in a very simple every day example.
Imagine that you are on a car journey. The driver tunes into a sports programme. You would prefer some classical music. Calling upon your NVC skills, you say you’re feeling a bit frazzled and would like listen to something soothing.
You remember to make a request: ‘Would you be willing to change to Radio 3?’
When the driver is not willing to change, you are surprised. After all, you’ve used the right words. So why isn’t NVC ‘working’? Why isn’t Radio 3 playing right now?
NVC is not a tool for getting what we want. It is not an instrument to pick up when we want something and to put down when things are going our way. And it is more than choosing a particular form of words.
There was an unspoken expectation that the request would be met – and no consideration of the needs of the driver.
The driver picked up on the expectation and heard the words as making a demand.
On their own, words are not enough. The intention behind them is what comes through.
The NVC lens
So the question ‘Does NVC work?’ is looking at NVC as a tool and as a means to an end. Instead, think of NVC as creating a climate in which connection – not a specific outcome – is a starting point for working towards an outcome that is acceptable to both parties. With this in mind, we do tend to get more of what we want – but in ways that take other people into account.
Marshall’s story impressed me so deeply because he received the words not as attacks but, he said, ‘as gifts from a fellow human being willing to share his soul and deep vulnerabilities with me’. Striving to live in that compassionate place makes life more wonderful for all of us.
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