In my last post I wrote about some of the ways that I see Nonviolent Communication (NVC) as being remarkably practical. That piece was set up as a response to the frequent critiques of NVC that come my way, sometimes even from long-time NVC enthusiasts. In this post I want to address this critique from a different angle.
I have, indeed, often seen dialogues that take way longer than I would anticipate, even with support from an experienced NVC mediator or facilitator. I know of people who have given up on certain relationships or groups they were part of, despite making ongoing attempts to connect and reach mutual understanding. I have seen many times decisions about seemingly small items take so long that many wished someone would just dictate the outcome instead of the agonizing attempt to get everyone's needs on the table. What is going on in all of these situations?
Undoubtedly there are many different reasons and issues at play in each situation. My own experience leads me to a strong suspicion that a major contributor to this difficulty is the degree to which so many of us live with a permanent sense of mistrust. Just last week I was present for a situation between two friends and business partners who clearly love each other and nonetheless operate in a mutually antagonistic way about their business. I was astonished by how each of their attempts to protect and guard their own needs resulted in more stress for the other, who then proceeded to guard their own needs even more strongly. Trust, especially the foundational trust that we matter, appears to me to be a sine qua non for the possibility of resolving conflicts, reaching agreements, making collaborative decisions, or any other endeavor that includes within it the possibility of difference and disagreement.
Tuesday evening, during the discussion of my previous blog post that took place as part of my weekly telecourse on the topics of this blog, I became even more clearly aware of this dynamic as one person after another spoke about the ease with which they lose their emotional balance in difficult situations. That ease, in my view, is rooted in the lack of trust that our needs would matter, and hence an intensity of protectiveness around them. Learning to make NVC more practical, then, is about cultivating inner trust as well as recognizing others' lack of trust, and aiming to nurture both while engaging in any challenging conversation.
One of the most common ways that such lack of trust shows up is in the form of attachment to outcome. The magic of NVC as a powerful tool is directly proportional, I believe, to the degree to which we can approach our interactions without being attached to a particular outcome, instead focusing on what's likely to contribute to everyone's needs being met. If we use the language of NVC without that intention, others can see through our words and recognize, sometimes without conscious awareness, that we are trying to make something happen whether or not it will work for them. So goes the cycle of escalation.
When one or more parties to a dialogue remains attached to outcome, the possibility of a breakthrough, imaginative solution that works for everyone diminishes. Tension can mount and escalate even as everyone is using the language of NVC because hearts are more and more closed rather than more and more open as the dialogue continues. Shifts are so much more likely to happen when people are fully heard and when they fully hear another.
Most people in North America still learn NVC in contexts that prioritize healing, human connection, and personal growth (though this is changing as NVC is moving more into organizational settings). This creates an imprint that's often hard to shake when attempting to apply NVC in parenting, in a work setting, or anywhere where other considerations are paramount, such as reaching decisions, moving quickly through time and space, or making something happen.
Since applying NVC focuses on human connection, the key to making it practical is knowing precisely what kind of connection and how much of it is optimal for the purpose at hand. Bringing empathy designed for healing into a meeting with a tight agenda is neither asked for nor necessary for the business of the meeting to continue, and is likely to either not fly at all or derail the meeting considerably and meet with some bewilderment or outright resistance. Instead, if someone is unhappy with something, a very brief form of connection may be all that's needed to re-establish sufficient trust and presence to continue with the business of the meeting.
When people first learn NVC, many put enormous effort into trying to find the "right" words to use. This in itself creates tension, which is added to the tension of whatever judgment, attachment to outcome, or any other reaction exists inside the person. That tension, the effort, and the gap between the words and the intentionality all combine to create stiffness and awkwardness that immediately register as inauthentic.
I no longer believe there is a contradiction between truth and care. I have seen time and again that if we focus deeply enough, we can almost invariably find a way to express genuinely what's true for us in a way that honors our own dignity and maintains care for others.
How can we say the truth in those moments when it seems impossible? First and most important, we let go of the words and focus instead on intention. The two intentions that I find most conducive to a satisfying and efficient outcome are to tell the full truth with care, and to work toward a solution that works for everyone. The words will follow. Other intentions work as well, such as to hear everyone with compassion, including self, or to be fully present to everything in the room. It almost doesn't matter what the intention is provided we are conscious of it and choose to prioritize it.
Once the intention is in place, we can see what obstacles arise in carrying it out, and then speak about them with gentle transparency. We can't imagine a mutually acceptable solution to the moment's conflict? We can say that: "I want to make this work for both of us, and right now I am confused enough about how to make that happen that I don't know what to say next. Can you hold on a minute to allow me to catch up with myself?" We are caught in judgment and reaction? We can own that in a self-responsible way: "I am not at my best now, there is too much reaction going on inside of me for me to be able to listen to you. Are you OK to come back to this conversation later?" This level of transparency, even if not comfortable or familiar, can restore trust and congruence, and support more connection. Once connection is there, we can then work together to find the solution, in the moment or later.
To put it all together, I would like to provide a few key tips for those who truly want to learn how to make NVC work in practical and challenging settings. I believe if you apply yourself to the following guidelines, you are likely to be well on your way:
Whenever you struggle, look for a way to be transparent about it while holding awareness of and care for the others involved.
I am confident that if we can build practice to do all these things, and if we can bring self-acceptance and gentleness to the inevitable mistakes we will make, we can become progressively more capable of being practical. Imagine what could happen if could free ourselves up from these constraints. I so love the image of countless change agents, at every level, using small, practical, and simple steps to bring the magic of collaboration to every corner of the planet. Wouldn't that be lovely?