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Miki Kashtan Ph.D.

Basic Pitfalls of Using NVC

If you have the language down, but not the spirit behind it, beware...

  • "It's like I've got a complete stranger staying in my house."
  • "Don't use this NVC thing on me."
  • "What happened to you? Can't you speak normal?"
  • "You sound so clinical."
  • "Why can't you just be honest with me and tell me what's really going on with you?"

The fundamental issue happening here, as I see it, is that people fall in love with what NVC can bring to their lives and to the world, while attributing that miracle to the language used rather than to the consciousness shift that precedes the choice of words. As a result, they use the language in their interactions with others instead of seeing it as a practice tool designed to support integration of principles and to facilitate navigation of difficult moments with mutual consent. Because of how challenging that distinction between the language and the underlying consciousness is, I want to carefully unpack this paradox.

Aiming for Integration

Almost everyone I've come in contact with sees and experiences the immediate power of NVC when used by an experienced person who is calm and present in the moment of using it. Even people who would otherwise vehemently disagree with the premises of NVC, especially with the idea of transcending right/wrong thinking completely, derive immediate benefit from being heard. However, getting to the level of mastery that allows such presence and fluidity to emerge requires something far beyond facility with a certain template of speech (pdf). Until this integration happens, the gap between the words and the consciousness is likely to show up as lack of authenticity, which is a big piece of what's annoying to people.

Two factors combine to create this gap. One is the awkwardness of using a new and unfamiliar form of speech. Trying out something new, especially if there is any tension with another person, is highly likely to bring about self-consciousness and discomfort. Having such discomfort and then hiding it, as we are wont to do, immediately shows up as inauthenticity. Any hiding of visible discomfort does.

The other aspect of the gap derives more directly from the difference between our words and our thoughts. If we use empathic words while judging another person, or make something look like a request when it's really a demand, we create inner tension. The empathic words or our request is likely to carry with it the tension, in our body's movements and posture and in our tone of voice. Add to this our habitual preoccupation with "doing it right", and the possibility of connection diminishes even as we are trying to forge a more satisfying level of connection that we have seen work.

Integration addresses both of these at once. As we become fluid with the language itself, it's less likely to sound clunky. We can speak poetically and creatively even while using the language of needs, provided we have mastery and ease, and provided we genuinely care about the other person's well-being even in conflict, and have capacity to let go of attachment to outcome while engaging in dialogue.

Practice and Life

Integration doesn't happen overnight or by itself just because we love the new ideas. Integration arises from practice. This is why people who learn about NVC so often gravitate toward others who have learned it, so that they can practice together. I have no doubt that using the template in a practice setting, where everyone else has the same intention, supports the integration of the principles, which are truly the heart of NVC. At the same time, as often as I can remember to do so, I ask people to let go of the language altogether when they are outside of a practice group context, and only focus on what is most likely, moment by moment, to lead to an outcome that attends to everyone's needs. If only it were so easy to do... People continue to hold on to the language because it's so concrete that they feel more secure having it as a "crutch", without realizing that they are losing their most valuable resource, which is the authenticity of their heart intention.

Honoring Others' Choice

I am always happy when I see couples or work teams coming together to a training. This is because the relationship they are in provides a natural context for mutual consent to practice together. Unless we have a designated practice setting or an explicit agreement from another person to accept our own fledgling efforts to learn a new way to connect and communicate, we are, effectively, practicing on another person instead of with them. This doesn't mean to me that we never use NVC except when we have fully integrated it or in a practice setting. We can also get someone's agreement on the fly, especially if we express our desire in terms of the benefit to both of us. If we say something like, "I am so aware of how many times we've had this same conversation with painful results. I'd like to try something different. I'm pretty new to this and so it may sound clunky or stilted. I still believe it may give us new avenues for resolving this sticky situation. Are you open to me trying it out?," there is much more of a chance that the other person will have goodwill towards what we are doing rather than annoyance.

Adapting to Context

Bringing NVC to a workplace setting is not the same as using NVC in a personal relationship or in a therapeutic relationship. Because I have used NVC in these and other contexts, I have a deep appreciation for how much clarity, resilience, and creativity are required to navigate these differences.

Most people learn NVC in a workshop context, in which they focus most often on personal relationships or on their own healing. A healing context operates on a high level of trust and tends to have an implicit agreement to engage at a level of vulnerability and depth. Extrapolating from this context to other environments which may be operating at arms length and where people are accustomed to protecting their vulnerability presents specific challenges.

For example, when someone at work expresses frustration or gossips about another person, an empathic response modeled after what happens at a workshop, in addition to sounding clunky if not fully integrated, also runs the risk of inviting the person speaking to a level of vulnerability they simply didn't sign up for. They do want to be heard and understood for what they said, we all do, or we wouldn't speak. However, being heard and understood is not the same as having our deepest needs or feelings invited to the surface. In different contexts, how we convey to another person that they are being heard will vary. For this, we need flexibility and heart focus rather than an anxious effort to remember the "right" words

The Paradox of a Language-Based Practice

Ultimately, I hope that people who learn NVC will adopt a paradoxical relationship with the specific word choices that are part of the practice. My own commitment to bringing NVC to the world is based on wanting to transform how we view and relate to ourselves, each other, and the natural world of which we are a part. I am hoping to support a morality that doesn't depend on harsh notions of what's "right" and what's "wrong," and that does support social structures and institutions focused on attending to human needs as a primary focus. I don't have any commitment to, nor do I want to see, a world where everyone speaks in the same way and uses the same words. I imagine many shifts could happen just from adopting the question: "What would support an outcome that would work for everyone in this situation?" without anyone changing how they speak.

At the same time, I passionately believe in practice as a reliable path to change, mastery, and freedom. The genius of what Marshall Rosenberg brought to the world, as I see it, is a practice that uses very specific forms of speech in a specific sequence in a way that supports a consciousness shift. Use the language, and over time you gain a deeper knowledge of yourself and more freedom of choice. Practice role-plays in a practice group, and over time you gain ease in remembering both people's needs when you are in conflict with others. I hope to be joined by others who treasure the practice and its transformative possibilities while at the same time recognizing that life is not a practice group. Outside of a practice setting, I hope we can all remember the core principles that move us, and focus only on how to align our actions and words with our deepest heart's desires and core values.