Nonviolent Communication — dancing our way to empathic connection


We live in a time of divisiveness. We find ourselves at odds with loved ones, family members, friends, business associates, clerks and shopkeepers, and other people we encounter in person and online. We witness divisiveness on the TV news and read about it in publications, both in print and online. Divisiveness permeates our culture, but more importantly, it permeates our language. We blame, complain, indict and criticize others or watch other people do these things. Sometimes, others target us with their pain or anger. The assaults may be verbal, physical, economic or social. As a result, most of us suffer from intellectual and emotional overload. We’re stressed out and we’re exhausted.

The reason the upheaval in our culture stresses and exhausts us is that we lack effective tools for dealing with our personal reactivity to it. Indeed, one reason that we, as a society, cannot find solutions to the conflicts in the world is that we cannot deal with what’s going on inside each of us. We function in a constant state of arousal. Our fight-or-flight mechanism turns on whenever we engage with someone who disagrees with us, or even when we hear about some conflict that does not directly involve us.

We need tools that allow us to navigate these turbulent times. Tools exist, but most of us don’t know about them or have not learned to use them. Let’s change that, now.

One of the effective tools we can use to help us learn to deal with our stuff, with our reactions to things that trigger us, is Nonviolent Communication (NVC). NVC teaches us to give ourselves empathy, to empathize with others, to speak kindly and candidly, and to connect effectively with others.

NVC Dance

I’ve written previously about NVC. Now, I want to describe a process known as NVC Dance. NVC Dance helps us grasp the principles of Nonviolent Communication quickly and thoroughly by making the process tangible, while simultaneously guiding us through the steps of recognizing where we get hung up, empathizing with ourselves and others, identifying our needs and the needs of others, and finally, developing effective strategies to meet everyone’s needs.

Bridget Belgrave and Gina Lawrie created NVC Dance as a way to speed people’s understanding of Nonviolent Communication and to facilitate the process of transforming fight-or-flight reactivity into effective strategies for dealing with things that trigger us. They have created nine dance “floors,” patterns for managing specific types of reaction. I’ll describe the most basic “floor” here. It provides what almost anyone needs to “dance” their way out of their stress and change the dynamics of challenging situations.

We create a dance floor by printing the names of the five steps on sheets of paper (I’ve laminated mine with easily-applied, self-adhesive lamination pouches so I can use them again and again) and lay these “cards” on the floor. I used to lay the cards in a straight line, but I’ve become freer and now place them randomly because I’ve found that random placement helps me flow through the process more easily than a linear pattern does. When the pattern is linear, there’s a tendency to try to conform to the pattern and feel that one makes progress, then regresses, which interferes with spontaneity and creates disappointment. This point will become clear when you actually do an NVC dance.

The Five Basic NVC Dance Steps:

Sankalpa: A short statement of your intention or resolve for the exercise.

  1. Blaming, Complaining, Indicting, Judging — It’s all about the other person.

  2. Observations — Make objective statements about your situation.

  3. Feelings — List all the feelings that comprise your reaction to this situation.

  4. Needs — List what you need now, in order to resolve this situation.

  5. Strategies and Requests to make right now —Start the process of transformation by doing this now.

When doing an NVC dance, having a partner can be helpful. All the partner need do is ask, “Where are you now?” or “What dance step are you doing now?” whenever the partner feels that you’ve changed from one step to another but you haven’t recognized that yet.

Sankalpa — Resolve or Intention

We start at the side of the dance floor, from where we can observe the all steps, and offer a sankalpa, a “resolve” or intention for our exercise. Express your sankalpa (resolve) positively. Say what you want, not what you don’t want. We might say something like, “I want to move into a happier space (relationship) with my sister,” or “I want to feel the passion I used to feel.” If we experience a problem where we work, we might say, “I want a harmonious relationship with my boss (or co-worker).” Take a moment to feel the deep sentiment of your positive desire.

Blaming, Complaining, Indicting, Judging

When we feel ready to begin, we step onto the dance floor and state what challenges us at this time. We might say something like: “My spouse is being a jerk” or “My boss thinks I’m lazy.” Generally, people start by telling the story of their suffering. This puts them at the “Blaming, Complaining, Indicting, Judging” step of the NVC dance. When we see ourselves doing this, or our partner points that out, we step to that card.

Notice that blaming, complaining, indicting (accusing) and judging (condemning) express violence towards another person, or against a part of oneself. “That was awful” expresses both our complaint and our judgment, whether we say it to someone else, or to ourselves. If we continue with “You haven’t practiced enough,” we blame and make an indictment (accusation) about the target of our violent message. Most of us blame and complain throughout our day. The weather is “bad,” our morning coffee “isn’t hot enough,” on our way to work the traffic is “terrible,” while at work my boss is “nuts,” “there’s not enough time” for lunch, the afternoon “drags on,” the ride home is “too long”, the evening news is “awful” and at bedtime, I’m “dead” tired. We also indict (accuse) or criticize (judge): “I’m an idiot,” “my coworkers suck,” “my boss is a jerk,” “people don’t know how to drive” and “all politicians are crooks.” There’s a constant violent chatter inside our heads. This emerges as we tell our story of suffering, so we place ourselves by the “Blaming, Complaining, Indicting, Judging” card and stay there until we change our story into an objective description of our situation.

Observations

In order to step to the “Observations” card, we have to change our way of describing our experience. We must stop telling the story of our suffering and produce a more objective statement about what is happening to us. We might say: “My spouse wants me to stay home with him/her but I want to have an evening with my guy/gal friends” or “My boss told me that my productivity was below his expectations.” These statements provide more objective descriptions — unbiased observations — of what actually transpired. In the first example, we reflect that the spouse expressed a desire that we stay home. In the second example, we reflect that the boss criticized our productivity because it did not meet his expectations. When we speak nonviolently, we try to tell our story as objectively as possible, without using words that convey blaming, complaining, indicting (accusations) or judging (using words that convey guilt or lessor merit such as “you screwed up,” “moron,” “ugly,” “bad,” etc.).