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.
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.
Blaming, Complaining, Indicting, Judging — It’s all about the other person.
Observations — Make objective statements about your situation.
Feelings — List all the feelings that comprise your reaction to this situation.
Needs — List what you need now, in order to resolve this situation.
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.
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.).
Changing our story from reactivity to objectivity creates space in our awareness between our self, the witness of our experience, and our reactivity, our thoughts and feelings about a situation. Most of us get caught up in and overshadowed by our experience when triggered by specific situations. Personally, I like the vision of opening a space between oneself and one’s experience, which happens to be one of the first goals of mindfulness practice and a natural consequence of practice of the Transcendental Meditation® program. It conveys the idea that we are not our experience. We are the experiencer (witness) of our experience. Making this distinction opens a door to the possibility of changing how we react to situations.
Changing our story, making it an objective statement, also creates clarity. Clarity is another valuable result of using NVC. When you remove the words that express your reactivity to a situation, you gain clarity. When you become clear about a situation, finding your needs becomes much easier. Clarity also helps open you to finding what others need, and hence to solutions that meet everyone’s needs.
Once we have succeeded in making objective statements about our experience, we might list the feelings that comprise our experience. Most of us label our feelings as “good” and “bad” feelings, but “good” and “bad” are judgment words. If we avoid using them and instead use labels like “pleasurable” and “unpleasant,” we leave ourselves with just a list of feelings that we associate with specific situations. When we express our feelings objectively, for example, when we say “When my spouse asks me to stay home with him/her when I’ve planned an evening with my buds, I feel frustrated and resentful,” or, in the second example, “When my boss says my productivity is below his expectations, I feel frightened that I’ll be replaced by someone more competent,” it’s time to move to the “Feelings” card on the dance floor.
Even at this “feeling” stage of the NVC Dance, you can begin to reprogram your thinking, your reactivity to experience. In the first example, how does it feel to you to say, “When my spouse asks me to say home with him/her when I’ve planned an evening with my buds, I realize that my spouse has needs that he/she is trying to satisfy”? In the second example, try saying, “When my boss says my productivity is below his expectations, I understand that he has goals and expectations that I cannot meet. Therefore, we need to talk about how realistic those goals and expectations are.” Try right now to reframe a situation you currently experience. Just describe your experience briefly, reflect on it and try reframing your description in objective terms. Does this new way of describing your situation change your feeling about yourself? Does it open doors to further, productive conversation?
Identifying our feelings is not the end of the dance. Underlying our feelings and motivating them are human needs. Our society generally does not teach us to recognize these needs. They often, and for some, usually remain hidden. Our needs produce feelings in a manner analogous to the way the ocean floor produces waves on the surface of the ocean. Just as the floor of the ocean creates waves that crash onto the beach, needs motive the feelings that crash onto our conscious experience.
The list of universal human needs is very long. To make the list manageable, we group these needs into categories. Physical sustenance and security comprise the most basic of our needs. Physical sustenance includes air, food, water, shelter, rest and activity. Security includes physical and emotional safety, stable social structure, and peace of mind.
Next on our list of needs comes connection. We need to feel connected with others. This requires trust, attention, affection, intimacy and nurturing support. We need to feel that we have a place in society, that we are known, understood, accepted, appreciated, respected, and trusted.
Connection, the feeling that one is part of and in communication with a family and a community, leads to meaning, the sense that our life has purpose, that we belong and that we matter. We need to be included, to participate and to share in the experience of our family and our community. Furthermore, we need to matter, to have a meaningful role, a purpose, and to make a contribution. In order to accomplish this, to play our part, we need a clear sense of who we are, both in the deepest transcendental sense and in the sense of being a person with specific characteristics and capabilities. We also need to understand what our talents are, how our creativity operates, and what we are capable of learning and doing. We need to recognize our faith, our hope, and our inspiration, and we need to know that we are alive, present and beautiful.
To manifest all these qualities and to meet all these needs, we need freedom. We need freedom to choose. We need individual autonomy and the power, the space and the opportunity to be responsible for our lives, to use our talents and skills, and to support the lives of our family members and of those around us. Finally, we need freedom to enjoy our lives, to play, to give and receive pleasure, and to have fun.
As our story unfolds on the NVC dance floor, we find that we uncover the needs that motivate our feelings. When this happens, we move to the Needs card on the floor and stay there until we realize that we have shifted, either back in complaining, making objective statements, expressing feelings or to the last step, developing strategies. When we find that our statements have shifted, we move to the appropriate card. When we have clarity about our situation, our feeling and our needs, we can move on to developing strategies to meet those needs.
Because our needs often remain hidden under our feelings, which may also go unrecognized, our strategies to meet those needs may fail to fulfill our needs and even may produce painful consequences. Psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, who formalized Nonviolent Communication, described those ineffective attempts to meet needs as “tragic expression of unmet needs.” Again and again, people do things in an effort to meet their needs that produce pain in others and themselves while not really satisfying their unmet and generally unrecognized needs. For example, we may act aggressively because our need for safety or appreciation has not been met. We may bully others because our own need for power and autonomy remains unfulfilled. We may speak sarcastically because our ability to experience joy, humor and to have fun is blocked by our karmic shadows.
This brings us to the core of NVC. After physical sustenance and security, our most basic need is for connection — connection with ourselves and with others. To have connection, we must have empathy, the sense of knowing, accepting and appreciating oneself and others. The key to having empathy is developing the ability to sense the needs motivating ourselves and others. This requires that we see the pain of unmet needs that finds expression in behaviors that are either self-destructive or that hurt others. I’ll not discuss here the reasons needs go unfulfilled and unsatisfied. It often isn’t necessary to uncover those reasons. Just recognizing one’s needs and finding effective strategies to meet those needs generally is sufficient to change one’s life. Recognition of needs lays a basis for empathy and creates clarity. Empathy creates connection and clarity opens the door to discovery of effective strategies to meet those needs. The immense value of NVC lies in its ability to increase our capacity to make ourselves happy and satisfied by fulfilling our need to connect with ourselves and with others.
Strategies or Requests to make right now
The dance is not yet complete. We’ve come a long way when we’ve developed the ability to recognize needs, and to establish empathy and connection. However, we still have to develop effective strategies and know when to use them. Most people, in their reaction to a situation, jump from Step #1 (Blaming, Complaining, Indicting and Judging) to Step #5 (Strategies or Requests to make right now). That is, we make an immediate response, one that rarely gets us what we want and need. However, when we walk through the dance and complete the first four steps, we get ready to take action. We get prepared to say or do something that will be heard and respected.
People who feel empathic connection, who feel that their feelings and needs are being heard and respected, open themselves to hearing what others need. They work towards mutual understanding and mutual fulfillment of needs and desires. They find solutions that meet everyone’s needs, so everyone comes away feeling satisfied.
Often, our strategy to meet our needs will be presented in the form of a request. Making requests that others will accept is something of an art. NVC guides us to use words that feel safe, kind and respectful. Let’s go back to our two examples. In the first example, we established that both parties have needs — you want to have time with your buds and your spouse wants time with you. Your first request might be, “Is there some way that we can work it out so that both of us get our needs met?” That’s a request for dialogue towards resolution. It opens the door to finding a mutually satisfactory solution. That solution might be an agreement that you spend time with your spouse either before or after you spend time with your buds. Your second request might be more specific, and also come in the form of a question, “Would you be content if I spend time with my buds tonight, and you and I spend time together tomorrow evening?” This is a request for acceptance.
It is extremely important that a request not be a demand. That is, you have to be willing to accept “no” in response to your request. Many times, people ask something of others with the expectation that the other person will respond positively. That’s a demand. If your spouse asks you to take out the trash, is it really okay to say, “I’m busy. I’ll do it tomorrow.”? Your rejection of the request will land you in the doghouse. The reason your spouse will get angry is that it really wasn’t a request. It was a demand; your spouse expected immediate compliance and got angry when you didn’t comply.
Your NVC request must express sincerely your desire to have a need met without you begging or pleading. Begging or pleading plays on another’s need to be compassionate and makes it seem like you are trying to manipulate them into doing something they really aren’t inclined to do. It is, therefore, the same as making a demand. It means you are trying to get something without simultaneously meeting another’s needs, and it’s just as unlikely to get your needs met as a demand is.
Another important point about making requests is that they be doable in a timely way. When we request something using NVC, it must be something the other person can do now, or very soon. In our first example, your spouse has a need for attention and has asked that that need be met very soon, which does not mean three days from now. It’s something you can do, soon. If you use NVC, your response to your spouse’s request reflects that. In our example, you propose planning times to be with your buds and with your spouse within a time frame that satisfies both your needs. If your spouse feels heard and respected, then she just might be willing to wait until tomorrow to spend time with you.
Continuing with our example, if, when you offer a mutually satisfying solution, you get a hostile response, start with an observation such as, “You don’t seem pleased with my suggestion,” which you offer as a way of continuing the conversation. Continuing right away with a direct question about what a person needs may be taken as aggressive. Your spouse likely needs respect and consideration, in other words, to feel that you have heard, respect and consider your spouse’s needs. You could suggest that finding a mutually satisfying solution will leave both of you feeling heard and respected, and continue the dialogue, offering feedback whenever it seems appropriate to confirm your understanding of what your spouse is trying to convey. This is called “reflective listening.” Reflective listening means expressing to those with whom you dialogue your understanding of what they are saying. Reflective listening helps the person with whom you dialogue to feel heard. Only when your spouse feels heard and seems receptive, should you ask your spouse what needs aren’t being met. Don’t mention your own needs until your spouse feels that you have understood their needs. In our example, your spouse will probably make a suggestion for scheduling time together as soon as your spouse feels heard, accepted and respected.
We’ve been talking about making requests of other people, but we can also make requests of ourselves. Instead of making negative commands to yourself such as “Don’t eat so much” and “Stop wasting time!” we can say to ourselves, “Please take only as much food as you actually need” and “Please use the time available effectively.” Treating ourselves kindly in this way produces the same results as treating someone else kindly. Not only do we become our own friend, we come to see ourselves as someone of value, someone worth knowing. This attitude finds expression in our speech and behavior towards others, who then reflect it back to us, making our relationships even richer.
Self-empathy and requests-to-oneself work together to transform our inner dialogue from one of hostility and violence to one of friendship, peace and support. As we master speaking to ourselves nonviolently, we cease being our own critic, our own worst enemy. As our inner critic fades away, our spontaneity and creativity shine forth. Life just gets more and more enjoyable.
One final point about NVC requests: NVC requests must be for someone to do something, not to not-do something. “Please stop yelling” sounds like a request, but it actually is a demand and it asks for the absence (cessation) of something rather than the doing of something. In NVC, we might say, “If you need to yell, please respect my need for peace and quiet, and go outside to do that.” Of course, you have to be prepared for the person to whom you make the request to either not do it or to propose an alternative solution that better meets their needs too. A request is still part of a dialogue. You may still have to negotiate a strategy that meets everyone’s needs.
Realistically, sometimes not all needs will be met. However, that doesn’t mean that you have failed. Even if you agree to disagree, you still have your connection, your delicious relationship. Connection generally proves to be more valuable than, say, peace and quiet. You may find that you can live with your connection and accept that some less essential need does not get satisfied.
NVC and Social Attitudes
By now, I trust that you realize that the NVC approach differs significantly from the common (almost universal?) “give-and-take” view of life. Some would use the even more extreme and violent phrase “dog-eat-dog world” to describe their attitude toward life. Give-and-take and dog-eat-dog imply that someone gets more and someone gets less, which generally leaves someone dissatisfied and unhappy. NVC seeks to create balance in relationships by creating connection and seeking strategies that meet everyone’s needs.
Of course, not everyone believes in social equality; not everyone is committed to the ideal of an egalitarian society. Racism and xenophobia (fear of those we see as different from ourselves) abound and seem to be resurgent at this time. NVC provides a compelling explanation for this resurgence. Expressing racist and xenophobic attitudes has been “politically incorrect” for some decades. This means that many people have suppressed the public expression of their feelings about “others.” These people have not been engaged in an ongoing dialogue about inclusion and equality. They feel alienated, marginalized. Feelings have built up about that, strong feelings that now find expression in our political discourse.
From the NVC perspective, ongoing nonviolent dialogue on social issues provides a path to creating an inclusive society. NVC takes us from the surface level of consideration of social issues, such as racism, to the needs that underlie and motivate our social (and racist) attitudes. The dialogue may proceed slowly due to the enormous fear, the intense self-righteousness and the strident religious morality that motivates racism and xenophobia. These factors cause racists to cry aloud about cultural suicide and to refuse to consider the merits of an inclusive society. Their fear, egotism and moral percepts make racists unreceptive to strategies that build connection.
These people need to be heard before any conversation about accepting differences can begin. Toward that end, I advocate listening — be prepared to spend a lot of time listening — and occasionally asking something like, “What is it about that that bothers you?” I love this question. It’s from the Option Method but serves us well in nonviolent dialogue. This question takes the conversation deeper. Asking repeatedly and listening reflectively moves the discussion to progressively deeper levels until core needs are revealed. Reflective listening gives others the opportunity to clarify their thinking, which in itself often brings people to see the fallacies in their logic that arguing points of logic will not. For example, pointing out the inconsistency of accusing people of color of destroying your culture while simultaneously being friends with a Black or Hispanic coworker isn’t likely to move the conversation forward. However, if you can take the discussion to the person’s needs, they just may recognize on their own that their blanket statements about persons of color just don’t make any sense.
Though NVC dialogue may take a long time, the outcome — empathic connection – is well worth the investment. It also takes time and lots of practice to learn to speak without violence. Practicing NVC challenges us to recognize and break old habits of thinking and speaking with violence. I suggest using the NVC Dance as a way to recognize violence in your speech and to practice nonviolent speech. The violence will show up in the “blaming, complaining, indicting, judging step (Step #2 in the list below). You’ll find it by listening to your own story as you tell it. The nonviolent speech will show up in the Observations step and in the Strategies step.
Another valuable exercise for learning to speak nonviolence is to look at things you’ve written — letters, email messages, etc. — and strike out all words that blame, complain, indict (accuse) or criticize (judge). The goal of this exercise is to reduce your message to a statement of facts without any judgment or even emotional reaction. This may be a very illuminating experience because you may find that you delete most of the modifiers that you commonly use, leaving you with a much shorter, clearer and objective message.
Doing the NVC Dance
Before you step onto the “dance floor,” stand at the side of the floor and make a short statement of your intention for the exercise. This sankalpa or resolve is the Attention Step, which doesn’t have a number because we do it before we start an NVC dance.
Having stated your intention, step onto the dance floor. Begin telling the story of your situation. Listen as you speak and assess what kind of statement you are making. Stand on or beside the card that names the kind of speech you are using.
If you are blaming, complaining, indicting or judging, stand by that card. Then try to make objective statements about your situation. As you do this, move to the Observations card.
If you find that you are naming or describing your feelings, move to that card. If you start clarifying your feelings and your story, move to the Observations card.
At some point, usually when you have clarified the story of your situation and described your feelings objectively, you begin to recognize and express your needs. When that happens, move to the Needs card.
When you have the complete picture of your situation, when you recognize your feelings and have identified your needs, you are ready to develop a strategy to meet your needs. Move to the last card and either make a request of yourself right then, or plan what you will do to meet your needs and the needs of others who are part of your situation.
You will find that you move around the dance floor as you go through the exercise. It’s unlikely to be linear from Step #1 to Step #5. Most people start at Step #1, jump to #3 (Feelings) or #5 (Strategies and Requests), then jump around for a while before getting to Step #2 (Observations). The dance may be quite erratic before one finds an objective description and well-defined feelings and needs. Only when you have gained clarity about your situation, your feelings and your needs are you ready to move to #5 (Strategies and Requests), so don’t rush to get there. Explore your situation thoroughly and you’ll arrive at strategies that truly can meet your needs, and the needs of those involved in your situation.
You can print these words on sheets of paper and use them to help you learn where you are in the NVC Dance as you describe your experience of a challenging situation. Simply stand on or next to the card that labels the nature of what you are saying as you tell your story.
Practice, practice, practice! Changing the way we think takes time. Be patient with yourself as you learn to recognize the violence in your thinking and speaking. Accept the fact that at times you slip back into using words and phrases that express violence (blaming, complaining, indicting and judging). When this happens, pause and give yourself empathy, then, empathize with others. Consider how you could seek to meet your needs nonviolently. Listen for the needs that others express, particularly the needs hidden in expressions of pain and fear that emerge as anger, hostility, bullying and other forms of aggression. You’ll find that as you get consistent at hearing the pain and fear of others, you will become less reactive and clearer about your needs in every situation. You’ll be able to connect with people as never before and you’ll find solutions with others that meet everyone’s needs. There is enormous gratification and fulfillment in this.
If we step back to see a larger picture, we can easily imagine the value of Nonviolent Communication becoming a cultural norm. This isn’t far-fetched. NVC is the norm in many indigenous cultures around the world, including some Native American cultures even to this day. NVC supports democracy by encouraging and enabling people to accept and meet the needs of everyone, which is remarkably egalitarian. The Founding Fathers of the United States of America inscribed democracy and NVC principles in the U.S. Constitution, principles that Benjamin Franklin got from some Iroquois Indians. Some people see these nonviolent, fundamental principles of our democracy threatened by capitalist greed and competitiveness. They seek to enliven these democratic values in our society. Some even see these as fundamental Christian values and point to the Golden Rule as a basic tenant of Christianity, and of our democracy. Therefore, we have reason to hope that we can create a more peaceful, egalitarian society by enlivening these fundamental values of our society and by learning to speak nonviolently.
Best wishes in your quest for a nonviolent life. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions or need help with your dance.