Thursday, March 7, 2013

Reflections from a Ten-year Giraffe Freak

Around this time ten years ago I first fell in love with Nonviolent Communication (“NVC”). This love-affair has gone through all kinds of different twists and turns, ups and downs, but in some form it still continues on to this day. Myself, my life, who I am, has been so thoroughly affected by my involvement with NVC, that I can scarcely imagine who I would be now if I hadn’t gotten into the whole thing.

There is no one to blame

One of the most profound changes in my life that I attribute to NVC is the perspective that there are no bad people, there is no one to blame, and that moralistic judgments of any kind are ultimately not a helpful thing to do. When I first started studying NVC I was just emerging from a prolonged bitter judgment-fest that had gone on for over a year straight, and by the time that I came to NVC I was in a place where I felt like I had been dumped onto the side of the highway, through my own actions, as a result of my having burnt so many bridges with different people. Studying NVC then was in actuality a process of rigorously applying the lens of human needs to everything and everyone. If all actions, all feelings and all words are used as attempts to meet some fundamental human needs that we all share, then what could these needs be? So applying that lens of “fundamental human needs” to situation after situation, needs guess after needs guess, was a big part of my “learning NVC”.

In many regards, I look at who I was before I got into NVC and who I was the years following it, and it all just simply *feels* different from each-other. The difference is this: blaming people. Yes, I have and still do blame and judge people after having discovered NVC. Knowing NVC does not change that stuff. What has changed is that there is an underlying understanding that judging is not really a way that I want to go about doing things, and that another way is possible. With the whole lens of “needs” available to me, I can intentionally change around my inner state from one of judgment to one that approaches something resembling more compassion. Focusing on story-lines like “So-and-so did X, Y, and Z, therefore that person must be an A, B, and C” in my experience usually does not lead to more compassion. However, story-lines like “So-and-so could have done X, because they were feeling Y, and were possibly needing Z” in my experience often does help the whole compassion thing come out.

Being Present

In a way, the whole no-judging thing is just a starting-point, because what is really helpful, what people are really calling for, interpersonally-wise, is presence. People generally want other people to be there, for them, listening, paying attention to them. People usually aren’t after just having somebody’s physical body there while the other person’s mind is spacing-out thinking about someone something somewhere else. People want other people, right there, making space for them, alert to them. What one says while paying attention usually does not matter, but the paying attention part does.

So part of the whole deal, as I see it - going through the whole self-inquiry process, looking at the fundamental needs at play, transforming judgments and the like - is all a matter of “clearing a space”, internally-speaking, to make it possible to then be able to be really present for other people. You can’t really be present to another person if you are judging them – you are in your thoughts then (judgmental thoughts) and not really with the other person at the moment.

Authenticity and Congruence

One of the things that I really attribute to NVC in my life, ironically enough, is a way to access personal authenticity. That is, being real, and showing up that way with others. As a result of NVC, I later discovered the work of Carl Rogers, which introduced another concept that relates to this whole thing, called “congruence”. Congruence is where one is consciously aware of what one is thinking/feeling/experiencing in the present moment and articulating it. This is what NVC does, or rather, can help people to do. For me, it has helped when I first do “self-empathy”, that is, checking in with myself, seeing what I am personally feeling and needing in the moment. Once I am clear what that is, then expressing it. That’s “congruence”, NVC-style.

It does not always work out this way, of course, even after ten years of NVC I still all too often clam-up, disconnect, mentally flee or chicken out. But because I know NVC, the tools are there, and if I remember that and choose to do so, I can be really authentic if I wanted to. This has been very helpful for me. I have had a number of different situations over the years that I believe have been greatly aided in by my “cutting through the bullshit” and talking directly and personally about what is going on. I have found, in a number of different occasions, that people often feel a great relief and a sense of freedom by seeing that it is possible and “permissible” to be honest, authentic and real in a social environment.

Empathic Understanding

One of the great things about NVC, something that I have been totally gung-ho about over the years, is empathy. That is, people actively listening to other people with the explicit intent of trying to understand the other person’s experience from that person’s point-of-view. No analysis, no diagnosis, no advice-giving or telling other people what’s up. Just listening to them and trying to understand what things are like *for them*.

The ways and means that this is done through NVC is again through using the lens of fundamental human needs. That is, assuming that everything that people do, say, think or feel is motivated by some fundamental human needs that are at play, and guessing at and eventually finding what the motivating needs *are* in a given situation. This can help to facilitate more depth and clarity of understanding. Also, needs are relatable, you have them, I have them, we all have them, so looking at another person’s experience through the lens of fundamental human needs can help aid in one putting oneself in another person’s shoes.

At the best of times, empathically listening and empathically understanding another person can be a very similar experience to that of the heart-felt authenticity, or congruence, that I mentioned earlier. In other words, when one is speaking as deeply, personally, and honestly as one can, it is all very much like that of inviting and sensitively exploring together with another person their inner experience. Both personal authenticity, as well as empathic listening, are forms of intimacy and vulnerability between people. A big part of doing NVC, then, is that of consciously choosing to do that. This then leads me to…

Taking Emotional Risks

We all live in a mean, cold, cruel, fucked-up world. People everywhere are disregarding others, exploiting others, and hurting each-other in all kinds of different ways. Practicing NVC, then, is a pretty counter-intuitive thing to do, given how things are. Doing the whole NVC thing then involves basically opening up, being honest, authentic, personal, as well as being caring, empathic, and trying to understand people no matter who they are, what their beliefs are, and no matter what they have said or done. When one puts oneself out there in this way the risk is that other people may not notice, care or in any way receive what one is offering.

But it is all worth it. The reason why I think this is that when it all “works”, that is when other people do notice, acknowledge and respond to one’s authenticity, empathy and caring, wonderful things can happen. In relationships, people can melt, people can open up, heart-felt interpersonal connection can happen. And it is this, this connection between people, that is basically the whole point behind “doing NVC”. When this connection is established, the foundation then exists for resolving conflicts, creating action-plans and for giving and receiving in ways that everyone feels good about. Practicing NVC involves taking risks, and one can and probably will fall on one’s face at times when doing it. But the potential for real person-to-person contact and care is all the reason I need to continue to do it.

Taking Personal Responsibility

If there is one thing that I have learned through all of my years of practicing NVC, it is that it is all about the practitioner taking personal responsibility. Very often, I have seen people view NVC as being like a series of magic words or incantations that the practitioner is supposed to give, that if only certain things are recited in conversations then the conflicts would be resolved, other people would do what you want them to do, and everybody will then suddenly love each-other.

Or, another way that I have seen other people relate to NVC (and that I have sometimes fallen prey to viewing it myself), is that if one has made the choice to study and practice NVC, and then one approaches other people and tries to “use NVC” with them, that the other person whom one is talking with has then also, unconsciously and inexplicitly, made the agreement to also be using and practicing NVC as well. So then if one goes through the whole process of being vulnerable, authentic, empathic, what-have-you, and the other person responds with judgment, argument and general closed-heartedness, then that other person is simply not holding up their end of the bargain!

The way that I have come to view NVC now is this – NVC is a personal practice, and it involves you, the practitioner, taking responsibility. Other people will say and do whatever the hell it is that they say and do, but you, the practitioner, have a series of choices in front of you as to how you would like to respond, and the options exist before you to go for more of a heart-connection, or not. If you feel that you have made a commitment to living in alignment with these values, the “NVC values” of compassion and partnership, then it is up to you to follow up with practicing these things.

Partnership Not Demands

Even though I view NVC as being a kind of personal practice that one chooses to do, the whole world-view that NVC points to is actually quite different. This world-view, rather than being based on individuals and their own choices, is instead based on community, mutuality and interdependence. This view is such that although each person is responsible for their own feelings, needs and choices made because of that, everybody’s actions still do affect everybody else, and that everyone’s needs are still in some form met in cooperation with other people. With this being the case, if one then goes around pissing people off, screwing people over, jerking people around and beating people into the ground, one is not making for a good social environment for your needs, or anyone else’s needs, being met in the future. Resentments come up, rebellion can happen, fights can break out. Or, sometime in the future when you most need help, you can quite simply be ignored and left out in the cold.

This is why, from an NVC perspective, “looking out for #1” is replaced with “caring for everyone’s needs equally”. In other words, if you look out for the well-being of those around you, as well as yourself, then other people are likely to be pleased and step up to do the same. Caring invites more caring. This all involves having open acknowledgement, consideration, and dialogue when necessary about how all of our actions effect one-another. The goal with all of this is to create a kind of social environment where these values are more the norm, and where everybody operates under an assumption that we are all in this together.

Learning and Practicing

This then brings me to the topic of “learning NVC”, which supports the actual practice of NVC, which is the means through which all of these different wonderful things that I have been talking about here can happen. This is an interesting subject here, because “Learning NVC”, as it is usually presented and talked about in the world – I hate it. What I mean is, I have a strong dislike for scripted dialogues, workshop exercises, sub-cultural jargon and one-size-fits-all formulas. I also have a strong distaste for professionalizing and commodifying things like learning, personal development and heart-felt connection. I simply loose a sense of connection with people when those things come up, and I have a desire to go elsewhere. All of the different things that I cherish and love about NVC are not things that I usually find in formal NVC learning environments.

With this all being the case, even though I love NVC and have found it to be enormously beneficial in my life, I am reluctant to want to recommend to other people that they pursue official NVC training or literature. Often-times, the only NVC stuff that I feel comfortable offering to people who are new and interested in learning more are things that come either from myself or a small number of trusted “NVC” friends that I have. I quite simply do not trust the standard, “normal” way that NVC is offered out there. I fully expect social distancing, disconnection and inauthenticity to come about through the usual means that NVC is presented to new-comers. I feel quite sad and disappointed to say these things, because I would like to say that I feel like real buddies and comrades with all of the different NVC trainers/facilitators out there, but that is simply not the case

And, at the same time, I do believe that it is possible for me to eventually get to that place. Through using the different NVC principles and practices, the same stuff that I have been talking about earlier in this piece, I totally believe that real heart-felt connection and understanding can happen between me and all of the different “normal” NVC trainers out there. The one additional requirement for that to happen, though, is something that I have not mentioned here so far. It is that of explicitly setting aside particular time and space to have such dialogues take place. This may seem like stating the obvious, but it is actually quite a big thing. In a world of “busyness”, overwhelm and great stress are the norm, setting aside time and space in one’s life to have intentional dialogues with people can be a big thing to take on. But it is a necessity, I believe, for all important dialogues and for all of the relationships that one values. Perhaps this task is a part of the repertoire of things for the next ten years of NVC to focus on.


Mair Alight said...

I enjoyed this post and read to the end of it with an orchestra of emotions and thoughts and wonderings. I was paying attention to what was happening within the beginning curiosity & inspiration, then alignment and congruence within myself with what was being said and the way it was being said, and then towards the end, a growing sense of sadness and disappointment. I just felt moved to respond, having an idea in my head that you might be including me as a "normal" teacher of NVC, and feeling...hmmm....indignant and wanting to be seen as the unique being that I am, and wanting that uniqueness to be acknowledged for me and for each of those who are sharing in ways as authentic for themselves as they find a way to come to. Wondering if you read this, Ian, what comes up for you?

Anonymous said...

I'd like to respond to Mair Alight's comment about wanting to be seen as the unique being s/he identifies as being and wanting that uniqueness to be acknowledged for them and each of those who are sharing [nvc] in ways as authentic for themselves.

I hear the a need for acknowledgment, perhaps to be seen (and be seen as one sees oneself)? For one's identity to be known, possibly for respect? And/or to have one's experience of reality cared about, even shared by others?

When I read Mair's want, I felt awkward and sad. I care about their needs and have the desire to give to them, but I also need to be true to my own authenticity.
What if I don't experience her/his work (or that of others') as unique to me?
How could I honestly acknowledge a quality I don't see, without compromising myself? I certainly wouldn't want to.

I feel uncomfortable and torn between wanting to connect with this person, but finding the form of connection asked for to be incongruent with my own integrity.
What a bind, and on a so-called nonviolent communication blog!
I feel disappointed and in need of more commonality, which I hope to get by talking with Ian again soon.

Unknown said...

Great post. As someone who has only encountered NVC in its scripted, commodified form, it has left a very bad taste in my mouth, but the values you lay out are exactly the values that I try to bring to relationship. I am glad to know that NVC has a deeper side that is driving toward these values. I dont know what you do for a living, but you should really consider writing a book on the subject (and then of course leading groups, etc., etc.). If these attitudes can really be taught, it would be extremely valuable for people, and I think there is a clear hunger for this stuff.

Let me also just say hi. I have recently discovered your blog, and it seems we have a lot in common, so you might be hearing more from me in the future. I look forward to interesting conversations.

Unknown said...

And if I might also respond to Mair Alright's comment: When I read what you wrote I get a feeling that I am being subjected to a kind of subtle psychological manipulation. It is difficult to put a finger on what exactly that manipulation consist in, and one part of me isnt concerned about figuring it out. That part of me is just an alarm crying: "Manipulator!!!" and driving me in the direction of a psychological / verbal fight-or-flight.

On the other hand I recognize that there is a kind of sincerity underlying the post - a desire to engage with what may or may not be the weaknesses of her conversational approach. Moreover I find it very interesting and rewarding to try to pin down what those subtle feelings are really about, so I stopped to think about it. Here is what I came up with:

The problem is in two parts. First, the post starts with an excessive amount of emotional sharing and verbalization. Im all for sincerity and openness. I dont think you can get too much of those qualities. But I dont think that those qualities are the same as verbalizing our emotions. When I am with my friends - trying to be with them as fully as possible - I dont just talk about my feelings the whole time. Rather, we talk about the trees, the ocean, genetics, the nature of consciousness, art history, and so on. Sometimes our emotions become relevant, and when they do we engage with that. But I am not just a bag of emotions, instead I am one take on the whole adventure of reality. Anyway, my point is that openness involves recognizing that we are here together in a very immediate way, and then just sharing what the moment brings.
So when I see excessive emotional sharing, I see either (a) someone who has so many issues that they have to go around gushing about it to everyone they meet or (b) someone presenting themselves as helpless and pitiful in order to elicit sympathy for some ulterior motive.

This brings us to the second problem. Lo and behold: i want this and i want that. This is off-putting; in fact, I specifically tell my kid not to make requests by saying "I want X," but rather to make it a proper request "Can you spare a brother a dime?" If you make a request in the "I want" form, it sounds to me like you are implying that I am somehow beholdened to you and your wants - and you know what: I am not and I am not going to accept those terms. A further problem here is that I cant quite even make out what it is you really want. Apparently you want to be recognized as a unique being. Over the internet?!? Ok, sure, you're unique. Got any other problems?

A third possible problem is that I recognize the post as taking the form of scripted conversation, which also may be making me wary. "What is this person hiding???"

I hope this doesnt come off as being to harsh. It is not meant that way at all. Rather it is offered entirely in the spirit of examining how different modes of communication affect people - part of a collaborative project of figuring out how to communicate.