Non-Violent Communication: The Superpower We All Have

BY: ANNIE MARCUM

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I’d like to start by sharing the experience that first led me to want to study non-violent communication. I’d planned a beach trip to St. George Island (a beautiful beach town in Florida) for last summer and invited a close group of girlfriends who’d accompanied me the year before for my bachelorette trip. When I first suggested the return visit, this group was enthusiastically on board and excited about returning, so I went ahead and paid the deposit on the house. As the time came closer, I began to realize that many of the group who’d been enthusiastic about going would no longer be able to attend. I felt very disconnected and surprised in that moment - I had to confront these feelings while also recognizing that it was not their fault that they could no longer come, it had more to do with my own expectations. When the feelings really came to a head, I went out to my yoga hut (a backyard oasis my husband and good friend built) to meditate and sit with these feelings. I began to recognize that the problem came down to one of miscommunication. I had not been clear about my expectations and needs, and I had not asked for the same from them. It had all been very casual which was why I was hurt, because I didn’t realize until it was too late that I felt vulnerable both financially and emotionally when many of them backed out close to the time.

Perhaps if I had the tools to express my needs and expectations in a timely manner, and asked the same of them, it wouldn’t have gotten to that point. I’d have been able to address the situation with them in an honest and open way, allowing all of our needs to be met.

As I sat with these feelings and wondered what tools I could sharpen to help me communicate better, I looked over to my bookshelf. Like it was glowing in red neon lights, I saw the book What We Say Matters by Judith Hanson Lasater. I’d wanted to read this book for some time and remembered my teacher Libby discussing her work with me on teacher training, about feelings and needs and how to communicate those most effectively. Wow, talk about a lightbulb moment! I felt slapped across the face with this work in the most exciting way. I devoured the book in the next few days, making lots of notes and contemplating how these tools would not only have helped in this particular situation but in my life and relationships generally.

As I neared the end of the book, I knew I wanted to study this subject with Judith herself. Those of you who are interested in the history of yoga, anatomy or restorative practices have probably heard of Judith Hanson Lasater. She was one of the foremost yoga teachers in the U.S. and helped found the Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance. She has been studying non-violent communication since the 90’s and used it to influence her yoga teaching ever since. She basically wrote the book on restorative yoga, too - I highly recommend you purchase it. :-)

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To my great joy, I researched to find Judith teaching a workshop on this very subject, What We Say Matters, in January of 2019 in San Francisco. Without hesitation I registered for the workshop - it was in two parts, and I was nervous about missing so much time away from teaching and home life so I only signed up for the first weekend. But the excitement I felt was palpable - Jon (husband) can tell you how I was practically bouncing off the walls in anticipation of studying this very subject with this very teacher. Let me say, I’ve wanted to study with Judith since my first teacher training in 2012 and I’ve never seen her lead a workshop on NVC until this one. It really felt “meant to be” and I get chills still thinking about it. Of course after the first weekend I had to sign up for the second, it became clear to me that this was part of my life’s work and whatever I could to do keep steeping in it, I would do that. (Thanks Ruby and Shakti for the support while I was away!)

When the workshop began, I don’t think I was quite prepared for how profoundly it would shift the way I communicate with myself, others and the world around me. Judith is an incredible teacher and if you are interested, I highly recommend you find a way to study with her, even if it is just online. At the very least, get her books. She is deeply committed to these teachings, she has a grace and wisdom that allows the exploration of these often uncomfortable subjects to feel safe and supportive. So through the lens of her great teaching, let me get right into it…

In NVC, the first and foremost lesson is in empathy. As Judith would say, “Empathy Before Education.” That means, when we are arguing with someone, instead of heading straight for the education (i.e., “you’re wrong because of this fact,”) we start with empathy.

This is one of the most challenging aspects of NVC because I think we all believe that if we can just explain our point of view well enough, they’ll have to see it our way because we are clearly right. How far has this gotten you in the past?

From the perspective of NVC, we recognize that true connection cannot be made without empathy. We cannot find any middle ground without empathy. We will not be able to effectively communicate without empathy. So, how do we practice empathy? In NVC, you always start with yourself. For example, if you are feeling triggered by a situation or conversation, you start by giving yourself empathy silently within. If you need to take time away from the situation to find this connection, you do so - you can simply ask the other person for a few minutes to re-group and give yourself the chance to settle internally before returning.

When we are triggered, we are more likely to react emotionally or try to educate instead of finding a connection of empathy.

Giving yourself empathy can happen in many ways, the important thing is finding a way that works consistently for you. One of my favorite methods is a simple phrase that Judith repeated many times. You recognize how you are feeling, then say to yourself,

how human of me.”

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Think of how powerful this sentiment is - recognizing your own humanity and giving yourself permission to simply feel what you feel. We are conditioned to either ignore our feelings or work so hard to fix and change them that we can’t even recognize them in the moment. So by practicing repeating this phrase to yourself, “how human of me,” you are learning to be a little lighter with yourself so that you are able to recognize when a feeling arises without habitually ignoring or fixing it. And then, you recognize your humanity for simply having that feeling.

How do we actually identify what it is that we’re feeling? My method is to talk to yourself like you would talk to a dear friend, for example, “of course you’re feeling hurt and disappointed, you wanted so badly for things to work out,” or, “of course you’re feeling annoyed and frustrated, you’ve worked so hard all day,” and so on. This doesn’t mean you’re giving yourself permission to *act* on those feelings, but simply acknowledging the reality that they are there, and not beating yourself up about it (in fact, the opposite - giving yourself empathy for it). To find the name for the feeling can take practice and patience. I’ve attached the Feelings and Needs inventories to the end of this post that came directly from the NVC website. These are helpful guides as we start to learn to identify and actually name the feelings we are having, which allows us to connect more deeply to our own felt sense experience and gives us tools to recognize when a feeling arises before it completely takes over.

What I’ve learned in this practice of giving myself empathy is there is a physical, felt-sense shift that takes place when it really “works.” So when I’ve felt triggered and I’ve taken the time to give myself empathy, silently addressing the feelings that are arising and saying, “how human of me,” giving myself permission to just feel it, after a few moments steeping in that I feel myself physically soften and settle and suddenly I’m not so triggered. After this practice, I’m able to return to the situation with a clear and open heart. We’ll talk later about giving the other person in the situation empathy, but it’s most important to learn and practice giving yourself empathy first. It is only when your own cup is full that you can even start to imagine filling someone else’s cup, especially if they’re someone who is consistently triggering you. There is no “quick fix” in NVC, this work takes time and practice and lots and lots of self-reflection, so keep giving yourself empathy as you struggle to give yourself empathy. :-)

Once we feel full of empathy, we are able to address the situation at hand. In NVC, the way we communicate is this: make an observation, identify feelings, state needs met or not met, and make a request.

Let’s break it down using the example I gave above of my beach trip…

  1. Make an observation

    This is important - an observation is NOT a judgment. An observation is something that can be observed and not argued with. There is a difference between “you slammed the door” and “you closed the door more loudly than I’d like”. The first is a judgement, the second is an observation. So, in this case, the observation might be: “I noticed you said you’d come on this trip and then told me you weren’t with little time left before the departure date.” This is an observation that points to the event that occurred and does not place shame or blame on anyone.

  2. Identify feelings

    identify your own feelings without shame or blame, using “I feel” instead of “you made me feel”. So in this case it might be, “I feel sad and hurt,” using the feelings inventory from the end of this post. A feeling cannot be reliant on another person, for example “disrespected” requires another person to disrespect you. So be careful about the feeling words you choose and find ones that identify your feelings as yours, not reliant on anyone else and not blaming anyone else.

  3. State needs

    From the needs inventory, we can identify what needs were or were not met by the triggering situation. Again, these needs cannot be reliant on another person and cannot shame or blame them. The need is to help clarify why the feelings arose for you. So in this case, “my need for timely communication was not being met”.

  4. Make a request

    Just like in making an observation, a request must be something observable, something you can take a picture of. So you cannot say, “be more thoughtful next time”, because that is not an observable request and will get you nowhere. Another aspect of the request is that it is a request, not a demand. A demand means there are consequences if it does not happen, and we as humans tend to resist demands because they diminish our autonomy. A request is open and allows the other person to feel seen and heard in their own right. So in this case, the request might be, “would you be willing to give me at least 2 months advance notice if you cannot come.”

Now we put the sentence together. It would go something like this…

“I noticed you said you’d come on this trip and then told me you weren’t with little time left before the departure date, and I felt sad and hurt because my need for timely communication was not met. Would you be willing to give me at least 2 months advance notice if you cannot come?”

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Let that sink in and see how it lands for you. This can feel awkward and uncomfortable at first, it’s not the most intuitive language because we’re not taught to communicate this way. But these four steps are a helpful guide, like training wheels as we learn NVC and eventually can fluidly work it into conversation after some time. Start with the training wheels though and remember to always give yourself empathy first.

Let’s discuss what it means to give others empathy. Again I want to stress that this part of the practice is only done if you feel so full of empathy for yourself that you become naturally curious about how the other person might be feeling. When we’re still in emotional response and triggered by the situation, we might think things like, “I don’t care how they’re feeling, they don’t care how I’m feeling, they clearly don’t care about me at all,” and that is not a good place to start. Go back and give yourself empathy until you find yourself naturally wondering, “maybe there was something else going on here, maybe I can see things from their perspective…” but this cannot be forced. Be patient with yourself as you work this practice into your daily life and keep. giving. yourself. empathy. :-)

When you do start to feel curious and ready to give the other person empathy, there’s many different ways we can do this. It might start by simply imagining things from their point of view, putting yourself in their shoes and seeing the situation through their eyes. Sometimes it is helpful to do this in written form, to actually write out how they might see things. I like to imagine myself in the other person’s heart, feeling their feelings and what might be contributing to their way of seeing things. So in this example, I could give my friends empathy by saying, “Perhaps they felt so overwhelmed by all the trips and excursions that we do as a group, and they wanted to say yes to feel supportive and included, and really wanted to be there but realized too late that it wasn’t possible, but they were hopeful and truly wanted to join, and felt sad that they couldn’t.” From this perspective, I suddenly feel so much softer about the interaction and can understand that my friends were not trying to hurt my feelings (news flash: with very rare exceptions, no one ever is), and they were simply doing the best they could with the tools they had. They had their own expectations/feelings/needs in the situation and they were trying their best to be seen, heard, and connected with.

When I understand this, there is space for connection and growth, and true communication is possible.

To sum it all up, NVC is a lifelong practice that begins whenever you are ready. It is not a quick fix, it is not easy, it can be messy and difficult and awkward. But with the foundation of empathy, we are able to meet those uncomfortable moments with a little more softness and permission to feel the discomfort without identifying. This means that when we find ourselves triggered, instead of going into our usual habit patterns of reaction (which can range from anger, to shutting down, to diverting, to people pleasing), we take a moment to sit in the discomfort and work the tools - give ourselves empathy until we feel a physical softening, working the training wheels sentence either in our minds or out loud, and finally giving the other person empathy for their own set of feelings and needs. NVC isn’t a tool that will change other people or trick them into giving you what you want.

NVC is a way of communicating with yourself and others that focuses on the heart instead of the head, using empathy as a way to soften and bridge the gap between two hearts so that we can truly feel the other person.

I have found through practicing NVC (and you can consider me still relying heavily on the training wheels, I am only in the earliest stages of this lifelong learning) I can more easily drop into a space of feeling connected to whoever I am communicating with, whether it is myself or someone else, on a level that is beyond thinking. I feel from my heart when I speak to myself or others, I feel from my heart when I listen, I feel from my heart even when I am triggered. This allows me that extra space to see that everyone has a unique set of feelings and needs in each situation, how human of ALL of us, and if we can recognize our shared humanity we are on the first step to communicating nonviolently.

Thank you for taking the time to read my words and I hope you feel this from your own heart, as I share it from mine.  

Additional Resources

Feelings inventory: https://www.cnvc.org/training/resource/feelings-inventory

Needs inventory: https://www.cnvc.org/training/resource/needs-inventory

Ruby Chandler