Communication for a Better Life
Are you interested in finding ways to strengthen your relationships, whether at home, work, or in the social sphere? Improving on long-held patterns of communication can be of great help in achieving that goal. You can start on a path of undoing patterns that do not serve you or those you care about, and achieving more of the kind of connection that you and those around you would really enjoy.
Every one of us has received years of training in communication. That period of training is commonly known as childhood and adolescence! We learned from parents, other caretakers, siblings, friends, and society at large, how to initiate and respond in a variety of social situations.
The problem that we all experience to one degree or another as adults is that the “training” we received had many misunderstandings and omissions, often experienced as traumas, concerning how to speak, listen, do or not do, in such a way as to bring out and enjoy the best in ourselves and in others.
What is Nonviolent Communication?
Nonviolent communication (NVC) is an approach developed by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg from the 1960s up to his death in 2015. It is based on skills for empathetic and insightful expression and listening. NVC continues to be further developed and shared by a global community as a way to achieve more positive results in personal, business and intergovernmental relationships and negotiations.
I want to add that NVC, when it is fully expressed, is not a formula or checklist. As with all meaningful undertakings in achieving our human potential, it requires authentic engagement and creativity to bring the concepts of NVC into useful application. And in the same vein, NVC goes far beyond the idea of “Be nice!” The phrase “loving kindness” captures more of the true meaning of NVC, and if we add the word “wisdom” or “insight”, I feel we are getting closer to words that express the spirit of NVC.
Using Nonviolent Communication to Get What You Both Want
The key starting point for NVC is that we do not shame and blame others, and we prefer to connect with others before analyzing them or strategizing. At the same time, we fully express ourselves and fully listen to others, for a more awake, vitality-infused experience of life for all concerned.
I use NVC approaches every day in my work with couples, and occasionally with individuals when issues of communication are forefront. And of course, whenever I can, in my own life and relationships.
Starting with a very simple example, if one member of a couple wants more attention from the other person, they might say “Why are you always lost in your texting and video games? I can see you don’t want to be with me.” Now, that is what we could call somewhat violent communication, starting with a criticism and following it up with an unverified guess framed as an assertion. It is likely to cause a defensive response in the partner receiving those words, unless that partner is quite skilled in NVC themselves.
How can that same person speak in order to more likely get their needs met? One example would be: “I wish we could speak and do things together more often. I love our time when there are no distractions and we enjoy each other.” It may be clear, on considering the second version, how that expresses the same need but in a vulnerable and inviting manner and without blaming or shaming.
I have found that most couples who are not too far gone into hostility, respond quickly to this approach and experience significant improvement and enjoyment in the relationship within a couple of months of working on this approach. During sessions, I usually intervene when I hear attacks or disconnections, and help to reinterpret and reconnect with what is genuine.
For example, if one partner says to me “He is always thinking of what makes HIM comfortable!” I will ask “Would you like your own needs for comfort to be considered more often?” and then ask the individual to make a statement of that kind to the partner. Such re-phrasing can de-escalate tension, and allows the speaker to express what they need while allowing the recipient to hear the request without getting defensive.
Although in some ways this approach may sound too simple or obvious, it is actually very powerful and is often forgotten at times conflict and disconnection. People in a relationship usually do not intend to hurt the partner, but are trying to “be honest” and express “the truth.” But honesty and truth is a double-edged sword: honesty and truth expressed without compassion and insight can harm or destroy relationships, while honesty and truth WITH compassion and insight builds beautiful, healthy relationships.
Avoiding Being an Interpreter
Another example of NVC is non-interpretation of others’ moods or motives. For example, if one partner is silent, the other one may say “Why are you angry now!?” In reality, the silent member of the couple may be trying to understand something in their own lives, or understand something that just happened in their interaction. Or, the person may be feeling tired, or may be thinking about what they will have for lunch the next day.
Instead of being a mind-reader, it is suggested that when there is doubt, and when it seems important, ask a question or make a request. For example:
The exact choice of words would depend on the existing relationship as well as what has led up to the present moment. In any case, we can see the risk in making assumptions, and what making assumptions does to both people in a relationship, so it is better to clarify and discuss openly.
The Power of Connection vs. Attempts to Control
Now, in case you think that NVC means the practitioner needs to become like a doormat to be walked on, that is not the case. I was working once with a family where the parents were having difficulty connecting with their 14-year-old son. The son was feeling isolated and was hanging out with peers who had some dangerous emerging patterns relating to aggression and weapons.
I felt healing the family dynamics was vital to fix this situation. The father in particular would yell commands at his son, especially when the son made a mistake or did something wrong. When I started to suggest alternative approaches, the father had an ironic grin on his face and remained silent. So, in the interest of authenticity, I asked him “Are you thinking I am all touchy-feely?” and he said “Well, you do seem wishy-washy.” I enjoyed his rephrasing–and even more, his honesty, which allowed our conversation to go deeper.
For a few weeks we had open conversations about his well-intentioned approach to guiding his son, and how the results achieved were not at all what he was hoping for! I asked him politely how he would feel getting yelled at for nearly every request and especially for mistakes, and how he might respond in such a situation. We practiced how he could instead request what he wanted of his son, and when needed explain his reasons for the request rather than dictating actions.
Fortunately, our conversations bore fruit, and after a few weeks of these conversations the boy’s mother told me that father and son were happily engaged in projects together, including repairs around the house, and she said their son had become quite cooperative with the new approach. She said they were both enjoying the collaboration. I was struck by how quickly that change had taken place! As a result, the frequent arguments between the parents had also nearly disappeared.
And the change did persist. We met for about two more months, but the improved relationships of all three of them continued, and the son found new friends who were better for his own well-being. At that point they ended therapy at what felt like an appropriate and encouraging state of affairs.
There are many other key points in NVC, such as clarifying and distinguishing observations, feelings, needs, and requests from each other; using your own intuitive feelings as an accurate guide for interactions with others; maintaining an attitude of protection not punishment; how to always find a win / win in negotiation; and more.
NVC is useful, and has been used, in negotiations between groups and even between nations. Since people are involved, mutual understanding is always important as a basis of improving ANY kind of relationship, from personal to workplace to intergovernmental.
Try to pause during moments of disconnection or conflict and consider what in your heart of hearts you REALLY want to accomplish in terms of peace and common ground. You will then be able to find the words (or silence) that allows you and others to join together with joy. This approach leads to better relationships, and supports a world that is more peaceful and harmonious.