One of the common misconceptions about the practice of Nonviolent Communication is that it’s about being “nice.” It’s probably a similar misconception to that of thinking of nonviolence as passivity. I believe both misconceptions derive from our habit of either/or thinking. Most of us don’t have models for a path that’s neither aggressive nor passive. Within this either/or thinking, if the only two models are imposing on others or giving up on our own needs, many of us will interpret nonviolence as the latter.
What does this look like? In our relationship to authority, I already wrote about how we can move beyond submission and rebellion. When parenting, as my sister Inbal described in Compassionate Connection: Nonviolent Communication with Children, we can find a path that’s neither coercive nor permissive. And in our relationships, we can find that sweet spot between pushing for what we want and giving up on what we want.
The either/or paradigm as it applies to human relationships rests on two assumptions. One is that we are separate form each other. The other is that there isn’t enough to go around. It is the combination of these two assumptions that pits us against each other fighting for our needs. It is this legacy that prevents us from having satisfying relationships of authenticity and care. As soon as any difference arises between what we want and what someone else wants, our habits direct us to push or give up. How can we transform this legacy?
From Demands to Requests
If we are habituated to pushing for what we want, the message we convey to everyone around us is that their needs don’t matter. If we are the boss or the parent, our employee or child, as the case may be, is put in a position of doing what we want or suffering consequences. While we may get what we want on some superficial level, the cost is high. Every time someone does something just because we have the power to deliver unpleasant consequences, we lose respect, or love, or both.
In a relationship of fundamental equality, pushing for what we want looks like a fight. When we don’t have the power to deliver consequences, we can’t officially punish or fire the other person. We can, and do, call them names, or judge them, or get angry, or give them the silent treatment, or take revenge at a later time. That’s what “punishment” looks like between equals. The result is the same. We are watering resentment and fear in the other person, and our own well-being is likely to be held with less and less care by them.
Shifting from making demands and pushing for what we want into an interdependent relationship of mutual care invites us to change our orientation to life as well as how we interact. Making requests is premised on integrating the radical understanding that if something works for us and not for another we pay a price that’s too dear. It also rests on choosing, wholeheartedly, to transcend the fear of scarcity so we can commit to the other person’s needs mattering alongside ours.
From Agreement to Empathy
If we are habituated to giving up on what we want, the message we convey to others is that our needs don’t matter, and they can do whatever they want without concern for the effect their actions have on us. Transforming this habit takes two steps. The first is learning to differentiate between agreement and understanding, so that we can offer our empathic presence and interest to another without thereby feeling compelled to do what they want. For many of us this shift requires an inner transformation so that we can take our own needs seriously enough to be willing to offer our hearts to another without necessarily agreeing to do what they want.
Once we are able to set our own internal limits and trust our capacity to stand up for our needs, we can develop the flexibility and discernment to know when we are caving in and when we are acting out of true generosity of heart.
Asking for What We Want
The second step of shifting our habits and letting others know that our needs matter is learning to ask for what we want. Often enough we don’t ask because of being afraid that we will be seen as making demands. This is where both ends of the either/or split come together. For those of us who find it hard to let go of having what we want, learning to ask is about letting go of outcome. For those of us who have a hard time asking at all, learning to ask is about embracing our power, our significance as human beings, and the preciousness of our needs.
Ultimately, what we need to learn is to shift from pushing or giving up to full engaging with both of our needs.
I will be doing a 2-session phone summer course on this topic and I invite those of you who are intrigued to get more information and consider if this might just be the nudge for you. If you are local to the Bay Area or are open to travelling for a weekend of more in-depth learning, I look forward to meeting you.