In my last post I wrote about some of the ways that I see Nonviolent Communication (NVC) as being remarkably practical. That piece was set up as a response to the frequent critiques of NVC that come my way, sometimes even from long-time NVC enthusiasts. In this post I want to address this critique from a different angle.
Lack of Trust
Undoubtedly there are many different reasons and issues at play in each situation. My own experience leads me to a strong suspicion that a major contributor to this difficulty is the degree to which so many of us live with a permanent sense of mistrust. Just last week I was present for a situation between two friends and business partners who clearly love each other and nonetheless operate in a mutually antagonistic way about their business. I was astonished by how each of their attempts to protect and guard their own needs resulted in more stress for the other, who then proceeded to guard their own needs even more strongly. Trust, especially the foundational trust that we matter, appears to me to be a sine qua non for the possibility of resolving conflicts, reaching agreements, making collaborative decisions, or any other endeavor that includes within it the possibility of difference and disagreement.
Attachment to Outcome
One of the most common ways that such lack of trust shows up is in the form of attachment to outcome. The magic of NVC as a powerful tool is directly proportional, I believe, to the degree to which we can approach our interactions without being attached to a particular outcome, instead focusing on what’s likely to contribute to everyone’s needs being met. If we use the language of NVC without that intention, others can see through our words and recognize, sometimes without conscious awareness, that we are trying to make something happen whether or not it will work for them. So goes the cycle of escalation.
When one or more parties to a dialogue remains attached to outcome, the possibility of a breakthrough, imaginative solution that works for everyone diminishes. Tension can mount and escalate even as everyone is using the language of NVC because hearts are more and more closed rather than more and more open as the dialogue continues. Shifts are so much more likely to happen when people are fully heard and when they fully hear another.
Awareness of Purpose at Hand
Most people in North America still learn NVC in contexts that prioritize healing, human connection, and personal growth (though this is changing as NVC is moving more into organizational settings). This creates an imprint that’s often hard to shake when attempting to apply NVC in parenting, in a work setting, or anywhere where other considerations are paramount, such as reaching decisions, moving quickly through time and space, or making something happen.
Not Knowing which Truth to Tell
When people first learn NVC, many put enormous effort into trying to find the “right” words to use. This in itself creates tension, which is added to the tension of whatever judgment, attachment to outcome, or any other reaction exists inside the person. That tension, the effort, and the gap between the words and the intentionality all combine to create stiffness and awkwardness that immediately register as inauthentic.
I no longer believe there is a contradiction between truth and care. I have seen time and again that if we focus deeply enough, we can almost invariably find a way to express genuinely what’s true for us in a way that honors our own dignity and maintains care for others.
Once the intention is in place, we can see what obstacles arise in carrying it out, and then speak about them with gentle transparency. We can’t imagine a mutually acceptable solution to the moment’s conflict? We can say that: “I want to make this work for both of us, and right now I am confused enough about how to make that happen that I don’t know what to say next. Can you hold on a minute to allow me to catch up with myself?” We are caught in judgment and reaction? We can own that in a self-responsible way: “I am not at my best now, there is too much reaction going on inside of me for me to be able to listen to you. Are you OK to come back to this conversation later?” This level of transparency, even if not comfortable or familiar, can restore trust and congruence, and support more connection. Once connection is there, we can then work together to find the solution, in the moment or later.
Tips for Making It Work
- Before going into a complex situation, and ongoingly, do whatever you can do that will help you cultivate trust that you and your needs matter.
- If you have any judgments of anyone present, do whatever it is that helps you transform the judgments and reconnect with yourself.
- If you are attached to a particular outcome, find the underlying needs you have and imagine at least two other strategies that would meet your needs other than the outcome you want.
- Pick an intention that you want to carry through the conversation or process, and come back to it as often as possible.
- Align your words with your intention to the best of your ability, staying clear from any notion or question about what you’re supposed to say.
- Whenever you struggle, look for a way to be transparent about it while holding awareness of and care for the others involved.