Ellen Storm

Writing the White and Purple Coats

Nonviolent Communication – Foundation Training

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Last weekend I attended a two-day foundation training course in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) in Manchester, facilitated by Laura Harvey from Shared Space. I have been wanting to take this course for some time, and have had the book (Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, by Marshall B. Rosenberg PhD) for years. I have read and written a bit about its slimmer companion title, Raising Children Compassionately: Parenting the Nonviolent Communication Way, here.

I hoped signing up for the course would finally force me to read the book, and it has, so that was a result in itself. You didn’t need to have read the book to take the course though, which covered all the basics and gave lots of opportunity to practice too. Laura had considered all types of learners and her programme was well designed and delivered, with due consideration for participants’ differing needs.

NVC is a language of feelings and needs, which is very different from the language most of us have been conditioned to speak, and it requires effort and practice to manifest. It emphasises “power with” as opposed to “power over”, and encourages practitioners to attach themselves to the communication process and the resulting deepening of our connections with others, rather than to achieving specific preconceived outcomes. This can be a challenge for people who are results and achievement oriented, and who view our everyday language as something quite utilitarian.

NVC is also all about empathy: something I wrote about in my previous post in relation to healthcare professionals. The process involves both giving empathy to and receiving empathy from others, as well as giving empathy to ourselves (self-empathy). I was interested in the idea that we can “give” empathy – that this is something we can choose to do when we choose to give another person (or ourselves) our time and full attention in an open and non-judgemental way, such that we are really able to hear their feelings and needs. Giving empathy also meets our own needs for things like connection, understanding, information and clarity.

I have attended communications skills courses designed for medical students and doctors in the past and this was quite refreshingly different. I wondered if it was the focus on our underlying intention to connect that made the difference. What I remember most strongly from my medical training was a focus on body language and eye contact, making encouraging gestures and asking open and closed questions (in the context of taking a medical history and trying to “extract” – a bit like a tooth – maximum and sometimes sensitive information). All of which can feel rather like you are putting on a performance, and leave you feeling emotionally exhausted.

What was very interesting to me in NVC was the idea of making empathic guesses as to what another person was feeling or needing – of offering them a language they may not have themselves – and how in practice this elicited so much more and deeper information than any of the other ways in which we frequently try to help people in distress. Examples that were given of ways in which we often try and help that are not empathy included denial or minimisation of the problem (“it isn’t that bad”), reassurance, pity, collusion, storytelling (“that happened to me too”), the offering of solutions and the collection of data. Unhelpful (and often habitual) language is also the language of judgement (good vs. bad, right vs. wrong), labelling, blame (who is at fault), making demands (distinct from making requests, which recipients are able to say no to), issuing threats and of giving others no choice. NVC calls this Jackal language, and this is the language of unmet needs, used by those without the verbal or non-verbal means to express them fully.

Learning how to express our feelings and needs is an ongoing process that requires a whole new vocabulary and ability to construct sentences in the moment. We spent time looking at feeling words and differentiating them from words that implied what we thought someone else was thinking or feeling, or that we knew what their intention was behind a particular action. These kinds of language traps are common and more likely to lead to disconnection rather than connection, because they imply judgement or blame. For example “I feel upset” is a statement of feeling, whereas “I feel criticised” is a judgement (“you are criticising me”).

In contrast to Jackal language, Giraffe language is the NVC language of Observations, Feelings, Needs and Requests. On first pass this sounds simple. You make a specific observation about a situation (as distinct from an evaluation or generalisation), say how it makes you feel and what needs you have in relation to it, and then you make your request for that which would enrich your life. A rough example might be “when I saw that you had left your socks on the floor this morning I felt anxious because I have a need for clear living spaces. Would you mind placing your socks in the washing basket next time?”

If only life were that simple! In the last part of the course we practised “the dance”: what happens in real life communications between people with their own distinct and sometimes conflicting sets of feelings and needs. This was great for visual and kinaesthetic learners, as it involved walking out the conversation, moving from one station to another depending on which part of the process was being employed at that precise moment. The purpose was to bring the NVC framework into consciousness, and it was hard! It was however, very enlightening – enlightenment being after all, the shining of a light on oneself and one’s own life. I was aware of a great deal of overlap between NVC and Buddhist thought traditions, although we were working in a Catholic convent and those from other faith traditions may very well hear echoes of their own too. NVC has no religious affiliations, so it is well placed to inform a dialogue between faith groups. In his book Rosenberg describes how it has been used as a mediation tool with groups of Israelis and Palestinians, and the framework is valuable for conflict resolution on both small and large scales. It is certainly something that would be of practical benefit to healthcare professionals (perhaps alongside poetry – see previous post). Had it been more widely known and practised, perhaps Mid Staffordshire would never have happened. In making sure it never happens again, those working in the NHS must become fluent in the language of empathy: the language of feelings and needs.

3 Comments

  1. This is a really interesting subject and one that has potentially huge benefits in all sorts of different organisations, groups and settings. I wonder whether people who have some sort of meditative or mindfulness practice are better skilled in ‘intercepting the autopilot’ and getting that tiny moment of thought and therefore more conscious choice, before simply reacting and, in worst cases, escalating a conflict.

    • Some people call the autopilot an “amygdala hijack” – a phrase coined by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence: why it can matter more than IQ. It’s a basic evolutionary device to stop us getting eaten, apparently, and I’m not sure that NVC really addresses how to stop it. I think it is more useful for examining our everyday language and thereby hopefully preventing conflicts from reaching that stage. Also good as a mediation tool in situations where conflict has become chronic…

  2. Deeply reassuring as a trainer to have a sense of content being received and meditated/mused on.

    I already know I’d enjoy sharing the blog with others, if I could increase the clarity in one sentence! It’s on the need from your rough example. Are you interested?
    Read on if so…

    >>A rough example might be “when I saw that you had left your socks on the floor this morning I felt anxious because I have a need for clear living spaces. Would you mind placing your socks in the washing basket next time?”

    I have a sense you get that “a need for clear living spaces” is v colloquial, and that the classical need (which would be generic and so make sense to and be shared by others) could be around order, beauty, support in looking after shared spaces or some such area we could find together via empathy.
    I’m less sure that someone reading about NVC for the first time (perhaps in your blog) would pick that up.

    In the past I’ve witnessed people hearing colloquially expressed needs like this one as strategies – and subsequently the speaker has met resistance to their needs – because they’re not expressed universally. (Not everyone has a “need” for clear living spaces – so they can get triggered into resisting that particular preference, and move into conflict because it’s harder to empathise with a strategy/preference than a need).
    I’d love to build the clarity of needs awareness in readers. How is this for you to read?

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