NVC in the Wild

Over the years I’ve encountered many people—friends, colleagues, clients—who are put off by Nonviolent Communication (NVC). It’s too jargony, they say. Too artificial. And way too “woo-woo.” Whatever. They’re not having it, which is pretty depressing for me as an NVC trainer. Still, I get it, because sometimes I don’t like the language of NVC either. And when I use those words, I can see that I’m asking people to meet me on my turf, instead of joining them on theirs. It’s as if I’ve learned Italian and I love Italian and I feel Italian—but now I’ve traveled to China and I’m still speaking Italian. Which is kind of mean. Not to mention, ineffective.

For me, the tools of NVC are powerful and compelling, but sometimes the vocabulary is alienating. Which is tragic, since NVC places such a high value on connection and understanding. Over time I’ve come to believe that the core values of NVC are universal—but the formal language is not.

So these days the question I’m asking myself is: Can I walk the walk without talking the talk?

Can I practice the principles of NVC while still using everyday expressions? Can I find words that fit the occasion and honor the person I’m with? Because if I tell a teenager, “I noticed that you’re looking at the floor; are you feeling irritated because you want respect?” they’re just going to roll their eyes. And if I ask a CEO, “What needs are most alive for you in this moment?” that might be the end of our conversation.

A friend of mine told me that when he first studied NVC (i.e., the enthusiastic/obnoxious phase), he was once extolling its virtues to his teenage daughter, who was stuck in the car with him on a road trip. When my friend finally stopped to take a breath his daughter announced, “I don’t have any feelings, needs or requests. Move on.”

So how do we do that? And where do we go?

When I first learned NVC mediation (definitely the enthusiastic/obnoxious phase), I was out for a walk one night when I saw two men standing by two cars. There was a lot of yelling. It seemed that while parking, Man A had dinged Man B’s car. Man B was furious and seemed ready to throw punches. But, I told myself, I was learning collaborative communication! I was studying conflict resolution! I could help!

Then again, I had no idea what to do and certainly didn’t want any punches to come my way. Stalling for time, I walked more and more slowly until I came to a stop about 10 feet from the men. I stood there, trying to form a coherent sentence; the two men ignored me and went on shouting. Finally Man B turned to me and said, “He hit my car! And now he just wants to drive away!” I opened my mouth and blurted something profound like, “Right. Because you want your car to be okay. And that there’s accountability.”

“YES!” he said and went back to yelling at Man A. But the intensity had dwindled, and a few minutes later both men got into their cars and drove away. I couldn’t tell if phone numbers or cash had changed hands, but apparently they’d reached some kind of peace.

I didn’t manage to name feelings like “anger” and “fear,” or needs such as “financial sustainability,” “self-responsibility,” “respect” and “care”—but I think that’s what Men A and B heard. And it was enough.

If NVC is about connection and connection isn’t happening, I need to change my approach. I can still focus on observations, feelings, needs and requests, but I want to speak in the local parlance. I want to be present to the individual I’m with.

Some time ago, a close friend phoned to invite me to her last-minute birthday bash. The universe likes a good laugh, so naturally I had a six-person mediation scheduled for the same day. Getting the participants to agree on this meeting had been like herding snakes, but I wanted to celebrate with my friend and told her I’d try to reschedule. After more herding, success was achieved. I called my friend to report the good news; she said, “Yeah, fine, whatever,” and proceeded to tell me about her problems buying tires at CostCo. I fumed and considered my options: Tell her my need for appreciation had not been met? (But she hated NVC language.) Empathize with her distress? (Not likely; I was too triggered.) Say that I wouldn’t be coming to her @#$%! party? (Tempting.) Hang up? (But then what?)

In this friendship, humor and even sarcasm were often connecting, so after a moment I said, “Dude, you wanna try that again with a little warmth?” There was a long pause during which I considered leaving the country, and then she laughed and said, “You’re right. I’m really glad you’re coming to my party; thanks for rescheduling.”

While other people might have heard my words as harsh or attacking, for this particular friend, they worked: I think they provided a face-saving way for her to hear my frustration. The message I sent (“I feel hurt; I want my efforts to be seen; are you willing to express gratitude?”) was the message she received. And my friend responded with the care I was craving.

I’ve come to trust that we can live according to NVC values while still using everyday language—and that doing so offers our companions a sense of partnership and respect.

That being said, if NVC’s formal vocabulary works for you, then go for it: There are plenty of situations where the extra structure can help. When I’m mediating a heated conflict, traditional phrasing can slow the conversation, creating space for people to be heard. I recently heard an experienced leader say that with her family, she generally practices NVC using everyday phrases. On the rare occasion that she returns to more classic terminology, her kids know the situation is serious and take note.

Day by day, conversation by conversation, we get to choose.

Meanwhile it’s one thing to offer NVC in the wild, but what about finding it? I sometimes tell myself that since I know NVC and other people don’t, it’s my job to make collaborative communication happen. Then I feel exhausted and want to lie down. But the truth is, I often receive empathy from people who’ve never heard of Nonviolent Communication.

For example, I once had laryngitis for a month, including a solid week with no voice whatsoever. During that time I walked into a new-to-me movie-rental store, approached the counter and shout-whispered, “I have laryngitis!” Without missing a beat, the clerk pulled out a pad of Post-its and a pen, and said, “No problem. Write down the movies you want and I’ll find them for you.” Three days later I returned to the shop and the clerk handed me another notepad. He didn’t ask if I felt aggravated, didn’t inquire whether I wanted care or support—but he saw me. He recognized my needs and proposed a solution to meet them. Sweet!

I want us to be committed to NVC principles, and I also want us to have flexibility and ease with the language. I want us to have choices. Learning the classic expressions of NVC can help develop fluency: If you want to play the piano, you probably need to practice scales. But playing scales in a concert doesn’t enliven the audience. I want us to find ways to communicate feelings, needs and requests that are welcoming and inclusive. I want us to play jazz.

Copyright ⓒ Lisa Montana


Lisa Montana offers personal and executive coaching, conflict resolution and group facilitation. She works with individuals, families, businesses and organizations around the country. Contact Lisa at: lisa@baynvc.org.

With thanks to Ike Lasater for coining the phrase “NVC in the wild.”

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