Switching on NVC

“I love NVC but I always forget to use it in the moments when I most need it.”

Over the years I’ve heard variations on this statement from many workshop and practice group participants. A related question I frequently hear is “How do you stay calm enough to use NVC when someone is blaming or judging you?”

“Recently I’ve had the experience that the dialogue and practice skills I’ve learned have sunk in, and I’m starting to use them more automatically. Something is shifting inside, softening…”

M.P., NVC practice group member

There are a number of ways to answer this question, but in this article I want to focus on the experience of “switching NVC on” when you’re engaged in a conversation that is not going the way you’d like.

At some point during my initial NVC training the thought “I could try NVC right now” came to mind in the middle of a heated exchange. I had the sense that a switch had flipped in my mind. It was not a switch that turned on some kind of perfectly successful NVC resulting instantly in connection and met needs for all involved. Oh no! This was a switch that turned on just enough willingness to try NVC. And yes, I am aware of the wise words from Yoda: “There is no try, there is only do” – but actually I found that “try” was a pretty amazing starting point. Suddenly I was pausing to search for “an NVC thing to do” rather than steaming ahead down the well-worn tracks of defense and counterattack.

The question remains, how did I notice that I was not trying to use NVC? How did I remember in the moment there was an alternative to my old habits? I believe that this resulted partially from regular practice where I was in groups or classes pretending to be dishing out or receiving the kinds of words we associate with fighting. So, I was regularly searching for “an NVC thing to do.” I think I’d done enough practice that I was almost looking forward to trying it out “in the wild” (to quote Ike Lasater, one of my original trainers.) Perhaps it’s like going to French class then suddenly coming across some lost French tourists in the street. The opportunity is clearly there, all that’s needed is the making of a decision to try out your French. And that’s definitely what my “Try NVC” switch was – a deliberate decision in the moment to try what I’d been practicing.

My initial “Try NVC” switch needed some support to keep it functioning. For one thing, it could switch off just as easily as it switched on. I used the thought “I could continue to try to use NVC now” as a way of deciding again, perhaps only seconds later, to stick with it. Later I learned about the idea of attempting to meet three waves of hard-to-hear words from another person with attempts at NVC. It took some deep breaths to make it through three waves, and it still does sometimes, but the results were often very encouraging. Either the tension relaxed after three waves, allowing much easier communication to ensue, or the initial three waves allowed me to settle into trying NVC for many more waves, eventually leading to increased connection.

Another learning that supported me in turning on the “Try NVC” switch was the “fourth D” from Marshall Rosenberg and Lucy Leu’s “4 Ds of Disconnection.” The “fourth D” refers to the mindset that leads one person to decide what another person “Deserves”. I’d created an unconscious rule that only people who were using NVC “deserved” NVC from me. If someone raised their voice, they “deserved” a shouted response. If they were blaming me for something they “deserved” ridicule, or for their points to be systematically dissected and dismissed. You get the picture. Rooting out the idea of “deserve” turned my “Try NVC” switch into: “I could try NVC right now, regardless of what I think about who deserves what.”

“After my first Communication Dojo series, I had a conversation with my boyfriend’s family where my newly developed NVC skills helped me “mediate” a tough conversation. Normally, I would have kept quiet and been irritated and uncomfortable about the underlying tension. However, I realized there was more everyone wanted to say, and I could help the situation by asking about the feelings and needs of each family member. It was really scary in some ways, because I didn’t know if this was stepping out of line (it was not my family), but incredibly empowering because we had this deep, connected, open conversation.  It was first time I felt like I had the capability to do that.”

S.K., Communication Dojo regular

Having NVC community made these early attempts to “Try NVC” easier too. I’d feel scared to try, afraid that any number of needs would be unmet for me or the other person if I gave my fledgling NVC skills a try. However, although things might not go the way I hoped in the moment, I knew I’d get empathy and coaching later in an NVC group or class, or from an empathy buddy. We all learned from each other’s experiences, both the painful and the celebratory. With video- and conference-call-based classes and groups you might be able to find that kind of community and support even if you don’t have the luxury of attending a local NVC gathering in person. I’ll be starting a group of this kind myself in 2017, and it will be announced here in the BayNVC bulletin.

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