When NVC Backfires
When I first learned about the concept of needs at a local communication workshop in my early 20s, I was astounded. I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh — I have needs!” However, my ensuing attempts to use NVC with family and friends didn’t always go so well.
For many, learning the concepts and tools of Nonviolent Communication can be a powerful revelation. We may sense an inherent alignment with the values of compassion, collaboration, and empathy that shine through this beautiful practice. The possibility of listening and speaking in ways that lead to mutual giving from the heart can be truly life-changing.
Yet so often our hopes and aspirations for finding new and meaningful ways of connecting are dashed. We take NVC out for a spin and end up in a spectacular crash!
On this trip, armed with my new NVC perspectives, I tried expressing my desire for more connection and closeness. I felt hurt and angry; I asked him why he hadn’t been in touch, and made vague requests for him to open up with me and share more. He was a quieter guy than I was, but I kept pushing each day, bringing up the same topics.
Needless to say, it didn’t go well. After that trip, we drifted even farther apart. It caused me great pain to lose him as a friend. And in spite of many attempts on my part to reach out, we’ve never reconnected.
Obstacles to NVC
There were many reasons those conversations didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped. Looking back, I can see that I wasn’t actually seeing my friend for who he was, or coming from a clear and helpful intention. The tools and practices of Nonviolent Communication are a powerful outward form of a profound inner transformation. When we use the form without the proper substance or alignment inside, it can backfire.
There are three common obstacles to implementing NVC. In the early stages of learning, we often go through an “Obnoxious Phase,” in which we focus on meeting our own needs without attending to the needs of others. Next, we often try out “Robot NVC,” an awkward period where we use the form so rigidly that it becomes difficult for others to connect with us authentically
The last obstacle is an ongoing refinement of our ability to inhabit the true intentions behind NVC. In its grossest form, this occurs as a kind of self-deception about our motivation, in which we use the language of NVC to advance habitual patterns of manipulation, blame, or coercion. Refining our intentions and shedding habitual perceptions of blame is an ongoing practice that occurs on increasingly more subtle levels.
Refuge in Integrity
Yet even after we get beyond the most common obstacles, we can still find our conversations falling short, sometimes with heartbreaking results. Our mind and heart may be aligned with the intentions of true care and mutuality that are at the core of NVC; we may have developed great skill in expression and understanding. And still, there are times when we are unable to work things out or arrive at mutual understanding.
This is the truth of our human condition: things are beyond our control. There are too many variables and factors to predict or engineer a specific outcome. In these instances, when we try our hardest and find no satisfying external result, we can encounter the deeper flexibility and strength of NVC.
Here, we learn how this practice of awareness, investigation and focused attention teaches us to walk with integrity. We learn how to inquire more and more deeply into our motivations and actions with radical honesty, and how to rely on the wholeness of our intentions. And we find ways to mourn our losses and hold the beauty of a broken heart with tenderness.
Oren J. Sofer is a Collaborative Trainer here at BayNVC, and teaches mindfulness and communication locally and nationally. He is Senior Program staff at Mindful Schools, and is the author of the forthcoming book, Three Steps to Better Conversations: A Guide to Mindful Communication (Shambhala, 2018).
Mindful Communication, A Wise Speech Retreat: Oren is co-leading a six-day non-residential retreat in Berkeley, CA., August 1 – 6. Details here.