Climate Control: Turning Down the Heat
[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]
FOR MY SOMETIMES SKEPTICAL clients and students: Two stories to prove that yes, Nonviolent Communication works in real life. While we probably won’t use NVC’s formal language (“Are you feeling sad, because you need support?”), as we select our own words, we can still embody the principles of empathy and connection.
1. Showdown at the P.O.
Let’s just say my day was not going well. I was tired. I was cranky. It was 3pm and I hadn’t had lunch. Or, for that matter, breakfast. I was overwhelmed with work and running late for my next appointment. And now I was waiting in line at the post office. Great.
Suddenly a woman appeared at my side, thrusting her angry face into mine. As I jerked away she blared, “You cut in front of me! I’m supposed to be ahead of you!”
What fresh hell was this?
I OPENED MY MOUTH to snarl back, ready to meet her indignation with my own. And then something inside me paused and the universe granted a moment of grace. I took a breath. I looked around and wondered if I really wanted to do battle over this. I reflected upon my beleaguered state and realized: It was entirely possible that Mean Girl had been standing ahead of me all along and I just hadn’t noticed. I thought about apologizing, but I was still angry and startled and couldn’t get the words out. So I gathered myself and quietly said, “Okay.”
Not exactly a triumph of compassion, but it was what I had.
I stepped back and waited for the woman to move in front of me. Her shoulders dropped; her face softened and relaxed. She looked smaller now. I wondered if it had been hard for her to speak up, to claim respect. Maybe her fierceness was only compensation for fear. Maybe she was having a bad day too.
WE BOTH LOOKED AWAY, pretending, perhaps, to be on (separate) tropical islands drinking something cool and delicious from glasses shaded by paper umbrellas. I took another breath and so did my companion. She leaned towards me again, but now her voice was confiding. “This place is a mess. There’s supposed to be one line to get supplies and another for shipping, but no one can tell which one is which. Everything’s taking too long and all I want is to buy some stamps.”
Wait, what? When had we become friends?
But also: something had shifted and now I wanted to help.
“Really?” I said. “Because I have stamps in my wallet. How many do you need?”
“Just one? That’s crazy. This line is way too long. I’m giving you a stamp.” And I began digging through my purse.
“Well, then let me pay you,” she said.
“Nah,” I said, still rummaging in my bag. “It’s just one stamp. Don’t worry about it.”
“No,” she said. “I’m giving you money.”
The tone of her voice stopped me. I looked into her eyes. She was intent. Resolute. Maybe this was her way of making peace. Fair enough. I could go with that.
I gave her a stamp with a picture of a songbird.
She gave me two quarters.
We smiled. She turned and left. And I continued on with my great day.
2. Meltdown on the Avenue
Some years ago I went out to dinner with my friends, who I’ll call Helen and Josh, and their two kids—Ella, who was six, and Henry, nine. While the rest of us were wearing our weekend jeans and t-shirts, Ella had gone for glamour. She vibrated with pride as I admired her outfit: a dress with tiny flowers and matching sweater, white tights, patent leather shoes and a long “pearl” necklace. She hugged a miniature backpack containing everything necessary to survive the two hours away from home: notepads, colored pens and markers, scissors, pencils, stickers, a small stuffed animal and two books. Her accoutrements were extensive, organized and beautiful.
HAVING ORDERED OUR FOOD, Helen, Josh and I were chatting when Ella suddenly shrieked with fury. We turned to identify the crisis. It seemed that while she was absorbed in drawing, Henry had opened Ella’s knapsack, removing a brand new pink eraser. And. Used. It.
Ella yelled and cried, by turns outraged and inconsolable. Henry played with the salt and pepper shakers, avoiding all eye contact. We adults issued the usual edicts:
“Henry, give back the eraser.” Done.
“Ella, darling, you have the eraser; you’re okay.” Continued howls.
“Ella, everything’s fine now.” More yelps.
“Ella, please be quiet; people are trying to eat.” Anguished sobs.
“Ella, stop making a fuss; why can’t you share your toys?” Snorts of disgust.
“Ella. Enough. Be quiet or we’re taking you home.” Growls of righteous indignation.
Apparently Ella didn’t care about our fine pronouncements. Maybe Ella wanted a notorized letter of apology. Or a tribunal. Because, you know: justice.
HELEN AND JOSH GAZED at one another with the weariness of a long week. I could see they were silently arguing about who was responsible for the next parental move and whether the evening could be salvaged.
In the momentary lull, I took a chance.
“Ella, I guess you’re really mad.” She glared and continued crying.
“And I guess you want to know that your most important tools will always be ready whenever you want them.” She paused and eyed me with suspicion.
“And I guess sometimes it feels fun to share your things and sometimes it doesn’t.”
“That’s true,” said Ella’s mom softly.
“YES!” said Ella loudly.
The next words out of my mouth were going to be, “And after dinner I’ll take you to the drugstore and buy you a new eraser.” But I never got there because Ella had stopped crying and was eating a breadstick. Ella was smiling. She was done.
WHEN WE’RE IN CONFLICT, we often need to mend fences and rebuild trust. To set things right, someone may offer a restorative action. But other times, empathy alone is enough—because it turns out that just being heard is a big deal.
At the restaurant, it didn’t take a lot of words to fix what was broken. On some other occasion, Ella might have wanted Henry to make amends—but that night, the only redress she required was to be acknowledged and understood. Like all of us, Ella wanted her feelings to be honored, not diminished. Like all of us, she wanted a little respect. And once she got it, our weekend was back on.
LISA MONTANA offers personal and executive coaching, conflict resolution and facilitation of group meetings and decisions. She works with individuals, families, businesses and organizations around the country. Lisa came to conflict resolution from the business world, where she witnessed frequent disputes, most of them handled in ways that nobody liked. In collaborative communication, she found a model in which everyone’s needs matter and against all odds, has seen wildly antagonistic foes find common ground.
Contact Lisa at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright ⓒ 2018 Lisa Montana. Reprint with permission.