The Gift That Keeps On Giving: Trigger Translation Journal

[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.]

In 2006, I was introduced  by Jane Connor to a practice which Marshall Rosenberg used, and I witnessed him use it through the years I knew him.  He kept a 3”x 6” index card folded in half in his pocket, and “he would pull it out from time to time and write down the stimuli that triggered an emotional response in him.”[1]  Later, he said, he processed them, trying to understand the feelings and needs stimulated in himself and guessing what feelings and needs the other person in the situation might have been experiencing.  As Jane commented, “One of the most important aspects of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is becoming aware of our feelings and needs and those of the others in the moment that we are experiencing them.”

I have been sharing this practice with people in my classes since then, even including it as weekly homework for people in my classes at the county jail.  Last week I was excited and touched to hear this report from a woman who has been in the jail class for 5 weeks:

I had finished all my jobs and was sitting watching tv with some other women.  Another woman walked up and said, “Well, I guess you’re not doing your job.”  I was surprised to notice that I didn’t get mad.  I just started wondering what her needs were.  As I thought about it, I wondered if maybe she was wanting some help with her work.  I would have been happy to help her if she had asked, but I was interested to see that when I thought about her needs behind her comment, I didn’t get mad.  That’s unusual for me.

I was excited because I want to contribute to people having more inner resources to enjoy a happier, more peaceful life and that had just happened.  I was touched because this is a small woman, full of anger and rage, who has used verbal and physical violence to gain safety through her life, so this was a major shift.  She has gone from skeptical about NVC to engaged and interested in the readings, the trigger translation journals (ttjs) and the class.

People over the years have commented they are starting to wonder about other people’s needs now in situations where they formerly just got mad or felt hurt, or shut someone else down.  I’ve heard several times men in our San Quentin prison classes comment they realize for the first time that what happens is not only about them, but that something is going on for the other person, too.  I don’t believe this comes from ‘callousness’  or ‘selfishness,’ but rather from a lack of modelling.  If no one important in your life growing up demonstrates this perspective, it is unlikely a person will develop the skill, unless they are lucky enough to run across skills elsewhere.

Partly because we have a lifetime of assumptions behind our thoughts and words, it can seem like a Sisyphean task to change these patterns of thought and speech.  Yet, educational research shows that creating a new habit[2] or breaking old habits can be accomplished in 6-9 weeks with daily practice.  However, this woman in the jail class was only writing out 2 ttjs each week and had practiced only 4 of her 5 weeks in class. Not everyone gets such quick results, but many report by the end of a 5-8 week foundation-level series in NVC they are noticing a difference in how they think about events and conversations in their lives.

What is this trigger translation journal?

  1. Trigger                           (trig)
  2. Observation                  (obs)
  3. my Feelings                   (mF)
  4. my Needs                      (mN)
  5. my Request                  (mR)
  6. his or her Feelings       (h/hF)
  7. his or her Needs          (h/hN)
  8. Amended Request       (AmendR)

Trigger –
The first step is exactly what Marshall did during the day – capturing some stimulating moment, the words or events, the “trigger.”  This can be captured with no censoring – anything goes.  You’re not telling anyone else, you’re just acknowledging something came up with some charge for you.  However, you won’t want to stop here, because when we focus on wrongness or blame, our attention can easily next move to seeking someone to punish.  It might be we want to punish the other person for treating us poorly, or we may kick ourselves for being stupid or not learning better.

Observation –
The second step is to translate this stimulus/trigger into a simple, neutral description, an observation.  What I’ve noticed is that a tremendous amount of suffering (for us) follows the explanations we make up about what happened or what people said.  For example, “She hates me,” or “He’s a liar. I can’t trust him,” lead us to contract in our bodies – maybe around the heart, or maybe in the shoulders and hands, or perhaps at the jaw.  This tension blocks out a free flow of life through us and may even, when sustained over time, contribute to elevated blood pressure.  I remember Marshall saying, “Don’t listen to what other people think of you.  You’ll be happier and you’ll live longer.”  I thought this was just an example of clever wording he used to get people’s attention, but over time have come to believe his assertion may be literally true – stress and elevated blood pressure can contribute to heart disease, one of the biggest killers in America.  So when we can describe in neutral terms (no judgments or labels) what took place, we already start to calm ourselves from the upset of the trigger stories.

my Feelings –
The next is to identify my own feelings that came up in that moment, maybe angry or hurt, frustrated or worried, concerned or horrified.   It can help me continue to manage my own level of stress and pain if I make sure to translate any feelings that are tangled with thoughts and stories about the other person.  For example, if I think I feel ‘bullied,’ I’m expressing a real feelings, but I’m also accusing the other person of treating me badly, of pushing me around, of being mean to me.  I might translate ‘bullied’ to feelings that are just inside my own skin, perhaps as scared, mad, concerned, hurt, irritated, furious or some other feeling.  Even when the feeling is strong, like ‘furious,’ it doesn’t tie up my energy into contraction the same way ‘bullied’ feels inside.  Perhaps this is in part because the word ‘bullied’ also has a story of me being a victim, a recipe for coming back swinging to protect myself.  Very difficult to respond with compassion when I don’t even realize I’m seeing myself as a victim.  Many, many of the people I have met in prison and jail talk about how badly others treated them before they took actions that led to their incarceration.  It’s well worth taking the time and energy to translate feelings that are tangled with judgment and blame into feelings that reside only inside me.

my Needs –
It helps to recognize the source of our feelings lies within which needs are alive in us at any moment.  We might think of needs as universal human motivations, a different name for needs I came up with when we presented NVC training for the guards at the county jail.  If we apply the NVC principle that every word and every action is an attempt to meet a life-serving need, this can help us see the beauty behind even actions or words we may regret using, perhaps yelling at someone.  If you still feel charged when you identify your need (for example, any sense of demand or ‘rightness’ that your need should be met), you may want to dig deeper for needs under that one.  Sometimes needs are strategies to meet other, deeper needs.  When you have a sense of relaxation or opening in the body, this is a pretty good indication you have found the beautiful need that is motivating you in that moment.

my Request –
I suggest people think of this as opening a conversation into possible ways to meeting the needs I figured out, to think of it as a request or an offer.  Making my request as specific, clear and oriented to positive actions as possible can be balanced with holding my request lightly – maybe the other person has good reasons (needs) which lead them to say ‘no.’ There is a certain dignity to naming my needs and making a request to meet them, even if I don’t get the other person’s help and cooperation.

his or her Feelings –
This is an invitation to imagine, based on the usual clues, what the other person was feeling at the moment of their actions or words.  What are the usual clues?  Facial expression, tone of voice, body language, speed or volume of speech, word choice, etc.

his or her Needs –
Again, it is important to keep digging if you feel a charge around the need you identify.  If your impulse is dismiss or negate their need in favor of your own, you have still probably not found the rich beauty behind their words or action (even stinky, unsuccessful ones!).  Seek deeper needs until there is a sense of opening and/or relaxation.

Amended Request –
Here is an opportunity to stretch into one of the life-enriching principles in NVC:  We want to find solutions that work for everyone.  Once we know what our needs are and we now imagine what the other person’s needs might be, we can rub our brain cells together and see what solutions our creative intelligence offers. When we seek solutions that both people like (not just the concessions of compromise where everyone gives up what they really want in order to keep the peace), both parties can stand behind the solution.  When we fall into the win-lose framework, everyone actually loses.  The loser obviously loses. But the winner loses, too, because they probably lose connection, trust, respect or more with the loser.  When we find solutions that work for everyone, everyone wins.  With practice over the years, I have come to believe what Inbal Kashtan, one of BayNVC’s founders, said:  If we cannot see a solution that works for everyone, it is only a failure of imagination.  I take this to mean it is not impossible, just tough sometimes because those muscles in our hearts are unused and a bit weak. Again, practice is a way to strengthen our skills and form new habits.

I invite you to try writing or talking out 2-5 translation each week for a few weeks. I’d love to hear back from you what you notice after this practice.  One thing I believe is that if it was good enough for Marshall, it’s good enough for me.  I often walk through these steps with one of my empathy buddies or on my own when I’m in a pickle.  No matter how “good at it” your NVC practice is, the world around us makes so many assumptions of blame, of managing others through threats and bribes (punishments and rewards), it is difficult to remember compassion is a choice in each conversation.  Hence it is a practice, like meditation, or yoga, or martial arts.  There are many benefits to practice. One may be a kinder, gentler world, at least in our vicinity.

Please do let me know your experience with the trigger translation journal at 707-775-717[eight] or  meganwind@baynvc[dot]org


[1]  From Jane Connor (McMahon)’s Instructions for “Trigger Translation Journal”

[2]  “How Long Does It Actually Take to Form a New Habit?,” James Clear


Meganwind Eoyang met NVC through her friend Julie Greene, one of the four certified trainers who established BayNVC, and is deeply grateful for the support of all those trainers.  She was one of the inaugural Leadership Program participants who started the Safer Communities Project in 2002 at San Quentin State prison and now manages the 14-volunteer program sharing that work with her “inside.”