The Head & the Heart

[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.]


MANY YEARS AGO, I was taking a sociology course and we received an odd assignment: At some point in the coming week, during an otherwise routine conversation, we were instructed to do or say something unfamiliar—something outside our comfort zone—and then report back on the results. After class, as I walked back to my car, I pondered this mission. It seemed at once scary and fruitless. Was I really going to do it? And what possible difference could it make? I just didn’t see the point.

Some days later, I ran into one of my neighbors, an older woman whom I found difficult. She was, in my aggrieved judgment, bossy, intrusive, overbearing and self-important. Even now, all these years later, I could add more adjectives, but you get the picture. My nemesis issued constant directives as to what the rest of us should or should not be doing, but she herself broke these rules ALL THE TIME. I had tried many approaches—civility, appeasement, accommodation, compromise, avoidance, debate, and (my personal favorites) logic and reason—and all had failed spectacularly. On this occasion, I was strolling down the sidewalk and by the time I saw her, it was too late to duck away. We both stopped. We chatted politely. But inwardly, I bristled at the thought of her frequent demands.

IT WAS AT THIS MOMENT that I recalled the homework assignment—to conduct an anthropological experiment and do something contrary to my usual habits. “Really?” I thought. “Seriously? Am I actually going to risk it with this person?”

I took a breath and weighed my options.

It seemed crazy but the words fell out of my mouth: “I think I’d like to give you a hug,” I said. “Is that okay?”

My adversary looked me up and down. I imagined she was calculating whether she could take me in a fight if things went south. “Sure,” she replied, without a speck of enthusiasm.

I stepped forward and embraced her carefully, the way diplomats perform in public. Just as I was about to pull away, she hugged me back—fiercely. Firmly. Like she meant it.

I blinked. And squeezed her shoulders with less caution and more honesty.

We released our hold, looked into one another’s eyes and nodded.

And it’s not like this momentous event fixed everything or eradicated the bad blood between us. But something essential shifted. Although we never spoke of it, a subtle change occurred in civic tectonics. Even as we continued to dispute the protocols of city life, we now smiled while doing so. Even though we still saw things differently, we tended to laugh more and worry less. We began to exchange stories about our families and compare celebrity gossip. We lent the occasional cup of sugar. We sometimes sat in the sun and discussed politics—about which we agreed completely. We weren’t exactly friends, but we did become real neighbors.

I’M THINKING ABOUT ALL OF THIS LATELY because I’m teaching a new class on the foundations of Collaborative Communication. I’ve been reviewing the basics of Observations, Feelings, Needs and Requests (OFNR), all of which I value and use in my daily life. I want to help my students distinguish between facts and opinions. I want to support them in expressing the full range of their emotions—because truly, we need more nuance than “glad,” “sad” and “mad.” I want clients to assess their actions and identify the core values they’re trying to meet. I want them to make clear requests and build sustainable agreements.

At the same time, I think that many of us—myself included—get caught up in the mechanics of Collaborative Communication and lose sight of its goals. We automatically make careful empathy guesses without considering what’s called for in the moment. We focus on the science of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) instead of the art of connection. We evaluate a situation from our heads instead of our hearts. Empathy is a powerful tool that often increases understanding and goodwill. But sometimes what’s called for is warmth, kindness, affection, silence, humor, advocacy and tangible support, or a restorative or protective action to make things right.

I’ve mentioned this story before, but it bears repeating: A colleague once told me that when he first studied NVC (the enthusiastic/obnoxious phase), he was extolling its virtues to his daughter, who was trapped in a moving car with him. When my friend finally paused for a breath, the teenager announced, “I don’t have any feelings, needs or requests. Move on.”

If Collaborative Communication is about connection, but connection isn’t happening, then we need to adjust our approach. We can still use the structure of OFNR, but our interactions will be even more successful if we consider each situation on its own merits. I want us to have access to many options; I want us to use all our skills. In these difficult and perilous times, I hope we’ll honor the resources of both our minds and our hearts.

MEANWHILE, AS THE DAYS ONCE AGAIN grow longer, wishing you much joy, peace and healing in the new year.


LISA MONTANA came to conflict resolution from the business world where she witnessed frequent disputes, most of them handled in ways that nobody liked. With Collaborative Communication, she found a model in which everyone’s needs matter and against all odds, has seen wildly antagonistic foes find common ground.

Lisa works with individuals, businesses and organizations around the country. She provides leadership and personal coaching, conflict resolution, skills sessions, organizational development, DEI, and facilitation of group meetings and decision-making.

In her private practice, Lisa’s clients value her ability to solve problems efficiently and discern core issues in complex situations. Her workshops help participants strengthen their communication skills in an engaging, interactive and supportive environment.

Lisa is a trainer at Bay Area Nonviolent Communication (BayNVC) and the Center for Efficient Collaboration (CEC). She’s also been a lead trainer with an ongoing, year-long mediation program based on Nonviolent Communication. And since 2013, she’s taught conflict resolution at San Quentin State Prison.

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Copyright 2021 Lisa Montana. Reprint with permission and attribution.