When Curiosity Killed the Rat

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Recently I presented a workshop in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to a group that wanted to learn how to talk across a political divide. During Q&A, the participants cut straight to the chase: “What is the one most important thing to know about NVC?” they asked. “What will help us?” This is a perfectly reasonable, yet totally overwhelming question and I’m constantly trying to improve my response. That night, I answered their query with one of my own: Before you tell your side of the story, would you be willing to show the other person that you understand what matters to them? Not that you agree with them—but that you “get” them. And that you care.

Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People described it this way: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Why should I do this?

My altruistic answer is that it helps build the world I want to live in—one that values connection and respect over “winning.” My selfish answer is that if I can demonstrate that I’ve heard the other person, it hugely increases the chances that they’ll listen to me.

Honestly, I don’t care which reason you choose. Just do it.

OF COURSE THIS PRINCIPLE is easier named than lived. I’ve been teaching NVC for more than ten years and I’d like to think I possess some degree of skill. But over and over, here’s what happens: I’m in the midst of a difficult conversation (extra points if I’m related to the other person) and I know EXACTLY how to defuse the situation—but I’m so angry and hurt that I’m completely unwilling to do it. My sane brain says, “Hold up. Show them you understand where they’re coming from.” And my freaked out rodent brain says, “Oh, hell no. I’m going to snark. I’m going to sneer. Best of all, I’m going to win this argument with logic and reason.”

Sane brain: Right. And how often has that worked for you?

Rat brain: Exactly never. But I’m doing it anyway. It’s a stupid plan, but it’s my plan and I’m sticking with it.

Sane brain: Empathy could be nice.

Rat brain: What is this “empathy” of which you speak? But really, who cares? “Scorched earth” is an awesome policy.

Sane brain: I’m leaving now. I want a drink.

In a situation like this, NVC asks us to reach for care, to value the other person’s needs as much as our own. To see the other person not as the enemy, but as a human being in pain. I support this precept completely. But when I’m under pressure, sometimes I can get there and a lot of times, I can’t.

LUCKY FOR ME, when I can’t access compassion, I can often achieve curiosity. I may be angry at the other person; I might even think I hate them. But some part of my deranged rat brain remains interested in what this person is doing. And that saves me—because while my heart may have closed, my mind is still open for business. And in its sterile, nerdy way, it wants to understand what’s going on.

Several years ago, a friend and I went for a walk and proceeded to get into an argument that started small and then grew big. By the time we returned to our cars, we were both furious. Neither of us was offering empathy because clearly the whole problem was the other person’s fault. I was ready to bolt, but suddenly I saw how this was going to end: we would get in our cars, slam the doors, drive away and never speak again. Once we parted, it was going to be too hard to regroup: the odds of losing face would be high and both of us would decide to just let it go. End of story and end of friendship.

I didn’t want that.

As usual, my rat brain rejected all calls for compassion; however it was grudgingly curious. Why was my so-called friend saying these ridiculous things? What could she possibly be thinking? Oh right: What was she actually thinking?

Rat brain asked a few stilted questions; my friend replied no, no, no and eventually, YES.

AND I FINALLY got where she was coming from. In fact, it appeared she was trying to look out for me. Too bad I had interpreted her care as bossy, intrusive and patronizing. Damn. I still felt bruised but the door to my heart opened a tiny sliver. Instead of reacting, I could now listen—and my friend responded in kind. We stood on the sidewalk in front of our cars and worked it out. No doors were slammed. We hugged. Victory.

When I’m upset, I can’t always access empathy or compassion. But often I can get to a place of inquiry where I want to understand the other person. I can tell my snarky rat brain to shut up or take a nap—or at least get curious. And we all pull back from the edge.

Copyright ⓒ Lisa Montana

LISA MONTANA offers personal and executive coaching, conflict resolution and group facilitation. She works with individuals, families, businesses and organizations around the country. Contact Lisa at: lisa@baynvc.org.