More intentionally using Non-Violent Communication

My wife and I are using the essence of Non-Violent Communication (NVC) more these days.

I learned it 15-20 years ago in Oregon – read books, went to workshops, and also a weekly practice group.

It’s amazing what it does. Situations that could escalate because of poor communication, hurt, and fear, now lead to closer connection and intimacy.

It seems so simple. It is simple when we do it.

THE ESSENCE OF NVC LANGUAGE

What’s the essence of NVC?

It’s been a while since I heard or read anything about it so it’s filtered by time and what I find interesting.

To me, it’s to use some version of “I feel… because…” and to be as sincere as possible.

For me, I find fear under almost anything – anger, frustration, sadness, and so on. So I may say “I feel angry because… and really, I feel fear, I am scared because….”.

Similarly, when I say “because….” I can mention a trigger in the situation, and I may also add what’s really going on which is a painful belief I have or an old emotional issue.

So for me, it often takes the form of: “I feel X because of Y, and it’s really fear because of this painful belief and this old issue from childhood”.

This is not about a specific language or formula. It’s more about being aware of (a) what I feel and (b) some things about why, and then communicating it in whatever way is real and seems helpful in the situation. The “I feel… because…” formula may be a good support at first and in more charged situations, and as we get more used to it, it becomes more organic and we find our own way with it.

This tends to defuse the situation. The other may say “thank you” and share what they feel and what triggered it.

NEEDS AND STRATEGIES

The other essence of NVC for me is to differentiate needs and strategies to meet those needs. We can get overly focused (and obsessed) with a particular strategy without recognizing or exploring other strategies that may work as well or better. We may also not be very aware of what the need is.

So I can first identify my need and then explore a range of strategies to meet that need. That makes it easier for two or more to find strategies that work for both or everyone.

I find that my needs are usually quite essential and universal. At one level, it may be food, water, shelter, rest. And at another level, safety, love, being seen and understood, and so on.

Image by me and Midjourney

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A few notes on writing

I am under no illusion of being a very good writer, but I have discovered a few things based on my own experience.

The best approach to writing for me seems to be:

  1. Write down the topic with a few ideas that come right away.
  2. Set it aside and let it digest. During this time, I typically investigate the topic in my direct experience and write down a few words about what I notice. Apart from that, I don’t think about it very much if at all.
  3. When the topic feels sufficiently digested, I write an outline and sometimes add to it as new insights and ideas comes to me.
  4. And when it feels sufficiently digested for an article, write the article. If I allow time for digesting in this way, the writing typically happens quickly and easily.

The time for digestion varies but usually goes over a few days. And sometimes, I combine step one and two and change the outline later after some digestion and exploring,

When I find myself satisfied about what I have written, it’s usually when I wrote the final text fast and easily after allowing enough time for digestion and expiration.

If I struggle with a text and have to revisit and rewrite, it usually means I didn’t allow enough time for digestion, direct investigation, and outlining. No matter how much I rewrite, it typically feels disjointed and as if written by committee.

It often helps to set it aside completely and go back to the beginning. I may do a new outline. I explore it in my direct experience. And I write the article from scratch. Then, it often comes out fast and easily and feels much better.

And sometimes, I write fast and easily without this process, and I am initially happy with it. As the topic has more time to digest in me, I typically realize I left out something important or I wish I had organized the text differently. And I may rewrite it.

The digestion process leads to a better product. And equally or more important, it allows me to explore the topic more thoroughly and discover something new and surprising to me, which feels far more satisfying. Surprising myself, even in a small way, makes it worth it.

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When curiosity and parts language is misunderstood

I am used to parts language and, with someone I assume will understand, I sometimes say what I am curious about and notice in myself.

Most of the time, they understand since I know them and they know me and we both have a shared curiosity and language about this.

And sometimes, it’s misunderstood.

HOW I SEE IT

I notice that a part of me feels or perceives a situation a certain way. I know this inevitably colors my perception, feelings, thoughts, and life, even if it’s only to a very small degree. I also know that we all have everything in us. We have everything we see in others and in the whole world in ourselves. Even if I love someone deeply and wholeheartedly, there is also a (small) part of me who dislikes or even hates that person. It’s all normal and we all have this in us.

So when I notice something in me, and it seems the right situation to mention it – to a friend, or my partner, or a therapist, I may mention it since I am curious about it, find it fascinating, and want to be authentic and transparent.

HOW IT CAN BE PERCEIVED

If people are not familiar with parts language, they may misunderstand in several ways.

They may assume that what I say is how I – as a whole – see and feel and perceive it.

If they do, they may take it personally and feel hurt, offended, and get upset.

They may also take it as something big and dramatic instead of something very small, and blow it out of proportion.

They may assume it’s something persistent instead of fleeting and assume it’s something that has been brewing for a long time and I haven’t said anything about it.

They may see it as very unusual, weird, and pathological instead of something we all have in us.

They may also think I mean something hidden by saying it, that it’s some kind of code, and try to figure out what that is, instead of seeing it as an innocent and natural curiosity and noticing.

REMEDIES

What is the remedy?

The obvious one is to be more discerning. I am usually quite discerning, but I sometimes assume – or hope – that the other person will understand, and it turns out they don’t.

Even people who have been into spirituality for a long time, or who are trained therapists, are sometimes not familiar with this way of exploring and talking about it.

Another is to frame it and then put it in the frame. Before sharing what I notice, I may preface it by saying that this is something I notice in myself, it’s not big at all, it doesn’t mean anything, and I am curious about it and want to share it.

And, if it happens, to talk about it. If these misunderstandings happen, I can explain. Although I have experienced that this is too late and they have already made up their mind and reacted to it. It’s better to do it upfront.

Say the fear instead of acting on it

This is very basic but makes a crucial difference in our life.

When I am with someone else and something is triggered in me, how do I relate to it? Do I react to it and act on that reaction? Or do I notice the fear and discomfort in me and acknowledge it to myself and perhaps the other person?

This is especially important in our close and intimate relationships. And this is also, hopefully, where we can feel more safe to practice acknowledging what’s going on.

My partner says something. It triggers a reaction in me. I notice what’s happening and perhaps the temptation to go into reactivity and defensiveness. Instead, I can find and acknowledge the fear behind what was triggered in me. And if I feel ready and safe enough, I can say it to my partner.

When you say that – when you give an ultimatum, when you make things black and white like that, when you blame me – I notice I feel scared.

The honesty of it is often enough to diffuse a situation that otherwise could be tense and go into reactivity-dynamics on both sides.

At first, it can feel less safe. But is it really? Is it safer to go into defensiveness and reactivity? Is it unsafe to be completely honest and vulnerable?

If it feels unsafe, we can examine it for ourselves in this way. And we can also talk with our partner – or another close person in our life – about it in advance. We can set the stage for trying this out in future situation. We can even support each other in this.

It can be a beautiful shift in how we relate to ourselves, the other, and perhaps each other.

If you can’t explain something in simple terms, you don’t understand it

If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t really understand it.

attributed to Richard Feynman or Albert Einstein

I try to write very simply here, and it’s for a couple of different reasons:

It’s easier to read and understand.

Why not make it as easy to understand as possible? If I want what I write to be useful for the recipient, I want it to be as clear, simple, and understandable as possible.

It shows me how well I understand it.

If I start a post and it doesn’t flow or is easily written, I usually set it aside, let it simmer somewhere in me (without paying much or any attention to it), and return to it another day. Most often, it is then much easier to write and it flows better.

There is another reason why I chose to use a simple language. It’s because I have seen others, especially in academia, who use an overly complicated and fancy-sounding language. And more often than not, they do it – either intentionally or unintentionally – to mask a lack of clarity and poor understanding from their side. Some also do it to appear more impressive and mask a lack of self-esteem. I don’t want to play that game.

I want to understand and come from some clarity. And I want to use the writing process to find a bit more clarity.

Pitfalls of parts language

I sometimes share little things I notice in me that are at the polar opposite end of the big picture situation. It feels honest, raw, and vulnerable. It feels deeply human to me, and I think that’s why I sometimes am attracted to it.

For instance, I may deeply love someone, and sometimes other things come up as it does for all of us. And to me, it feels good to share. It feels transparent, human, vulnerable. It can deepen a sense of intimacy.

It can also backfire, as I have experienced a few times. (I really wish to learn.) And this can especially happen if the person I am talking with is less familiar or comfortable with parts language.

For instance, a girlfriend some years ago was about to visit my parents. We had it all planned with dates and everything else and it felt deeply good and right to me. Unfortunately, in a moment of wanting to be extra transparent, I shared with her that a part of me felt nervous or scared about her visiting my parents. It triggered a deep wound in her (so it seems), she was convinced I didn’t want her to visit my parents, and she canceled her trip and told her friends and family that I didn’t want her to visit my parents. Nothing I said seemed to have an impact.

In hindsight, I see that I was too casual about how I said it. I was used to talking with people familiar with parts language, so I didn’t consider how people who were less familiar with it could take it. In this situation, it would probably have been better to not say it. And I also see that I assumed she knew how much it meant for me that she was coming, how much I genuinely looked forward to it, and how deeply right it felt. If I had said that explicitly first, that could also have prevented her reaction.

I had said all of those things to her in other situations, but not in this one. And that may have made all the difference. I realize that when these things are said in separate situations, the person may think I have changed my mind. And if they are said together, it’s easier for the person to see that they do indeed go together. They are both there. One is the big picture. (In this case, that it felt deeply right for her to meet my parents.) The other is a small part of me that sits on the other end of the polarity. (In this case, some nervousness.)  And that is how it is for all of us about just about anything, if we really look.

The yin-yang symbol reflects this. There may be one big picture and overriding orientation, for instance, something feels deeply right. And within that, there are small parts of us that are scared. It’s good to acknowledge both.

In hindsight, I also see that if I could have shared the reason a small part of me felt nervous: She and my family both meant a lot to me, and I really wanted them to like each other and get along well. I realize that she may have had another story about this nervousness. (One I still don’t know what was.)

As a friend said, we never know what we will do or say that will trigger deep wounds in someone else. That’s why people who are skillful communicators are extra conscious to frame things so the right meaning is more likely to get across. (Even then, there are no guarantees.)

Taking a step back or two steps forward

In my communications with others, I sometimes notice a choice between taking a step back or two steps forwards.

I can chose to not say what is alive for me, to hold back, and perhaps tell myself I am acting out of integrity by not expressing it. Sometimes, this may be appropriate.

But not if I wish a more alive, open and trusting connection with the other person.

In that case, I can chose to go two steps forward, to reveal myself more, to bring what’s already here more consciously into the relationship, and then navigate this new terrain from a deeper sense of honesty, and of trust in the process.

Being clear on my most basic desires – such as  a desire for connection – serves as a guide for me here.

The first choice can lead to stagnation. The second to a sense of freedom, trust, and aliveness.

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Mental field and communication

In exploring the mental field, I notice a few things related to language and communication…

The mental field mimic each of the other fields. It mimics sight (images), sound, taste, smell, sensation, and even itself. (For instance when there is a memory of a previous thought.)

The mental field labels and interpret what is going on in the other fields. There is a sound, then an image of a bird placed on that sound. (In the area of space where that sound seems to come from.) A smell, and an image of a possible source and further associations.

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Aspects of communication

An interesting point from Indistinct Union:

All writing is arrogance….of a sort. To say anything, however humble, is to assume one has something to say that has some validity, that someone will find useful. I put these thoughts on the World Wide Web. That’s arrogance.

It may be true, but some other things about writing and communicating – whether with others or myself – are also true…

Independent of anything else happening, when I communicate with myself or others…

  • It helps me clarify certain views and perspectives I am already familiar with
  • It helps me explore a certain area I am already familiar with, but in more depth
  • I can move beyond what I am familiar with, in the same general direction, in a more deliberate and systematic way
  • I sometimes surprise myself by coming up with something different from what I expected or something beyond what I was familiar with
  • I can actively take on, explore, and find the validity in views and perspectives I am less familiar with, including those very different from or opposite to my habitual perspectives. In this way, I move outside of what I am familiar with, it helps me understand better where others are coming from, and I also become more familiar with other sides of myself and the human experience
  • I can explore areas that are new or unfamiliar to me and learn something about them
  • By writing something down, I can more easily let go of it. I don’t need to try to remember it anymore, and can move on.

Among these, I see that all happen for me, and all have their own value.

If something is happening in the world, and I bring up something that can be a catalyst for change, I usually go with what is already familiar to me and habitual views (respect for life, widening circles of care, meeting people where they are, and so on).

If I work on myself, I often explore views and areas different from what I am used to, through for instance The Work or Voice Dialog or something similar. And this latter feeds back to the first since it helps me loosen my grip on certain views, understand better where others are coming from, and see how we are all in the same boat.

(As I write this, I see how certain KW flavored integralists will see this as green and holistic and all the things they don’t like very much, but that is not all there is to it. For instance, meeting people where they are at and speaking a language they understand also – obviously – means meeting people at red with red/amber means when necessary, including using force.)

As a receiver of what someone else communicates….

  • In general, whatever is communicated mirrors something in myself and helps me notice it. I find in myself what I see out there… views, experiences, qualities and more.
  • It helps me clarify, explore and move beyond views and areas I am already familiar with.
  • It helps me become familiar with views and areas unfamiliar to me, which helps me find it in myself and also understand better where others are coming from. We all are familiar with views and areas unfamiliar to someone else, so by sharing this inevitably happens.
  • It can help me explore views coming up in response to the view expressed. What I hear or see may trigger something in me in response, which helps me clarify and become familiar with it, and act on it as well in some situations.

So wherever it comes from, it can be of benefit of the receiver. In that sense, any sharing of views, perspectives, information, opinions, experiences and so on is an act of generosity. It may mirror something in the receiver, and may also trigger something different in response.

Does all of this automatically happen. Maybe yes and no. It may well be that most or all of this inevitably happens, and it then becomes an invitation that is consciously accepted and acted on or not. And for some, it is an active and conscious practice to work with it this way.