A year ago, I wrote a piece about some of the pitfalls of learning and using Nonviolent Communication. That piece has been one of my most popular ones, and I received a number of comments that pointed out more areas to explore in how to possibly make Nonviolent Communication (NVC) ever more practical, relevant, and authentic. Today I want to address one aspect of this that is related to how welcoming the NVC community can be. I see this as an exercise in humility, acceptance, and flexibility.
Humility doesn’t come easily to me individually. Perhaps because of this awareness, I am quite vigilant about maintaining it as a commitment with regards to NVC. I am sadly aware that the NVC community is not welcoming to some groups of people. Most obviously, I know that if I were a Republican, I would find the groups of people attracted to NVC outright inhospitable. This is not true only of NVC groups, and is sadly familiar to me in any group of people I have seen so far who are politically left of center.
Here’s one example. Some years ago, I was offering monthly coaching calls to volunteers and activists of the Peace Alliance in support of their ability to work effectively on the Department of Peace campaign – not an NVC group! I remember two specific moments that highlight this difficulty. One was a moment in which someone on the call spoke up and said that she was a Republican, and talked about how hard it was for her to work with the other people in the group, the assumption that everyone would be a Democrat being one of the stumbling blocks for her. The other moment was when I did something akin to a collective role-play. I asked everyone on the call to imagine that they are opposed to the proposed legislation to establish a federal department of peace, and to imagine, as that person, hearing some of the things that they routinely say to each other or the arguments they make about the legislation. Then I asked them if, as that person, they felt any sense of care or respect for themselves. They immediately saw that their normal way of speaking would create barriers; that they truly had some hidden or not so hidden beliefs that Republicans were stupid for having the beliefs they had.
To this day, the campaign has not managed to cross the Democrat – Republican divide, and I cannot imagine that it will ever be successful without managing that feat. This would require, if nothing else, finding a way to make sense of the values and aspirations expressed through beliefs they wholly disagree with, so that they can relate to Republicans as whole human beings, to engage in true dialogue.
However familiar these dynamics are, I am still distressed that within NVC, a movement whose core principles include looking at any human behavior through an empathic, compassionate lens, people haven’t found a way to transcend the joking about right-wing policies and viewpoints and the acting as if anyone who is “reasonable” would “of course” agree with their views and norms.
More broadly, I am wishing for us to find more capacity to accept others and engage with them where they are rather than subtly requiring them to come to our world in order to be able to communicate with us. There are so many words and turns of phrase that are often used in the NVC community that code us politically and culturally in a way that makes it hard for people to feel comfortable with us. I am sure that I do this, too, though I know that I am committed to becoming aware of such ways of speaking and removing them from my lexicon. Although I have my own spiritual beliefs, for example, I wouldn’t speak of human needs as expressions of divine energy except in those places where I know rather than assume that these words would make sense to those present and would support mutual understanding between us.
I have sometimes had people who are not part of the NVC community join calls of mine, including the calls associated with this blog. When I knew they were there, I could feel my heart cringe whenever someone would use phrases such as “this didn’t meet my need for care and respect” or “would you enjoy giving me some empathy now?” – which are linguistic forms commonly used within practice settings. It is not so much the phrases themselves that are challenging for me. It is my concern that people are using them without awareness that there may be people in the room who are not familiar with them and who may be turned off. Similarly, most social settings share a norm of relatively restrained emotional expression. Because of that, when someone on a call engaged in describing her inner process for over ten minutes, that was also a challenging moment for me. I was imagining the people who are not used to it wondering if they accidentally dropped into a group therapy session instead of a phone-based class about consciousness and communication. Again, the issue I had was related to my seeing this action as an expression of lack of awareness and choice, which, to me, meant that there couldn’t have been sufficient consideration for those who are not habituated to the level of emotional vulnerability and willingness to explore deeply that is common in the NVC community. Indeed, for the most part, only members of the NVC community have stayed with the calls, and I am deeply saddened when I imagine that the language and the practices were at least part of what resulted in people choosing not to come back.
I work a lot with organizations and people who have not asked to be trained in NVC, and I aim to be mindful of that when I speak, to adapt my language and habits to their comfort level as much as I possibly can without losing my core integrity. I can only hope to become progressively better at noticing what might turn which person off, and that others will be inspired to join the quest to make our choice of words truly a choice rather than a newly acquired habit that separates us from others.
Someone I met a few months ago who was ambivalent about NVC even while being sympathetic to the core principles, said this to me: “I’ve been told that NVC is a spiritual thing. I personally think that it has been around long enough that now it has become religious.” I understand what she meant. We are, sadly, least tolerant of ourselves even when we are able to be empathic towards people who are not part of the community. People are often afraid of expressing themselves in NVC circles, for fear of being judged if they don’t use NVC “correctly!” Considering that one of the core aims of NVC practice is to free us from judgments, that people who are learning NVC correct each other instead of just being with each other in the flow of connection is profoundly tragic to me. The tragedy that I see is that even as we aim to transcend judgments, the strength of the conditioning that there is a “right” way to do things and that we must do it “right” or be somehow punished overpowers the efforts to reach inner freedom and choice.
This is, then, what I want: to speak to people in ways that work for them, that don’t require them to adopt my worldview or habits, that support them in being heard and understood without having to work hard to understand me, and that contribute to our ability to collaborate towards mutually beneficial goals while allowing each of us to pursue our needs in the ways that work for us. If I can do this, I right away model, on a microscopic scale, the very world I want to create for all of us.
Originally posted June 26, 2013