One of my favorite forms of teaching is live group coaching, of the kind I’ve been doing recently through the NVC Academy, in a course called “Dialogue with Anyone about Anything”. Usually, I have only the satisfaction of seeing the in-the-moment transformation, when someone realizes they can have an entirely different conversation, or even relationship, with someone else. On rare occasions, I also get to hear what happens afterwards: did the coaching yield results? Did the relationship get transformed? Some time ago, what happened during the call was so remarkable, that I asked Sandra (made up name) to tell me what happened when she put what she learned into practice. Here’s her story.
Sandra’s dad is eighty-one years old, and thinking proactively about his upcoming death. He’s decided that he wants Sandra to live in his house once he’s gone. Which would be great, except that she doesn’t want to. Although she likes the house, she cannot live there because she’s so full of fear when she’s alone at night in the house, a fear she doesn’t understand, that she cannot sleep there.
Prior to Sandra and me talking, they had had several conversations about this that went nowhere in circles. He had been trying to convince Sandra, every time she was there, that this is a nice place, a paradise in his words, and that everybody’s safe. Sandra was then repeatedly stuck with how to respond. She didn’t want to lie to him and make promises she couldn’t keep, and she was very clear that she wasn’t going to live there, just clueless how to speak to him. Whenever she did try to voice her concerns to him, he only redoubled his efforts to give her all the good reasons why it would be such a great idea: there’s no rent, it’s a really nice place, and the garden is so amazing…
Sounds familiar? Then read on for, perhaps, unfamiliar possibilities that Sandra discovered through a role play in which I was her father and gave her feedback on her attempts to talk with him. Through that feedback, some of which is excerpted below, Sandra came to see that all along she had been holding back “the obvious” – her care for him and her desire to support his wishes. This omission of saying how much we care for the other person in a conflict or even in a simple request is something we all do, so often. Then see how things shifted, for both of them, when she was able to have an entirely different conversation with him.
As soon as Sandra tried, I knew right away a big part of the issue: she was doing the very same thing that she said her father was doing: she was trying to explain herself, and thereby convince her dad that it simply wasn’t possible. There was nothing that would give him any sense that she was holding his needs with care any more than there was anything in what he was saying that indicated that he was holding hers. This is what we usually do in conflict: we each hang on to the rightful necessity of what we want, and present it as if that’s just the right thing. No wonder conversations go awry.
Sandra was simply stating all the ‘no’s: No, I don’t want this, I can’t do this. There was nothing that said something like: This is really hard for me because I would so like to do what you want, and I so understand all the benefits, and I wish I could, and I just can’t… because of the fear. Sandra immediately knew why, even though all this is there, her care for him has remained unspoken. In her words: “There’s some kind of thinking that he knows it, without saying.” Sandra is far from alone. Somehow, and I am not sure I know why quite yet, we tend to believe that the positive connecting message is already understood and the only thing that we need to say is the negative message because that’s the one that’s not understood.
Seeing the World through Another Person’s Eyes
As Sandra and I continued our exchange to examine how she could hold his needs in what she said, it soon became clear that she is not actually able to see his needs. She couldn’t truly understand why it was so important to him that she live in the house after he dies. This is so often the case: we don’t show care for others’ needs because we don’t see them, and don’t even see that we don’t see them. I have never once regretted making it a priority to look deeply into what might be other people’s needs in a conflict situation, even when they themselves are unwilling or unable to name them.
So I invited her to imagine that she was him. I literally walked her through it, learning the details along the way. She is his only remaining child. His wife had died and his son had died. He’s in his eighties. I asked her to imagine: what would he want for his only daughter? She knew right away the answer: to have her happy.
Then we focused on the house. How would the desire for her happiness lead him to want her to live in the house? It was quite a challenge for her to do what is technically known as “perspective taking” – the so-called stepping into someone else’s shoes; the leaving behind our own perspective, as dear and clear as it is, to see the emotional and logical coherence of another perspective. Finally, when she was able, she saw things bit by bit. First she understood, in a visceral way she had never before touched, that by refusing to live there she is in some fashion refusing him, and he could so easily experience it as a rejection.
I asked Sandra to pause and take that in, to let it open her heart. This kind of experience can be so transformative, because it can completely affect how she will talk with him, regardless of whether it’s true that he would experience it as rejection. Sandra was feeling a deep, heavy, physical sensation, which I invited her to stay with long enough to feel the shift.
Sandra then shared that he had lived in the house, with some breaks, for a total of sixty years, and was fully identified with it. I pointed out to her that in our modern life, in our generation, most of us lack the possibility of imagining what it’s like to essentially live in one house for most of our life. I, for one, have lived probably in thirty or more places in my fifty nine years, as did Sandra. The bond that her father has with his house is unfamiliar to us, and so strong.
That’s when Sandra was able to finally make sense of his father’s continued refrain that the house was a paradise. And then together, we could see that, from his perspective, her refusal to live there made no sense. He was offering her a chance to live in paradise, and insisting that if she could only get her act together and get over her little issues, she would be able to live in paradise for the rest of her life.
Sandra finally realized that just as much as he had not been able to hear her, she had not been able to hear him. And now she was ready.
Asking the Relevant Question
The last thing we reviewed before asking her to try again was the question she asked at the end of her first try in the role play. It was a deceptively simple question: “I would like you to tell me how that is for you”. This kind of question is almost bound to backfire. Here’s why. Sandra knows that she’s telling him something that would be hard for him to hear, and, despite it, she is inviting him to shift his attention to himself instead of asking him something that would help him stay focused on her.
If this is not clear, then I invite you to do what I asked Sandra to do to help her see it. Imagine that you are the father, and you just heard from Sandra something about what makes it hard for her to choose to stay in the house, and then imagine her asking you one of the following two questions, and see what it asks you to do with your attention.
Can you tell me how it is for you to hear this?
Can you tell me in your own words your understanding of why I don’t want to stay here?
One of the core practices of Nonviolent Communication is to end whatever we say with a question, a request to the other person. This is what allows a dialogue to continue smoothly. The question we ask people after speaking gives them instructions about where to put their attention. Of course, everyone is a free agent, and they may choose to do something else. Still, what we say and what we ask gives them an initial suggestion, which can be immensely helpful, especially in times of conflict.
The second of the two examples above asks the father to put his attention on Sandra and her words. In that way, it diminishes ever so slightly the chances that he will respond in his usual way. In the first example, he is being asked to put his attention on him and his reaction. As I told Sandra, she is extremely unlikely to get what she wants when she asks it like this. She would be asking him to put his attention somewhere other than what she wants to hear from him about.
Supporting People in Hearing Us
There’s more to it, though, because asking anyone to reflect something is not an easy task. For someone in his eighties who is already thinking about his death, it’s unlikely that he is eager to learn new skills or to make an effort. What can Sandra do to make it even easier for him? How can she support him for it to be less of an effort?
Here’s what it could sound like. Quite a bit more words and effort for Sandra, and, in my mind, less effort for dad:
I want to ask you to do something that might be a little uncomfortable. And it’s important for me because we’ve had this conversation unsuccessfully. I really, really want us to be able to hear each other. So I want to support you in being able to hear me. And I’m happy to say everything that I said again. I would like to hear what you got from what I said. In your own words. What do you think I am trying to tell you?
And what if he then says “Yes, you said you don’t want to live here,” asked Sandra?
I told her what I had told hundreds of people after learning it directly from Marshall Rosenberg years ago: begin by saying “thank you” to him. Why? Because he would be doing exactly what she asked him to do, which is to tell her what he heard. It may be different from what she wanted him to hear, and it still is what he heard! In addition, I would like to remember to thank people in such a situation because it’s extremely helpful to see the gap between what we intend and what another person hears – it points us to what we need to do to bridge the gap. It gives her an opportunity to say, more clearly, what’s missing. It also would remind her to say all the positive stuff that he didn’t hear, some of which she didn’t even say!
Including Both People’s Needs
By the time we reviewed all this, Sandra’s heart was wide open, and she was exhausted. I stepped in to help her, offering her this framing for how to start the conversation with him:
I want to come back to the topic that’s been hard for us to talk about, about what happens to the house after you die. I’ve done a lot of thinking about it. And I want to start by telling you that I finally got it, how big the gift is that you’re trying to give me. You want my happiness and you want me to live in what you think of as paradise, and I’m very touched. And I want to know if I got it; if this is really what is really motivating you.
I was both delighted and sad to hear that this was all true for Sandra. Delighted to have gotten it and to have supported her in finding a way to articulate it. Sad, because of wishing so much that we would all remember, so much more of the time, to say it all.
I felt sure that if Sandra could to stay with her dad until she was sure he’d got it, she could confirm that with him: Dad, do you trust that this gift is coming in to my heart? Sooner or later, he would be able to know that. That’s when it would be time for her to actually let him know what was happening in her. Here’s how it might unfold:
So now I want to tell you what my big problem is. I wish I could receive your gift. Now that I really see how big it is and how beautiful it is, I wish I could receive it. The thing is, it’s not a gift for me in this way, it’s not paradise for me. I don’t know why. I can’t understand why I am always scared when I’m here. If I agree to what you want then it’s possible that every night for the rest of my life I will not sleep well and I will be scared, all night long. I can’t imagine this is what you want for me. (Pause) I want us to find some other way for this gift to come to me that works for me. Are you open to talking about it? Can you see why it can’t work for me?
That was when Sandra was able to relax in full and begin to smile. The weight was finally being lifted off her. She was ready to go and speak with dad with an open heart.
The Happy Ending
In parting, I would like to quote from Sandra’s email to me after her conversation with her dad. It speaks for itself:
I could see the relief in my Dad’s face when he heard that I finally understood what a treasure he wants to give to me. At the end of the conversation he said it would be totally fine for him if we rent the house until any of us (me or my boys) would like to live there. I’m still touched!
What I didn’t expect at all is that, after we came to this place of really having heard each other, my resistance to living in the house decreased a little bit more with every passing day. I can almost imagine buying an Alarm System and a big dog and living there…hope it will not come so soon…..
When we genuinely approach a difficult situation with the intention to make it work for everyone, magic happens. At least some of the time. May it happen to you.
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