When we have conflicting desires, can Nonviolent Communication help us choose a course of action that works? When, as a reader asked me in a comment back in 2013, we have urges to do things that we know are not in our best interest, how can we engage within ourselves to find the freedom to attend to what is in our best interest? When we have an idea about what we should do, and yet act differently, what meaning can we make of it?
These are just a few examples of an ongoing larger inquiry that’s been preoccupying me for years:
How much choice do we really have? This is not an idle question for me, because our ability to choose freely is assaulted from two powerful sources: the external force of social structures and the internal force of trauma.
We are born and raised into specific cultures, classes, races, genders, and more, which shape our worldviews, ways of making sense of life, and our habits and preferences. Most of us, most of the time, go along with how things are, without questioning them or aiming to change them, even when we don’t like them.
In addition, we are constrained by the cumulative effect of our personal life experiences. When experiences in life are traumatic – which they appear to be for most people – they can affect our nervous systems in ways that make it hard to have choice in stimulating situations, exactly the moments when we would most want to have choice about how to respond. Trauma, as I understand it, is what happens to undigested difficult experiences. In the absence of a way to recover – through empathy or through physiological processes – those experiences soft-write our brains. They get stored in our nervous system as a predisposition to interpret reality through a particular lens that over-interprets danger. The interpretation happens so quickly that there is no room to be aware that we are even interpreting. Once danger is interpreted, the fight-flight-freeze system is charged with responding, since it’s the most efficient part of the brain for dealing with danger. Part of what makes it efficient is that it sidesteps conscious choice.
If so much is so constrained, then, why is it that I offer workshops on cultivating inner freedom? What gives me the faith that we can have more choice, even in challenging moments? The short answer: the existence of practices that support a compassionate and spacious relationship with our needs, and, with it, greater and greater choice. In the process, many people experience a change so profound that they “feel” their nervous system being rewired.
Needs and Choice
Ever since the Greeks, Western Civilization has adopted the belief that choice emerges from reason, the human faculty that allows us to transcend and control our lowly appetites and emotions and choose on the basis of what is rational. Karl Popper, a prominent Western philosopher in the 20th century, sums up this view in its extreme form in talking about what happens during a dispute, for example: “there are only two solutions; one is the use of emotion, and ultimately of violence, and the other is the use of reason, of impartiality, of reasonable compromise.” In other words, Popper sees emotions as the source of violence, certainly nothing to base decisions and choice on.
Recently, this entire edifice is being called into question. I do not pretend to be an expert in brain science, and even if I were, these kinds of discussions are way more elaborate than I would want to attend to in the context of a blog post. Still, I want to cite the work of Antonio Damasio, whose book Descartes’ Error points to a major flaw in the reliance on rationality. Damasio based part of his thesis on the observation that people who neurologically lose their capacity to feel also lose their capacity to make decisions. Even when they are cognitively unimpaired and able to name the considerations that would go into a rational decision, they are unable to make a decision because they can’t feel anything, and thus are deprived of the deeper mechanism of decision-making. For Damasio, it is that in the final analysis we make our decisions emotionally, not rationally.
What would it mean if we took this insight seriously? How would it affect how we approach choice?
To begin with, it would mean listening carefully to our emotions with the intention of understanding what they are telling us about what’s important to us, what we want. Such inner examination expands our inner horizon and brings with it more awareness of our needs. Since our emotions are outward expression of whether or not our needs are met or we anticipate that they will or will not be met, increased awareness of needs can give us insight about why our emotions are moving in particular directions, more understanding about what we truly want, more capacity to negotiate multiple inner needs, and, in the end, more choice we can stand by.
For example, having urges that at least some part of us recognizes are not in our best interest points to a complex internal map of needs that have not yet found their way to our full loving attention, let alone to a strategy to move forward that can support inner peace. Suppose I am diabetic and yet I repeatedly go for cookies. How can I engage with this urge productively instead of fighting it and losing that battle a dangerous proportion of the time? One way to move in this direction is to begin by opening my heart widely to having compassion for the urge to eat cookies. A kind of inner dialogue, suffused with empathy, might support me in recognizing that, perhaps, I keep reaching for cookies because of a longing for freedom from the severe constraints that diabetes is placing on me. When I can truly connect with that need, something softens. A new possibility may arise: instead of fighting against this urge, I can choose to mindfully mourn my losses on account of diabetes. Active mourning, not the topic of this post, is an amazing pathway towards more spaciousness around a need which would otherwise continue to demand attention in other ways. (Incidentally, I do not have diabetes, nor do I tend to go for cookies; this was only an example.)
Part of why more awareness of needs results in more access to choice is because, as I see it after many years of study, both academic and practical, needs occupy a position within our makeup that integrates emotion and cognition. This is because, as I said in my book Spinning Threads of Radical Aliveness, “understanding and connecting with our needs is a non-rational experience, while choosing actions to meet our needs relies on information and strategic thinking.”
Also, and equally importantly, if the deepest source of choice is having full awareness of our needs and choosing, consciously, what path to take to attend to which of them, then our emotions can prove immensely helpful if we learn how to glean information from them rather than reacting to them. They can give us information about what our needs are and how important they are to us if we stick with them long enough without reacting.
How does this work in real life, in the messiness of the ongoing necessity of making choices in a world that is not set up to meet human needs? Here are some practices and ideas that may be of help in cultivating more choice at a time of difficulty. Although I write about them linearly, this is not a step-by-step process, only a bouquet of options to consider.
Morality and Human Needs
A woman I shall call Janet shared with me her dilemma about relating to her sister. She couldn’t stand to listen to her sister speak and speak, and, at the same time, she was telling herself that she should be more open to her sister. Her misery only grew over time. How can a needs lens help?
What I have learned about having a “should” is that it is always an indication of some inner resistance. Otherwise, if no internal opposition existed, there would be no need to mobilize the harsh energy of a “should” to try to make something happen. With a “should”, the only options left internally are to submit to it or to rebel against it, neither of which is particularly satisfying. Instead, what you can do when you become conscious of having a “should” and you want greater choice for yourself, is to turn your attention to listening to all the messages that you have inside and to find the needs that are beneath them. This is the emotional part, digging under the resistance to find the needs. Once you have that, you can begin to plan and strategize about how to find a path forward that attends to as many of the needs you discovered as possible.
For Janet, this was a profound revelation. For as long as she was thinking about what is the right thing to do, nothing was possible except rigidity and inner fight, as there could be no shift about what is right. When she focused, instead, on discovering her own and her sister’s needs and considering what would work, much more flexibility and connection became possible.
She discovered that one of her strongest needs was to have a relationship with her sister where they are open to each other. Although she was still slipping into believing that her sister was only concerned with herself, this frame was crumbling. She began to see ways that she could invite her sister to co-create the relationship in a loving way. Towards the end of our exchange, what was most important to her was to recover her own capacity for presence, so she could be available to be a contribution to everyone. She committed herself to master the skill and capacity to respond to the difficult context, so she could maneuver what’s happening with her sister and create something of beauty with her instead of constantly protecting herself from her.
The entire frame of morality and the attendant focus on “should” and obligations rests on a certain view of human nature which I no longer subscribe to: the belief that, if left to our own devices, we would only care about our own needs, in the narrowest sense of the word. It is this view of human nature that continues to fuel our attempts, both individually and collectively, to rely on control and coercion, both internal and external, in order to achieve sociable results. What if all that is not necessary? What if the very dichotomy between self and other, individual and society, is entirely a thought construct? What if a world that works for all is a practical possibility, not a utopia?
One of the core foundations of Western thinking is an either/or form of thinking. Here’s how this approach shows up:
- We can respond from reason or from emotion, not from both at once, complementing and integrating each other.
- We can attend to our needs or to the needs of others; there is no path that works for all of us at a time of conflict.
- We can be honest or caring, not both.
- We can be authentic and lose connection and belonging in a group, or we can give up our authenticity in order to have connection and belonging; we cannot have both.
- We can collaborate or be efficient in our work; we cannot do both at once.
Finding a way to even ask the questions that assume that a both/and approach is possible already changes our internal landscape and creates options. A few years ago, for example, I took it upon myself to aim for being more radical and less alienating at the same time, and something fundamental shifted within me. I began to question my core either/or belief that there was no room for me as I am, in the full radicalness of my ideas and approach, within the human family. Beginning to question this belief has relaxed me to a degree that I can now “get away” with saying much more that challenges the prevailing way of life without being ostracized in response.
Similarly, the Center for Efficient Collaboration, the new entity we created recently at BayNVC, is premised on the outrageous assertion that collaboration and efficiency are not a tradeoff; that when orchestrated effectively, and when viewed through a wider lens, collaboration ends up being more efficient than unilateral decision-making.
I invite you to try it out. Consider where you have come to believe that life is a tradeoff, and ask yourself how you can maximize both ends of the either/or frame you have been using, and then put that into practice as far as you can. Investigate this over time, experiment with it, and see if you end up experiencing more choice in your life.
A Blueprint for Making Decisions?
Some time ago, during a conversation with a person I highly respect who was holding a position of significant power within a large global corporation, I was trying to describe to him how I approach complex decisions in my life. I start with making contact with the largest vision I have for how I would want to respond to the situation at hand. I continue with evaluating how much of that is possible within the reality I am facing: what are the relationships, the norms, and the codes of behavior that I want to be mindful of as I proceed; and what are my own internal limitations of courage, skill, experience, and willingness. I then choose my response such that I would move as far in the direction of the vision as the current circumstances allow. Finally, I bring as much tenderness as possible to the tension between the two, so I can mourn it without judging the world or myself.
I thought, initially, that I was describing something about myself that was different from him, still seeing myself as separate, lonely, defeated. Then I was jolted into realizing this is the only thing that a conscious human being could ever do. Instead of separating me from him, this realization brought me closer to him, with more tenderness for both of us.
Could this, then, be a practice we could adopt as we move ever closer to inner freedom? And, if so, how might we respond to ourselves when we are not happy with a choice we made? Is it, finally, time to retire the old way of responding with harshness, affirming our ability to choose as an ideal that doesn’t honor our limitations?
I would love to believe we could all learn to stretch more fully into making choices from within, and then using our inevitable lapses as opportunities to befriend ourselves even more. When faced with a difficult choice, especially when you are agitated, you could first stop. Stop and breathe, bring oxygen to the brain and begin to create new options. Stop long enough to make full contact with your needs, bring compassion to all of your needs, and choose your response honoring as many of them as possible, even when you are afraid.
When you make a choice you subsequently don’t like, you could bring internal curiosity to learning about and befriending the needs that showed up in the limitation, so that you can expand the range of your choice, include more options, and practice new responses. Then you can practice, after the fact, the response that you wish to have had. You can gradually rewire your nervous system through rehearsing after the fact how you would behave if you could meet the situation when you are not stimulated. This has happened to me in several significant areas, such as my relationship with time, or my sense of being me in the world. Over time, and certainly not overnight, you can change the neural network of reactivity. Inner freedom, like nonviolence, is about being able to choose consciousness at a time when the fight/flight/freeze system is likely to be activated. I hope many of you join me in the commitment to stay in conscious choice more and more of the time.
 Only parts of my research about these topics ever got published; the portions that found their way to this book. The rest is in my doctoral dissertation, Beyond Reason: Reconciling Emotion with Social Theory, which I finished in 2000 and which is unlikely to ever be published.
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