Why Does It Take so Long?

by Miki Kashtan

In my last post I wrote about some of the ways that I see Nonviolent Communication (NVC) as being remarkably practical. That piece was set up as a response to the frequent critiques of NVC that come my way, sometimes even from long-time NVC enthusiasts. In this post I want to address this critique from a different angle.

I have, indeed, often seen dialogues that take way longer than I would anticipate, even with support from an experienced NVC mediator or facilitator. I know of people who have given up on certain relationships or groups they were part of, despite making ongoing attempts to connect and reach mutual understanding. I have seen many times decisions about seemingly small items take so long that many wished someone would just dictate the outcome instead of the agonizing attempt to get everyone’s needs on the table. What is going on in all of these situations?

Lack of Trust
Undoubtedly there are many different reasons and issues at play in each situation. My own experience leads me to a strong suspicion that a major contributor to this difficulty is the degree to which so many of us live with a permanent sense of mistrust. Just last week I was present for a situation between two friends and business partners who clearly love each other and nonetheless operate in a mutually antagonistic way about their business. I was astonished by how each of their attempts to protect and guard their own needs resulted in more stress for the other, who then proceeded to guard their own needs even more strongly. Trust, especially the foundational trust that we matter, appears to me to be a sine qua non for the possibility of resolving conflicts, reaching agreements, making collaborative decisions, or any other endeavor that includes within it the possibility of difference and disagreement.

Tuesday evening, during the discussion of my previous blog post that took place as part of my weekly telecourse on the topics of this blog, I became even more clearly aware of this dynamic as one person after another spoke about the ease with which they lose their emotional balance in difficult situations. That ease, in my view, is rooted in the lack of trust that our needs would matter, and hence an intensity of protectiveness around them. Learning to make NVC more practical, then, is about cultivating inner trust as well as recognizing others’ lack of trust, and aiming to nurture both while engaging in any challenging conversation.

Attachment to Outcome
One of the most common ways that such lack of trust shows up is in the form of attachment to outcome. The magic of NVC as a powerful tool is directly proportional, I believe, to the degree to which we can approach our interactions without being attached to a particular outcome, instead focusing on what’s likely to contribute to everyone’s needs being met. If we use the language of NVC without that intention, others can see through our words and recognize, sometimes without conscious awareness, that we are trying to make something happen whether or not it will work for them. So goes the cycle of escalation.
When one or more parties to a dialogue remains attached to outcome, the possibility of a breakthrough, imaginative solution that works for everyone diminishes. Tension can mount and escalate even as everyone is using the language of NVC because hearts are more and more closed rather than more and more open as the dialogue continues. Shifts are so much more likely to happen when people are fully heard and when they fully hear another.

Awareness of Purpose at Hand
Most people in North America still learn NVC in contexts that prioritize healing, human connection, and personal growth (though this is changing as NVC is moving more into organizational settings). This creates an imprint that’s often hard to shake when attempting to apply NVC in parenting, in a work setting, or anywhere where other considerations are paramount, such as reaching decisions, moving quickly through time and space, or making something happen.

Since applying NVC focuses on human connection, the key to making it practical is knowing precisely what kind of connection and how much of it is optimal for the purpose at hand. Bringing empathy designed for healing into a meeting with a tight agenda is neither asked for nor necessary for the business of the meeting to continue, and is likely to either not fly at all or derail the meeting considerably and meet with some bewilderment or outright resistance. Instead, if someone is unhappy with something, a very brief form of connection may be all that’s needed to re-establish sufficient trust and presence to continue with the business of the meeting.

Not Knowing which Truth to Tell
When people first learn NVC, many put enormous effort into trying to find the “right” words to use. This in itself creates tension, which is added to the tension of whatever judgment, attachment to outcome, or any other reaction exists inside the person. That tension, the effort, and the gap between the words and the intentionality all combine to create stiffness and awkwardness that immediately register as inauthentic.
I no longer believe there is a contradiction between truth and care. I have seen time and again that if we focus deeply enough, we can almost invariably find a way to express genuinely what’s true for us in a way that honors our own dignity and maintains care for others.

How can we say the truth in those moments when it seems impossible? First and most important, we let go of the words and focus instead on intention. The two intentions that I find most conducive to a satisfying and efficient outcome are to tell the full truth with care, and to work toward a solution that works for everyone. The words will follow. Other intentions work as well, such as to hear everyone with compassion, including self, or to be fully present to everything in the room. It almost doesn’t matter what the intention is provided we are conscious of it and choose to prioritize it.

Once the intention is in place, we can see what obstacles arise in carrying it out, and then speak about them with gentle transparency. We can’t imagine a mutually acceptable solution to the moment’s conflict? We can say that: “I want to make this work for both of us, and right now I am confused enough about how to make that happen that I don’t know what to say next. Can you hold on a minute to allow me to catch up with myself?” We are caught in judgment and reaction? We can own that in a self-responsible way: “I am not at my best now, there is too much reaction going on inside of me for me to be able to listen to you. Are you OK to come back to this conversation later?” This level of transparency, even if not comfortable or familiar, can restore trust and congruence, and support more connection. Once connection is there, we can then work together to find the solution, in the moment or later.

Tips for Making It Work

To put it all together, I would like to provide a few key tips for those who truly want to learn how to make NVC work in practical and challenging settings. I believe if you apply yourself to the following guidelines, you are likely to be well on your way:

  • Before going into a complex situation, and ongoingly, do whatever you can do that will help you cultivate trust that you and your needs matter.
  • If you have any judgments of anyone present, do whatever it is that helps you transform the judgments and reconnect with yourself.
  • If you are attached to a particular outcome, find the underlying needs you have and imagine at least two other strategies that would meet your needs other than the outcome you want.
  • Pick an intention that you want to carry through the conversation or process, and come back to it as often as possible.
  • Align your words with your intention to the best of your ability, staying clear from any notion or question about what you’re supposed to say.
  • Whenever you struggle, look for a way to be transparent about it while holding awareness of and care for the others involved.

I am confident that if we can build practice to do all these things, and if we can bring self-acceptance and gentleness to the inevitable mistakes we will make, we can become progressively more capable of being practical. Imagine what could happen if could free ourselves up from these constraints. I so love the image of countless change agents, at every level, using small, practical, and simple steps to bring the magic of collaboration to every corner of the planet. Wouldn’t that be lovely?

10 thoughts on “Why Does It Take so Long?

  1. Lori L.

    Thank you for your blog, I grow a lot from reading it. I think trust is huge, I agree. However having everyone of the mindset that the outcome should or even could include everyone's needs is something many of us in the U.S. culture could use some practice. We could become a more compassionate culture with NVC. It does seem time consuming however I think it can help people feel

  2. J McElhaney

    I appreciated the reminder about intending to tell the truth with care and find a way to work towards a solution that works for everyone. A piece that seemed new to me, or which I could hear with newfound receptivity and understanding, was: "the key to making it practical is knowing precisely what kind of connection and how much of it is optimal for the purpose at hand." Yahoo for

  3. suz strasburger

    YES! Thanks Miki, you just gave me a great introduction to my July workshop "Being our own facilitator when we're in a challenging conversation!" 😉 (specifically: "the ease with which they lose their emotional balance in difficult situations. That ease…is rooted in the lack of trust that our needs would matter and an intensity of protectiveness around them. Learning to

  4. Jean Meier

    Thanks Miki for your efforts towards making NVC more practical, accessible and less formulaic. You write "when people first learn NVC, many put enormous effort into trying to find the 'right' words to use." How wonderful it would be if those teaching NVC could teach intro courses with an approach similar to what you describe so that NVC could be less formulaic from the beginning

  5. Jean Meier

    Miki, you write: "shifts are more likely to happen when people are fully heard." On my last job I found that to be true in a most profound way. I was working as a vocational counselor with people with disabilities. Almost every day at least one of my clients (together with my very difficult boss) was upset, frustrated, or angry. What helped me survive in those moments and even thrive on

  6. Jeff Brown

    Miki, I appreciate your insight that perhaps because most people are initially exposed to NVC in the context of healing, they come to associate NVC with healing and struggle to have interest and willingness to see its application anywhere else (e.g. organizations, in business, in politics, etc.)

    And frankly, this was my exposure and my own personal orientation to learning and sharing

  7. sarah

    I put this to practice recently in an ongoing conflict. With these insights fresh in my mind about building trust in each others intentions to make it work for both parties and the principle of "soliciting good intentions" from my children I approached a heated conflict (ongoing) about the use of the one and only prized living room hammock. Of course the time it is most in demand is

  8. Jean M

    Jeff's comment sparks a lot of curiosity about how learning NVC in other contexts, such as work, would shape all of this. I'd love to understand how much the frame affects our view of the picture, so to speak (except I am a bit uncomfortable with that metaphor b/c it's so static and NVC is ALIVE AND MOVING for me!). Will people who learn it in a business setting expand to the realm


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