This blog post from Steve began as an email to family members written in the last few months of his life, with some messages he wanted to pass on. Realizing it might be of wider interest, he asked me to be sure to share it with you. I’ve enjoyed re-reading it now, and I hope you do also. It’s a parting gift to us, and I feel his presence in it.
I want to share with you some tips that Connirae and I have found useful over the years, and wished that we had learned earlier! It would have saved us a lot of unpleasantness — and therapist fees. This may seem like a lot to read, but I think it will pay off in reduced confusion/friction, and increased satisfaction/happiness. There is nothing really new here, but hopefully you will find something that you haven’t seen before, or that you once knew, but that has slipped into disuse, and worthy of being revived. I don’t know why I didn’t think of putting this all together years earlier, but I didn’t; hopefully later is better than not at all.
I suggest that you try these out one at a time. You don’t need to do them all at once. Experiment with each one. Find out how well it works for you before going on to another one.
Three Little Words, “Tell me more.”
When discussions slide into arguments, we tend to think in terms of winning and losing, instead of working together to find a mutually beneficial solution, and we tend not to listen very well. Thinking that if we just get our own point across, that will do the trick.
Whenever things get difficult, pause and ask the other person, “Tell me more,” and really try to understand what the other person is saying. Virginia Satir used to say, “Peace comes through understanding, not agreement.” We can understand another person fully, and not necessarily agree with what they are saying. And if you really try to understand the other person and their point of view, it goes a long way toward a solution.
One of the main principles of NLP is that every behavior has at the root a positive intent. This isn’t always obvious, and it’s often not something that can be observed from the outside. There is lots of experimental evidence that we tend to evaluate others by their behavior, and ourselves by our positive intent. So the more you can make the positive intent of your actions or words, evident or obvious to the other person, the better the chance of coming to a good conclusion. Another word for positive intent is positive outcome or positive purpose.
Once you’ve determined a positive outcome that’s acceptable to both parties, that means you’ll be allies working together to find a solution, in contrast to being adversaries.
So when something seems amiss, you can simply ask the other person “What’s your positive outcome?” And/or you can let the other person know your positive outcome. If the first outcome you get seems negative, simply ask again, “What will that outcome get you?” You can repeat this question until you get to something positive.
Once you’ve got something positive, usually the two people already begin to feel like allies. You both want the positive thing.
Here’s a simple example:
Person A: When you talk to me loudly like that, I feel uncomfortable. What is your positive outcome in what you are saying?
Person B: I want you to know how upset I am.
Person A: (taking a moment to just take in this statement.) OK, I get you are really upset. (speaking with some understanding.) And if I really know how upset you are, what do you hope will happen through that? (speaking with curiosity)
Person B: Then I’m hoping you’ll listen to me about what’s important to me here.
Person A: OK. I want you to know I’m willing to listen to you and hear what’s important to you. And it will be easier for me to listen if you would be willing to talk to me in a softer and more friendly voice tone. Would that work OK for you?
Person A: You’ve been repeating the same thing over and over and I’m feeling frustrated listening to this.
Person B: (backtracking): So you’re feeling frustrated hearing me say the same thing again and again.
Person A: Yes.
Person B: I guess I haven’t told you what my intention is. Sorry about that. What I was wanting to get across is blah blah blah.
Either person can shift the conversation to make clear what the intention is, and move towards a solution. Person B can share their intention, and this can help the conversation get back on track. But if person B forgets to do this, then person A can ask, “What is your intention in doing this?”
To demonstrate that you really are listening, it is very useful to “backtrack,” by saying back to the person what they just said to you. “So what you’re telling me is….”
When Connirae and I first did this with each other, it felt silly to us, but it really did make a difference to know that we were being heard accurately. The other thing backtracking does is it slows the conversation down, and often makes both people feel calmer. The issue becomes simpler — It’s just “Do I understand what you’re saying? Are you saying X?” This is much easier to deal with than whether or not you agree with X. You can completely disagree with what your partner is saying, and yet both of you can agree that they are saying it and that you understand it.
To make this really work, after you backtrack, ask, “Did I get it? Is that what you are saying?” The other person is likely to feel respected that you are taking the time to check if you understand their message. It also gives the other person the chance to add to it a little bit, or to correct anything you may not have understood the first time, or that they may not have expressed clearly or fully.
Often it’s more important to know that we’re being heard, than whether the other person agrees with what we’re saying. It’s particularly important with small children. If a child says “I want more candy” and the parent simply says, “You can’t have any,” the child doesn’t know if their message has gotten across. The whole interaction becomes one of disagreement. And often the child will just repeat the demand over and over again. “I want candy.”
If instead you start by backtracking and saying to the child (with some kindness/empathy if possible) “You want more candy, don’t you,” it’s clear to the child that he’s being heard and understood. This can be of some comfort even if the child doesn’t get the candy.
Then the parent can go on to give a simple explanation of some sort: “I don’t want you to eat candy now, because it’s almost dinnertime.” Or “I don’t want to get out the candy because it isn’t healthy for you (or me either). And I want us to be healthy. Is there something else you would like to have for a snack right now? You can have some apple or orange if you want.”
Since the child feels heard and understood he’s less likely to persist in his demand. He may give it a try to see if the “No” really means “No,” or not. But once the child learns that he can count on you to still say “No,” he is more likely to shift attention to other choices that are available. It’s an easier shift for the child to make because you acknowledged his/her want first.
Whenever possible, process a troubling communication right away, when the details — especially the nonverbal aspects — are fresh in your mind, before the memory has a chance to fade or change. When that’s not possible, think about when in the near future might be a good opportunity to discuss it, and make a mental note to remind you to bring it up for discussion.
If the discussion isn’t going anywhere useful, it can be helpful to have a nonverbal signal that can let the other person know you need a time out. (You can use something simple, such as making your two hands into the form of a “T.”)
The person requesting the time out can say something like,“I’m feeling totally overloaded, and I don’t feel resourceful enough right now to help things go in a positive direction,” and then request a time out. The person who requests a time out has the responsibility to suggest another time within a reasonable period of time. “Let’s discuss this when we’re both in a better state. Would you be OK with that? Will tomorrow afternoon work for you?” It needs to be clear that this isn’t a way of avoiding the discussion, only changing it to another time and place when listening to each other and perhaps coming to a solution might be more likely.
Avoid discussions in enclosed spaces:
In general, don’t have a heated discussion in an enclosed space where one or both people can’t physically leave if they want to, for example in a moving car or airplane. If one or both people feel trapped the discussion can get much more charged than necessary.
Change the context:
Sometimes changing context makes a big difference. If people typically argue over a dining room table, try out having the discussion on the living room couch, or in any different area, such as the bathroom, or even under the dining room table. Sometimes having a new context can make it much easier to find a new solution.
Avoid certain contexts:
Don’t argue in public, where it’s more likely that one or both of you may feel the need to be “right,” and become entrenched in your position. It’s good not to argue in bed. Save the bed for sleeping and other more dependably positive activities.
The importance of the nonverbal:
Often what is said isn’t nearly as important as how it’s said. I can say, “A whale is not a fish” in an even, matter-of-fact tone, or I can say it in a judgmental tone that implies the listener is stupid, or in a tone that implies I’m unsure of myself. The nonverbal behavior carries more information about the relationship, which is often much more important than the factual information being discussed.
This is true of nonverbal posture and gestures as well. “Looking down your nose,” with head tilted back, or a dismissive hand gesture “waving aside” what the other person said, carries a tone of judgment that will get in the way.
It’s useful for each of us to be aware of this in ourselves to the degree we’re able. When one person feels uncomfortable in an interaction, often they are responding to the tone of the other person rather than the content. If this can be brought into the discussion in a non-blaming way, it can be useful. One of the examples above has an example of this: “When you talk to me in a loud voice like that, I feel uncomfortable.”
“I” vs. “You”:
Whenever possible, talk about your experience, rather than focusing on what the other person may have done to “cause” your experience. “Yesterday you scared me,” can sound like blame and lead to defensiveness. If you say, “Yesterday when X happened I was scared,” or even “Yesterday when you said/did X, I felt scared,” it’s easier to listen to, and your partner is more likely to feel empathy and want to do something to help you feel better.)
“I don’t believe you,” may seem similar to “You are lying,” but there is a world of difference between them. The first describes your own experience, which you can know. The second describes the other person’s experience, which you can’t really know; you can only guess at it. Stick with expressing your own experience and you can avoid a lot of misunderstanding.
Use “You” only when you are talking about a specific action that happened, like, “This morning when you answered the phone, . . .” can be a useful way to identify the situation you’re talking about. Then you can go on to add your experience, such as “This morning when you answered the phone, your voice sounded kind of sharp and I wondered if you are annoyed with me about something.”
Talk about a specific incident, not a generalization:
Sometimes couples fall into the mistake of saying “You always…” or “You never…” which is a big generalization, unlikely to be true. Even when it seems to be “always,” working with a generalization usually doesn’t yield good results. The other person usually feels blamed, and/or might feel the need to prove that it’s not really always.This gets things off track and away from any productive problem solving.
If instead you use a particular example it’s much easier to stay in problem-solving mode and find a solution. (“Yesterday afternoon when I picked up the kids, . . .”) And usually any solution will automatically generalize to other similar examples of the problem. This is particularly true if you problem solve with the worst (most emotionally intense) example.
Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC)
NVC provides a 4-step format that combines many of the principles described above, and adds to it. Following is a summary of the principles of NVC. (Drawn from here, with some editing and added examples.)
- State concrete actions you observe in yourself or the other person.
- State the feeling that the observation is triggering in you. Or, guess what the other person is feeling, and ask if your guess is correct.
- State the need that is the cause of that feeling. Or, guess the need that caused the feeling in the other person, and ask if your guess is correct.
- Make a concrete request for action to meet the need just identified.
The Components of Nonviolent Communication
Doing these steps can be fairly easy, with some fleshing out to understand them. (Connirae and I used to sit down with notes to help us when we first learned this.)
Observations are what we see or hear that we identify as the stimulus to our reactions. Our aim is to describe what we are reacting to concretely, specifically and neutrally, much as a video camera might capture the moment. This helps create a shared reality with the other person. The observation gives the context for our expression of feelings and needs.
The key to making an observation is to separate our own judgments, evaluations or interpretations from our description of what happened. For example, if we say: “You’re rude,” the other person may disagree, while if we say: “When you walked in you didn’t say hello to me,” the other person is more likely to recognize the moment being described.
When we are able to describe what we see or hear in observation language without mixing in evaluation or judgment, we raise the likelihood that the person listening to us will hear this first step without immediately wanting to respond, and will be more willing to hear our feelings and needs.
Learning to translate judgments and interpretations into observation language moves us away from right/wrong thinking. It helps us take responsibility for our reactions by directing our attention to our needs as the source of our feelings, rather than to the faults of the other person. In this way, observations — paving the way towards greater connection with ourselves and with others — emerge as a crucial building block towards more meaningful connection.
Feelings represent our emotional experience. They are the physical sensations associated with our needs that have been met or that remain unmet. Our aim is to identify, name and connect with those feelings. The key to identifying and expressing feelings is to focus on words that describe our inner experience rather than words that describe our interpretations of people’s actions.
For example: “I feel lonely” describes my inner experience, while “I feel like you don’t love me” would be interpreting the other person’s actions and making a guess about how he/she may be feeling. When we express our feelings, we continue the process of taking responsibility for our experience, which helps others hear what’s important to us with less likelihood of hearing criticism or blame. This increases the likelihood that they will respond in a way that meets both our needs.
A list of feelings to explore is available here.
Our needs are an expression of our deepest shared humanity. All human beings share key needs for survival: hydration, nourishment, rest, shelter, and connection, to name a few. We also share many other needs, though we may experience them to varying degrees, and may experience them more or less intensely at various times.
In the context of Nonviolent Communication, needs refer to what is most alive in us: our core values and deepest human longings. Understanding, naming, and connecting with our needs helps us improve our relationship with ourselves, as well as foster understanding with others, so we are all more likely to take actions that meet everyone’s needs.
(Common human needs include need for love, for connection, need to know if my actions are valued, need to be treated as an equal, need for respect.)
The key to identifying and expressing needs is to focus on words that describe shared human experience rather than describing a particular strategy to meet those needs. For example: “I want you to come to my birthday party” is a particular strategy. The need might be for love and connection. Whenever we include a person, a location, an action, a time, or an object in our expression of what we want, we are describing a strategy rather than a need. In the “birthday party” example, the statement includes a person, an action, and an implied time and location.
The internal shift from focusing on a specific strategy we believe will meet our need, to connecting with the underlying need itself, often results in a sense of power and liberation. We are encouraged to free ourselves from being attached to one particular strategy by identifying the underlying needs and exploring alternative strategies.
Feelings arise when our needs are met or not met, which happens at every moment of life. Our feelings are responses to the event or action that triggers them, but they are not caused by the trigger: their source is our own met or unmet needs. By connecting our feelings with our needs, we take full responsibility for our feelings, freeing us and others from fault and blame.
And by expressing our unique experience in the moment of a shared human reality of needs, we create the most likely opportunity for another person to see our humanity and to experience empathy and understanding for us.
A list of needs to explore is available here. It is offered as a resource for identifying and experiencing your own needs and guessing others’ needs. The needs on this list appear in their most abstract, general and universal form. Each person can find inside herself or himself the specific nuance and flavor of these broader categories, which will more fully describe her or his experience.
In order to meet our needs, we make requests to assess how likely we are to get cooperation for particular strategies we have in mind for meeting our needs. Our aim is to identify and express a specific action that we believe will serve this purpose, and then check with others involved about their willingness to participate in meeting our needs in this way.
In a given moment, it is our connection with another that determines the quality of their response to our request. Therefore, when using NVC, our first requests are “connection requests,” intended to foster connection and understanding and to determine whether we have sufficiently connected to move to a “solution request.”
An example of a connection request might be: “Would you tell me how you feel about this?” An example of a solution request might be “Would you be willing to take your shoes off when you come in the house?” The spirit of requests relies on our willingness to hear a“No” and to continue to work with ourselves or others to find ways to meet everyone’s needs.
A request is not a demand. Whether we are making a request or a demand is often evident by our response if our request is denied. A denied demand will lead to punitive consequences; a denied request most often will lead to further dialogue. We recognize that “No” is an expression of some need that is preventing the other person from saying “Yes.”
If we trust that through dialogue we can find strategies to meet both of our needs, “No” is simply information to alert us that saying “Yes” to our request may be too costly in terms of the other person’s needs. We can then continue to seek connection and understanding to allow additional strategies to arise that will work to meet more needs.
To increase the likelihood that our requests will be understood, we attempt to use language that is as concrete and doable as possible, and that is truly a request rather than a demand. For example, “I would like you to always come on time” is unlikely to be doable, while “Would you be willing to spend 15 minutes with me talking about what may help you arrive at 9 am to our meetings?” is concrete and doable.
While a person may assent to the former expression (“Yes, I’ll always come on time”), our deeper needs — for connection, confidence, trust, responsibility, respect, or others — are likely to remain unmet. If someone agrees to our request out of fear, guilt, shame,obligation, or the desire for reward, this compromises the quality of connection and trust between us.
When we are able to express a clear request, we raise the likelihood that the person listening to us will feel that they are given a realistic choice in their response. As a consequence, while we may not gain immediate assent to our wishes, we are more likely to get our needs met overtime, because we are building trust that everyone’s needs matter. Within an atmosphere of such trust, goodwill increases, and with it a willingness to support each other in getting our needs met.
Learning to make clear requests and shifting our consciousness to making requests in place of demands are very challenging skills for most people. Many find the request part to be the hardest, because of what we call a “crisis of imagination” — a difficulty in identifying a strategy that could actually meet our needs without being at the expense of the needs of others.
Even before considering the needs of others, the very act of coming up with what we call a positive, doable request is challenging. We are habituated to thinking in terms of what we want people to stop doing (“Don’t yell at me”), and how we want them to be (“Treat me with respect”) rather than what we want them to do. (“Would you be willing to talk in a quieter voice?” or “Would you be willing to check with me before agreeing to an invitation for us both?”)
With time, and a deeper connection to our needs, our creativity expands to imagine and embrace more strategies. This fourth step in NVC of making a concrete request is critical to our ability to create the life we want. In particular, shifting from demands to requests entails a leap in focus and in faith: we shift from focusing on getting our needs met, to focusing on the quality of connection that will allow both of our needs to truly matter, and ultimately also to be met.
Expressing our own observations, feelings, needs and requests to others is one part of Nonviolent Communication. The second part is empathy: the process of connecting with another by guessing theirfeelings and needs.
In times of conflict, letting another person know that we understand their feelings and that their needs matter to us can be a powerful turning point in problem situations.
When we use NVC to connect empathically, we use the same four components in the form of a question, since we can never be certain of what is going on inside the other. We respect that the other person is the ultimate authority on what is going on for them.
We may ask something like:
Observation: When you [see, hear, etc] …
Feeling: Are you feeling …?
Need: Is it because you need …?
Request: And would you like …?
For example, imagine a parent on a camping trip with their teenager. They begin setting up camp. The teenager is having difficulty with the tent, and throws it down on the ground and says…
Teen: This is stupid!
Parent: (observation) I notice you threw the tent down, and said “this is stupid,” (feeling) are you feeling frustrated? Or missing home?
Teen: I just don’t understand why we’re going to all this work when I have a nice bed at home. Why do we have to sleep out here?
Parent: (need) So you need comfort, that’s really important to you isn’t it? Especially when you’re sleeping?
Teen: Yeah, duh.
Parent: (request) Would you like help setting up your tent in a way that it can be most comfortable to you? Maybe we could find a flatter place? Or get some more blankets from the car to make it softer to sleep in?
Here’s another example of a couple at a restaurant. Sally looks over at Joe and says, I’m so glad we could be here together.
Joe: (with sarcasm) Yeah, such incredible quality time.
Sally: (observation) When I hear you say, “yeah, such incredible quality time,” with that tone of voice, (feeling) I wonder if you’re feeling upset about something?
Joe: I never have any say about where we go, and then you expect me to enjoy it.
Sally: So you have a need to have an equal say in where we go when we spend quality time together?
Joe: Yes, that would be nice for a change.
Sally: So would you like me to ask your opinion first, next time when we schedule a date night? So we can make sure we go to a place we both like?
In an ongoing conversation, we might not always need to mention the observation (since it may already be clear in the context), or the request (since we’re already acting on an assumed request for empathy). And we might wait to guess a request until after we’ve connected more and are ready to explore strategies.
Empathizing in this way may meet the other person’s need for understanding, or it may spark their own self-discovery.
Empathizing doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice our own needs. The ability to understand and express the other person’s feelings can aid us in finding strategies that meet both of our needs. It can be a way of meeting our own needs for understanding, connection, or contribution. It can also be a powerful tool to meet the other person’s needs.
In the process of sharing empathy between two people, if both parties are able to connect at the level of feelings and needs, a transformation often happens in which one or both parties experience a shift in attention. This can lead to a shift of needs or generate new reserves of kindness and generosity. In seemingly impossible situations, it can even open us to remarkable bursts of creative solutions that were unimaginable when clouded by disconnection.
The language of NVC often helps us relate with others, but the heart of empathy is in our ability to compassionately connect with our own and others’ humanity. Offering our empathic presence, in this sense, is a means through which we can meet our own needs. It is a gift to another person and to ourselves of our full presence.
Both expression of our own feelings and needs, and empathic guesses of others’ feelings and needs are grounded in a particular awareness that is at the heart of Nonviolent Communication. This awareness is nurtured by the practice of self-empathy.
In self-empathy, we bring the same compassionate attention to ourselves that we give to others when listening to them using NVC. This means listening through any interpretations and judgments of ourselves that we are making in order to clarify how we are feeling and what we are needing.
This inner awareness and clarity supports us in expressing ourselves to others, or receiving them with empathy. It allows us to make a request to ourselves about where we want to focus our attention.
The practice of NVC entails an intention to connect compassionately both with ourselves and with others, and an ability to keep our attention in the present moment — which includes being aware that sometimes in this present moment we are recalling the past, or imagining a future possibility.
Often self-empathy comes easy, as we access our sensations, emotions and needs, to attune to how we are. However, in moments of conflict or reactivity to others, we may find ourselves reluctant to access an intention to connect compassionately, and we may falter in our capacity to attend to the present moment.
Self-empathy at times like this has the power to transform our disconnected state of being and return us to our compassionate intention and present-oriented attention. With practice, many people find that self-empathy alone sometimes resolves inner conflicts and conflicts with others as it transforms our experience of life.