While I expect conflict in human life, I’ve noticed that argument is optional. Sort of like the Buddhist saw that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. Suffering and argument both issue from how we describe what’s going on outside us, usually referring to notions of what is or ought to be. What’s inside us, however, usually proves to be very simple: my needs are not met, so I feel pain or discomfort.
However, when we try to describe what’s going on inside us, we usually start by pointing not inside, to our feelings and needs, where things are so simple, but somewhere outside: we start talking about, then disagreeing on, what or who is, or is not X, Y or Z. So of course we argue; interpretations are multiple and contradictory. But this doesn’t stop us from being sure we’re right and others are wrong.
I wish I could end my article here, and with it, all arguments throughout the world. No more would we point outside ourselves when trying to get through a tough moment. We’d talk about our feelings and needs, listen to others’ feelings and needs, empathize, and the strategies for meeting everyone’s needs would emerge out our organic connections. Thus, the source of all arguments would vanish. Because I have a hunch it will take a bit more, I’ll continue.
Another way of making this inside/outside distinction is, if we could say how things “are,” we’d be God. Or at least omniscient. No human I know can see all perspectives in all moments. Instead, each of us is a piece of God, or knows a bit—a vital bit—of how things are: our internal world, or what’s inside us. So when we speak from the inside, saying how we feel and what we need and want, we invite connection. When we speak from the outside, from a place we cannot possibly occupy enough to know what truly “is,” of course we invite argument. “You’re not God (right, in charge, in the know); I am. No, I am!” And so on. In fact, we are both—and neither. The point is, I want to connect with what’s inside. But first a few foundational points.
The first foundational point I want to make is that this confusing state of affairs began before we were born. The English language lends itself particularly well to arguments, or energized polarization that can easily lead to hurt feelings, bodies, or in the case of war, mass slaughter. My second foundational point is that I see all these on a continuum. My interest in avoiding argument is not just so I and those around me can feel more peaceful, but so that all of us can truly understand and transform the tendencies that lead us all to polarize based on those “outside” descriptions. Contrary to what some progressive folks perceive, I see us as similar to those who drop bombs and fire machine guns, if not exactly the same. We have arguments that ride the waves of our fears. We make enemies, “outsiders,” out of those we love, and those we never wanted to love. And my third foundational point:
We don’t have to live this way.
When we’re flowing in compassion and love, when we’re vulnerable and “inside out,” the words hardly matter—we understand the language of gentle tones of voice, of eye contact, and of heartfelt murmurs. I have had relationships in which I and the other person never argued. More and more, as my communication skills get better and better, and my ability to surround myself with peace-loving beings improves, I argue less and less.
It’s very simple: two human interiors connecting with one another do not argue. Simple, however, does not mean easy. When we get triggered and have old feelings of hurt arise, what happens? If we stay inside, and relate with compassion to those feelings in ourselves and others, we can connect rather than argue. On the other hand, if we close off that tender, vulnerable inside part, as we are trained so well to do, and start talking as if what’s most real resides outside us, we no longer contact each other’s hearts. We’re disconnected; arguing.
It’s not our fault. The English language as most of us in U.S. culture have learned it, facilitates this focus on descriptions of the outside: Socialist vs. capitalist. Racist vs. non-racist. Right vs. wrong. Our legal system is based almost entirely on categories that describe human behavior from the outside only. Even the disciplines that purport to understand human interiors fail miserably. I have seen doctoral psychology students go through many years of school without ever being asked how they feel! It’s not our fault, but it’s our choice to continue the practice or not.
I used to love talking from the outside. As a feminist, I talked with non-feminists, (or prefeminists as we liked to call them) about the oppression of women and how much it sucked, and how men could help so much more than most of them chose to. I got off on being able to “talk circles” around people with my big vocabulary, my breadth of knowledge and my ability to find holes in people’s arguments. I enjoyed “winning” arguments like this, especially with “clueless” men. I enjoyed being right and watching them falter in their wrongness. Okay, occasionally I still enjoy this, as it can help meet my need for parity and humor.
But though it gave me an ego high, this way of communicating did not generally foster love, trust or connectedness—that feeling of really meeting someone’s insides with my own. Some of these conversations included heartfelt exchange of our real experiences. Rarely can human interaction be described as simply one thing or another, and I think we are all trying to connect whenever we interact, even though appearances may suggest the opposite. Still, though, I was grounded in argument as a way of life, supported by my fancy college education, “debates” on the news and most of the educated culture at large, most particularly the legal system.
I have since found other ways of communicating that better meet my needs for connection, and help me bring my heart into whatever I do. Unlike traditional models of argument, debate, and right and wrong, Nonviolent Communication helps get disconnected conversations back on a loving, empathic track where everyone’s needs are more likely to get met.
As I mentioned at the beginning, most arguments center around “the truth.” “The truth” usually gets described in terms of what “is,” or how things “are” or “ought to be.” You are, or are not, wrong, bad or hideous. This is, or is not fair, just or sustainable. We are or are not behaving like a couple ought to, like friends should, or as humans are capable of.
One brilliant way to avoid an argument is never to say anything that can be argued with. A quick and easy way to do this is to stop using any form of the verb “to be.”
When we stop talking about what “is,” what’s outside, we’re left with what’s going on inside our sweet selves, in this moment. NVC helps us do this. I can’t argue with what you see, feel, need and request, because it’s inside you.
Most people understand the four-step NVC model quite easily. Putting it into practice usually presents more challenges. This is because we’re used to speaking English, not NVC.
We’re used to evaluating instead of observing, conveying interpretations instead of feelings, putting forth strategies instead of needs, and making demands instead of requests. In Marshall Rosenberg’s words, we’re trained to speak in Jackal instead of Giraffe.
Jackal represents how we’ve been taught to communicate. It is a language low to the ground, designed to get others to do what we want, or else get bitten. Giraffe represents compassionate communication. A giraffe has the largest heart of any mammal, a long neck for seeing the big picture, and treats others with gentleness. It takes much practice and a strong intention to replace Jackal with Giraffe. Most of what surrounds us pulls us back again and again into Jackal.
Here is a breakdown of one form of Giraffe, the basic NVC model of observations, feelings, needs and requests, followed by a more detailed explanation:
Observation: When I…(see, hear, notice)
Feelings: I feel (sad, hurt, angry, confused, curious)
Needs: I need (empathy, respect, connection, recreation, peace)
Requests: I would like you to (doable request)
OBSERVATION: “WHEN I…(see, hear, notice)”
An observation looks or sounds much like what a newspaper reporter or broadcast journalist might report: just the who, what, when, where. We use the “how” with care since it invites interpretation, and stay away from the “why” entirely, since that’s all interpretation. Most often English speakers use evaluations and interpretations instead of pure observation.
Here are some evaluations and interpretations, along with their translations into observations:
|When you yelled at me||When I heard your tone of voice…|
|You’re not taking responsibility.||When I hear you say that…|
|You treated me like shit.||When I saw you turn away from me and heard nothing from you all of last night…|
Why is the “when” important? It anchors the observation, and everything that comes after it, in a specific moment or instance. Otherwise, many times conversations can center round “how things are in general,” which again, locates the speaker at a fictional outside point, once again inviting argument. In other words, if you look at the statements in the left “evaluations” column, they could all be argued, since “yelling,” “taking responsibility” and “treating like shit” represent an interpretation of an event from the outside looking in.
On the other hand, the statements in the “observations” column recall one person’s perception of something that happened. I can’t argue that you heard my tone of voice, something I uttered (even I recall saying something different) or saw me turn away and heard nothing from me. These things don’t mean that I spoke in a given tone of voice, said a particular thing, or acted in a certain way—they mean that the speaker experienced these things. In fact, in an NVC conversation, sharing conflicting observations can help dissipate a conflict before it starts. For example, in response to the third observation, I might offer some information: “Did you know that I took my medication that knocks me out, and also had on earplugs last night?” Maybe you didn’t.
An observation sounds like, “Yesterday, at 7PM Pacific time, I saw a man in a long yellow coat enter a burning house and exit with a small black box,” not “That criminal stole my jewelry!” Yes, you’re talking as objectively as possible, in some ways as “outside” of yourself as possible, yet you’re still locating your perception within yourself. You said, “I saw…” not “he was…” Whether you saw a hologram, a hallucination or a human being, your statement invites little argument, since you described what you saw, from inside you, not what “was,” from outside of yourself.
FEELING: “I FEEL …(fill in the blank with a word describing a feeling)”
A feeling is a one-word (or phrase) description of our inner emotional state. Feelings include sadness, happiness, excitement, relaxation, curiosity, anxiety, and much more. Feelings happen on the inside of us. Most times, however, when people say how they feel, we don’t really express the feelings inside them. Instead, perhaps to avoid getting hurt, we attach interpretations, analyses or stories to sentences beginning with “I feel.”
A clue to when we’re doing this is when we say “I feel that…” or “I feel like…” These are not feelings; they’re interpretations, or stories about what “is.”
|I feel like you’re ignoring me||I feel angry|
|I feel that this is going nowhere||I feel despairing and hopeless|
|I feel that you’re abusing me||I feel sad, and scared|
|I feel like this is the same conversation over and over||I feel frustrated|
But what about the actual events that catalyzed the feelings above? These can still be described in NVC. Let’s return to them.
|I feel like you’re ignoring me||When I called you and did not hear you respond, I felt angry.|
|I feel that this is going nowhere||When I notice how long we’ve been talking without reaching an agreement, I feel despairing and hopeless.|
|I feel that you’re abusing me||When you struck my arm, I felt sad, and scared.|
|I feel like this is the same conversation over and over||When I hear us having a conversation that sounds similar to recent ones, I feel frustrated and afraid of stagnating.|
NEED: “I NEED… (fill in the blank with one the basic human needs)”
Needs are things all human beings require to flourish, such as food, cooperation, respect and connection. We most confuse needs with strategies. A strategy is a means for fulfilling such a need. People usually confuse their needs with the strategies they’d like to use (or more likely, they’d like someone else to use) to get their needs fulfilled. A good clue to tell when we’re confusing needs with strategies is when we say we need someone or something TO DO SOMETHING IN PARTICULAR.
|I need you to stop yelling at me||I need peace, and respect|
|I need you to be a better partner||I need connection and nurturance|
|I need this to change right now||I need love and fulfillment|
|I feel like this is the same conversation over and over||I feel frustrated|
Needs are never connected to anyone doing anything in particular. This means you are not responsible for fulfilling anyone else’s needs, nor are they responsible for fulfilling your needs. Ironically, when we release others from blame, guilt, shame and obligation for not fulfilling our needs, they become more likely to want to do things that do fulfill our needs.
NVC is not about getting others to do what we want, but creating conditions in which everyone’s needs get met. When we ask someone else to meet our needs, the request is always followed by “if it meets your needs.”
REQUEST: “SO I WOULD LIKE…” “WOULD YOU BE WILLING TO…”
A request is when we ask someone to do something to help us get our needs met. Requests often get confused with demands. A demand is when we don’t believe we or the other people in question have any choice but to do things a particular way. In other words, a demand attaches us or others to a particular strategy. In reality, for any give human need, multiple strategies may help fill that need.
|Give me that right now.||Would you be willing to hand that to me?|
|I’ve got to use your car because mine’s in the shop.||I would like to take your car to the appointment, would this meet your needs?|
|This is all or nothing.||I’d like you to tell me if you’d be willing to walk the dog on Mondays.|
|If you don’t start being a better (wife, husband, son, daughter), you’re going to drive me to drink.||Would you be willing to have a family dinner with all of us once a week, on Mondays, starting next Monday at 6PM?|
A request also needs to be “doable,” meaning it refers to a specific action, ideally at a specific time or times. With non-doable requests, the participants can argue about whether the request was actually fulfilled, or whether it’s already being fulfilled. For example,
“I want you to treat me with respect.”
“I do treat you with respect!”
“ No you don’t.”
“ Yes, I do.”
See how useful non-doable requests are?
A doable request leaves little or no doubt about whether it’s fulfilled.
|NON-DOABLE REQUEST||DOABLE REQUEST|
|I would like you to treat me with more respect.||When I speak, I’d like you to listen until I’m done, then tell me what you heard me say. (Note: this request still refers to the general. It might need to be repeated for particular instances.)|
|I want you to let me be who I am/give me more freedom.||I’d like you to tell me if you’d be willing to take care of the kids while I attend this event.|
|I just want you to be more responsible.||Would you be willing to call me when the meeting is finished and you’re about to head home?|
|You need to get off my back||I’d like it if you would not tell me your opinions about the books I choose to read, unless I ask.|
The rider attached is, “if it meets your needs.” If a person fulfills our request out of anything other than a genuine desire to contribute to your, their own, or everyone’s needs, for example, out of guilt, shame, obligation, self-loathing or fear, we have created a situation in which everyone’s needs are NOT MET. As Marshall Rosenberg says, you will pay for it.
Again, the idea behind NVC is to help create conditions under which everyone’s needs get met. Therefore, our requests get followed with an implicit, or explicit “if it meets your needs.”
What if someone doesn’t give us what we want?
SELF-EMPATHY – Acknowledge, accept and allow for expression of one’s own feelings, tuning into your NEEDS
EMPATHY– What needs of theirs are not being met? Try to tune in and reflect back to them what you hear their needs are, without judgment. If you can both connect with each other’s needs, the truth from the inside out, the rest will be cake. Or at least not thorns.
BREATHER – If you’re too triggered to talk, take a break! Get some support, pound or scream into a pillow, go for a jog, write in your journal or whatever helps release tension for you.
BIG PICTURE – realize that 1000 possible strategies exist for meeting any given need at any moment. We never “need” anyone to do anything in particular! When we truly know this, we can experience a very sweet kind of freedom, and are more likely to help create conditions in which everyone’s needs can be met. Yes it sounds paradoxical—try it!
CREATIVITY – think outside the box about how everyone’s needs can be met. Release prior strategies, and invite new ones to come in.
NEGOTIATION – stay with the process to explore other strategies Remember, conflict is inevitable; arguments are optional. Of course one way to avoid argument is never to go outside your house. Another way is never to go outside your own precious self: what you observe, feel, need and want defies argument. If you can put into practice part of the above, you may find that your arguments diminish, or at least transform, at least some of the time.
The above is based on Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.