When we are involved in a long running conflict with a family member(s), we may feel hopeless that any satisfactory resolution is possible. When we are in such a situation, we all too often imagine there are only two alternatives, either submitting or acting unilaterally without full consideration for the needs of the other. Both alternatives leave us feeling dissatisfied. This dynamic interferes with the quality of connection that we would like to have with family members and often becomes an additional focus of conflict. Hence, conflicts within families can seem unsolvable.
Have you ever found yourself in this dynamic, believing there is no route to an appealing outcome? We have found that with empathy and awareness, it is possible to avoid common pitfalls and patterns and to find even entrenched difficulties shifting to yield better connection between family members.
NVC has much to offer a conflict that involves built-up distrust and frustration between family members. The following case story exemplifies several aspects of using Nonviolent Communication’s mediation model. Marsha came to the session very distressed about an ongoing conflict between herself and her brother. I worked solely with Marsha, and as it turned out a shift in her outlook and behavior portends a shift in the entire pattern. Starting with one of the conflictants without the presence of the other party (or parties) is common when using Nonviolent Communication as a conflict resolution model. This case study focuses solely on the first session with Marsha; subsequent sessions might or might not include her brother.
Marsha and her brother have fallen into a common family pattern, one that many find difficult to emerge from. Their elderly mother lives next door to Marsha and requires constant and ongoing care. With Marsha so close, and due to past experiences with her brother, the attending nurses call Marsha when support is needed for her mother. Marsha would like to share the responsibility with her brother and calls him to make specific requests, such as fill a prescription or pick up groceries at the store. The pattern Marsha related is that she asks her brother for something, her brother says yes but then does not do it. When Marsha calls to ask him if it was done, she says that he makes excuses or gets angry. The next time she wants to ask for his help, she expects this scenario to repeat itself. Marsha feels frustrated and thinks that her brother is the problem — if he would only do as she asks! Once entrenched, with both parties expecting certain behaviors from the other, this pattern tends to be self-reinforcing.
Underneath the surface story there is another, a story of feelings and needs and perceptions. NVC approaches the conflict first from this level. What needs of each party are alive in the moment and what feelings are stimulated by the perception that these needs are or are not being met?
Thus the first step in the NVC process is to aid Marsha in meeting her current need for empathy – to name for herself what needs are met or unmet as she thinks of the situation with her brother and mother. As is often the case, what this sounded like was a series of guessing questions from me which were variations on the following theme: “Are you feeling … because you’re needing … ?” I inquired with curiosity based upon what she was saying. I was not telling her, predicting, analyzing, or diagnosing. My role was to help Marsha identify and articulate her observations (instead of judgments), feelings, and needs.
In doing this, it quickly became clear that she felt frustration and anger, and a sense of desperation and hopelessness about her relationship with her brother. She needed support in taking care of their mother, she needed to be heard in a deep and satisfying way (preferably by her brother, but not necessarily), and she needed to trust that agreements would be kept.
Toward the end of this 45-minute session, Marsha’s body language, intonation, and the pacing of her speech indicated to me that she was getting her need for empathy met. As she softened and shifted, she got in touch with how sad she was that she and her brother had not had a close relationship for the last ten years. She grieved for the loss of the relationship she had so enjoyed with her brother when they were younger.
Having been heard in a way that she reported as deeply satisfying and having surfaced her grief and longing for a connected relationship with her brother, she naturally turned to curiosity about her brother; why has he been saying yes to her requests and then not fulfilling them? From her shifted vantage point, she could ask what needs he was meeting with his conduct, and do so without blame, instead with curiosity and caring.
In the inquiry that she and I engaged in, we did not need to know for certain what needs were motivating him. We all share the same basic needs. So we guessed the answer to the question, “what needs might he be seeking to meet when he does what he does?” Through this process, she guessed that he might be acting out of his need for autonomy; he may not feel that he actually does have a choice, he hears Marsha’s requests as demands.
Having had some exposure to NVC, she reported that she told her brother that she was making requests and not demands. However, at this point in the process, Marsha began to consider whether her requests really were requests. She had conflated the request with her need; in other words, she was thinking that in order for her need for support to be met, her brother would have to fulfill the request. The request is a strategy for getting her need for support met. Confusing the strategy and the need leads to demands, not requests. Another way to say this is that Marsha is attached, or holding tightly to the outcome of her brother doing as she asked.
As Marsha received the empathy she needed and started to empathize with her brother, she began to see that she had more choices; other strategies that would meet her needs began to emerge. She could envision getting her need for support met in other ways. She began to name other possibilities completely unforeseen at the outset of the session. Realizing she has alternatives, she will be able to act free of the backdrop of frustration and resentment that has so far accompanied her interactions with her brother. Moreover, I believe it likely that if she approaches her brother from this shifted vantage point the probability will be greatly increased that he will work with her in ways that will meet her needs for support.
Working with both parties in a conflict is not always possible. In working with Marsha alone, she was able to gain clarity and understanding about the conflict she was in with her brother, see that she had more options available, and potentially shift her own thinking and behavior in future interactions with him. Even now, with Marsha having more choice in her behavior, the pattern with her brother will likely not change overnight. He still has expectations around her behavior and may hear what she says differently than she intends based on their history. Over time, however, if Marsha continues to get her needs met and reaches out to her brother consistently, the pattern of distrust, frustration, and guilt can change to one of connection and joy.
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