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Advocating with Non-Violent Communication

Happiness and harmony are established in proportion to how well we get our needs met. When we get what we need, and especially when we get what we want, we feel at peace, satisfied, joyful. So, how do we get our needs met? First we become aware of them. Often our bodily sensations will let us know: I need warmth, I need food, I need a hug. Then we take some action to get the need met.

Sometimes the action we take is enlisting the help of others. This is called advocacy. Many people think advocacy is something only a few people with strong voices do in a board room once in a great while. On the contrary. We all advocate every single day, usually several times a day. “Mom, could you help me find my shoes?” “Jean, would you take these packages down to the mail room?” “Robert, can we count on you for funding the new library?” Advocacy is an integral part of human life, as we all depend on each other to get our many needs met.

The more skill we have in advocating, the better chances we have at getting our needs met, that is, the greater our chances for a life filled with ease and joy. So advocacy, whether for large scale social change or for individual daily needs, is a vital skill to build. The more effective we become at it, the more we will stand a chance to get what we want.

As a person of short stature, I understand a bit about the need to advocate effectively. “Excuse me ma’m, could you hand me the tabasco sauce on the top shelf?” “Hey Jim, would you help me get this suitcase into my car?” “Hi. Would you let the person on the other side of this tall counter know I’m here?” These are common advocacy attempts in my life. Anyone who has a disability, can relate to this list. For people with disabilities, advocacy is a very important skill to build as we have a greater number of needs, and therefore, a greater necessity of enlisting the help of others.

However, there is a great challenge. When needs go un-met over a period of time, anger is the natural response. As people with disabilities have greater needs, and many of these un-met needs persist over time, it is common to have greater levels of frustration and anger. For myself, I’ve noticed it difficult to advocate for things I feel really strongly about, whether for myself or others, without letting my anger slip out. Despite my best intentions, my strong emotions often result in offending others. Doors end up closing rather than opening, and I don’t get what I want.

I imagine other people with disabilities, or people who advocate for us, are faced with a similar challenge. How do we elicit the aid of others without letting the very thing that motivates us to ask for the change—our anger—leak out in our communication process? How can we advocate for things we are upset about without having that anger flavor our communications, thus decreasing our chances for success?

NVC = comp giving & receiving, quality of connection
Non-Violent Communication (NVC)

In my persistence to find a way to have my life and communication skills work “for” me rather than “against” me, I can across the work of Marshal Rosenberg, the founder of Non-Violent Communication. Marshall closely observed people who had learned to effectively bring about positive resolution in the face of prejudice, resentment and conflict. From this, he devised a powerful yet gentle system of communication that helps people move from anger to effective advocacy, so they can get what they really want.

  1. Non-Violent Communication (NVC) is based on the following three premises:
  2. Emotions reflect the outcome of whether one’s needs are met or unmet. Generally speaking, one feels happy when needs are met and angry or sad when they’re not.
  3. Needs are universal. Every human being has the need for food, water, respect, acknowledgment, equal opportunity and justice, to name just a few.
  4. When requests to fulfill needs are communicated in a non-violent way, compassion arises and cooperation is elicited.

How much more could we accomplish by winning the cooperation of the people in power? How much easier would a task become if our team worked well together? How much more fulfillment would we enjoy if people understood exactly what we need? The answers are clear: Infinitely more.

Introducing the NVC Process

NVC recognizes two differing roles in verbal communication: a speaker and a listener. Listening is as important, if not more so, than speaking. When we listen, ideally we become fully present with the other person. We listen with our ears and with our hearts. We listen to the words said and the other forms of communicating, too—facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, emotions. We listen in such a way that we’re able to repeat to others exactly what has been said. In doing so, the speaker experiences being heard and understood. All this creates a connection—the foundation of cooperation.

The speaker employs a four-step model that helps to communicate non-violently—that is, to speak in a way that allows the listener to feel safe and free from attack or judgment. The listener, therefore, has no need to draw on any defence mechanisms.

In this four-step process, the speaker identifies and shares his/her:

  1. Observations: something that could be recorded on a video camera or audiotape (e.g., _________) rather than interpreting what is seen (e.g., blaming, shaming, judging, criticizing, name-calling or put-downs)
  2. Feelings: emotions associated with the observed experience rather than a story about the situation
  3. Needs: any unmet needs and those that need to be met
  4. Request: clear, realistic, straight-forward appeal that would support getting those needs met

At the completion of each of these four steps, the speaker asks the listener to repeat what he/she has just heard, saying something like, “So, would you be willing to repeat what I just said so I can be sure you understood me?” Then the listener repeats what he/she just heard.

If the listener reflects something different than what the speaker intended, the speaker clarifies it, asking for the listener to echo it again.

This process continues until the speaker feels understood. When all four steps are complete, the listener and the speaker switch roles. Now the speaker listens attentively and repeats what he/she has just heard.

It is possible to use the NVC model with only one of the participants applying it. In that case, the speaker can choose to express his/her observations, feelings, and needs, then ask the listener to reflect what he/she understood or didn’t understand. Once clarity is established, the speaker makes a request and negotiates until a suitable and supportive solution is found. When the speaker does this well, the listener never needs to know this model is being followed.

Practicing the NVC Process

Most of us grew up hearing blame and shame, name calling and accusing. Not surprisingly, we have internalized those models of communication as habits. So it takes work, practice, more work and more practice to break habits that do not serve us, and especially those that generate disharmony, conflict and war rather than peace and cooperation.

Because we’re not used to expressing ourselves in this way, this process requires practice. The reward is this: The more you practice, the more successful you become at advocating and getting what you want.

Ways to Use the Four Steps

I suggest writing down the four steps and posting them in places where you look frequently—on the fridge, your computer screen, your bathroom mirror. Slide a copy into your wallet or purse. Read the steps again and again.

When you find yourself in a conflict or raising your voice at someone, call these four steps to mind and use them.

For example, when you become aware of speaking in an unkind, controlling, or downright nasty tone, take a time out. Tell the other person you “need a moment.” Then take four deep breaths. With the first breath, identify the observation you made that upset you. With the second breath, clarify the feelings that arose related to that observation. With the third breath, identify your needs. With the fourth breath, articulate your request.

Now, in a centered mood, begin speaking again. Share with the other person what observation you had. Ask that person to repeat what you have said. Then, proceed in the same way with feelings, needs and requests.

When you try these four steps, you’ll be surprised at the difference it makes in your conversations, in resolving conflict, and in anything you advocate for. You’ll be surprised at how different what you have to say comes across. You aren’t going on and on about how “they” wronged you. And you’ll be surprised at what breakthroughs and connections you can create, even in the face of fiery opposition.

Try it! You’ll love it!

When to Use NVC

We advocate for all kinds of things we want and need—for which movie to watch, who will pick up the kids, who will head up the family reunion. This NVC process helps us communicate so others can hear what we are saying and can recognize the common ground on which we all stand. As we ask for innumerable things every day, we can fold this powerful yet gentle tool into all our communications.

Non-Violent Communication provides a tool to transform anger into positive change, to be heard and understood. It allows real connection to occur between differing (and often bickering) parties. It helps us build relationships, families, organizations, communities and a world where non-violence, harmony and cooperation are prominent experiences. Who doesn’t want that? Need that?

Let’s Live in a Much Better World

NVC boils down to identifying and sharing our deepest needs in a way that generates collaboration rather than combat. If everyone practiced NVC, we’d live in a much better place. Intimate relationships, families, and corporations would be more harmonious, supportive, and enriching. Rather than being a source a drama and discomfort as they so often are, these relationships would be a source of ease, joy and fulfillment.

Practice NVC for yourself—to increase ease and harmony in your relationships, both personal and professional. Practice it for your children—so they grow up understanding and replicating kindness, respect and non-violence. Practice it for your community—so it can grow, flourish and support those who really need help. And practice it for the world—so it continues to evolve and sustain its unspeakable beauty.