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Resolving Conflict with Ease

The gift of non-violent communication.

Many times we come up against conflict or discord with another because of our differences—differences in culture, age, background, resources, knowledge base, preferences, or attitude (to site just a few). However, if we bolster our ability to communicate well, namely our gifts of speaking and listening, we can often bridge those differences, work well together and coexist in harmony. This is the aim of Non-Violent Communication (NVC) and it can truly allow us to celebrate our differences rather than just tolerate them!

Did you know that unhappiness is nothing more than our needs not being met? When our needs are met adequately, we are typically content, at peace and happy. But when our needs are not met, some discomfort arises. We can become unhappy. This emotional response lets us know that it’s time to take action to meet a need. For example, when we experience hunger, we are receiving a signal that we need food. Or, we could notice we feel angry, a signal from our emotions telling us that something needs to change. When needs go unmet over long periods of time it often leads to outbursts of hostility and violence.

Non-Violent Communication (NVC), developed by Marshal Rosenberg, offers a cutting-edge model to build communication skills that gets needs met efficiently and effectively, with compassion and cooperation. Here’s a brief explanation of this innovative, powerful but gentle communication model that provides a simple technique for increasing peace in our world.

NVC is often referred to as the “language of the heart”, as it awakens empathy and honesty. It can help minimize conflict, increase understanding and maximize social accord in any relationship or group. Non-Violent Communication also increases our chances of getting what we want by guiding us to express ourselves in ways that elicit cooperation rather than combat.

The process of NVC works because it encourages us to be mindful, attentive—to what we say, how we say it, and to how we listen. It helps us communicate about what is really happening and what’s important. And it supports us in omitting words, tone of voice and behaviors that cause others to go into a defensive stance.

The real nuts and bolts of NVC are that it helps us shift our focus off the circumstances creating the problem (usually the stuff or the “story” on the surface) and brings our focus to the needs that are not being met, (usually deep down inside the problem). We all need basically the same things: resources that sustain us like food and air, yet we have many other needs such as respect, freedom, kindness, self-expression. The list is quite lengthy*. When needs are expressed without aggression, the listener often recognizes the others humanity. “Hey, they need the same things I need.” Once the common ground is experienced, typically, the doors of cooperation open rather than close. NVC is a powerful tool to create unity amidst diversity.

There are two sides of the NVC model: the listener, who practices empathic listening, and the speaker, who honestly expresses him or her self. When each person speaks, they utilize a four-step process where they succinctly describe their 1. observations, 2. feelings, 3. needs, and 4. requests. NVC is effective even when only one person in a conversation is using it, however, it is more effective when both parties use these simple guidelines.

Here’s how it works:

Make an agreement about which person will speak first. The speaker is advised to take a few deep breathes before talking, to help calm his/her emotions. Begin speaking in a clear and audible voice, a peaceful tone and in short, succinct statements. Speak in “I” statements (“When I saw.”, “When I heard…”) about what you (the speaker) have observed. In sharing your observation, speak about the event in the way it would be recorded on a video or audio tape. For example, you might say, “I saw you come in the door and drop your coat on the floor,” or “I overheard you telling Dan that you’re going to fire me at the end of the month”. Omit embellishing with what you conjectured or assumed about the situation. Omit name calling. For example- what you would not say, “You’re such a slob! You are always leaving a mess around here!” or “I can’t believe you’re going to fire me!”

Once you have calmly stated your observation- what you saw or heard as if recorded- ask the listener to repeat back to you what they heard you say to confirm that they understand you correctly. If their response is inaccurate, calmly, simply explain your observation once again, without annoyance or impatience. Then ask them to repeat it again. Continue clarifying until they repeat it correctly. Then you are ready to move on to the second step of the NVC model: feelings.

The speaker begins now shares the feelings* that arose in response to the observed event. For example, “When I saw you come in the door and drop your coat on the floor, I felt frustrated and disrespected.” Here you want to stick with feelings that are actual somatic sensations, such as feeling fear, hurt, or hopelessness. Best to omit speaking of feelings that attack, accuse or shame them, such as “When I saw you walk in the door and drop your coat on the floor I felt like smacking you”. Once they have repeated your feelings, you can move to the third step: needs*.

Sharing your need with the listener is where the real magic of NVC takes place because needs are universal. Even if the listener is not feeling the need for food or respect in this moment, they know that experience. They can relate to it. So, the sooner we get off our “story” and share what we really need, the sooner the discord will dissolve. An example of sharing a need: “What I need is order in our shared space.” Or, “I need to know if its true that you are planning to fire me soon.”

Once you have shared your need and they have repeated it to you, you can move to the forth step: making a request. Requests work best when they are realistic and clear, such as “I request that you hang up or put away your things when you come home.” Or perhaps, “I’d like you to lower my pay rather than fire me. Can that be worked out?” Requests that do not work well are ambiguous and non-specific, such as “I request that you always keep this place tidy.” Using the word “always” is fatal, because things change, and “tidy” is not really clear. “Tidy” may mean something very different to you than to your housemate. Negotiate the request. When you reach a mutual agreement, you will have completed the NVC model of communication.

Bravo! You have just gotten through a conflict without creating more hurt or violence on the planet, in your home or workplace. Really, this is something to celebrate!

While in the process, remember– listening is just as important, if not more so, than speaking. When the other person begins to speak, listen closely; really pay attention, so you can fully understand their point of view and repeat it. Listen with empathy—open your heart and mind; enter their world for a moment. Imaging what it is like being them. How does it feel to have their experience? This will give you great insight into their reality, which is the “stuff” that creates bridges. Listen to their observations, to what and how they perceive their situation. Listen to their feelings without defense or excuses. Listen to what they really need. And listen carefully to what they are asking for. Negotiate your requests until a mutual agreement is found and stated.

As you practice NVC over time, you will increase your ability to express your feelings and needs without hostility or vengeance, without accusing, shaming or blaming. This will help minimize defensive reactions in others and disruptions in the environment. NVC skills will help you make clear requests, all of which supports you in getting what you want, whether that’s more respect, more money, or more room to move… Developing these skills will also help you hear critical and hostile messages without taking them personally, giving in, or losing self-esteem. This growing capacity will be useful working with your team members, supervisors, co-workers, and when interacting with your family members and friends. These skills can also be beneficial when dealing with your own internal dialogues, as they increase positive and supportive messages to your self.

NVC is a clear and effective model for communicating in a way that is cooperative, conscious, and compassionate. Like any skill, you must practice to get better. Try it at home tonight with one of your kids or significant other. Speak about your observations, without blaming them. Share with them your feelings, that you are hurt or scared. Reveal what your are really needing. (This is the hardest part, because it is the most vulnerable place. And this is where the magic lies- where the differences transform into unity … because we all need the same things … more love, care, respect…) Then ask them politely for what you want from them. This puts all the cards on the table. They are as clear as you are about what you feel, need and want. They have entered your inner world, where empathy naturally blossoms, just like flowers in the sun.

Using the NVC model, “Celebrating Differences” becomes a snap! With NVC, we come to understand with ease that even though we’re all different on the surface, deep down we all have the same needs. When a commonality is established, we experience a connection. Grounded in unity, we can truly enjoy all the “spices,” all the differences, in any group. So practice NVC daily! Integrate this simple technique into your communications with others, and watch your relationships heal, flourish and grow.