I started doing some communications training a few weeks back. The second weekend of the year saw me sat in a buddhist temple with eight other people at various stages in their Non-Violent Communication journey, from absolute beginner (most of the room including me) to seasoned veteran (Kulajani – the instructor).
For the uninitiated, Non-Violent Communication was conceived by the american psychologist Marshall Rosenberg back in the 1960’s where it was found to be quite useful as an arbitration tool during de-segregation efforts. Yes, the instructors do still use the [giraffe & jackal] glove puppets. 🙂
Described as “a language of life” by its practitioners, the main purpose of NVC is to provide a toolkit for compassionate/empathetic connection with others, firstly by learning to understand yourself better and subsequently by utilising enhanced vocabulary and improved thinking to connect meaningfully with other human beings.
This connection is made possible by understanding that all behaviour is (according to the NVC philosophy) driven by feelings that stem from met or unmet needs. For example, I might get angry because my need for [respect] right of way isn’t met at a t-junction or roundabout. Or my daughter might get upset at my asking her to clean up her room because her need to do it after My Little Pony has finished [leisure] isn’t being met.
Identifying feelings and needs, both in yourself and others is key to being able to create the kind of connection that NVC is intended to facilitate. As a guy I don’t mind admitting that the vocabulary I’m being introduced to is somewhat alien to me. The workshops will often use fictitious situations and role-play to trigger and analyse responses. Some stretch my imagination more than others and I’ve found that I’ve had to exercise my imagination quite a bit at times in order to elicit the right kind of thinking. Partly because when I imagine myself talking to other men, I struggle with the idea of of communicating in terms of feelings and needs. I suspect that’s not something that is unique only to me.
Anyway, I’ve been finding it pretty useful.
I had cause to refer to some of Gerry Weinberg’s material the other night and as we know, he’s a great fan of Virginia Satir’s interaction model. In his book “Becoming a Technical Leader” Gerry uses Satir’s model to explain how communicants enter into a feedback loop and that the mechanism by which the receipt of a communication by another human being is processed is effectively a black box. We can have some insight by the use of such a model as to what might be happening when we enter into a dialogue with another person or people, but in all likelihood the internal processing of our statements/questions/etc is likely to be somewhat opaque.
Receive the other with open, spacious listening. – Marshall Rosenberg
I’m finding that NVC is a useful tool with which to probe that internal communications processing system. One of the techniques taught during NVC training is the skill of empathising with the other. In practice, what this means is a combination of ridding oneself of preconceived ideas and judgements, listening actively or silently, and applying the “are you feeling <feeling> because your need for <need> is/is not being met?” formula.
Now you might well say at this point, I can’t see myself actually ever saying that to anyone, and that’s fine. One of the reasons why NVC practitioners hold workshops and practice sessions is so that apprentice NVC folk like myself (who would also struggle to say that in a real life situation) have adequate opportunity to practice using this vocabulary so that it begins to turn into a kind of muscle memory. But you don’t have to actually say the words for this to be an effective technique.
Consider for example the following scenario:
You are a Test Manager and you have responsibility for managing the testing and user/business acceptance for a program of work. The main business unit stakeholder is causing problems and asking for additional features, workflows etc to be worked into the product before she is prepared to sign off the release. What should you do in this situation?
There are clearly a number of possible approaches to this, but NVC gives you another one. Apply the “are you feeling <feeling> because your need for <need> is not being met?” formula. In this instance, the approach is useful because it enables me to empathise with the stakeholder and hypothesise as to the reasons why she may be getting cold feet as we draw closer to the release date. She may be feeling afraid, or a derivative thereof:
Having speculated upon the feeling, I can take things a step further and try to identify the unmet need triggering her to feel this way. From a business perspective, I might identify the following as being possibilities:
- Perhaps there is a need for peace and/or security – she may be feeling overwhelmed by the number and complexity of issues associated with the delivery of her new software.
- Maybe she does not feel sufficiently involved and therefore her need for some combination of participation/inclusion/solidarity is not being met?
- Possibly she does not feel sufficiently educated about the new system and therefore her need for effectance, to be efficient and skilful in her role is not being met.
Having identified these feeling/need combinations as being possible reasons for her behaviour, I’m now in a position to be able to act upon them and try to make her life easier in some way. Perhaps by involving her more in the testing and educating her in how the new system works. I may be wrong in my guess(es), but this is a fairly low risk response and in my view, unlikely to make the situation any worse.
Of course if I really want to get to the root of the issue, I could just ask her. I think one of the accepted challenges of applying NVC is to make the language your own and find ways in which to apply it effectively in your context. I’ll keep working on that and try to update you as I go along.