The wording of the title of this piece, “I need you to read this,” violates the approach of Non-Violent Communication. I learned this at the Platform presented by Max Rivers on November 8, 2015. How is it wrong? The underlying message suggests a power imbalance in the relationship and a disregard of choice. Further, we can’t “need” for someone else to do something. Our own basic needs start with ourselves, not with another person. Practicing non-violent communication techniques, we express our needs clearly, without blame, judgment or domination. We name the emotions we’re feeling and how to strategize effective outcomes so we can get our basic needs fulfilled together. We practice deep listening and validation. This seems deceptively simple. Yet, if it were, we would not have a world full of conflict. The vocabulary in this form of communication has lessons to offer us in our daily interactions at home, at work, in our Ethical Culture community.
Needs vs Strategies
In exploring what stuck with me after the Rivers talk, I recall that we began with needs. Distinguishing authentic needs from wants is a given and assumes that we all have the same basic human needs beyond food and shelter. Some of those are: respect; safety; connection; autonomy. In order to get our needs met, the way we frame our communication is key. Let’s take a concrete example. Our old car is starting to break down. We don’t say we “need” a new car. Our real need is to feel safe on the road. Getting a new car would be a strategy, not a need. There could be a number of strategies to choose from to feel safe, such as fixing the old car, getting rides, taking buses, buying roadside assistance insurance, using a car service, etc. Identifying our needs and separating them from our strategies, our feelings and our wants, takes some thought. However, once real needs are recognized and identified, we express them in a sincere, non-demanding way. The reason this is called non-violent communication is because the words used are never accusatory, harsh, bullying or in any other way violent. The listener’s role is to receive the message with empathy. Another example to illustrate a less effective choice of words is, “Your music is deafening; turn the noise down!” More consistent with non-violent communication would be, “I need peace. This loud music makes me feel agitated.” Here you’re stating your need (peace), together with describing your feeling (agitated). The other person feels he is hearing an honest, shared expression and this opens up communication rather than incurring resentment.
Listening to Needs and Connecting
One of our basic human needs is connection. (“The Dangers of Loneliness,” Hara Estroff Marano, Psychology Today, September 2003.) In order to connect authentically, we give our full attention to the person who is stating her need. NVC begins by assuming that we are all compassionate by nature and that violent strategies are learned behaviors taught by the prevailing culture. To listen does not mean we have to comply, just that we listen with an open heart, without expectations. If we listen in a fresh way, we will not really know exactly what we will hear. As we become practiced at stating our needs, describing our feelings, restating what we think we hear, and listening to each other, “we learn to lean in, softly, and with a willingness to be changed by what we hear.” (Mark Nepo, philosopher poet.) Let’s keep this in mind for our gathering about race that will be coming up at the Ethical Culture Society on the evening of December 11. Our conversation will be about Being White and its Hidden Assumptions.
Tune in to Focus next month when we talk about “Raising Children to Feel at Home in the World.”