Yesterday, I participated in Nonviolent Communication, or ‘NVC,’ for the first time. Nonviolent communication. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Just communicate openly without aggression is what it sounds like, but it is so much more than that. My supervisor introduced me to the idea of NVC and urged me attend a local practice group. Although I was apprehensive, I went. I arrived at the address, a modest house just outside of D.C., and was greeted by a group of mostly middle-aged women. I was clearly the youngest, and wondered what it would be like to learn something with a group of people who have been doing this for years.
We began with a self-appreciation exercise. We focused on appreciating small actions we had accomplished, qualities of ourselves, or even physical traits we enjoyed about ourselves. With our eyes closed we listened to the soothing voice of the facilitator, as the questions required us to inquire further and further into ourselves. At the end of the exercise, a question was asked that resulted with a surprising answer. “Was it difficult to fully appreciate yourself?” asked the facilitator of the group. Against my own will, I was finding myself saying yes and realized that I was having difficulty fully appreciating my actions and environment without self-judgment. For the first time, I was fully aware of the pessimistic way I was framing situations, and I was not happy with it. Just this small introductory exercise already began to illustrate to me the power that NVC could have.
We then moved on to putting into practice the methods of nonviolent communication and replacing our habitual ways of communication. We focused on strict observations of what we see and hear (instead of interpretation of what we see and hear), feelings brought up by these observations (instead of thoughts and beliefs that interpretations trigger), realizing the human needs that were met or unmet that triggered those feelings (instead of using strategy to meet needs), and finally a concrete request (rather than a demand driven by the fear of punishment or consequences). These four steps sound so simple, but they are truly profound and were a challenge to meet.
We took a few moments of silence to reflect on something that we had seen or heard recently and wrote a few key words for each step. I chose to write about a situation that recently occurred with my father. To write about the situation without my own interpretations, as if I was only watching it as a video recording, was the biggest challenge for me. Before I came to Washington, D.C., my father wrapped me in his arms and hugged me. He told me how proud he was of the decision I had made to go to a new city on my own for a meaningful internship. In his eyes, I saw tears swelling, just the type of look people get before they cry. But I couldn’t write about what types of almost-tears they were; that would be interpretation. So I continued. His embrace lasted a long time. I wanted to write that it was longer than a usual hug, but I couldn’t. That would be subjective and an interpretation, something we were distancing ourselves from. What I heard: my father expressing his satisfaction and delight that I had been given this opportunity. Next were the feelings I had from hearing and feeling him. Empowered, optimistic, touched, thankful; all words that came to my head. “Ok,” I said to myself, “This isn’t too hard. I can do this.” The needs that were met from this encounter: the need for support, encouragement, and purpose. I felt as though I had a purpose in what I was doing. I wasn’t leaving him for no reason.
Next we broke into groups. I was paired with the facilitator, a woman with years of experience with NVC. The exercise was to speak about our observation, feelings, and needs to our partner as if they were the subjects of our observation. She was my father. I told my father how feeling his embrace and hearing his meaningful words made me feel and what needs they had met for me. Again, it sounds so simple but can be so challenging. This was just a small encounter that occurred, not something I ever reflected on further and I as I continued to speak, I realized how much this small action meant to me. Her role as my father was to repeat back what he understood from the situation. She repeated back to me “Sara, my daughter…” and told me from the perspective of my father how he heard the situation, the feelings I had, and the needs he had met for me. I had expected such a prescribed response to be automated and stiff, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was sincere and genuine. None of the same adjectives I used were repeated back to me. ‘My father’ really listened to me. He explained how he understood that I was moved by the words he said and that I was encouraged and delighted to have approval. He met my needs for partnership and inspiration. Then, as my father, the facilitator responded with the feelings he had from hearing that, and the needs that had been met by hearing everything I had said. He felt proud, moved, and appreciative of hearing my feelings. I provided him with trust, intimacy, and affection. Hearing her say that as my father, I started to tear up.
She asked me as we finished the roles if I had told this all to my father. I hadn’t, and maybe that is why I was crying. The sudden realization that this interaction meant so much to me and I had never shared that with him was not an easy feeling to come to terms with, but it was rewarding and enlightening. Right then I decided that I needed to tell him because this step-by-step exercise showed me how to appreciate life, no matter how small the occurrence. What my partner did not know was that my father had been fighting cancer for the six months previous to this interaction, yet she patiently listened to every word I had to say and understood the importance of such a small interaction without needing to know my entire background. It was so amazing to be provided with such a sense of support and community without needing to tell my entire story. In what has seemed like the worst six months that my family will ever experience and watching my father fight so hard, I learned that there is so much to appreciate and that by communicating and observing situations this way, we can shed a new light on every experience we have.
When the roles were reversed, I played my partner’s daughter. Telling her the positive feelings her observance and feelings gave me, I could see in her eyes that it was an encouraging message for her to hear, just as hers was to me. Being so engaged with a stranger, and opening up to them as if they were someone close is so fulfilling. Eye contact was endured throughout the entire exercise, and we spoke slowly, choosing every word carefully. Speaking so slowly with silence in between each word did not create an uncomfortable atmosphere, but rather a comforting and safe atmosphere with sincerity resonating in every word.
When we were all given the opportunity to say how we were feeling to the group after the exercise, or to pass, I took my turn. Taking my turn when speaking to a group, especially a group I had just met two hours before, is not a typical behavior for me. This time was different though. I couldn’t wait to share how I was feeling. I was calm and centered and just blissful more than anything. The mood of happiness was consistent and spread throughout the room. Nonviolent communication can be a powerful tool to everyone, and although I have much to learn, this experience has truly showed me to potential of meaningful connections and honest and open communication.
To learn more about Nonviolent Communication, click here.