You ever start a conversation that you knew was going to be dicey….and sure enough it got hard fast, and so you just gave up? You might have said to your significant other “Hey, so I really would like your support while I’m trying to make the decision about graduate school.” But they couldn’t hear that, they responded “I can’t believe you’re asking me to support you in this…you know how thinking about you moving away from me makes me sick to my stomach!” And so you backed down, you said “Yeah, I know, sorry, forget about it”, or maybe a less than soft sigh followed with “fine.”
So maybe you haven’t had that exact conversation, but can you think of a time when you knew what you needed, you were brave enough to express it, but the other person was unable or unwilling to give you what you requested. Many people then give up in the face of this resistance. They may say to themselves “see, there’s no point in embracing and asking for my needs, it just leads to conflict” or worst “see, my needs aren’t actually that important…I can live without them”. But that’s not your only option.
Many people who are new to Nonviolent Communication, who are new to embracing their needs and expressing them, find that as they are starting this new practice they hit a lot of resistance. All of a sudden, people are arguing with them for asking for what they need. This can be very disconcerting, since this is very foreign to the familiar “maintaining the peace” attitude. Nonviolent Communication certainly does draw attention to conflicts. And once those conflicts arise it can feel very comfortable to slip back into “maintaining the peace”. But that isn’t what NVC invites us to do.
This same problem sometimes comes up with empathy. Sometimes people worry that if they empathize with someone it means they are giving up their needs, and just agreeing with the other person’s needs. But again, this isn’t what NVC is inviting us to do.
We must also build up resiliency, so that as we face this resistance we can stay grounded in our own needs. Here’s two helpful tips to stay grounded in your own needs during conflicts. First, reassure yourself that your needs are important but reflect upon how you’re seeking their fulfillment. Your needs are very important, and it is vital that they get met. If your needs are left unmet for too long it can breed resentment and despair within yourself. And then this resentment and/or despair will manifest itself in all sorts of problems that seem totally disconnected from the actual unmet need. But where you may need to reflect is over how you’re trying to get a particular need met. In the example at the top of this article about needing support in making the decision about graduate school the person who needs support may be only looking to their significant other for support. So they may want to reflect upon whether there are other people who may be able to meet this need for support more easily. Or they may reflect and decide that they way they are asking for support sounds too much like a demand, and so they’d like to make a request.
The second tip is to stay grounded in what is me, and what is not me. Staying with the example at the top, the person needing support could make the distinction of what is her and what is not her. So when her partner says “you know how thinking about you moving away from me makes me sick to my stomach” there are two ways for her to react. One is that she may take responsibility for her partner’s reaction. ”Oh, when I bring up this topic I hurt my partner”. But this simply is not true. Her partner is hurting in the moment, but she did not cause the pain by requesting more support. Her request for support may have drawn her partner’s attention to this issue, but it is the issue itself which is bothering him. He was upset about the situation before she brought up her need for support, he just wasn’t thinking about it until she brought it up. But her bringing it up doesn’t cause him pain, his way of viewing the situation is causing him pain. This is what I call “not me”. I make a clear distinction of what I am contributing to the conversation; in this example requesting support, and what I am not contributing to the conversation; in this example that my partner fears me going to graduate school because he believes it means that I’m rejecting him. And whatever falls in the category of “not me” means that I don’t have to take responsibility for those parts. So I am not responsible for my partner viewing my decision to go to graduate school as a rejection of him, that is his responsibility. And making this clear distinction within oneself can truly help you find greater inner acceptance and peace with having and asserting your own needs.
KindCommunication.org is a project by a close friend of Wiki World Order, Alex Leach. WWO fully supports the study, practice, and teaching of non-violent communication as one of the core solutions which already exists.