I’ve been insulted a few times and heard lots of feedback that was not at all easy to hear. My habit used to be to take it personally and either respond with silence or go on the attack. Unexamined habits lead me to forget the choices I have in how to hear an insult.

I spent the first part of my adult life trying to please others. The subjects I studied at school, my career (Accounting, of all things!), buying a house, getting married, running a car. All of these were heavily influenced by what I thought would keep other people in my world happy.

With this motivation for all major and minor decisions, any attack, criticism or insult was hard for me to deal with. I heard it as feedback I was failing to please someone. I interpreted it to mean there was something wrong with me!

As you can probably guess, my self-esteem was not sky-high with this approach to life!

I Am A Cold Fish

Some years ago my assistant at work made a huge mess of arranging a conference I was responsible for. We both knew it was potentially one of those career wrecking screw-ups. As a ‘good’ manager I stayed very calm and together we fixed the problem.

At the end of the day we sat down to ‘review’ this narrowly avoided catastrophe. She sat there quivering with nerves as I started, very calmly to talk through what had happened and what we could learn from it. After about 5 minutes she couldn’t stand it any longer and blurted out:

“I messed up. We both know it. Any NORMAL person would have got angry and shouted at me. But not you. You are such a COLD FISH – it’s impossible to work with you!”

The NVC Way

Discovering NVC brought me huge relief and the discovery I have 4 ways to hear any insult or any difficult message.

On hearing from my assistant that I am not normal and am, in fact, a cold fish, I could have reacted with one or more of the following:

1   Attack her

How dare you criticise me? It was you that screwed up, not me!  You’re completely incompetent and if I hadn’t stayed cool, calm and collected there’s no way we’d have recovered from the mess you caused. I’m not cold! I’m in control … and that’s what a good manager needs to be, especially with someone as useless as you! Grrrrrrrr!!!!!!!!”

I suspect both of us would have ended up worse off with this approach. But isn’t this pretty common? … after all, attack is apparently the best form of defence.

2   Attack myself

[Inner dialogue] She’s absolutely right. Any one with balls would have at least raised their voice. What a weak, cowardly person I am. I’ll never make it as a manager – she needs strong, assertive leadership and not a punch bag. Not only that, I’m devoid of emotion generally. Nothing affects me. Am I dead?

This was what I did at the time. Fortunately I managed to transform it later as it didn’t help my self-esteem too much.

3   Listen to myself

[Inner dialogue] I’ve not heard anyone say that before and I don’t like hearing it. I’m confused and not sure if she’s talking only about this situation or about working with me in general. I’d like to be understood that I was trying my best to solve the problem and I really care about this work. I’d also like her to hear that I care about her and I don’t consider losing my cool to be respectful.

With this self empathy I’m neither agreeing or disagreeing, but wanting to connect with myself. When I open into an enquiring frame I might discover something useful about myself in her feedback. What I’m trying to do is get in touch with my feelings and needs in response to what I heard.

4   Listen to her

“Wow, you seem really upset about this? Would you have liked to have done a great job and you’re feeling disappointed about what happened? Maybe you’re also looking for passion and energy in the work we do together? And also honest, direct feedback and communication?”

These guesses may be well wide of the mark but that doesn’t matter. With this empathic response I’m with her and her reaction to what’s going on. I might even discover something about her and improve the quality of our relationship.

In Summary

NVC suggests 4 choices when hearing a difficult message:

  1. Attack the message giver
  2. Attack myself
  3. Listen to myself
  4. Listen to the message giver

It also suggests that the last two options are much more likely to be effective than the first two.

I’m not claiming it’s easy, and it requires skill and presence to choose these responses. I know that when I have chosen to hear an insult with empathy (either to myself or the other) it has always turned out to be the start of an important and meaningful exchange.


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