Something a little different today – this week I’m delighted to feature a poem sent to me by Susan Clarke from Australia. Susan is a music teacher and planning to become an NVC trainer sometime.

You may remember Susan from her wonderful article ‘Becoming an NVC Virtuoso‘ which is one of the most read articles on the site.

Welcome back Susan.

Self Empathy

by Susan Clarke

I see how terrified I’ve been
Especially at work
Furtively living every day
As if there was a guillotine
About to crash down and sever
My head from my body
The barbs and attacks
From the recent and distant past
Warning me
To keep my head down
Make myself small
And insignificant
Do my job
And return home
Small enough to fit into
A shoebox
With nail holes allowing
Just enough air
For survival.

Keeping myself contained
Was never going to work
And when the pressure grew
The poison
Injected into my soul
Over many years
Erupted spitting
To sting and burn
A child
A colleague
A friend
And I would despise myself even more
For my meanness
Feeling damaged beyond repair
Hurt beyond hope.

Turned inwards
A gift to myself
The promise of a newborn baby
Undamaged and perfect
Aware of  feelings and needs
Asking for what I want
Giving from the heart.

Living in the now
Rarely stalked by demons
Putting the past to rest
Feeling at ease
And at home
My Self at last.


Almost daily I’m reminded of the opportunities I have to learn and develop. Some of those opportunities are big, transformative events – painful perhaps, or inspirational and joyful. They happen rarely for me yet change my live in radical ways. I count meeting NVC as one turning point with huge impact on how I now choose to live.

Yet day to day there are many small events providing insights, lessons, new understandings or adjustments in what I do or how I perceive the world. Most of the time I’m certain I miss out by rushing from one task to another without stopping to reflect or even notice them.

Peeling an Egg

A perfect example of these easily missed opportunities happened a couple of days ago, with a wonderful lesson from my 2 year old daughter, Emma.

She had come to the apartment we use as an office, and, as is sadly often the case, I was keeping her occupied while thinking about the things I wanted to do once her grandmother came to pick her up. She discovered a hard boiled egg in the fridge and decided she wanted to peel it and eat it.

I patiently watched while she cracked the shell and started to remove the tiniest pieces bit by bit. After about 10 seconds (patience has a limit!) I felt a strong urge to take the shell and peel it for her. After all, she’d never opened an egg before so clearly could benefit from a helping hand and get it done in 20 seconds or so.  I told myself it was my job to help her out, take over the shelling and we could both get on with whatever else it was we were going to do next. I have no doubt she would have been ok with watching me do this and then eat at her leisure – it was not as though I had any desire to eat it for as well.

But I stopped myself.

I almost had to sit on my hands to stop myself snatching the egg away. As she struggled to get further into the egg there were a couple of times when I reached out and through sheer will power brought my hand back and allowed her to carry on. It might sound like an exaggeration, but this urge to fix things was really very strong.

At one point she stopped and admired the smooth white egg gradually appearing and turned to me and said,

‘Look Daddy, how beautiful!’

My heart melted and all desire to solve the challenge for her disappeared. Instead I sat back and watched her total concentration as she delicately picked away small bits of eggshell. I felt so moved by her wonder and inspired by her dedication to this task that seemed to me such a practical thing.

And indeed it was beautiful. The soft, smooth white emerging from the thin protection of the shell.

When she finished after about 5 minutes she again turned to me with such a look of pride and triumph on her face and said,


… as though she had just discovered some unexpected treasure amid all that effort and exploration. Which indeed she had.

And if I had not resisted the urge to jump in and do it, she would have missed all this. Just as importantly I would have missed it too.

Enjoying each moment

Reminders such as this little story about the egg are important for me in my attempt learn how to slow down a little and, step by step, open to the possibilities for growth. I do this by noticing when I’m having a strong reaction or urge (see ‘Lost in Translation‘ for another example). By noticing what’s happening, noticing my internal reactions, I can discover the needs underneath and make adjustments to how I’ve been trying to meet these needs that are more effective.

When I’m busy ticking off things on my to do list I’m not savouring the beauty of the world. This rushing forward through life is an old habit I’m trying to break and most of the times I don’t notice it. There are times to hurry, for sure, but not at the expense of beauty, connection with my loved ones, care, growth, appreciation, wonder, discovery and a host of other joys this life has to offer if we choose to look for them.

Emma helped me experience a moment of unexpected joy – both for myself and through her eyes.

‘Connection before Education’

As a coach, trusting my clients have the answers and resources to succeed in whatever it is they are aiming for, is like a mantra. In my professional life, with my coaches ‘hat’ on, I believe I focus on connection. I don’t try to educate or teach but instead give my complete attention to them.

Outside that role of coach, I see I still have some learning to do.

Emma reminded me she is not only perfectly capable of learning by herself, but there is real pleasure in the process and joy in the achievement.


Yesterday I got a reminder that learning how to live NVC is a long journey. I enjoy such reminders because they keep me on my toes, provide rich learning and help reconnect with myself and others when I’m mentally and emotionally somewhere else.

Yesterday evening I was laying on bed with Mona and Emma (wife and daughter, respectively) reading as part of Emma’s bed time routine. Emma passed the book to Mona to which Mona said to me, ‘I would you like you to speak to Emma more’.

I heard the words accurately in my ears, yet what I heard in my head was, ‘You don’t talk to Emma enough.’ and for a few minutes reacted quite strongly to that.

My defensive/aggressive reaction to Mona was triggered by what I thought she said, not what she actually said.

I discovered later that Mona was expressing a concern about Emma’s language development. She was aware I am almost the exclusive source of English for her and mostly she hears Romanian. Mona wants her to be able to thrive and fit in if we decide to move to England (which we have talked about as a possibility). I failed to pick up any of this because my brain had translated a simple expression into a criticism directed at me.

It was really strange experience because while I heard criticism in my head, I knew the actual words I heard were different but found myself responding to my version rather than the real version. It’s not the first time it’s happened to me and I’ve heard others recount similar experiences. In some ways I find it a strange phenomenon and hard to really understand on a logical level. I also wonder just how many conflicts flare up because of it.

Here are some reflections about how this could have turned out differently.

Learn the signs

Sometimes I’m able to catch the situation before I react to it by recognising certain internal signs that something is ‘off’. For example there’s a particular whiney, irritated sensation in my torso (hard to put into words) that only happens when my brain is over-analysing. Or there’s a dizziness (again hard to put exactly into words) when my thoughts are spiralling out of control. These are helpful signals that I’m about to react to something (such as criticism) which is entirely of my own making.

When these signals start to appear I can ask myself – what’s actually going on here? What’s the OBSERVATION?

Create a pause

When I react immediately – especially in heated situations – I almost always regret it. Slowing down is a great way to check on reality, find some ground under my feet and make a decision about what to do or say that is more conscious than the knee-jerk reaction. Bringing my ATTENTION to the present moment by taking a deep breath, by very deliberately shutting my mouth and allowing a moment of pause. It is possible though not always easy.

Owning my part

I think an important element of resolving conflicts is to own my part in it.

In this case my translation of what Mona said into a criticism was at the root. It was what stopped me seeking to understand and the place from which I expressed my anger in ways that were never going to get anywhere. Mona had a part in it too. She could have chosen her words more carefully, picked a better time or reacted to my anger differently. That’s up to her to recognise and is absolutely not a necessary condition for me to move through the conflict. When I own my part it gives me the power to come together in a compassionate and connected way.

See my choices

I’ve always got a choice. I could choose to:

  • hear a criticism and go on the attack
  • avoid dealing with it and stay silent
  • seek clarification by asking what was meant (REQUEST)
  • give empathy by connecting to what was behind the comment at a deeper level (NEEDS)
  • give myself empathy and stay in connection to my reaction at a deeper level (NEEDS)
  • express how I’m reacting to the words (FEELINGS and NEEDS) and make a REQUEST

There’s no ‘right’ way and each them looks after some needs of mine, though the first two might create some additional problems I’ll have to deal with at some point.

Stay Connected

Staying connected means being with whatever comes up and trusting that if I stay focused on discovering what’s really going on then we’ll solve the conflict together in a way we’re both happy with. It’s about keeping my INENTION to meet our needs in my awareness.  I find what really helps is when I’m listening, to do so with 100% of my attention and when I’m expressing myself, to do that 100% as well. If I’m hearing you and processing what it means for me at the same time, then I’m neither fully with you nor fully with me.

Try Again

I don’t always manage to follow my own advice, as in the situation last night. I ranted a bit. I triggered Mona and we ended the evening with a feeling neither of us enjoyed.

Failing to read the signs, pause, see choice or stay connected doesn’t have to be a permanent state.

Tomorrow will come and a chance to use the experience to reconnect having learned about myself and the people in my life. Again there is choice about how to move forward. Maybe an apology, a question, a reflection, an action or a second attempt to communicate and understand each other.

And maybe the raw material for writing an article about it.


I’m delighted to feature this article by Susan Clarke, a music teacher in Australia.

Susan posted a comment on one of the NVC forums I follow about learning NVC and she drew an analogy to learning to play a musical instrument. I enjoyed her comment so much I contacted her and asked if she would like to expand it into a full article.

And here it is!

Are you feeling confused because you’re needing clarity about the way we learn the process of Non Violent Communication?  I have an analogy that might help, would you be willing to read about it?

The structure of formal NVC can sound contrived and feel uncomfortable but it has a useful role to play as we learn a language of compassion and non-violence.  The following analogy came to me as I taught a class of nine-year old beginning band musicians and might be useful in putting the process in perspective.

Learning to Play

Learning to play a musical instrument for many children is a complex and difficult process, especially if they have no family background.  Most of my students are in that category.  They attend public schools in blue-collar areas and are all accepted, regardless of their academic or musical ability.

I designed a poster that gives an apt description for what a musician attempts to do:

Music engages our whole selves – Ears, Eyes, Body, Mind, Heart

Young students are confronted with a massive amount of information in the beginning as they learn the vocabulary of notes and rhythms at the same time as they are learning to hold adult-size instruments and coordinate fingers, breath and tongue.   For several months, I would not describe what they’re playing as music, even though they’re playing what’s on the page – it is stilted and jerky and I can almost hear the internal cogs turning as they focus on putting all the elements together.  I tell them,

The more you play the easier it gets; play until it’s easy

and as their skills develop with practice there are moments when it sounds like music.  Then, over time, usually many years, their technique develops and they become aware of the nuances of phrasing, structure and dynamics,  bringing them closer to the magic of making music.

Playing v Expressing

There is a difference between being able to play an instrument competently and being able to express ones self as a musician.  Pablo Casals, a man of peace and one of the greatest musicians of the last century once said,

The most important thing in music is what is not in the notes

It is possible to play an instrument with virtuosic technique but still fail to move others if we forget to connect our playing to our heart and soul.  Likewise, it is possible to play imperfectly with mistakes and still express music from the heart.  Virtuosity without heart is a spectacle, impressive to some, leaving others cold; with heart it is miraculous, and deeply satisfying.

I am reminded of a scene in the movie Mr Holland’s Opus where Mr Holland (Richard Dreyfus) is teaching a struggling, young clarinetist.  She is frustrated and upset because in spite of all her practice she can’t play the piece with any sense of flow.  The breakthrough comes when he helps her connect to her own inner experience and, as if a lock had been broken, her heart opens, freeing her to play the passage with ease and expression. She is not virtuosic but she is expressive and that’s what she wanted to be.

Technique is only the scaffolding in any art form – without it a performance can be expressive but messy, but if it’s the only thing in evidence the performance has nothing to say and misses the point – to move the soul.

Our intention informs our practice

If we want to learn to play an instrument competently we will learn enough technique to experience the joy of performing in an ensemble and entertaining our family and friends, meeting our need for fun and self-expression.  For many, this is a worthy goal.   However, to achieve mastery, a musician needs to reach a level of technical facility that will liberate her to express the composer’s intention while expressing herself – artistry takes her to a whole new level of commitment, resilience and practice.  This can be a grueling process, and many give up as the demand for technical perfection wears them down because they forget why they wanted to play music in the first place.

At one stage, many years ago I told my new teacher I wanted to be a professional musician.  I thought he would be pleased, but instead he looked exasperated and said,

Why not be an amateur? Do you know what that means?  A true amateur plays from the heart.  Being a professional destroys that.

And for many the sad truth is that their intention to play music joyfully from the heart has been lost in the quest for success in the harsh competitive environment of the profession.

Learning NVC is like the journey of learning music

My guess is that most people come to NVC with the desire to improve their relationships and way of being in the world.  For many, there is this feeling that whatever they’re doing now isn’t working and they’re attracted by the idea that there is a process and skills that will make things better and help us to connect with others safely and effectively.

Formal NVC gives us a skill set for compassionate communication that feels clunky and contrived to begin with, and couldn’t be described as fluent communication.   The cogs turning are very much in evidence at the start in much the same way as it is for a beginning musician.

Firstly, we remember to pause to process what is alive for us in the moment and attempt to observe what’s happening without judgment, then we choose whether to express what we are feeling and needing and follow up with a request.  Most of this process feels foreign to us because we have gone through life reactively responding either defensively or aggressively.  Just to pause is a huge step, and accepting that taking the risk to practise in real life is vital to our progress is another step further.  For myself, in the beginning I’d pause and say nothing because my mind was processing what was alive for me and how I wanted to respond to the other person so slowly the moment would pass before I’d said anything.   I decided that was a positive step along the lines of “Do no harm!”

As time goes on and my consciousness grows, and my intention for compassionate connection comes to the forefront of my interactions, the nuances of compassion – empathy for myself and others, literacy in feelings, needs and requests – are becoming integrated into my way of being and my communication is less contrived and more connecting with myself and the other person.  The pause becomes silent empathy, sometimes for myself but more often these days for the other; the words become genuine expressions and enquiries into their feelings and needs and the requests become connective strategies to bring us together.

As with musicians, it is difficult for us to express ourselves authentically if we are sweating over the process, but with practice the mechanics become more natural allowing us to communicate from the heart.  It takes time to bring the two components together and the process of developing mastery involves a balancing act between them.  We are developing habits of heart with the conscious intention to connect compassionately with ourselves and others using the scaffolding process that is NVC.  Ultimately, this is artistry in NVC.

For many, the intention to learn NVC is about developing a set of communication skills that helps them to deal with conflict in their lives.  When I mention Non Violent Communication many people automatically reply “Oh, like conflict resolution” and that is enough.  Others want to learn it to communicate more effectively with their spouse or their children, while others see the potential for spiritual and personal transformation and strive to integrate non violence into their lives and way of being.  The danger is that like the aspiring musician, we can become so engrossed in the mechanics and technique of perfecting the process, we forget our intention to live compassionately, to connect with others with authenticity. If we forget that intention we end up with empty words and something that sounds a little weird and sometimes even threatening, especially when used in self-serving ways.  The NVC process used without heart is not NVC, just like musical technique alone isn’t music.

As with most learning, these are spiral processes, moving through different levels that afford a view of where we’ve been and maybe a glimpse of where we’re going when we work with teachers and mentors.  We will make progress, think we’ve got it, and around the next bend notice we’ve been there before, but with a greater awareness and capacity to build on what we’ve already learned.  I have students who want to flick the pages of their method books to play the last page as fast as they can before they’ve acquired the skills and knowledge they need to make it work, and they get frustrated because they would dearly love to impress others.  Sometimes they need to be reminded that in the long term it’s a more effective strategy to slow down and accept the process of learning and building on the skills step by step, that to be good musicians they need to respect and embrace the craft with loving attention.  I often have to remind myself of the same thing in NVC, take time, slow down, accept the process, live the intention and practise with love, even if my imperfection is on show.

Orchestra, band, community

Finally, belonging to a community is common to most learning, linking up with others who share a common interest and who know what it is we’re trying to achieve and understand the values that motivate us.  Young musicians join a band or an orchestra to pool the resources of their skills and talents together to make music, the whole often greater than the sum of its parts.  Together they can encourage each other and grow in confidence as they play together.  Likewise with NVC, joining together with others, who want to live more compassionate lives and live in a more compassionate world, in practice groups or empathy circles, strengthens us as individuals when we practise our skills and live our intention in a community that understands, supports and values our journey.

Perhaps NVC, like music, engages our whole selves.  We listen, observe, feel our responses, process the information and empathize – ears, eyes, body, mind, heart.  If we remember that we can develop an artistry in our practice that can transform our lives and communities.


Susan Clarke teaches instrumental music in public schools in Queensland, Australia.  She is a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and is learning the art of making sour dough bread.   She hopes to be a candidate for certification as a trainer in Nonviolent Communication in the near future.


“All organisms with complex nervous systems are faced with the moment-by-moment- question that is posed by life: What shall I do next?”

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh / Roger Lewin

I’m continually making choices from a huge range of possible things I could do. Right now I’m choosing to write and each moment is a decision to carry on writing rather than choose some other attractive possibilities. I could be making myself a coffee (or a nice herbal tea), taking a nap (I was up very early this morning!), putting on some music (my daughter’s watching TV so I may need to negotiate that one!) or one of any other options, limited only by my imagination.

Yet I choose to persevere with this article even though nobody stands over me with a gun at my head.

Everything is a Choice

EVERYTHING I do is a decision from a range of choices. It’s not always an easy decision, but it is a decision nonetheless, and it is MY decision.

Learning NVC helped me realise how I tend to limit this wonderful freedom of choice by telling myself I ‘Have To’ do certain things.

I lived a large part of my life this way. At work I had ‘to do lists’ of things that had to be done and usually took up the whole day. And then bills had to be paid. Family had to be visited. The lawn had to be cut, car washed, shopping done, garbage taken out, children played with, newspaper read, and on and on and on. I could fill the article with all the things I ‘had to’ do.

I reckon that at least 90% of what I did in a typical day was motivated by the words ‘I Have To’. I think I’ve moved it to somewhere around 20% which I consider a huge step forward and I look forward to the day when it’s zero!

Yes … But There Are Things You Just HAVE to do!

I often hear people tell me they have responsibilities and duties and if everyone did whatever they wanted the civilised world would crumble into chaos and take the uncivilised world with it. There are some things people just have to do. Then they list examples, such as paying taxes, sending kids to school, earning money, respecting the law.

What’s on your list of things people have to do?

My guess is for every single item on the list you’ll find more than one example of someone who didn’t do it. Probably you’ll find some instances when even you didn’t. As a scientific theory ‘some things people just have to …‘ doesn’t stand up to too much scrutiny.

So if it’s not a universal law, where did it come from? I think there are several reasons.

1.  The Power of Language

Language is a powerful force in shaping our thoughts and actions. And what better way to control large numbers of people than to convince them they have no choice about certain things. It’s not really in the interests of government, for example, to encourage you to see paying taxes as a choice. Or in the interests of business leaders for you to think earning money (and spending) is an option rather than a compulsion.

I’m not into grand conspiracy theories. My guess is in the deep, distant past, those who elevated themselves into positions of power found they could more easily control people by convincing them they had to obey authority. Having obedient serfs consumes less energy than having to threaten and punish all the time. Nowadays the serfs are all citizens and employees but the principle remains.

2.  Lack of Imagination

I still catch myself thinking there is only one possibility in front of me so I have no choice. What I really mean is I can’t, at the moment, see any other strategy for meeting my needs. It’s more a temporary lack of imagination than anything else. Recognising it this way I find helpful because then I can put my energy into developing other options, maybe talking it over with someone or just plain old procrastination until I get a new idea.

3.  Fear of Consequences and Avoiding Responsibility

If there was indeed a gun pointing at my head and I was being told to write I might easily argue, ‘I had to write it.’ It may seem like a stupid example, yet I can think of many interactions I’ve had, especially in organisational contexts, where people behave as though they are looking down the barrel of a firearm. It seems quite common in the public sector for some reason.

Well the truth is I still chose to write it. I didn’t much like the option of getting hurt and probably the fear I was experiencing prevented me from seeing other possible ways out. Like talking to my assailant. Disarming him (or her). Running away.

Choose to …

I’m not suggesting you stop paying taxes, earning money, sending your kids to school or taking the garbage out.

I am suggesting you chooseto do these things (or not) out of a conscious awareness about what serves you and serves others. I do, for example, choose to pay taxes. Partly because I enjoy and appreciate some of the things the money is used for, and partly because I don’t want to deal with the consequences of avoiding tax. Some of my needs are not met (for example, when the money is spent on weapons) but overall enough needs are met for me to do it. And this way it doesn’t feel like a burden.

I found when I do something from this energy of choice rather than obligation I enjoy it more, feel less fear and take responsibility for my life.

So please, if you enjoyed this article, you don’t have to leave a comment but you could choose to.