I can pretty much guarantee on any workshop at the early stage of learning NVC I will hear, “NVC sounds good, but it won’t work with xxx.” This is followed by a description of a particular person or situation where the questioner can’t imagine NVC having anything to offer. Common examples offered are a boss, a work colleague, a neighbour or a family member and range from people who are aggressive, don’t show signs of wanting to co-operate or hold onto authority or where there’s a long history of unresolved conflict.

Here are my thoughts on this.

Kicking the Tyres

I have a work colleague who asks challenging questions, often appearing highly cynical of whatever he’s hearing, whether it’s a new idea, a report of what’s been happening or someone’s opinion. He explains this as ‘kicking the tyres’ and draws an analogy to when he’s about to drive his car he kicks each tyre as a quick check that they have enough pressure to drive safely.

My guess (and this is how I generally respond to the question in workshops) is the person asking the question needs trust and safety. The question is their way of quickly testing both NVC as an approach and me as a facilitator. In other words, is NVC  useful and a worthwhile investment of their time? Can I, as the ‘expert’, respond both empathically to the needs behind the question and offer something useful?

Learning Takes Time

Imagine you go to work in a country where you don’t speak the language. In the early stages of learning this new language it would be wise to practice it in simple, day-to-day situations and not jump in to a high risk, complex negotiation.

Sometimes the situation presented by the ‘tyre kicker’ is hypothetical but usually it’s something important and real for the questioner. It is also almost always a situation anyone would find challenging no matter how aware and skilled they are in any approach to communication.

I believe we all have people or situations we struggle with, even those of us who have been learning NVC for many years and have thoroughly integrated it into our lives. It can take months or years to start to handle these in way we can be satisfied with.

I encourage people to first focus on aspects of their lives where they can imagine NVC will bring benefits to all concerned and leave the bigger challenges until they’ve built their confidence and skills.

NVC as an Internal Process

One thing I believe can be done is to focus on NVC as an internal process in these difficult situations and use the frame of NVC to help get a different kind of clarity about the situation.

Observation: what is really going on, when you look behind your judgements and evaluations? How does your reaction change when you separate reality from your story about it?

For example:

“I have a problem with my arrogant and dictatorial boss who is always ordering me about and never listens to what I say”

What triggered this was a moment yesterday when I expressed a different opinion about the next step on project Y. My boss waved his hand in the air, and said ‘Just do it my way’.

Feelings and needs: gently notice what feelings and needs are triggered, taking other people out of the picture. How do your feelings transform when you own them as coming from your needs. They are not given to you by someone else.

For example:

“My boss annoys and frustrates the hell out of me.”

I feel frustrated and annoyed when this happened because I need respect and mutual trust.

Requests: notice what you think other people ‘should’ do or not do. What happens when you change this demand into a specific request, even if you choose to remain silent?

For example:

“He shouldn’t treat me this way, ought to listen to my ideas and if he doesn’t like them should tell me why, so I can learn.”

What I would like from my boss is 5 minutes to discuss this and hear any reasons why he doesn’t like my ideas. This would meet my need for co-operation and learning.

Silent Empathy

One of the core ideas of NVC is that whatever anyone does is an attempt to meet needs. In any situation, no matter how much your needs are not getting met, you can try to discover the needs of the other. You can do this as a silent exploration. You may choose  to verbalise this if you have the confidence to handle the reaction of the other. Otherwise it may be simply an internal reflection.

You can ask yourself the simple questions, ‘I wonder what he/she might be feeling?’ and ‘What needs is he/she trying to meet?

For example:

Maybe my boss was stressed and feeling impatient and needed fast action? Maybe he was irritated when he heard me disagree and needed respect and to be trusted?

It’s not important whether you’re right or not. As a silent practice you probably won’t discover what is really going on with another person. What it does, though, is change the focus of your attention away from your thoughts about what an ass they are and start to see them as a human being with their own feelings and needs.

How does the situation serve you?

I believe those situations most challenging for us are the ones where we often don’t recognise our free will and choice.

The truth is nothing keeps you facing any challenge or staying in contact with any person. At the very least you always have a choice to walk away. You may not like the consequences of walking away – which may be more unpleasant than what’s happening – but that awareness gives more space.

I suggest asking yourself,  ‘what needs of mine are being met by staying with this relationship/situation?‘ and  ‘what needs am I trying to meet but haven’t yet found the way?’

Your first reaction may be ‘none‘. All you can see are the needs not being met. But stay with the questions. There are always needs trying to be met in everything you do.

For example.

I stay in this job to meet needs of safety (money and employment contract), learning (from the challenge), meaning (the work I do), community (relationships with my co-workers).

What else could you do?

Once you can recognise you are trying to meet needs you can look for alternative strategies and check if any of these are more likely to get more needs met.

For example.

I could ask for a transfer to another department / leave and look for another job / look for another job but stay until I found one / have a conversation with my boss about our relationship / find an empathy partner to help me calm down and find more peace in the situation.

And when you’ve tried everything and just can’t find a way to move forward, be gentle with yourself. Mourn that you don’t yet have the answer. Mourn your needs not being met and don’t forget to celebrate those that are.