nonviolent communication | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

You Don’t “Have To” Do Anything


One thing I’ve learned about blogging is that, whenever I tell myself I “have to” write another blog post, that’s basically a surefire guarantee that I won’t finish one that day.  Or, maybe I’ll end up churning out something that feels second-rate to me.  Whatever happens, I probably won’t be happy with the end result.

I wondered for a while why this seemed to be true.  One day, when I caught myself thinking “it’s about time I wrote something new,” I noticed my neck and shoulders tensing up in response.  It was as if an angry two-year-old inside me was insisting “I won’t!” in response to a parent’s command.  No wonder my writing turned sluggish and frustrating when my body was so uncomfortable.

As it turns out, many psychologists have come to the same conclusion—when you tell yourself you “must,” “should,” or “have to” do something, you’re going to create resistance inside.  Marshall Rosenberg puts this well in Nonviolent Communication:  “human beings, when hearing any kind of demand, tend to resist because it threatens our autonomy—our strong need for choice.  We have this reaction to tyranny even when it’s internal tyranny in the form of a ‘should.’”

Recognizing Your Choice

I do my best work, I’ve found, when I keep in mind that I always have a choice about whether to write or not.  There’s no rule or law that says I have to write.  If I wanted to, I could choose never to write another article.  As important as I sometimes make myself out to be, the universe would probably survive, and I’d find other things to do with my time.  When I come to my work with this no-pressure attitude, I get the most done and have the most fun doing it.

Some people I’ve told about this have been skeptical.  “If I didn’t tell myself I have to go to work, I wouldn’t go,” one of my friends insisted.  This is a common attitude—that if we didn’t punish or threaten ourselves into working, we’d never accomplish anything.  Somewhere along the line—probably when we were kids—many of us learned that we’re basically lazy and we need a firm hand to push us where we’re “supposed” to go.

And I think there’s another fear lurking beneath this habit of ordering ourselves around—the fear of being overwhelmed with options.  For instance, if my friend stopped commanding himself to go into the office every day, and acknowledged he has a choice in every moment about what to do with his time, he might start thinking about all the possible things he can do with his life—from trapeze artist to termite rancher.  It can be dizzying to realize how much freedom we really have.

You “Have To” Try This

Adopting a no-pressure attitude to motivate yourself may be against the conventional wisdom, but if you try it I think you’ll experience how liberating it can be.

A useful exercise you can do to see this for yourself is to watch for a moment in your daily life when you start telling yourself you “have to” do something—whether it’s washing the car, typing that presentation, calling your friend, or whatever else.  Check in with your body, and notice what sensations are coming up—how do you feel inside when you order yourself around like that?

Now, take a moment and acknowledge that you don’t “have to” do it at all, and that it’s actually up to you.  Say to yourself, inside or out loud, “I can choose whether to do this.”  Watch how your body responds to recognizing your freedom.

What I think you’ll notice is that, when you acknowledge your power to choose, your body actually relaxes, and it’s much easier to focus in this calmer state.

Link LoveEvan Hadkins writes insightfully and provocatively about psychology, health, politics, and the proverbial “much, much more.”  You may also want to check out my interview with Evan about his book, Living Authentically.  It’s got real depth and definitely isn’t your average “book promo piece.”

The Joy of Listening, Part 5: There Are No Rules, Only Requests

Earlier in this series, I wrote about how we can stay attentive and compassionate even when we’re listening to an angry or critical person.  In this piece, I’ll offer another perspective that’s useful to keep in mind in emotionally charged interactions.  The perspective is this:  there are no rules for what you “must” or “should” do.  There are only the wants and needs of human beings.

This perspective is helpful in the context of taking criticism because, when people are critical, they usually phrase what they say in terms of what we “should have done,” what we “were supposed to do,” and what we “did wrong.”  Some examples most of us have heard at various times in our lives include:

* You should have asked me before you did that.

* You weren’t supposed to do that.

* You really screwed this up.

* No, you will do what I say right now.

This kind of language implies that there was a clear rule for what you should have done, and you broke that rule.  And I don’t just mean a “rule” made by your parents, your boss, the President, or any other person.  I mean an objective, self-evident law of the universe, like “A equals A” or “objects in motion tend to stay in motion.”

Of course, this isn’t true.  For example, suppose your boss barks “you were supposed to BCC me on that e-mail, not CC me.”  You obviously didn’t break any laws of nature by CC’ing your boss.  As far as I know, God didn’t hand down any commandments governing how to copy people on e-mails.  But most of us in this kind of situation still react as if we did violate some universal moral principle.  Our bodies tighten up, we feel angry or ashamed, and we start apologizing or defending ourselves.

Translating Criticism into Nonviolent Language

Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC), which I mentioned earlier, is all about moving beyond this style of communicating.  In giving feedback to others “nonviolently,” we speak in terms of what we feel or want, not what “the rules” are or what others “should” do.

To go back to my earlier example, for instance, a boss giving nonviolent criticism might say something like “I wanted you to BCC me on that e-mail.”  This way, he makes clear that he’s upset because you didn’t do what he wanted—not because you violated some eternal divine law.

Unfortunately, most people we interact with aren’t familiar with nonviolent communication, and would probably have a hard time seeing the value of using it.  However, understanding this style of communication can still help us to hear criticism without freaking out or closing down.  This is because, when someone offers negative feedback, NVC helps us remember that, no matter how they phrase their accusations, what we’re really hearing is their unmet need or want.

In other words, whenever someone criticizes us, it’s helpful to ask ourselves “what need or want are they expressing with what they’re saying?”  And when we figure out the answer to that question, we can mentally translate what the other person is saying into “nonviolent” language.  I’ll illustrate how we can do this with the typical forms of criticism I listed above:

* “You should have asked me before you did that”  becomes “I wish you had asked me before you did that.”

* “You weren’t supposed to do that” becomes “I didn’t want you to do that.”

* “Why can’t you do anything right?” becomes ”I want you to do what I ask.”

* “No, you will do what I say right now” becomes “I want you to do what I ask now.”

When you try this out in the real world, I think you’ll notice how spotting the need or want beneath what the other person is saying has the interaction feel less provocative and threatening.

What’s more, if you happen to be in the habit of replaying in your head criticism you received in the past, this can be a deeply healing technique for you.  Take the demeaning words the other person used, and locate the unmet need they were really expressing.  When you understand that the words you were fretting over were nothing more than someone else’s statement of what they wanted or how they felt, the words may not seem to cut so deeply anymore.

Of course, this approach isn’t guaranteed to make all our interactions calm and pleasant.  Many of us still feel anxious or defensive when another person gets angry, no matter how they express their anger to us.  However, when we remind ourselves we’re simply dealing with an angry person expressing their unmet needs, and we haven’t broken any universal laws, we can go a long way toward helping ourselves stay composed and receptive.

The Joy of Listening, Part 1: Overcoming The Barriers
The Joy of Listening, Part 2: Empathic Reflection
The Joy of Listening, Part 3: Staying Empathic
The Joy of Listening, Part 4: Setting Boundaries

The Joy of Listening, Part 4: Setting Boundaries

My last post in this series was about staying receptive and curious when we’re listening, even in the face of a “difficult conversation” or a lot of emotional intensity.  On the same issue, a few commenters on Part One said they sometimes find themselves feeling exploited and resentful when they’re listening to someone.

I suspect you, like these commenters, have had the experience of someone “talking your ear off”—babbling on and on with seemingly no consideration for your time and energy.  When you’re experiencing a conversation this way, of course, it’s hard to find much joy in listening.

Recognize That You Have A Choice

One thing it’s hard to keep in mind when we’re feeling taken advantage of like this is that “it takes two to tango.”  To create a conversation where somebody is talking your ear off, the other person needs to talk a lot, but you must also choose to listen.  In fact, you have the freedom to stop listening and end the conversation at any time, and every second you keep listening you’re choosing not to exercise that freedom.

What often stops us from recognizing this is that we believe, on some level, that we have a moral obligation to keep listening to the other person.  After all, if we stopped listening—no matter how polite we were in ending the conversation—that might hurt the other person’s feelings.  And because it’s our job to make sure no one’s feelings ever get hurt, that option isn’t available.

Naturally, when we see ourselves as obligated to listen, rather than choosing to listen, we feel resentful and victimized.  Because we think it’s “wrong” to say what we want, we hold the other person responsible for predicting what we want.  We expect them to know, in other words, how long we’re willing to tolerate their chatter.  We start having angry thoughts like:  “Don’t they know I don’t have time for this?”  “Can’t they see I’m bored with what they’re saying?”

So, I think a simple shift in our perspective can help.  When you’re having a conversation and the other person is talking your ear off, see if you can keep in mind that, in every moment you listen to this person, you are choosing to do so.  Recognize also that making listening to people a “moral obligation” only brings anger and frustration into your relationships, and makes it impossible for listening to be fun—both for you and the person doing the talking.

Expressing Your Choice

It’s all very well to acknowledge that you’re choosing to keep listening to the other person from moment to moment, but what if you want to stop listening?  How do you let them know, in a respectful way, that you don’t want to listen to them anymore?

The best you can do, I think, is to simply tell the other person you have something else you want to do, in a way that doesn’t blame them for how you’re feeling.  By “blaming them,” I mean doing what I talked about earlier—making them responsible, in your mind, for predicting your wants and needs, and getting upset with them because they “should have known” you wanted them to stop talking (or at least to stop talking about the new blender they bought).

Some of us find it hard to imagine this is even possible.  We assume that, to tell someone we want to finish the conversation or move on to another topic, we have to say something like “you’re boring me” or “go yammer at someone else”—in other words, “I don’t want to listen anymore, and it’s your fault.”  Perhaps we’re accustomed to others talking to us this way, and we haven’t been exposed to other possibilities.

Let me give you an example of a “non-blaming” approach.  I’ve had a few moments recently where a client has wanted to keep our session going past the end of the hour, and I’ve simply told them “I hear what you’re saying, and I’m going to end the session now.”  I’ve straightforwardly told the client what I’m going to do, without suggesting they “should have known” we couldn’t go over time, or otherwise blaming them for wanting to extend our session.

And perhaps, if you’re concerned that they’re going to feel hurt, you can even let them know about that concern.  You might say, for example, “I’m worried that you’ll feel neglected when I finish this conversation, and I’m going to go do something else now.”  Many of us hold feelings like this back in the strange hope that, if the other person doesn’t know we’re worried about hurting them, they won’t feel hurt.  When you fully lay what you’re wanting and feeling on the table, this can bring a refreshing realness and vulnerability to the conversation.

Now, the reason I say this is “the best you can do” is that, as much as many of us would like to avoid having someone feel hurt, it’s simply impossible to do that 100% of the time.  We can’t hope to control all the factors that determine how someone else feels, which might include their childhood experiences, how their intimate relationships are going, their brain chemistry, and so on.  What we can do is take responsibility for our own feelings and choices, and when we do that we can actually make listening an enjoyable experience again.

If you enjoyed this post, check out the rest of the series:

The Joy of Listening, Part 1: Overcoming The Barriers
The Joy of Listening, Part 2: Empathic Reflection
The Joy of Listening, Part 3: Staying Empathic
The Joy of Listening, Part 5: There Are No Rules, Only Requests

The Joy of Listening, Part 3: Staying Empathic

My last post was about empathic reflection—the practice of reflecting back the desires and emotions of the person you’re listening to.  While this may sound simple, it’s trickier than it sounds.  When an interaction starts to feel emotionally intense, it’s easy to fall back into old, reactive patterns of thinking and behaving.  If someone is angry and we’re feeling attacked, for instance, it can be hard to avoid the temptation to stop listening and start defending ourselves.  Similarly, if the other person is sad or worried, it can be difficult to stop consoling them and actually listen to what they’re telling us.

In this post, I’ll talk about some ways we can stay centered, and continue caring about the other person, even when faced with a lot of emotional charge.

Recognize That It’s All Just Sensation. If the emotional intensity of the conversation is starting to feel overwhelming, pause for a moment, take a breath, and notice what you’re experiencing in your body.  Is some part of your body—maybe your shoulders, neck, pelvis or somewhere else—feeling tight?  Is some place—perhaps your face or hands—getting uncomfortably warm?

Usually we mentally label these sensations, calling them “anger,” “joy,” “fear,” and so on.  What’s more, we come up with a mental story about why they’re happening—for example, “what she said made me angry,” or “he hurt me when he looked away from me.”  Still further, we tell ourselves we’ve “got to do something” about what we’re feeling to “make things right”—“I’ve got to hurt him back,” “I need to make her feel better,” “I must prove my point,” and so forth.

What I invite you to do is experiment with letting go of these labels and stories, and purely focusing on the physical sensations arising in you.  What I think you’ll find is that, without all the mental stories about what other people are doing and how you need to respond, those sensations no longer seem so threatening or intense.  It’s just a tension in your shoulders, a heat in your forehead, or something else that, in all likelihood, will quickly pass, leaving you intact and unharmed.  In other words, it probably won’t kill you.

For some people, it seems difficult to slow down and notice the sensations they’re feeling, because emotionally charged interactions feel really fast-paced.  Maybe, for example, the other person is demanding to know why you did this or that, and you feel an intense pressure to answer them as quickly as possible.

In these moments, it’s useful to remember that you, as one of the parties to the conversation, actually have some control over its pace.  You don’t have some kind of “moral obligation” to talk as quickly as the other person, have every bit of information they demand at your fingertips, or otherwise follow their lead.  (In fact, as I wrote in an earlier piece, sometimes it’s more enjoyable and meaningful to stay silent.)  It takes practice to keep this in mind, but when you really internalize this, relating with people can become less stressful.

Ask Yourself What You’re Really Defending Against. As I said, it can be tough not to slip into our old habits of defending ourselves when we feel attacked.  And, what we usually don’t stop and wonder is what we’re really trying to defend ourselves against in those moments.  In other words, if someone is criticizing you and you’re feeling defensive, try asking yourself:  what am I trying to prevent from happening right now?  What goal am I really trying to achieve?

If you’re able to slow down and observe what you’re thinking and feeling in moments like these, you may notice an inner voice making comments like:

“If I hurt the other person, I won’t feel as hurt.”

“I need their approval, love or respect to survive.”

“This conversation is a fight or a competition that I need to win.”

“If I don’t convince them I’m right, I’ll be punished or even killed.”

Once you recognize what your inner voice is saying and why it feels so important to defend yourself, ask yourself if what that voice says is really true.  What I suspect you’ll notice is how paranoid, childlike and disconnected from reality that voice often sounds.  Usually, the assumptions it makes simply aren’t true—you don’t need the other person’s approval to live, and hurting them isn’t really likely to make you feel better.

When you have this realization, you may begin taking your urge to stop listening and counterattack a bit less seriously, and feeling like you can actually choose how to respond in a conflict situation rather than automatically reacting.

At a deeper level, I suspect that the voice that urges us to defend ourselves is a relic of very early moments in our lives, when the world looked unfamiliar, scary and confusing.  While I think it’s helpful to treat this frightened, young part with compassion, we don’t have to leave it in charge of how we relate to people.

Connect With Your Curiosity. One thing that tends to happen in emotionally charged interactions is that we lose our curiosity about what’s going on for the other person.  If they’re feeling frustrated, despondent or something else and blaming us for it, we stop trying to understand why they’re feeling and acting the way they are, and instinctively start withdrawing, attacking, tuning them out, or whatever else we normally do to protect ourselves.

The next time you find this happening for you, see if you can consciously choose to stay curious about what’s having the other person be this way.  What’s going on at a deeper level that’s having them blame, belittle, ignore, or do whatever they’re doing in this moment?  What are they really concerned about or afraid of?  What ideas might they have about the world and their place in it that would cause them to be like this?

What I think you’ll find if you can consciously choose to stay curious about the other person is that, even if there’s a lot of anger, sadness, fear or something else coming up in the conversation, the interaction can actually stay interesting and fulfilling to be in.  Seeking to understand someone else and where they’re coming from, even when they’re expressing intense emotion, can actually be an adventure.

As Juliet from LifeMadeGreat recently observed, our desire as human beings to be understood is at least as important as our desire for money, relationships, “six-pack abs” and all the other typical “personal development” goals.  Just having a genuine interest in understanding what’s going on for another person, in my experience, can defuse conflicts and bring a peace and depth to our conversations.

If you enjoyed this post, check out the rest of the series:

The Joy of Listening, Part 1: Overcoming The Barriers
The Joy of Listening, Part 2: Empathic Reflection
The Joy of Listening, Part 4: Setting Boundaries
The Joy of Listening, Part 5: There Are No Rules, Only Requests

The Joy Of Listening, Part 2: Empathic Reflection

In my last post, I talked about a few of the challenges we often face when trying to fully bring our minds and hearts to listening to another person.  In this post, I’ll discuss a style of communication we can use to express our empathy with the people we listen to and deepen our connection with them.

I’m a big fan of what I’m calling empathic reflection because it offers a wonderful alternative to the ways we usually express our concern for others.  Often, it seems, although we authentically care about someone else’s wellbeing, our efforts to convey that just have the other person feel criticized or patronized.

As Marshall Rosenberg writes in Nonviolent Communication, we often find ourselves advising (“you should do this”), consoling (“it wasn’t your fault”), correcting (“that’s not what happened”), and doing other behaviors that alienate the other person rather than helping them feel understood.  I’ve found the approach I’ll describe, which is based on Rosenberg’s and similar works, a great addition to my communication skills.

Empathic Means “With Real Empathy”

When I say we can use this technique to “express empathy,” I mean that, when we use it, we’re genuinely concerned and curious about the other person and we’d like a new way to convey that sentiment.  This isn’t a strategy for looking or sounding empathic.  I don’t want this piece to turn into “20 Ways To Look Like You Care,” despite all the Diggs and Stumbles that might get.  :)

If you use this approach to convince people you’re concerned about them, or achieve a goal like getting a result in a business negotiation, they’ll likely feel that something is amiss.  Not that I think this technique is unhelpful in a business context, but to be effective it needs to be driven by a genuine concern for what’s going on for the other person.

Some Examples

That being said, let’s talk about what empathic reflection is.  To me, it just means listening for the feeling, or need, the other person is expressing with what they’re saying; and then reflecting that feeling or need back to them with your words.  This is best illustrated with examples, so let’s look at a simple one.

Example 1: Suppose your spouse comes home from work and says to you “oh, I had a terrible day at work.”  To use empathic reflection here, listen for the feeling or need that motivated them to say what they said.  For example, perhaps you sense that they said this because they’re feeling frustrated.  Now, just tell them your understanding of what they’re feeling.  “It sounds like you’re feeling frustrated,” you might say.  Or, if you like, you can put it as a question:  “are you feeling frustrated?”

It sounds simple, but if you try it I suspect you’ll be surprised at how much connection this can create between you and the other person.  In this example, by noticing your spouse’s frustration, you’re letting them know you’re paying attention to and concerned about their feelings.  My sense is that, when they talk about their problems, this is most often what people really want.

A beautiful aspect of this communication style is that, even if you turn out to be mistaken about how the other person feels, you still let them know with this approach that you’re concerned about their feelings without patronizing or imposing your views on them.  In this example, even if your spouse said “actually I’m feeling pretty calm about it,” at least you’ve conveyed that you’re listening and their emotions matter to you.

Another thing you may notice if you use this approach is that it helps the other person feel safe revealing more about themselves.  When you show them you won’t judge or criticize what they tell you, the conversation may end up going to unexpectedly deep places.  Maybe, for example, your spouse will feel safe revealing that the real issue isn’t what happened today, but that they’ve been feeling dissatisfied with their work for a long time.

Upping The Ante

Now let’s look at a “harder” example of empathic reflection.  I say this example is harder because many people would have trouble keeping their composure and staying compassionate in this situation.

Example 2: Suppose your spouse says to you “why aren’t you ever home?  You don’t care about me—all you think about is yourself!”  To use empathic reflection in this situation, start by taking a deep breath.  Then, see if you can notice the emotion beneath your spouse’s words, which in this case sounds like anger, and tell them what you understand that emotion to be.  “I’m hearing that you’re feeling angry,” you might say.

Or perhaps, when you listen to your spouse, what you hear most strongly is a need or want.  In that case, you can reflect the need back to them.  For instance, you might say “it sounds like you’re wanting me to be home with you.”  Notice how this statement acknowledges that beneath your spouse’s anger is actually a desire to spend time with you and feel cared for, as attacking as their words might sound.

This example is a good illustration of why empathic reflection is so much more effective at conveying empathy and sustaining connection than the usual ways people talk to each other.

Many people would react in this example by defending themselves—“what are you talking about?  I was home all day yesterday!”  Oh, and probably counterattacking for good measure:  “you’re just not paying attention when I’m around.”  But as I’m sure you know, when we communicate this way, nobody feels heard or gets their needs met—all that happens is a shouting match, or maybe one party apologizes to “keep the peace” but feels resentful and unfulfilled inside.

I’ll say more about how we can stay centered while using empathic reflection, and what the practice can teach us about ourselves, in the next post.

The Joy of Listening, Part 1: Overcoming The Barriers
The Joy of Listening, Part 3: Staying Empathic
The Joy of Listening, Part 4: Setting Boundaries
The Joy of Listening, Part 5: There Are No Rules, Only Requests