One of my favorite quotes is from Muriel Rukeyser: “The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” While from a poet, it’s interesting that this view increasingly holds scientific weight. Studies show that how we see things—a person’s face, particular colors, or even how we remember the “facts” of what happened—has less to do with “objective” reality than with the filter of our past experiences and associations. And all interpretation, on one level, is a kind of story.
During the course of a day, we engage in hundreds if not thousands of “stories” of this kind. We are continually interpreting and evaluating the world and our experience. These interpretations in turn impact the choices we make. And often our interpretations have an emotional “color” or experience attached or associated with it. So while a “story,” our interpretations can have intensity and greater meaning, and often these layers are not even fully conscious. We can then take even a small thing—such as someone not making eye contact or saying “thank you”—personally, in a reactive way.
This is why the first step in the NVC model—coming up with a clear observation, free of evaluation, is so important. It gives us an opportunity to pause and slow down, to identify what actually is creating a stimulus for us. We then take responsibility for our response, by noticing what we are feeling, and what needs are up for us, in relation to this observation. In effect, the NVC model is about making the unconscious conscious. What are our stories? How are we seeing and interpreting things? And what does that bring up for us?
Through this awareness practice, and getting clear about our needs, we can also make powerful requests. This, in effect, is an opportunity to create a different experience—-a new experience—-and change our associations and stories that we have with the initial stimulus. This is one reason that NVC is powerful—it offers a way to change our experiences, and our lives—through taking stock, and taking responsibility.
So, what kinds of stories do you want to create for the new year? And would you like greater choice in how you respond to stimuli every day?
Here are some practices I find helpful in responding to triggers:
1. Notice and “scale” your response. If on a scale of 1-10, I’m responding or reacting at a 2 or higher, something in my response is not about the present situation or moment. This is helpful in itself to notice.
2. Especially if I’m interacting with someone or something that I have a history with (long lines at the post office, or a similar response from a friend or loved one) sometimes I find it helpful to imagine this as the first time the incident happened. How would I respond differently if this were the very first time?
3. Identify the observation and notice what stories that you’re adding on top, via generalizing or globalizing. Quick example: A subway car is leaving the platform as I arrive at the station. That’s the observation. The story that I could add on top is: “Ugh, that always happens! I’m always trying to do to much and running late..” It is this story—not the actual event (the subway car leaving) that is the stimulus of my reaction. See what happens when you take the story out, and just focus on the observation.
An exercise in perspective: What’s happening in this photo?
This exercise is especially fun and interesting to do in a group, where each person writes down their own responses and then shares them with others. You may wish to take out a pen and paper to walk through these steps.
- What’s happening or being depicted in this photo? What title would you give this picture?
- What’s actually happening in this photo, on an observational level? (In the NVC model, we are looking for an observation free of evaluation—just the “facts.”)*
- Is there a different interpretation of the picture possible than the first one you came up with?
- How does your interpretation reflect beliefs or judgments you may have? How might it relate to past experiences, especially ones that still have emotional resonance for you?
Note: If you like this exercise or find it helpful, there are similar exercises, with different photos, in Connecting across Differences by Connor and Killian.
A man dressed in clothes that I associate with bull fighters is sitting with his head in his hands, looking down, and his shoulders down. His bull fighting cape is on the ground. The bull, who has something stuck in his back, is about two feet away from the man, with his head and neck stretched out towards him and his mouth slightly open.
Did you find any of these exercises helpful or interesting? If so, I’d love to know! By the way, the title of this photo is “Bullfighter’s Remorse”—how does that relate–or not?–to your response to it?