Transformative Listening Works for All Ages

Some of you may know my book, Urban Empathy: True Life Adventures of Compassion on the Streets of NY, where I give real-life examples of practicing Nonviolent Communication, including in some challenging situations.

One of the first stories is about me listening empathically to a 5-year-old, who is screaming and upset. She had been hitting her brother with a towel, as a way of playing, but her parents didn’t like it and had taken the towel from her by force (they were concerned her brother was not enjoying the game). It took all of two minutes to guess — even in the midst of her screaming and crying — to guess her needs: a desire for fun and also for choice.

When I empathized with those needs and also pointed out that her parents wanted her brother to enjoy the game too, she immediately came up with a new strategy that would work for everyone.  It was a compelling example for me of how transformative empathy and the NVC model can be in resolving differences, including very quickly and children of a young age.

This past week, I was reminded of that story because I had another powerful experience of practicing NVC with young people. One of my neighbors is about four years old and I came out of my house to find him on a neighbor’s stoop, screaming and crying, “I don’t want to go home!”  My neighbor kept repeating, “Well, you have to go home — your mother wants you to go now.”

I saw that he was interacting with one of my neighbor’s cats and I offered an empathy guess–“It looks like you’re having fun!” He was still crying and said in response, “Yes, I like the cats. But I don’t understand — why do I have to go home now?” I thought this was a reasonable question — I often have a need for understanding (on both cognitive and empathic levels). So I asked him, “Would you like me to go check with your mom about why she wants you to come home now?” At this point, he smiled, stopped crying, and said with some excitement, “Yes!!”

So I walked four houses down–about two minutes away — and asked his mom. Meanwhile, as I was doing this, the little boy, who I’ll call Mack, followed me down the block. I think he was curious too about the answer—and also, I think, more open to coming home, now that he’d been heard and someone one was listening and acting on his needs.

His mom told me dinner was ready; when I told Mack this again (who was now nearby) he was very clear: “No, it’s not! I know she hasn’t made it yet!” When I asked mom about this again, she told me it’s true — dinner is not ready; she just wants him to come home (and listen to her, in effect). So she’d basically made that up as an excuse. She then went on to say to another neighbor about how difficult kids become as they get older — and her son is just four years old!

imgres-1What stands out for me in this experience is, first of all, how basic and primary the need is to understand what’s happening and what’s motivating a request. Even a 4-year-old has this need to understand. I also was struck by the mother’s response: Ironically, I think if she’d be honest with her son: that she wants to focus on other things in the house and she wants him inside where she knows he’s safe, he would have been more responsive (and a win-win strategy might have emerged). She also would have been building a different kind of relationship with her son– of mutual trust and respect, and honesty.

While this situation has to do with a 4-year-old, I actually see this dynamic happen regularly between adults and including in the workplace. Any time where there is a power differential—for example, a manager at work and their reports — it can be easy to “just give orders:” to state what you want to be done without connecting with the other person and the need that would be met, or exploring what works for both parties. While this approach can meet some immediate needs—for efficiency, for example, or ease, I question (based on experience) how this approach works in the long term, in developing mutual respect and care.

Relationships are not just about the current concern or objective. How are you building connection in the long term? And acting in a way that will invite intrinsic action and response? In the long run–when this 4-year-old is a teenager and you can’t make him come home– or the report at work is not really getting the job done or to the standard you want, at that point it will take much more energy and effort to restore connection and resolve differences.

Here’s a challenge for you, especially when in a situation of differences in power: Pause first to at least hear the other person. What are their questions or concerns? And how can those concerns be addressed? This may take a few more minutes up front but will foster an openness, creativity, and mutuality that’s worth the investment.


Join me for the 6-week online course on six consecutive Wednesdays from May 8 – June 12, 2019 (6:00 pm – 7:30 pm ET):  “How to Streamline your Nonviolent Communication Practice and Make Empathy Second Nature.

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