There are many different ways that I describe Nonviolent Communication (NVC). One way is that it’s a way of developing curiosity. If you think about it, curiosity is a very different response than judging, evaluating, “should-ing” or blaming.
If we act from a place of genuine curiosity — ”What is going on for that other person? What need are they attempting to meet? What might work for both of us?” — then we are entering the spirit of Nonviolent Communication.
NVC also gives the resources to act from this place of curiosity. It gives me specific tools to help me be curious:
- What actually happened? What did I hear? What did I see? (Observation)
- How am I feeling? What am I noticing in my body? (Feelings/Sensations)
- What matters to me about this? What’s “driving” it for me? (Needs)
- What next step or action will support connection and move things forward? (Requests).
Focusing on these four steps (my connection roadmap) gives my mind something to do other than jumping to conclusions, getting defensive (otherwise known as explaining myself), or disagreeing with or critiquing the other person. All I have to do is follow those four steps.
In addition to developing curiosity, practicing NVC has also helped me to develop patience and trust (a kind of faith or confidence, based on experience). I have practiced these steps enough times to know (and trust) that the steps work. If I stay true to the process, I can rely on them. And I also know from experience that if I am faithful to these four steps and the consciousness that this process supports that something new, satisfying, and exciting will emerge: new insight, greater connection, and creativity.
The emergent creativity especially continues to awe and inspire me. It seems that when we humans are fully heard, and experience that our needs matter, that we are capable of immense creativity and possibility. All kinds of solutions appear that we didn’t see before; they were previously unavailable or somehow hidden. I call these emergent moments, “Empathy Magic.” (I’m teaching a 6-week online course in 2019 on Empathy Magic).
And all of this: the curiosity, the trust (in the process), and the resulting “magic” of new possibility that comes from empathy, all depends on another acquired NVC skill: sitting with not knowing. If you think about it, trust or faith in the process — and the resulting emergent creativity — also involves being able to tolerate uncertainty.
I do have that trust based on experience — that if I am true to these four steps, and the consciousness and mindset underlying the steps, that there will be a restoration of some kind, some new connection, and new solutions. Yet during the process, there can be moments of not knowing: of frustration, impatience, and doubt. I need to manage that internally. I need to be metaphorically rubbing my own belly, holding my own heart with tenderness.
Sitting with not knowing — this kind of developed trust — is the opposite of reactivity. And I don’t think it comes easily for us humans. When we’re triggered, we want immediate relief. We want to be heard, we want understanding, respect, and whatever other needs are up for us, and we want it now! And it doesn’t help when we think it’s the other person’s fault—that they are the cause of our hurt, pain, disappointment, anxiety or fear.
This is why the act of holding our own needs with care internally (otherwise known as self-empathy) is a key practice in NVC. We need to hold that space internally for ourselves to be able to tolerate sitting with not knowing. We need to hold that space to have the capacity (even while triggered) to muster curiosity; to find a way to inquire (even silently): “What is going on for that other person?” And we often need to wait for our turn. That really takes skill!
If we are the one with NVC experience, we often are in the role of mediating a conversation for both parties — us, and the other person. Once the other person is heard, will they have the capacity and space to hear me? My trust (experience) in the process says, YES! And there is still part of me, that part that I am holding with tenderness internally, that must (if I trust the process) also sit at least for a moment or some minutes, or sometimes even weeks, sit with not knowing.
In effect, this “not knowing” — and the capacity to sit with it and tolerate it — is what opens up the space for new creative solutions. If we already knew everything and had it all figured out, what new can emerge? When I am in judgment, there is a big fat zero possibility. I’ve already decided that the situation is useless, and the person impossible. So if I am bought into these stories, what room is there for possibility and change? “Not knowing” holds the actual space for empathy.
An Opportunity to Practice
Recently my significant other was quite upset with me. I said something to her that she found insulting and condescending. That wasn’t my intention of course, but that’s how it landed with her. When she was telling me about her experience and I was focused on listening, she let me know that she was surprised. She was sure that I would be upset hearing what she was telling me. She actually was thinking about breaking up!
In the middle of the conversation, she paused to ask me about why I wasn’t upset. She knows that I care about our relationship and would be distraught and heartbroken if we separated. But I explained that I have sufficient trust in our capacity to hear each other that I could release my anxiety about the outcome. It was that capacity to sit with not knowing (would she still want to break up with me?!?) that gave me the space to be fully present and listen.
Here’s another real-time example that’s powerful for me, even though unfinished. I recently became aware of being quite angry with someone. I was aware that underneath this anger was fear — fear about my needs mattering, and anxiety and exhaustion about how and when the situation will be resolved (it’s been taking more energy and mental space than I’d like; it’s been going on for 18 months). I really am eager — even desperate — for relief. I know that a few years ago I could have easily picked up the phone and had it out with the person, even if screaming in NVC.
Of course, sometimes that’s OK, too. But this time, I have been sitting with not knowing. I’ve been practicing self-empathy for a week, diving deeper. I got some empathy from a friend. I’ve been waiting to gather some helpful information. I am amazed by my own patience… my own internal spaciousness. I don’t know exactly what will happen when I reach out to the person (I am planning to do that tomorrow).
But already, I have a much deeper trust and confidence that, thanks to this muscle I’ve developed for uncertainty (the sitting with not knowing, as tough as it is), that I will be much more at peace during the conversation. Consequently, I am more confident about the outcome. In effect, I have waited until the full possibility for empathy and connection are ripe and ready to drop from the tree. It’s that sweetness that is worth waiting for — the sweetness of inner peace and greater confidence about peace and resolution with others.
I hope reading this that you will be inspired to further develop this “muscle.” What does it look like for you to sit with not knowing? How can this skill (of managing uncertainty) be a gift, for you and others? How can it support you in discovering greater connection, trust, and curiosity?