In my last blog post, “See Me Beautiful,” I wrote about the “positivity” of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) on a philosophical level. Understanding this “positive” orientation of NVC is helpful on a practical level because once you “grok” this (get the concept and integrate it) it will give you more ease in practicing and living NVC more naturally.
Watch Marshall Rosenberg, creator of NVC, sing “See Me Beautiful”
If you simply look for “the best” in someone (as that song goes that the late Marshall Rosenberg used to sing, “See Me Beautiful”) it’s in effect a shortcut to practicing NVC. In fact, while simple, it may be one of the best empathy hacks out there. If you haven’t tried it yet, I encourage you to! Just look “for the best” in someone the next time you’re in a conflict or triggered.
Again, as I explored last time, seeing the “best” in someone (their positive intention) does not necessarily mean that you agree with them or like their words or actions. However, “looking for the best” in someone — what need they are attempting to meet—even if tragic on a strategy level — can go a long way to creating connection and understanding. And once there’s connection, trust, and understanding, it’s far easier to get on the same page and find a way forward.
In this blog — a continuation of Part 1 — I will explore how this positivity manifests in specific NVC practices and especially the core, four steps of NVC. I hope that looking at these specifics will illustrate the “positivity” concept and show how it works in a real, applied way. In today’s blog, I’ll focus on needs; in Part 3, I’ll focus on key positive aspects about the other steps in the NVC process (observations, feelings, requests).
In Part 1, I wrote that many judgments are criticism or blame and, as such, are intrinsically negative. Have you ever heard a positive criticism? (positive judgments do occur—here, I am talking specifically about criticism). Even if it’s about something possibly “positive” (such as generosity) if it’s criticism, it’s negative in focus.
For example, “You’re too generous!” I think many people would agree that generosity is a desirable quality. I would even consider it a universal need. Yet being “too generous” = “bad” or not OK in this context. Or how about this one: “You don’t take care of yourself enough!” Self-care is a beautiful thing in my world and again also a universal need. Yet here, in this context, it’s become a negative—a deficit.
In contrast, focusing on the need brings us intrinsically into the positive and a place of abundance. First of all, unlike criticism or blame, focusing on our needs brings our focus to what we do want (rather than what’s wrong or not working or lacking—what we don’t want). Have you noticed that all of the words on the universal needs list are presented in the positive?
While the root of the word is the same, there is a significant difference for example between “inconsiderate” and “consideration,” or “unsupportive” and “support.” I encourage you to read each of these pairs aloud (first the judgment form and then the corresponding need). What difference do you notice, including in your body?
You can do this “test” on every word on the needs list. I find that I have a very different response (my body relaxes and opens up) when I hear the need stated in the positive. Again, there’s no need to take my word for it. If you read through the list of universal needs that we use in NVC, I bet you’ll find that reading through it is like taking a happy drug. They are all inherently positive and life-serving.
While this “positivity” is core to NVC, I have noticed that when I hear people make empathy guesses, I’ll often hear them swing back to the negative (again, this is our human habit!). For example, “Are you disappointed because your need is not being met for….” For me, asking in the negative (“not met”) brings us back to the realm of judgment (the story about what’s wrong).
It’s far more powerful and consistent with the heart of NVC practice in my view to ask instead, “Are you frustrated because you’re longing for…?” or, “Are you sad because you’re desiring…” Or, most classical NVC, “Are you sad because you’re needing…?” Try out both versions with the “not met” and “longing for/desiring/wanting/needing…” yourself and see the difference! I notice a palpable difference in my body when I state the desire for the need in the positive.
What all of the universal needs also have in common is that they are abstract nouns/qualities. This means they are in the realm of possibility and abundance. Even when judgments are in a positive form (as a kind of praise) they are still limited. For example, in “You’re very considerate,” the scope is limited. It’s an evaluation and about one person.
“Consideration,” in contrast, is a universal quality. It’s like the air — it’s limitless and exists everywhere. We can tap into it and experience it when we want, in numerous ways. This is what makes it universal: it has value to us as human beings and it can be experienced in countless ways. This quality of abundance is also what makes needs “positive” and life-serving. They are expansive.
Again, I encourage you to experiment with these concepts yourself, drawing on your own experience through what your body tells you. Try saying aloud, “You never get it right!” If you pause to notice, I bet your heart has dropped and your body restricted. You may feel deflated or de-energized.
Now try saying aloud to yourself, “I really value effectiveness.” How does your body feel now? I imagine it’s opened up and you feel more relaxed and happy. For all our neuro-wiring to see the glass half empty (see Part 1 for more on that) we actually come alive when we focus instead on what we are really longing for and wanting to manifest in life. Our bodies like it!
Building on these concepts, what’s interesting to me is that for many judgments the need is often simply the opposite of the negative judgment. If someone says, “You’re not listening!” My guess is that they’re wanting to be heard. If they tell me that their boss is impatient and demanding, I imagine they’re desiring patience and understanding. If someone judges another as “ignorant” with “their head in the sand” they probably are longing for awareness or perhaps alertness and engagement.
If you follow this pattern, discovering the underlying need is a simple process: we are simply taking the negative (what’s wrong, deficient or undesirable) and listening for the “positive” and abundant on a core, needs (abstract noun) level — what the person is, in essence, longing for. I consider this NVC-empathy magic: the alchemy of turning judgments (base metals) into gold: what really brings us alive, is life-serving and opens our hearts.
As always, please let me know what you think by commenting below! How does “practicing the positive” make a difference for you in your empathic listening?