Putting NVC Principles to the Test while Petitioning in NYC

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) said, “Criticism is an autobiography.” I interpret this to mean that when I criticize (or judge) it actually says more about me, the critic, than whatever (or whomever) I am criticizing.

This also is a key concept in Nonviolent Communication (NVC): no matter what someone tells you — even if it’s directed at you or sounds like it’s about you –it is actually about the person doing the judging and their needs.

As Marshall Rosenberg, the creator of NVC said, “No matter what words someone uses to express themselves, we simply listen for observations, feelings, needs, and requests.” There’s even that little NVC rhyme: “It’s not about me. It’s not about me. It’s all about needs!” In effect, each time we practice NVC, we’re putting this principle into action.

No matter what someone says or does that we might judge as mean, thoughtless, selfish or misguided, we are looking beneath those judgments for our own feelings and needs (what the situation brings alive in us) and listening with “giraffe ears” and a big heart for the feelings and needs of the other. This is a radically different way of seeing human behavior and moving through the world.

Of course, this is not always easy to remember or practice. This is why people say that NVC is simple but not always easy! And, as my friend Jane Connor said, “When you’re triggered, everyone’s a beginner!” It becomes much harder — way harder, by the nth degree harder — when we have a history with someone and when what they say or do triggers an old wound for us. Maybe we don’t even fully remember the wound or its origin — it might even be from before we met this person — but it flares up, like pouring oil on a fire.

I was recently teaching a workshop and one of the participants asked three times during the course of the evening, “But what if you’re triggered? What if you’re triggered? All this sounds great, but if you’re triggered—-really triggered and really lose it, what do you do then?!”

How do you remember that “it’s not about me, it’s all about needs” at the very moment when you least believe it? When all you see is red? And how do you live other NVC principles like being open to hearing “no,” when you are in the middle of a raging trigger?

I find these questions compelling. For me, the short answer is that it’s not easy and, at the same time, it gets easier. That’s why we practice, practice, and practice self-empathy and re-charge our empathy batteries with our empathy buddies so that when we find ourselves in a challenging situation, we have enough internal resources to self-manage.

I recently had a chance to explore these concepts in real-time on the streets of New York City. I wasn’t looking for a way to lab-test NVC principles; I was doing what I thought would be a simple activity: asking people to sign a petition to help save a critically endangered species, on the brink of extinction: the vaquita porpoise.

The vaquita (“the little cow of the sea”) is the smallest sea mammal in the world and the only warm water (tropical) porpoise. It lives in a tiny habitat, the Sea of Cortez, that is so vibrant and diverse that scientists call it the “aquarium of the world” and it’s been designated a UNESCO world heritage site. The vaquita is facing imminent extinction (scientists say there’s about 10 left) and its whole ecosystem destroyed due to illegal poaching and use of mile-long gill nets that also trap and kill sea turtles and small whales.

The poaching is driven by organized crime and the sale of another protected fish’s swim bladder — that is literally worth more than gold — on the black market in China (it’s believed in Chinese folk medicine to be a natural viagra — I guess if it can make a fish float, it can help other things float too?). A film came out in 2019 from National Geographic, Sea of Shadows, that accounts for the plight of the vaquita and efforts to save this rare species.

You’d think given all this — a cute porpoise versus organized crime — that this would be an easy sell. And you also might think this would be trigger-free. I’m approaching people who I don’t know, that I have no history with, and asking them to take a simple action: sign a petition — with no phone number, no email, just a signature needed. It’s a simple yes or no question.

And if they say “no,” how can I take it personally? And how hard could it be to stay open to hearing “no” since it’s not a high stakes situation, like asking someone to marry me or asking for a promotion at my job? And how triggered could the other people possibly be, hearing what you’d think is a simple question, for such a good cause? All the petition asks is that the Mexican government enforce the laws already in place (against illegal fishing practices). Nothing too radical or extreme.

In fact, though, I’ve been surprised to see the huge range of people’s reactions! The most extreme (at polar opposites) have included someone giving me the finger (again, this is to help save an endangered species — nothing I would consider overly controversial, like a ballot measure or election). At the other end of the spectrum, somebody last week insisted on giving me $20, even though I told them several times that I was not collecting money and that they could donate online, even showing them the website.

In between is people being very appreciative (“Thank you so much doing this! What a worthy thing to do!”… and other “positive” judgments) to ambivalence and even disdain. I find the ambivalence most intriguing. A common response I’ve heard is, “I’m OK.” I am not sure what this means in this context—- perhaps “I’m OK with not signing”? Or “not today.” (Does this mean they’ll sign another day?) Or some people say, “I need to research it more.” (What is there to research? Again, this not about a referendum.) Many people simply walk by, without responding at all, or shaking their head “no” or waving their hand in dismissal, as if shooing a fly away.

Which leads to my reactions! As you might have picked up from my description above, I am frustrated and disappointed when people say “no.” Of course, I care about this issue and think it’s important. It’s urgent, in my opinion. There are only ten vaquitas left, scientists say, and the fishing season is starting again. I would not be standing outside on the street for several hours asking people to sign, and doing so every week now for months, if I wasn’t passionate about this issue. I crave community, companionship and shared values and reality—-and hope. Each person who signs gives me a little hope. One more person cares. One more person knows about the issue. One signature closer to completing another sheet of signatures… and we’re almost at 200,000!!

At first, I found I had a lot of judgments coming up. How could someone not care about an animal — a whole species! — dying? And such a unique and beautiful species. And it’s so easy to sign! It just takes a second! No email, no phone number, no cost! No risk. And there are so many big problems in the world, like climate change. This one is relatively simple and tangible to solve (even with the complication of organized crime): just remove the illegal nets. Enforce the law. Pay the fisherman the stipend promised. I would feel disheartened and discouraged… crestfallen when people would say “no.” Even though it was not “personal” about me, I took it in effect very personally. I felt each “no” very deeply. Sometimes I even felt angry!

Sitting with this more, I realized that each time someone said “no” that it tapped into much larger despair that I am holding. My larger story is that this whole situation (of the vaquita facing imminent extinction) is due to human apathy and greed. And I notice that I am very invested in that story. Those involved in poaching, especially the organized crime that profits the most, clearly care far more about getting rich than an entire species and ecosystem dying. This quickly ignites in me a larger fear and anxiety about our human survival and the survival of every other species on the planet.

The way human beings are acting (at least people involved in organized crime) in relation to the vaquita and Sea of Cortez epitomizes in my mind what’s gotten us into climate chaos and mass extinction: what I see as our frequent and endemic lack of capacity to hold/see the big picture (the long term and broad impact of our actions) and to hold other’s needs (including the needs of other species) with care.

It also triggers in me a tender spot, in addition to pure fear and anxiety: a part of me that longs for those, especially those in positions of power, to care for those who are vulnerable. In short, I am longing for awareness, consciousness, self-connection (a kind of awareness), discernment, and complexity—-a willingness/capacity to give up on some needs (wealth) to meet other needs (life, the continuation of life, and care for others’ well being–even if another species).

Also, while at first, it was hard for me to understand why people would say “no,” I’ve also sat with this and can imagine what people are saying “yes” to. New York City can be an intense place; almost constantly, you’re sharing and navigating space with other people be it on the subway trying to get a seat or just getting through a crosswalk. Sometimes, especially when it’s a warm Fall day and the sun is shining and you’re with your friends at the farmer’s market, you just want to enjoy the moment. You don’t want to be disturbed or distracted — you want a choice. And you don’t want to be reminded about just how scary things are going in the world, and to somehow feel responsible, even via inaction. You need some rest, and a day off. I get it.

Also, some people have so much despair that they want to protect themselves from further disappointment. They don’t want to go anywhere near their despair — that in itself is an uncomfortable, scary, and uncontrollable (disempowered) place to go. Plus, they don’t want to judge themselves the fool for believing something more is possible. Sometimes, even when people do agree to sign, they say, “Well, don’t know what good it’ll do, but here you go! Good luck!” or “Really? You think you’ll get the Mexican government to care about a little porpoise? They have other fish to fry — haha.” I can understand that despair as well. Sometimes I’m also in a place of despair and disempowerment.

About a year ago there was another porpoise that went extinct, in the Yangtze River in China. I had heard in the news that it was facing extinction. I found this news disturbing and depressing. But what could I do about it? Other people — better equipped and positioned to have an impact — were working on it. What could I do? And then it went extinct. This time, even in the face of my own despair, my own sense of smallness (me: one little mammal in NYC) I decided I wanted — I had to (for my own integrity, my own empowerment, my own need for hope and contribution) to do something. Or at least to try.

Now that I have sat with all this and gotten greater clarity and insight (meeting my own needs for awareness, consciousness, and discernment) it’s almost amusing for me to observe other people’s strong reactions to other people’s strong reactions. When I tell people who do agree to sign, “Thank you so much for signing— I really appreciate it— it gives me hope!” people will sometimes say, “What? Who wouldn’t sign?! To save a little animal!!” On one hand, I agree. And I continue to be moved, genuinely filled with hope, with each new signature.

Also, I now have more internal space to hear other people when they do say “no,” and to accept and understand what they’re saying “yes” to — that it’s not about me, my dreams (and fears) or even the little vaquita (the innocent player in this huge human drama of poaching, profit, activism, and apathy). I can more easily move on to the next person — the next person who might say “yes.” I can stay more powerfully focused on my own goal: to do everything I can to create the world I want to live in, one signature at a time.

P.S. If you also have moments of fear, disheartenment and even despair about climate change and mass extinction, please join us for one of the Earth Empathy Circles group empathy video calls that will be taking place in English, Swedish, Japanese, and French.

P.P.S. If you are moved to sign the petition to help save the vaquita, here it is.

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