If you follow my blog, then you probably know that I’ve been writing about the “positivity” of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) by exploring the positivity of:
Throughout this series, I’ve emphasized how NVC is about focusing on what we do want (rather than we don’t want) and moving towards it. We do this in each step of the process by transforming judgments into observations, feelings, and needs and then making proactive, positive, and concrete requests to act on our needs. Having already focused on needs and requests in this positivity context, now I’ll explore how observations are also inherently “positive.”
The first step of the NVC process is coming up with an observation free of evaluation. (Please note that in describing this step, I am using “free of” rather than “versus” or “not an evaluation” — so even here I am using a positive and a phrase that is free of comparison!)
Sometimes, people get excited about feelings and needs (the empathy steps) — as well as requests (meeting the needs!) — and view observations as less important, less “sexy,” or even a “throwaway” step. When I get requests from workshop participants about further learning, they usually want more about feelings, needs, and requests. In fact, I can’t remember a single time when someone asked to learn more about observations!
I believe this is because, in part, many people think that their evaluations are the truth. Therefore, people think that they’re already clear about the observations, so it’s not necessary to learn or practice them. Yet I think observations can be the most challenging practice in NVC! And observations are core to practicing NVC.
One thing that makes observations challenging is that we don’t have a list of words to refer to as we do with feelings and needs. Also, we are used to making requests in life already — even if not free of demand or “NVC” in other ways — even if it’s as simple as “please pass the salt.” Yet we have little or no training or experience in making observations. And because we often think our judgments are true or accurate, it can be hard to recognize when we are making evaluations.
Yet observations are central to the practice of NVC. When triggered, they move us out of our “reptilian” brain of reaction into our frontal cognitive lobes and into reason and analysis. In addition, observations directly bring us back into our physical bodies since we are literally asked to notice, with the objectivity of a video camera, “What am I seeing? What am I hearing?” (rather than, “What are my stories about this person? What are my thoughts about them?”)
The entire practice of NVC can be seen as a series of observations.
Observations are also typically the first way that we move into the “positive” in practicing Nonviolent Communication. As I’ve explored in previous blogs in this series, judgments are often in the negative, and even when in the positive, are often evaluative (“too much” — even of a “good” thing) or inherently comparing (“you’re so intelligent”).
By coming up with an observation free of evaluation, we are moving away from judgment — which is frequently about pain from the past or anxiety about the future — into what is. What is actually happening — or just happened — right now, in this moment? It’s inherently positive to be with what is. It’s life-affirming to notice what is alive now, in real-time.
Let’s explore these concepts by looking at an example. Say, for example, someone addresses you by saying the judgment, “You never listen to me!” By discovering the observation embedded in this evaluation — “You mean you see me looking at my phone while you’re speaking to me?” — we are moving into the positive of what actually is happening. Already, this removes the judgments and stories. No longer am I doing something morally wrong (or inconsiderate or rude or any other bad thing); I am simply looking at my phone, and you are simply speaking. I would say that both of these actions (speaking and looking at phone) can be life-serving activities. As observations, they are stated in the positive: “I am speaking.” “You are looking at your phone.” There are no negatives in the observations.
When seen from the perspective of observation, we can more easily let go of our judgments because we see that multiple interpretations are equally possible. For example, if I am looking at my phone and you are speaking to me, someone could judge you (the person speaking) as being inconsiderate, impatient, or intrusive. Similarly, another person could judge me (the person using a phone) as not listening, acting rudely, or avoiding the other person. But again, on an observation level, all we report are the facts: what’s happening now (what you see with your eyes) rather than our thoughts or stories about it.
In effect, this is distinguishing the stimulus from the cause. We get into a lot of trouble in life by confusing the stimulus with the cause. Expressions such as, “You made me do it!” or, “I had no choice!” are tragic attempts for empathy, in my opinion. They also reveal how easily and how often (especially in conflict) we can give up our power by seeing circumstances or others’ actions as the “cause” of our suffering.
By shifting our focus to observations, we already are inviting ourselves and others to explore what we are saying “yes” to. In this example, if I am looking at my phone while someone is speaking, there probably is a reason. For example:
- I was already reading something and wanted to complete it before I shifted my attention.
- A text message arrived that I considered urgent.
- I am simply wanting some autonomy, space, and choice.
Regardless, by focusing on what is real and certain — I am looking at my device; you are speaking — rather than the story or interpretation about it — that I never listen, or don’t care — already, we are powerfully stepping into the positive.
Let’s look at another example with a so-called “positive judgment.” Here are two examples:
- “You broke my favorite glass!”
- “I see the glass I got on my trip to Italy is in pieces.”
Neither of these messages is necessarily fun to hear; after all, your beloved glass is broken. However, the second version (the observation) is easier to hear because it is free of judgment, interpretation, and blame. It is affirming what’s real (as sad as the situation might be) rather than our negative story about it.
When I test both versions, I notice with the first one that my body withdraws and tightens — because I broke the “favorite” glass. In the second version, I move into sadness and concern hearing that the glass is broken. Yet that is different for me than restriction and tension, which leads more easily for me to defensiveness and pushback.
By the way, what I am exploring here also applies to “positive” judgments (around needs met). When our needs are met, we also can often express this happiness via judgments that are, inherently, generalizations. “Good job!” “Well done!” “You’re great!” “You’re so talented!”
Similar to expressing criticism or judgment, making a “positive” judgment also obscures our needs. Thus, we are missing an opportunity to meet them in the future or at least connect in a meaningful way about what matters to us. We are depending on telepathy: assuming that it’s clear or obvious what we liked.
This is one reason that I’ve developed a habit that I learned from Marshall Rosenberg, the creator of NVC. For example, when someone says to me, “That was a great workshop!” I usually ask them, “Could you tell me one thing you enjoyed?” In effect, when I make this request, I am saying, “Can you please give me an observation—and tell me specifically what was life-affirming for you?”
It’s only by receiving concrete, specific feedback (an observation) that I can learn about what I did to contribute to meeting another person’s needs. In addition, it reinforces for me — helps make more conscious and doable and repeatable — what I may want to do again the next time. With this, I now understand a specific behavior was meaningful for someone.
In effect, by practicing NVC, we are retraining our brains and neural pathways by stating what we’re experiencing in a positive way and being proactive: sharing what we’re seeing and hearing (observations), how it lives in us (feelings), what we want on a core level (needs) and then what we desire on a strategy level (requests).
This is why I mentioned earlier that, in effect, every step of the NVC process is an observation; it includes observing:
- what we’re seeing/hearing
- how we’re feeling and what sensations are coming up in our bodies,
- what’s alive in us about it (needs)
- what would most move forward needs being met.
And if you notice, even in describing the 4-step process of NVC, these are all positives: what is happening on the level of observations, feelings, needs, and requests.
I hope you have found this helpful and inspiring. What I’d enjoy the most is for you to try it out! The next time you’re triggered, try stating what is happening in a positive (neutral) way and see if that’s helpful. How does your body respond differently? How does this impact how you communicate with others? Let me know how it goes in the comments below.