The following blog is an extended and updated version of the podcast episode, “Sitting with Not Knowing.”
As we approach the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere with the Winter Solstice, an unconscious, more primal part of us might be wondering, “When will the days start getting longer? Will the sun actually return?” A similar kind of waiting and wondering plays out this month in different religious traditions. With Hanukkah, while they know the story, people wonder again each year, “Will the oil last?” Christmas, and the Advent, are all about anticipation: “When will the Christ child arrive?” And as the calendar approaches January 1, we wonder, “What will the New Year bring this year?”
All of this waiting — secular or religious, conscious or unconscious – involves sitting with not knowing, a key NVC skill. How is this an NVC skill? Sitting with not knowing is the opposite of reactivity. I don’t think it comes easily for us because when we face uncertainty, doubt, discomfort, or fear, we want immediate relief. We want to be heard, understood, respected, and whatever other needs are up for us — and we want it now to alleviate our anxiety and discomfort! This is natural and understandable because we have needs that are burning to be met.
Unfortunately, in our haste to find relief from the discomfort of not knowing, we often become defensive, jump to conclusions, and blame and criticize others. Sitting with not knowing requires us to suspend our distrust, tolerate fear and uncertainty, and create space within ourselves — even when triggered — to muster curiosity. One way I describe Nonviolent Communication is that it’s a toolkit or a way to develop curiosity. It provides a method and way forward to reconnect with wondering, “What’s going on for the other person?” and, “What might work for both of us?” To hold that space also involves sitting with not knowing.
The four steps of NVC (Observations, Feelings, Needs, Requests) gives my mind something to do other than jump to conclusions or spin stories. Coming up with a clear observation brings me back into my body, via my senses (What did I actually observe? What did I hear?). Checking in with my feelings and needs also helps me slow down, pause, pay attention internally and get grounded. And coming up with a request, helps me to refocus my thinking into a different kind of curiosity: What will actually better meet my needs in this situation? (Rather than simply blaming or cursing others.)
Having practiced NVC now for more than 20 years, I notice have developed increased capacity for sitting with not knowing and for going directly to curiosity.
Last week for example, I was becoming irritated because the power cord wasn’t fitting or working on my laptop. The cord was not how I remembered it, with an additional piece attached (a kind of adaptor that wasn’t fitting my computer properly or charging). I noticed that I was starting to become annoyed with my partner. Once before, she was using my power chord when it broke; another time, she accidentally took it with her on a trip. So I started thinking, “This is not my power chord — she must have taken mine by accident again!” But, I am happy to say, I noticed that I was starting to spin stories and caught myself. I chose to go to a place of curiosity. I said to myself, “OK, that’s one possibility. What else could have happened?” When I went to that place of curiosity I remembered something. I recently had visited my parents and my stepfather uses the same power cord as well. I could have easily been using his cord and accidentally took it when I left, thinking it was mine, and left my cord (the one that works with my computer) there. So, my power cord (without the attachment) was possible at my parents’ house. My partner very likely had nothing to do with this mishap, and the error might be 100% my own doing.
As soon as I had that awareness, my whole aspect shifted, internally. I relaxed and started to breath more deeply. The power cord of course has different needs attached to it: the practical need to operate my computer and the ease of avoiding shopping for and buying a new one. Other needs though were attached too, including consideration, awareness, choice, care and respect (especially up when I was going down the rabbit hole of thinking my partner had taken the chord, without asking or checking with me first — again!).
It’s interesting to me too, once I tapped into that openness and curiosity that then I had much more creative space for considering strategies. For a moment I considered calling my parents to see if my chord was there. But what if it was? The next step would be to ask them to mail it to me. I realized it would be just as easy to go online and order a new one. Having let go of the resentment of my partner, I found I had freed up energy to go online, search for the chord, and order it. Without entering this space of curiosity, I could have used a lot more energy in a non-effective or inefficient way and perhaps even gotten into an argument with my partner. Becoming curious and connecting with my needs, I found a much more efficient and less draining way forward that was even energizing.
After this experience, I further reflected: How many other times in my life had I become irritated, impatient or even angry, rushing to a conclusion and buying in 100% to a particular story only to discover later that I had misinformation or had overlooked something? This experience further reminded me to go first to curiosity and to further tolerate sitting with not knowing.
I hope this story and blog post further inspire you to develop your own muscles for curiosity and sitting with not knowing. From that place, I find the magic of new possibility and creativity can emerge.
And in this spirit of curiosity, hope and openness, as we approach the winter holidays and the new year, I wish you a new year of connection, understanding, hope, and empathy.
To learn more about how to bring in these creative and emergent moments, listen to my podcast, “Sitting with Not Knowing”…)