By Victoria Pippins
I like to think I'm good at communicating. My decision to study English in college suggests, at the very least, that I want to be good at it. Still, no matter how hard I try, every so often conflict arises. Sometimes I say things I don't mean, or I let my emotions get the best of me. For a long time, I avoided confrontation entirely because I didn't like the way it made me feel.
In the spring of 2019, I took a class taught by a woman named Susanne Glymour called "Peaceful Communication". Over the course of several weeks, we learned about what acts create conflict when we communicate. Glymour opened my eyes to all the mistakes a single person can make in a conversation, and how to avoid them. Some of what we learned seems obvious to me now, but I was never aware of these behaviors before. I began making a mindful effort to change the way I interact with other people, and I saw an immediate improvement in my ability to address and manage conflict. After her class, I continued to research Peaceful Communication (also referred to as non-violent communication) and read about Marshall Rosenburg, the psychologist who founded The Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC) in the 1960's. Through Rosenburg's work, I developed an even clearer understanding of what it takes to develop the communication skills I have always admired in my role models.
To summarize, Rosenburg suggests in his book Living Nonviolent Communication that every time we communicate, it is to try and satisfy one or more personal needs. Conflict arises when these needs aren't met. The reason we often struggle to resolve problems is because we incorrectly label our emotions and motivations behind them, or we don't fully understand what needs we are seeking to fulfill or why the attempt is falling short. Learning to navigate these difficulties can help you make huge changes in your own emotional and mental well-being.
In my opinion, the most important step in practicing nonviolent communication is identifying which of your emotional needs are and are not being met without - and this is the crucial part - assigning blame to people or factors outside of your control. When you're angry, it's easy to blame someone you've just argued with by saying things like "If Sandra wasn't so stubborn, this wouldn't be a problem,”. Even more generalized, “Stubborn people just make me so angry,” still places the blame on a specific factor that is entirely out of your control. Believe it or not, by relinquishing ownership of the cause of your emotions, you are effectively saying it is the responsibility of an outside influence to fix the conflict or problem. You are telling yourself that this problem will stop happening as soon as Sandra stops being stubborn. Even if that were true, she isn’t going to be able to make that change overnight. (To be clear, however, this rule is in no way supposed to apply to all situations, every time. Instances regarding mental illness and abuse, specifically, are not quite so black and white and should be approached differently).
So how do we take ownership for our feelings when interactions with other people don’t go as planned? The easiest way to do this is through a simple series of questions that will help us narrow down the emotions we feel and find a root cause. This is a very common practice performed by therapists, and is definitely not easy for everyone to pick up. With time, though, you might find yourself getting rather good at it.
Let’s start with an easy one, and go back to the example with Sandra. After having a conversation go wrong, it would be pretty easy to identify how I feel on the surface. Clearly, I’m angry, and it’s obvious to me that Sandra’s tendency to be hard-headed and stubborn bothered me. But why is that exactly? Maybe it’s because I felt like she wasn’t listening to my input. Which of our basic social needs do you think this violates? If you’re having trouble coming up with ideas, check out CNVC’s list of most common needs. Based on this list, I’d say I didn’t feel heard, which violates my need for connection. Now that I’ve identified the exact cause of my frustrations, I can reframe the situation. Instead of “If Sandra wasn't so stubborn, this wouldn't be a problem”, I can start looking at it from the perspective of, “I don’t feel heard, which makes it hard to connect with Sandra even though I want to.” At this point, it’s not unusual for the intense feelings that cause us to lash out fade away. Then, it’s much easier to decide how to address the problem with Sandra by telling her how you feel, and ask her to work with you to fix it.
Try this out for yourself! What parts did you struggle with? Do you like my method, or do you have a method of your own that works for you? Are you interested in learning more? Leave a comment to let us know what you thought!
Edited by Kristina Drendel