We all have needs. Attached to these needs are feelings. Needs and feelings make the world go round.
Imagine a world where our own needs are valued regardless. Where our feelings can be expressed honestly and received with compassion and understanding. Where together we share and listen to what is alive in each other and work together towards solutions that make everyone happy. Imagine such a place and how it would make you feel. Imagine when you are full of anger and rage how it would feel for others to empathise with your pain and willingly try to understand what is happening for you.
This is the heart and soul of Nonviolent Communication (NVC). A process of communication that not only assists in connecting people at a deep and empathic level, but a way of connecting and expressing our own feelings and needs.
I was recently very fortunate to participate in a series of workshops on NVC with Cate Crombie. For some time I had been feeling dissatisfied with the way I was connecting with my son Harry, particularly around issues of conflict. I was frequently feeling compromised and forced to “give in” to his ever growing list of demands. Resentment was beginning to set in and I was feeling at a loss as to where to go from here. I was aware that my situation was not dissimilar to many other parents, who shared a desire to deeply connect with our children, even when the going got tough.
The challenges of parenthood are many and throughout a day parents are faced with situations of conflict. There is often temptation to force our children into complying with our wishes. Adults have considerable power in comparison to children and the stress and pressure of everyday life can often push us to force our children and ignore the messages behind their behaviour.
The NVC model is based on the idea of having “power-with” our children. It values the intrinsic motivation of every human being to not only meet our own needs, but also the needs of others. It builds a sense of trust based on communicating in a way that values everyone’s needs in any given situation. I certainly can feel that enormous sense of satisfaction when I have resolved a difficult situation with Harry in a manner that allows both of us to work together, honouring and sharing our feelings and needs.
NVC is a needs based model. In this sense I believe it offers a natural follow on from attachment parenting and can assist parents make the transition with their children from infancy to toddlerhood and beyond. NVC begins with the premise that we all act out of needs whether they be met or unmet. These needs are connected to feelings. By empathising with our children’s feelings we can often work out what need is motivating their behaviour. By identifying and naming our needs and feelings with our children we are teaching them the precious gift of emotional literacy – a gift which will serve them for an entire lifetime.
When implementing this approach with Harry, I began to find a way that worked specifically for us. Very often that meant abandoning wordy explanations of feelings and needs and starting immediately with connecting with his feelings. I was often amazed at the immediate connection this created when I was able to acknowledge the feeling he was experiencing. This is often a guessing game and his willingness to participate is humbling. Within a short period Harry was able to start identifying and expressing his own feelings.
The process of empathising with others does not however come without it challenges. One of the greatest for me is to truly let go of my desire to achieve a specific outcome from our interactions. Initially I had to open the doors of possibility and trust in the connection I was making with my son. This is new approach for me and not one to be trialed in the middle of a busy supermarket!
The other big challenge I face in choosing an empathic approach to parenting is to temporarily put aside my own needs and willingly receive what is alive in Harry. This is often painful and triggering. I found the greatest gift I could give myself in doing this was time – time to listen and be present with the process at hand.
NVC is not a linear form of communication. It ensures that everyone’s needs are important – including those of parents. Given my growing feelings of resentment it was truly uplifting to finally have an approach to my parenting that ensured my feelings and needs were firmly in the picture. In order to ensure this is part of my ongoing process I do however need to remember to pause and reflect before pursuing further dialogue with Harry. This small amount of space allows me to acknowledge myself in the situation before connecting with my son.
Another important aspect of the NVC model is the ability to make requests of our children rather than demands. In learning this strategy I realised than many of the “requests” I was making of Harry were really demands. Again, I needed to let go of achieving a desired outcome as the more demands I made, the more determined he became. It was becoming an instant reaction despite me believing I was negotiating with him. Without letting go of my attachment, it was just a demand in disguise!
Traditionally parenting models focus on modifying our children’s behaviours so they are more compliant. NVC does not always solve a problem quickly. To be honest, I have found it does take time and patience. However when you consider the time spent in ongoing power struggles with our children and the lack of connection and trust we are building, it is an efficient way of communicating.
Through my short journey with NVC I have experienced many disappointments in experimenting and practicing this model and I am sure there will be many more learning opportunities to come. At times I wonder what on earth I am doing and how did I get it so wrong. Time to reflect on those moments has given me considerable insight into the next opportunity to try again. Our children are very forgiving and our mistakes are also wonderful learning opportunities for them. They teach “humanness” and humility in going to those we love and mending our mistakes. My son is wonderful at embracing my downfalls and I am humbled by his constant willingness to forgive without resentment.
In the words of Inbal Kashtan (2003:7) “By sharing our inner world of feelings and needs with our children we give them opportunities all too rare in our society to know their parents well, to discover the effects of their actions without being blamed for them, and to experience the power and joy of contributing to meeting others needs.”
As parents we are blessed with many opportunities to teach and learn. Every day we make choices regarding how we will interact with our children. I feel excited at the prospect of nurturing a connection with my son that will last a lifetime. A connection that I hope will serve us well during the turbulent years of adolescence. A way of expressing ourselves that will enhance the relationships we have with all those around us. To develop an ability to acknowledge and meet our own needs. Imagine a world where we all had those opportunities….