Once I realized I had two needs going at once, everything became very reasonable. You see, we really can’t have two things – issues – ideas – needs - going at once. We might think we can but there is always only one need going on. Everything else is a strategy, and a strategy isn’t a need. Books, philosophies, cults and religions are all formed around the meaning of life, yet the meaning – and purpose – (which is the same) of life is … wait for it… contribution!
Yes, that little word is all we are all here for. Forget the mantras, the practices, the arcane codes, the holy books, the secrets, the meditations, the celestial beings, the enlightened masters, the quantum healing… Contribution – giving - is what we are here for.
So, if we are not contributing, what are we doing? We are attempting to do what we are not designed to do. No wonder we feel conflict! And what do we do when we feel conflict? We devise strategies to minimize conflict! And strategies, dear friend, are not what we are born to be doing.
When I finally understood that to give, to offer, to contribute actually benefited me at least as much as the receiver, a great weight lifted from my mind. Born of “Great Depression” parents, I was taught at an early age that my role in life was to protect my loved ones by working the system to my own advantage. I guess it’s the same lesson we all get in some form or another. My parents formed their life lessons from a period in Australian history that told them that those who didn’t protect themselves got hurt.
When I met Dr Marshall Rosenberg, the creator of Non-Violent Communication, it was like a homecoming to hear messages I had been yearning to hear all of my life. Marshall was born in the slums of Detroit, a Jewish kid in a black neighbourhood. The first words he brought home to ask his parents about were “Kike” and “Nigger”. Lessons came thick and fast, but through the wonderful aegis of his refugee grandparents, Marshall’s life became a search for a better way to communicate. It took him to college, through a degree in psychology, into practice, and finally to a point, he says, where he realised that he had become a part of the problem rather than the solution.
He decided to practice contribution in his own life and psychology practice, but quickly concluded that life as we know it has programmed us into almost autonomic responses to stress; reaction, defence, attack.
Of course, any new modality invites attack. It’s the “nature”of bound ego to attack that which threatens our status quo, and therefore his new four-step approach was condemned by the psychotherapy establishment. Yet his four step approach to finding out how one may contribute to another’s wellbeing has now attracted many, many thousands of layman and psychologist users.
The idea that we need to do only four steps to overcome conflict and return to a state of contribution is radical, yet Dr Rosenberg has seen his method adopted by Palestinian and Israeli schools, African ceasefire accords, Yugoslavian teenagers, Refugees… the list goes on and on as more and more people adopt the four principles of NVC.
My own experience of NVC has seen radical changes in my relationship with others, with my partner and with myself. NVC has taught me that there is always another way to respond to conflict. It has also taught me that I am worth having boundaries of my own that serve my self and contribute to my own wellbeing. Newcomers to NVC find the four steps hard because they challenge the way we have been programmed to think. There is definitely an “apprenticeship” that I had to pass through to finally understand that NVC was a better way to communicate. My ego contrived every challenge it could manage, including all the old ones of rage, attack and intolerance.
Looking back on it, I showed an uncanny resemblance to a drug addict deprived of his “hit”. My daily “hit” was my protection against attack, my “strategy” that had “protected” me against the world and kept me so damn busy I just didn’t have the time to contribute!
I’m happy to give you the fours steps of NVC, but they come with a warning; all of us grab at anything new to allay the pain of living in this apparent world of attack and defence. These steps are very powerful and should be given the respect they deserve by at least a weekend of training in their use. They are the “big guns’ of conflict resolution but an untrained user will quickly decide – as we always do with the next new thing – that because it didn’t work first off, it’s of no value. So please, spend the small amount you need to, to learn how to use these steps properly.
Almost every conflict begins with an incorrect and conflicting observation by two people of the same event. A clear observation is something many of us don’t want because it may not satisfy our need to be right rather than happy. Agreeing on an observation without emotionally blackmailing overtones is not as simple as it looks. Try to give an observation as a video camera might see an event; nothing more.
Without hearing a person’s feelings about an observation, we have no real heart-based ability to respond to it. Many of us have developed the technique of masking attack in a “feeling statement, such as “I feel that you shouldn’t be saying that about my friend.” When what they could be saying as step one and two is “When you say to my friend that she has a big nose, I feel sad and confused.”
Most of us have lost the ability to make contact with our feelings and our needs. Without hearing another’s feelings and needs about an observation, how can we possibly respond in a way that they can hear and that meets their need for closer connection, intimacy and contribution? Instead of saying “I need you to stop calling my friend ugly,” we are asked to find the need in ourselves that is not being fulfilled. The fist three steps may now look like; “When you say to my friend that she has a big nose, I feel sad and confused. I need clarity, respect and integrity.”
Step Four; The Request
If we tell someone to stop what they are doing, we are not requesting them. We are telling them, and therefore feeding into the cycle of attack, and defence that inevitably ratchets up into the worldview we see on the News every night of the week. If we seek to create a request that will, As Dr Rosenberg puts it, “be responded to with the joy of a child feeding ducks”, then we can be assured of an outcome that assists both parties to move on and begin to take their role in contributing to mankind. So to take the example to its final conclusion, “When you say to my friend that she has a big nose, I feel sad and confused. I need clarity, respect and integrity. Would you be willing to tell me how you feel when you call her names so I can understand better what you need?”
So instead of attack, we have communication.
Instead of using our feelings as a weapon, we have shared how we really feel and given our partner in conflict the opportunity to share.
Instead of assumed moral outrage, we ask to learn about our partner.
Instead of telling someone they are wrong, we have asked them to contribute to our own understanding.
One small step for mankind.
Ian Blair Hamilton is the managing Director of ION LIFE. He is a health researcher, author, lecturer and student of conscious ageing.
You can get his free newsletter at www.ionlife.info