When NVC “Doesn’t Work”

“NVC doesn’t work. No matter what I say, people still won’t behave the way I want them to.” I imagine that words like these might spring from a deep longing for more satisfying relationships, and a wish for the power to make our lives more satisfying. I feel sad though, when I read these words, because I suspect the originator is missing out on experiencing the full power of Nonviolent Communication.

NVC supports us in being connected to and clear about what matters to us and what matters to others. It suggests attitudes (and, less importantly, ways of communicating) which are likely to reduce conflict and increase connection and well-being. The purpose of NVC is to make our lives more wonderful. When I practice NVC, there are a number of ways that can happen. Others might change how they respond to me. Or I might become clearer about what I want and find more effective strategies to meet my needs. Or I might change the way I show up in life and in relationships in a way that I find to be more satisfying.

I confess that as intensively as I’ve studied NVC, many of my key relationships haven’t shifted in the ways I might dream of having happen. Sometimes I’ve been discouraged about that. At the same time, I can’t say that my experience thus far means “NVC doesn’t work.” If I am honest with myself, the relationships in question are ones in which my practice of NVC has been superficial.

They are relationships in which some part of me has stayed attached to a sense that the other person “should” be different or act differently. As long as I’m believing that, or feeling that energetically, I’m not practicing NVC in my heart.

NVC includes both the words we are speaking and the underlying ways we are thinking about the situation and relating to it energetically (i.e., our “consciousness.”)  Our consciousness is more important than the words we speak, though the latter can help. We can speak words that sound technically like perfect NVC, but if our consciousness is not consistent with NVC, then people are likely to pick up on that. And whether or not people register our incongruence, if we’re not in NVC consciousness our actions and areas of focus are likely to be ones that won’t serve us well.

There are arguably layers to practicing NVC:

  1. Saying words that are consistent with NVC
  2. Being in NVC consciousness in low-stakes situations
  3. Being in NVC consciousness in high-stakes situations, in which patterns are entrenched and the reactivation of old traumas is likely

Each layer requires more effort and more time to master.

Even when we intellectually “know” NVC, we may not be able to practice it. When something “triggers” us, stirring up old pain and old defensive reactions, all our conscious learning can go right out the window. It can be very distressing to think, “I should be able to respond differently.” NVC trainer Robert Gonzales talks about something he calls “NVC Hell” — that’s when you know how to use NVC, but you find you can’t live NVC when it matters. It’s a painful place to be, if we tell ourselves it shouldn’t be that way. Ideally, this is just a phase in our journey and in time may arise less often as we persist in our practice.  I find I’m making progress at not judging myself for sometimes finding myself in this situation. It’s the judging that makes it hell; without the judging, it’s just a bit sad.

Regarding the third layer of practicing NVC, being in the consciousness in high-stakes situations and relationships, I suspect that for many people the basic tools of standard NVC are not enough. We’re likely to need additional tools, perspectives, and support to do deep healing before we’ll be able to address the most challenging situations with any reliability.

Particular tools that I’m familiar with (to varying degrees) that are helpful in building capacity to overcome old traumas include:

Some people are put off by the thought of healing traumas, thinking it involves “dredging up all that pain.” While we may have deep pain inside us, my sense is that none of these approaches to healing involve wallowing in that pain. To the contrary, I think that if we have deep pain then that pain seeps out on a daily basis, degrading the qualify of life, and approaches like those I’ve listed here offer hope of relief for that pain.

Personally, of late I’m mostly using Inner Relationship Focusing, and some Compassionately Embracing Life and Trauma Release Exercises. I’m also intrigued by Inner Empathy.

Trauma Release Exercises, The Work and EFT are comparatively simple to learn via DVDs, on-line information and books. Somatic Experiencing you would experience by going to a certified practitioner. Inner Relationship Focusing and Inner Empathy can be sampled via individual phone sessions, and may be learned through teleclasses (and books). There are IR Focusing teleclasses upcoming and offered regularly. For Inner Empathy there is, for the first time, an upcoming teleclass and also a new 9-month program. Robert’s work is currently available mostly through in-person trainings. Often Lynd Morris and I share aspects of Robert’s work in our trainings.

Trainer Gina Censiose combines NVC with Inner Relationship Focusing and The Work in extended training programs, including an upcoming 6-month training in New York state and a year-long program in Maine. Trainer Shulamit Day Berlevtov also combines NVC with Inner Relationship Focusing. Gina and Shulamit are teaming up to offer an upcoming teleclass on NVC and Focusing.

Bringing this back to what I expect might happen in those key relationships that have been hard to shift…  I am confident that as I deepen my ability to stay in NVC consciousness my experience of the relationships will be different and I’ll be more satisfied with respect to them.  I don’t know if the other person’s behavior or way of being will change in the slightest. Likely in some cases it will, and in others it won’t. But, I trust that I’ll enjoy my experience much more than I would have otherwise. In this sense, I have a sense that NVC (sometimes with the assistance of other tools) most always can “work.” Working just doesn’t always look the way I originally thought it would.

I hope that these musings offer a contribution, and ideally a path toward hope. I welcome any feedback.