Effective Communication Begins with "Presence"

My journey with learning, teaching, and now using Non-Violent Communication (NVC) for conflict coaching and mediation began about five years ago, when I knew enough about the NVC process to be “dangerous.”

Non Violent Communication is a process that was developed in the 1970’s by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. It is now used by people all over the globe to help people hear one another and connect with each other in the midst of conflict or otherwise. The cornerstone of NVC is empathy or presence. However, while most people think they understand what is meant by empathy, my experience as a human being is that it is not the typical response given while in interaction with other human beings – especially when there is conflict, and yet it is such a powerful tool – one worth learning and honing.

A little over 5 years ago, a good friend of mine had recently gone through a divorce and was set up on a casual date via friends. She was in no way seeking a relationship nor was she even ready for dating, so it took her by surprise when she kind of liked the guy with whom she was set up. Next thing you know, she began having a few more dates with this fellow, just for the fun of it.

In the meantime, she did not quite know how to break the news to her daughter. This same daughter had recently expressed how she would not be okay with her mother ever dating another man. My friend was caught in a very uncomfortable situation. She had to tell her daughter, and eventually did but with some rather devastating results.

The daughter was about 17 at the time. She was, and still is, exceptional. She was an excellent student, made great grades, and even had her own business at the age of 16. She had even taught herself the real estate market and was investing while in high school. She was always respectful and extremely mature. So her reaction in this circumstance was totally out of character and seemed rather extreme, given how she had always presented herself prior to this incident.

Upon hearing from her mother about the new boyfriend, the daughter became very angry, used several choice words (included lots of profanity), and then left for the evening without letting her mother know where she was going. The next day, her mother called me to talk about the situation and get some advice about what to do.

As she was on the phone with me, she entered her house and she found the house in shambles. Dishes had been taken out of the cupboard and smashed on the floor, there was writing all over the bathroom mirror with threats to the boyfriend and even his children (she had all of their names indicated on the mirror.)

Lastly my friend found a credit card bill on the counter with a note that read, “If you think this is heavy price to pay, you’ve seen nothing yet.” The daughter had taken the credit card and charged many items on it.

The mother was beside herself and asked if I would please talk to her daughter. I was so nervous because I honestly didn’t know what I would say. I was personally feeling quite upset towards this young lady and would have liked to lay into her, asking her “What on Earth?” and giving her some advice on how to make amends with her mother and deal productively regarding her parents’ divorce.

The typical way many of us act when in a heated situation is by lecturing, analyzing, blaming, judging, or giving advice. But – thanks to my little knowledge of the NVC process, another option surfaced…Empathy! I honestly don’t know what came over me, but as I marched her into the house, I remembered this idea of just being present to someone when they are in pain, and I took her in my arms.

She stayed there for a long time, crying, and then I asked if we could talk. We sat down and I held her with my hand on her heart while she shared and I just listened – giving her 100% presence and occasionally taking a guess at her needs in the circumstance… a need for security, for predictability, for connection, love and a myriad of other emotions.

We interacted like that for over an hour and a half. I did not judge her, blame her, console her, sympathize, question her, advise her; I just gave her presence and helped her get connected with the needs that were alive in her.

After that hour and a half, and lots of crying, she turned to me and asked “What should I do?”

She was then ready and open to advice. We talked about making amends with her mother and we talked about getting her support while she was going through the mourning process related to her parents’ divorce.

She went home and she and her mother talked through the situation and she also decided, on her own, that she wanted some counseling to help her deal with her mother being with someone other than her father. The whole conflict was OVER – COMPLETE!!! I was actually stunned about the power of just listening to someone and her ability to really be open to me, once I had been with her 100%.

This incident launched me into the world and work of Non Violent Communication. Afterwards, I remember thinking about all the crises that happen in our world on a second by second basis and how so much (if not all) of it could be avoided if we learned to reroute our typical responses of judgment, blame, advising, sympathizing, etc to an empathetic response.

I was so moved by this experience that I signed up for a 9 day intensive training with Marshall Rosenberg and the rest is history… I’ve been training, teaching, growing, and evolving with the process ever since. It gives me so much hope to know that peace is possible – not easy – but possible, and it all starts with presence. I am dedicated to living my life from this space of presence and have made it my life’s work to contribute to others in doing the same.

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