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5 Steps to Effective (i.e. Kick-Ass!) Conflict

It’s not about winning – though this is what we think we want in a conflict. However if you think about the conflicts that you have “won” in the past – there was likely a price to pay for the “win” – meaning a cost in the connection with the other human being.

Is it possible to have a conflict and keep a connection – while at the same time getting what you want?

Non Violent Communication (NVC) is the process I teach and use to help people in conflict have an easier time hearing one another. To be most effective, NVC requires an ongoing and immersed process of learning and growing.

However, there are some key distinctions or ideas that can be VERY useful to people trying to navigate conflict who have never even heard of NVC. I offer the following as a “gift” for those of you currently experiencing conflict who would like a different and more connecting outcome than what is typical.

1. Consider your Intention

Are you more interested in being right or in having a connection?

Your knee jerk response to this question is likely, “Heck yeah I want to be right!” But take a second to really explore that question, to really sit with it. My experience in doing this work with people is that under the layers, people ultimately want connection. Now, I’m not saying to just give in at all!

However, to begin this new way of being in conflict, one must get clear on his or her intention. If underneath, your desire really is to connect and have a different more peaceful outcome then there is some room for a different process.

2. Get clear on what happened by using Observational Terms.

Our speech is so laden with evaluation and analysis that when things happen to us out there in the world, we have a tendency to mix up what actually happened with our evaluation or judgments of what happened and/or the other person(s) involved with the incident.

Learning to discern observations means being clear on what happened by using what can be seen with our eyes, heard with our ears, etc. Imagine a video camera capturing a situation and playing it back. We are talking about that kind of observation. Instead, what many of us do when in conflict is name call or judge the other person: “He’s such a jerk!” or “She’s being completely unreasonable.” While these judgments of the other can feel SOOO good in the moment, they do little to help us have that connecting outcome we really want with our self and/or the other.

Consider this! Even the statement “He yelled at me” is evaluative. One person’s idea of yelling or talking loudly may be completely different from another person’s. An observational way of rephrasing this would be to say “When he talked to me, it was at a level that was uncomfortable for me.”

Now you may be saying – “Wow! That’s a lot to consider every time I open my mouth.” Don’t fret! Remember, NVC is a slowly evolving process. I wouldn’t expect you to be perfect at this anytime soon. I still fall into using evaluative statements on a regular basis. The difference is that I am beginning to cultivate an awareness of the difference between observation and evaluation. That allows me to speak with a lot more clarity when I’m in conflict. I can then start from a place where the other person and I can both agree or, at least, not argue.

Speaking in observational language eliminates arguing on top of the argument. It avoids the “You did” “No, I didn’t” “Yes, you did” scenario. Learning how to differentiate and use observational versus evaluative language can be a huge asset in workplace environments as well as in your personal conflicts.

3. Distinguish your feelings from your thoughts.

Another important distinction when you are “fighting” is to keep from mixing up your feelings from your thoughts.

Thoughts are things we tell ourselves in our heads. Feelings are sensations we experience in our bodies.

As individuals, we all share similar feelings. So, if I let you know how I feel about a situation, I stand a better chance of being heard than if I don’t share my feelings. The problem, however, is that more often than not, we mix up our feelings (our internal state) with our thoughts about the other person. How often have you used phrases such as, “I feel so manipulated.” “I feel disrespected.” or “I feel left out?”

Consider the idea that manipulated, disrespected, and left out are not internal feelings as much as they are judgments about what someone else did or didn’t do to you.

Also, think about being on the recipient end of such a statement and whether or not it would help you to really hear and connect with the person saying it. I’m predicting you would likely become defensive and shut down. If a person says he feels manipulated, he may be really feeling angry, scared, or frustrated. These words point more towards what is going on inside this person and I’m guessing would land a little easier for the person hearing them.

4. Get clear on what you really want or need.

When I teach NVC to people, I usually start with an exercise that has everyone envision their perfect world and I ask people to let me know one word responses to what would make up this perfect place. This same exercise has been done all over the world. People everywhere, from different cultures, nationalities, religions, etc. come up with the same responses.

In a human’s ideal world, they would have things like: peace, security, safety, joy, connection, trust, understanding, growth, inspiration, choice, tranquility, community, etc.

Basically, it’s these universal human needs that unite all of mankind. According to Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D., “All conflict is a tragic expression of an unmet need.” The problem is that we have not learned to communicate our needs in a way that can be heard and/or we get really stuck on particular strategies to get our needs met.

The premise of NVC is that if two people can really hear one another at the needs level - and I mean really get each other at that place – there is a much greater willingness to come up with strategies where everyone’s needs can be met. This may sound a bit Utopian… but I have seen it work over and over again. If people can understand one another’s needs there is greater possibility for reconciliation and a complete connection.

CLICK HERE for a List of Universal Human Needs.

I recommend, the next time you are in conflict and want to connect with the other person, first get clear on your needs and then consider the other’s. This is a very preliminary step in the NVC process, but it is a critical one and, it alone, may help you have a different kind of conflict.

5. Make a request instead of a demand.

The way you can tell if what you are asking is a request versus a demand is to imagine how you will feel if the person says “No” or doesn’t do it. If you imagine getting angry or upset, please consider that what you are asking is a demand and not a request.

Also, consider how you respond when you hear a demand. I know my automatic response is to run away, shut down, or resist. If you find that you are in no space to make a request, I’m guessing that is because you are too triggered and require more connection (from yourself or others) regarding your own needs. Seek empathy!

(For more understanding about empathy, please read my last article by CLICKING HERE)

When I’m teaching parents about NVC, I often get the question about how to get your kids to do anything if you don’t make demands. For clarity sake – I still make demands of my children. However, I have shown enough care/concern about their needs over the years that there is a certain amount of trust or “demand equity,” so to speak. I can make a demand and it is not met with resistance because my children trust, if they really need to be heard, that communication is available.

The five “gifts” I have given above are not magic and they are not easy.

However, with practice and commitment, they can actually bring people closer. This article was written to give you some thoughts, tools, and a small taste of the NVC process. I love this work on a personal note because it helps me have better connection with myself and the people in my life. So, go ahead – try out the “gifts.” You just might have a kick-ass conflict.

If you need help, I’m just a phone call away.


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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