Strategies and solutions

Our action and results-focused culture loves strategies. Especially if we’re in pain over something, we usually want to know immediately how to make the situation better, by which we mean ‘less painful’. As a result, there’s a tendency to jump straight to strategies without considering in sufficient depth the feelings and needs which have been stirred up by the situation, and which the strategy is supposed to address. The difference between a strategy and a need is that a strategy is specific and involves doing something, whereas a need is general and potential, as yet unchannelled into a particular course of action.
The more desperate we are to ‘deal with’ our discomfort and pain, rather than to connect with the unmet needs behind them, the more likely we are to have in mind some idea about what we or somebody else is supposed to do about it: “I want YOU to take the garbage out, NOW“, can be a substitute for feeling the sadness and longing arising from living in a messy house where no one else does the household chores, for example. On a more geopolitical level, “Disarm your rockets first and then we’ll think about holding peace talks with you!” is much easier to say than to sit down with the enemy and recognise the pain and fear on both sides of the table.  Parents and employers can still get away with these kind of ways of talking, but they don’t create harmony at home or respectful relations at work.  Strategies not connected with needs tend to clash with other people’s strategies, and so conflict arises. Strategies based on needs harmonise, because the bottom line is that we all share very similar needs, and most of us enjoy creating win-win solutions.

Unless we make an explicit link to our own needs, our ‘strategic urge’ is likely to lead to demands as in the examples above, which will simply create more resistance and resentment. We also make demands of ourselves of course, telling ourselves that we ‘have to’ show up in a certain way.  In NVC dialogue, we avoid this by paying attention to stages 2 and 3 of the NVC process before we go on to the 4th, request/action stage, which is where strategies come into play. So, we might explain that we’re feeling tired or upset and wishing for support with the household duties, before we ask if the other person would be willing to help with the rubbish disposal tasks. Or, we admit that we’re scared of rocket attacks and wanting protection and safety for our families (something which is probably equally important for the other side also) as we approach the subject of peace talks.

However, even when the NVC model is being followed, I’ve noticed that people who can do O>F>N quite smoothly often struggle with the final stage. Having become aware of the desperate importance to us of our long-neglected needs, and the pressure of the feelings behind that, we sometimes can’t imagine any action we might reasonably request which is likely to be ‘enough’ to satisfy us. Then we either flip back to the kind of ready-made demands we had in mind to start with, or go into despair and confusion.

The trick here is to slow the process right down, and remember that we don’t only have one shot at the target. If we are going to make requests, the first request is likely to be a small one, possibly a connection request: talks about talks. It’s a confidence-building process, and your partner in dialogue will be sensing each step of the way whether you are genuinely searching for an outcome which will meet his needs as well, or whether you are trying to trick him into an agreement which just suits yourself. In other words, we may have a specific ‘local’ strategy but there is also an overriding ‘global’ strategy, in which the goal is simply to create and maintain connection – and to contribute towards creating a more beautiful world for everybody. If we keep that in mind, like a dancer maintaining contact with a partner, we’re likely to have a good supply of ‘local’ strategies to suggest at each stage of the process.

In the bigger picture, however, remember that a request is just one type of strategy to get needs meet, and what’s more it’s one based on the dubious assumption that life will always be served by more talking! Some alternative strategies (depending on the situation) may be to sit quietly, to hold hands, to take a break, to walk away, to call a friend or to meet one’s needs in some other way. So in NbC I prefer to think of the OFN process ending with A for action – a Request being just one kind of Action. (For a fuller discussion of the differences between NbC and NVC, go here).