and how to get there

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die”.       E.M.Forster, Howard’s End (1910)

Connection is such a powerful and beautiful human need, one of the most fundamental of all!  There can be few souls on Earth who do not long for more and deeper connection, surely. And yet connection between two people is not just a matter of interest, caring or even love, whether one-way or mutual. I don’t always experience connection with someone I care about, even if I know we both love each other. In fact, the sense of disconnection can be especially strong (and painful) at times with those we are emotionally close to! Moreover, one partner in an exchange can experience what they describe as ‘connection’ when the other doesn’t. However, with the basic tools of NVC, there is no mystery as to how connection may be achieved.

The two halves of communication identified by Marshall Rosenberg are honest self-expression (in essence, stating our own feelings and needs) and empathic listening (hearing the other person’s feelings and needs). Put the two together and make it 2-way and you have connection.

Breaking it down into its constituent parts, we have a simple four step process (again!). Assuming a heartfelt wish to connect is already there, deep and meaningful connection is most likely to be experienced by both parties when all four of these conditions are met:

(1) I know and can articulate my feelings and needs.
(2) The other person hears and can articulate my feelings and needs.
(3) The other person knows and can articulate her / his own feelings and needs.
(4) I hear and can articulate the feelings and needs of the other person.

This sounds formal the way I have set it out, and it may even appear mechanical if I add that an indispensable tool for satisfying these connection conditions* within a dialogue is the ‘connection request‘. But I don’t believe real connection happens by magic, sipping margharitas as the sun goes down on a tropical beach. There may be an illusion of connection and it may be enough to persuade you to get married or give up your job or have sex with someone you don’t really know, but it may also be all downhill after this moment! Real connection is achieved by a genuine and visible exchange, and it forms the basis for more of the same.

Obviously it takes two to create connection in this sense. On your own, the best you can do is to give empathy: in its verbal form, by hearing and most likely reflecting the other person’s feelings and needs. The close second best is to express your own feelings and needs fully and honestly (stripped of any judgments of course!).  Either of these, on its own, is essentially a one-way connection, even though both the recipient of empathy and the one who has been heard in his self-expression often have a strong sense of mutual connection as a result. If your partner is not willing or able either to hear you or be heard by you, and you want to be able to move from a ‘disconnected’ to a ‘connected’ state, you still have the valuable option of creating connection between your own internal voices. In fact, without self-connection we cannot really start to connect with someone else.

With the best will in the world, we may still be defeated in applying this process even with two willing partners if one of us gets triggered. In a sense, what ultimately stands in the way of our connecting, whether with an estranged partner or a murderer in the dock, is not what they do or say, but our own reactive judgments; and what those judgments are often doing is protecting us from the pain of connecting with suppressed aspects of our self. The more of our own pain we can transform, the more we will be able to handle other people’s pain and the more able we will be to offer them the healing gift of empathy. When they have received enough empathy, they will inevitably want to hear how we are too and to invite our self-expression, which completes the circle. Connection is actually in our own hands!

* I first came across the phrase and concept of ‘connection conditions‘ in the work of Thom Bond,