Learning the language of NVC

I am a linguist by training and came to NVC™ as a language: a new form of self-expression and a new way of hearing what other people say. Learning the NVC model of communication has changed the way I listen and the way I talk, but it’s more fundamental than that. As with any new language, getting fluent actually involves thinking in a different way, and with NVC that means a radically different way.

It started for me with becoming more conscious of the less than life-enhancing ways in which we normally communicate. The words which don’t mean anything, or which mean the opposite of what they appear to, or which hide what is really going in the person’s heart. I used to think I was a clear communicator – after all, I had been a schoolteacher, I had given speeches, I had worked as a tour guide, I had led lots of groups and workshops, I had had letters published in the papers, and my whole livelihood as a translator and editor depended on the accurate use of language. NVC was a shock, and yet it was instantly clear. I had a lot of work to do to clean up my way of talking – and thinking.

For example, everytime I had used the words “I feel that…” and “I feel like…”, I wasn’t talking about feelings at all, it was really thoughts, often just another opinion I had. This one had totally slipped past me, along with a whole list of ‘feeling’ adjectives (feeling ‘misunderstood’, feeling ‘unappreciated’ etc) which were nothing more than disguised judgments of others’ behaviour.  Another example: I was already aware that for my own psychic health I wanted to avoid doing things just because a guilty voice told me I ‘should’ or ‘ought to’. I understood how this way of speaking and thinking breeds resentment in the ‘giver’, and rarely satisfies the ‘receiver’ either. But I didn’t hesitate to apply the same words to other, anonymous people, holding to my beliefs that “They should stop clearfelling the ancient forests”, or “People shouldn’t drive so aggressively”.

Learning NVC – a language which doesn’t contain any modal verbs at all, whether ‘should’ or ‘must’ or ‘can’t’ – didn’t take away the pain of seeing precious trees felled, or mean that I suddenly enjoyed reckless drivers tailgating me on the country roads. Actually it brought me more into contact with my sadness and frustration around these things, feelings which derive from my longings for respect and caring for Mother Earth and for ease and safety when driving my car. The difference is that by removing those ‘should’ words from my vocabulary, I am invited to face reality, instead of just venting onto enemy images of ‘evil loggers’ and ‘idiots behind the wheel’. And the reality I see is that everywhere people are trying to meet their human needs: the landless peasants who want to escape poverty and despair by raising cattle where there were trees, as well as the young man whose only sense of excitement and power in his life is when he overtakes me on a bend and gets away with it. If I should ever meet these people face to face, I have a chance now of seeing and resonating with their needs as well as expressing my own. That puts me in a much better position to connect with them as human beings, and maybe to suggest alternative ways of meeting their needs which don’t involve suicidal or ecocidal behaviour.

If moralising words like ‘should’ and ‘ought’ are out, then so too are the judgmental, controlling beliefs about human society and relationships which they mediate. Phasing out those two words alone would have colossal ramifications for the world we live in. Imagine schools, childcare, personal relationships, the justice system, civil society in general, international relations, without anybody telling anyone else what they should do, only caring for their own and each others’ needs! If you can imagine any of that, you begin to see how truly radical and extraordinary the simple message of NVC can be.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I will meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about language or ideas; even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense”
        Jalaluddin Rumi

Some NVC trainers today are very relaxed about the use of  ‘non-NVC’ language. In the spirit of compassion which is the whole impulse behind NVC, and knowing that at the end of the day it’s not the words which matter but the intentions, they want to encourage people to feel comfortable and at ease, rather than making them ‘wrong’, as they might do for example by telling them that “I feel patronized” is not a feeling, or that “You always come late!” is an accusation, not an observation. I resonate with this compassionate, inclusive approach. At the same time my needs for clarity of thought as well as speech are better met by a more ‘disciplined’ form of self-expression.  It’s the same as with learning any other language, for me. If I am only learning Spanish to go on holiday for a couple of weeks, then I may just want to feel comfortable enough with a few phrases to order a meal and find my way to the beach. I don’t want to be corrected for all my grammatical mistakes and told that I’m not rolling my r’s properly. However if I later decide to get a job there or I want to make friends with some Spanish people, I might regret that I didn’t learn my verb endings properly the first time and that I’ve now picked up some habits of incorrect pronunciation. Then it can be hard to go back and really learn to think in Spanish, rather than just having a few badly-pronounced phrases ready for occasional use.

For me, I know that I want my NVC skills to last my lifetime out, and for them to grow and expand. When I am truly centred in the consciousness of needs and feelings, I don’t even want to go near that judging and blaming language. So, it’s a little paradoxical, but I do want to get the words ‘right’, in my head and in my mouth, not as an end in itself, but so that I can retrain my thinking habits, drop the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and go Beyond the Right Words and all other words, to Rumi’s flower-filled meadow of pure connection. That’s the bottom line, but in most daily situations it is still the words which are my vehicle for self-expression and my guide as to how I am doing. So, for now at least, I try to find the ‘right’ words!