Mastering NbC: a linguistic approach

I am a linguist by training and came to NVC as a new language: a new form of self-expression and a new way of interpreting what other people say. Learning the NVC model of communication has changed the way I listen and the way I talk, but it is much more fundamental than that. As with any new language, getting fluent actually demands that you think in a different way, and with NVC that means a radically different way. Now it’s no longer a language for me, it’s a way of life. But spoken and written words are the main way humans in our culture communicate, so language is still the way in.

It started for me with becoming more aware of the less than life-enhancing ways 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. And I don’t mean just the obvious insults, cruel jokes or sarcastic retorts which are the staple of every TV drama. What about the things we don’t say?

Recognise this? Friend on the phone:

“How are you?”

“Oh, I’m OK — you know…” (voice tails off…).

No, of course I’m not OK! I’m being made redundant next week, I’m having rows with my partner and the dog’s just been sick on the carpet. In what sense am I ‘OK’? In that nobody is actually pointing a gun at my head right now?! I guess what it really means is that I’m crap, actually, but I don’t want to be complaining and I imagine you probably don’t really want to hear anyway. And maybe the speaker is right –  not everyone does want to hear the full story of how we really are when they ask “How are you?”, the fears and hopes and the worries and the longings… but the more I meet people who want to relate on the level of needs and feelings, the less time I have for the ‘Oh, I’m OK’ kind of conversations, which don’t bring me the greater connection, ease or understanding I’m looking for. I’d rather hear, and I’d rather share, the truth: actually I’m feeling sad/ tired/ depressed and I’m missing connection / having more energy / a sense of hopefulness about the future, to give some examples.

Or what about this? “Hey Janet, you seem upset, what’s going on?

Oh, it’s Simon, he’s so lazy, he never cleans up after himself, I just feel like the maid around this house!

Well, it’s a complaint, that much is clear, and she’s not happy. And Janet’s our friend, so naturally we sympathise. We might even be tempted to give ‘supportive’ advice, on the lines of encouraging her to demand more of her Simon or maybe even to give him the boot, if we’ve heard this story many times already. But hold on a minute! We don’t actually know yet what the real issue is for Janet. “I feel like the maid” doesn’t tell us what she actually feels, whether angry or sad or hopeless, let alone what she needs to put things right. Will Simon cleaning up the kitchen actually fix this problem or is the complaint pointing somewhere else? We just don’t know. The words “I feel like..” do not actually describe a feeling. Similarly, words like ‘never‘ and ‘always‘ warn me that a blanket statement is coming up, rather than a fact. We use these words simply to add emphasis to our condemnation of others (and ourselves).

Other danger words in our everyday language include mustshouldought, can and all their variants – what linguists call the modal verbs. These are words which limit and control, which pass judgments and enforce hierarchies, which confuse and destroy rather than expressing truth or creating respectful connections and understanding between people. They’re notoriously difficult to translate, and I believe the reason is because they don’t refer to any objective reality but to a set of internal judgements and beliefs. That they are translatable at all testifies to the pervasive general subservience to those assumptions and beliefs in our culture.

As a language enthusiast, I’ve enjoyed learning to differentiate between word usage which is alive and rooted in present experience and that which is dead: the recycled beliefs and assumptions of the past. I’m fascinated to explore the vocabulary of needs and feelings and to become aware of the semantic differences between a clear observation which everyone can agree on and one tainted with personal interpretations and assumptions. But to really ‘get’ this new language I’ve had to change my way of thinking, too. If I no longer use the same language structures as I did before, I am not describing the same reality. So, if I hear myself saying (or thinking) something such as, “I should clear up that mess I made in the kitchen”, in other words trying to motivate myself to action out of guilt, I like to reframe it.  ‘Should’  is not actually a good enough reason for me.  I need to want to do it, not out of some obligation, but because I value the agreement I have made to respect other kitchen users, or because I enjoy coming down to a clean kitchen in the morning, or because I don’t want my family to get food poisoning: to meet my own needs, in fact, whether for self-respect, beauty or health! Being careful what words I use, even in my own head, is vital for me to remain in touch with that other reality, the one of choice and freedom and respect for others.

If words like ‘should’ and ‘ought’ are out, then so 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 each others’ needs! You begin to see how truly radical and extraordinary the simple message of NVC can be. First you may struggle to find the ‘right’ words, but eventually you get to that wonderful place beyond wrong and right, where perhaps only poetry is wanted.

“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  (13th century)

Some NVC trainers today are very relaxed about the use of  ‘non-NVC’ language. In the spirit of compassion and empathy 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 mindset or 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 misunderstood” 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 learning.  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 picked up on 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 prounciation. Then it can be hard to go back and really learn to think in Spanish, rather than just having a few 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, to go past ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, Beyond the Right Words and all other words, to Rumi’s flower-filled meadow of pure connection. Sure, the bottom line is the intention to connect empathically, but it is the words which are still 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!