More differences between NbC and NVC

“We are never angry because of what others say or do. It is our thinking that makes us angry”. Marshall Rosenberg

Observation of our Thoughts
Going deeper still into the subject, I run up against an issue with the Observation step as well. As already noted, in practical NVC work whether in empathy or coaching, the Observation step is often skipped, for the very good reason that there is not always an external event which we need to define. It is not about ‘what happened’. We can call that the trigger or the stimulus, but what we are really responding to are internal memories, complexes of thoughts and associated feelings. In classical NVC, practitioners may use formulations like “I notice that I’m thinking’ …” as the Observation. This merely adds another layer of intellectual complexity, in order to squeeze reality into the standard OFNR format. Why not just admit that it is a thought we’re responding to, and call it that?
Here’s a worked-through example of the power of including the thoughts in the NbC process.

Needs rarely give rise to feelings directly
NVC doctrine says that all feelings derive from needs; unmet needs create unpleasant feelings, and met needs create pleasant feelings.  However, my observations suggest that most of our strongest emotional reactions in real life situations are actually triggered by thoughts, not needs, even if the underlying energy can be said to derive from needs.
It was not always thus.  There was a time when fear, for example, was intimately related to immediate survival needs, rather than to the possibility of interest rates rising or of someone not liking our new hairstyle. Very rarely in modern life do we encounter the ‘pure’ feelings of fear our ancestors must have experienced when surrounded by a pack of hungry wolves. Few of us in 21st century industrialised countries ever find our anger provoked by anything so direct as our village being invaded by strangers from another tribe. Even the grief of losing a loved one is mercifully not an everyday experience.  Rather, the emotions that rise and shift within us on a daily basis are mostly second-hand, inherited, echoes of a different time and place. Our fear, grief and anger are stirred, not by things which are actually happening in the outside world in front of our eyes, but by our thoughts about how things are, or more likely how they ‘should be’. We are upset by poverty and deprivation (thinking society should be organised more fairly), we are annoyed by what our friends and colleagues say to us (thinking they should not be so rude/unkind/arrogant /whatever..), we are scared by the expansion of monopoly interests (thinking that these will impact on our freedom and quality of life), and so on, but there is no monster present in the room or actual spear pointed at our heart. Yes, we have those needs for safety, caring, freedom etc, but these are not actually being challenged in this present moment. Religiously justifying our feelings by reference to our needs tends to fix us in our patterns of reaction rather than free us, especially when our apparent ‘need’ is unattainable, like total safety or absolute freedom. So, in NbC I include plenty of space to examine and understand our thoughts as well as our feelings.

Fear and safety
There is a special problem with this combo. If we follow the NVC model closely, fear is a feeling and the most commonly associated need is safety. This is entirely relevant and appropriate when we are crawling along an icy ledge over a precipice or faced by an angry man wielding a large knife. Safety is definitely at stake, and fear is doing its job of making us very alert to a real and present physical danger and very careful which way we move. If however we are scared of jumping over a narrow ditch in a flat field, our fear – though very real – is not appropriate and it is not safety we are needing, because there is no real danger. What we need is actually courage, in order to overcome a fear that has been implanted by earlier conditioning, perhaps from an over-anxious parent when we were three years old or from a story we heard about someone who broke her leg trying to jump a much bigger but analogous ditch. Or ease, achievable by taking a different route that doesn’t force us to confront our ditch-phobia (this is a real thing by the way, I have seen cases and helped several people to overcome it).

Intellectual centre is missing
Human beings perceive reality by means of different centres or focuses of attention. We have the body, the heart and the mind, for a start. Sensing with our bodies, feeling with our hearts and thinking with our minds make different qualities of perception and experience available to us. No centre is ‘better’ or more indispensable than another. We need all our centres to be complete – and incidentally, we also need to learn to shift our focus at will between our centres, if we are not to be caught in a habitual pattern of reaction. Centering is by itself a huge subject but in this context I just want to flag up the lack of attention paid to the thinking or ‘intellectual’ centre in classical NVC. Why is there is a ‘Feeling’ step but not a ‘Thinking’ step in OFNR? I guess because for many westerners, most of the time, we are habitually in Intellectual centre already, and most of us could benefit from a reminder to check what is going on in Emotional or Physical centre. However, it does not benefit us to put all our eggs into that basket either, and it is no help at all for the significant minority of people who are already habitually emotionally centred; these might benefit most by improving their access to intellectual centre!

Intellectual centre processes are neither intrinsically ‘bad’ nor neutral. As with the emotional and physical centres, we always have the option of experiencing life through the positive or negative poles of the centre, and we actually need all three to even begin to be human. Just as some postures are damaging for our bodies to maintain, and some emotions can ‘break our hearts’ if held on to, so some habits of thought create confusion, conflicts and experiences which simply do not serve us. The difference is that if we sit on a thistle, our bodies quickly tell us to move; ‘negative’ emotions by themselves naturally fade and extinguish themselves, especially when released and expressed; but thought patterns, once ‘installed’, can sit there for a whole lifetime, unconsciously creating the uncomfortable realities that we most fear. This is why emotional release, necessary though it may be, does not in itself bring about lasting change in the psyche or a better experience when confronted by the same situation next week.

Therefore in NbC I seek a constant balance of intellectual, emotional and physical centering. (What I have often seen in mainstream NVC training is an over-emphasis on intellectual understanding in the early stages followed by an over-emphasis on emotional processing in the intermediate stages, but little effort to balance the two). Looking for the positive pole within each centre (where most needs are met), the value of intellectual centre is not in analysing situations to find cause and effect, nor in processing metadata, but in ‘insight’: in this case, reviewing habits of thought and finding ways to change them. What this means in practice is that after asking a client or student, “What are you feeling?”, I am also likely to ask, “What thoughts are associated with this feeling?”, or something like that. The always worthwhile question “What is alive in you right now?” can allow space for thought forms just as much as feelings and sensations. If these don’t emerge by themselves, the prompt “What am I/are you thinking?” is very appropriate to help people become aware of what is going on in intellectual centre, so that we can then link it with our feelings and needs. (The culmination of this approach is in the Transformation of Core Beliefs process).

To sum up these two pages, I want a different abstraction of what Marshall Rosenberg demonstrated because OFNR is too crude and often doesn’t fit reality. A part of me would love to junk it altogether and yet I acknowledge that a simple mnemonic has its uses, and also that workshops attract many people who are not ready for an instant heart-to-heart connection with everyone they meet – of whom I am one. So, how can we improve on it? Replacing R with A for Action is the easy bit. Introducing a Thinking (T) step is harder, because people have different primary centerings, so it’s impossible to say whether the process should be OTFNA or OFTNA. Also, a minority of people are Physically centred and experience things in their Bodies first, so OBFNA or OBTNA would be more useful for them. To be fully inclusive of the variations in the human response pathway, trainers and coaches could adopt a more flexible model and be guided to the real needs by the issue-holder’s own habitual processes – if they were trained or skilled in observing such processes, of course. If this approach has to be expressed in a simple linear model, it could be OINA: Outside (Observation), Inside (Thoughts, Feelings and Sensations as appropriate), Needs, Action. That is in fact how I often introduce NbC myself, crudely summarised as: What happened in the outside world? What happened in your inside world? What qualities matter to you in this context? What are you going to do about it?

Puppets and presence
I also have some thoughts about how NVC is typically presented, and some reservations about some of the approaches I have seen.  Puppets per se are a great way of demonstrating dialogues and transformations, but I especially don’t like the ever-popular giraffes and jackals business – go here to find out why!