Ping! Your phone lets you know something wants your attention. These days there is rare escape from the constant barrage of disturbing information and horrific images unfolding on our planet faster than we can turn away. And it’s hard to turn away. Many want to be engaged, helpful and action oriented to effect the world around us with hope and a belief that what we care about matters.
Yet, there is so much polarization and hostility between people and groups that have differing views that it becomes difficult to avoid conversations that escalate into misunderstanding, aggression, and increasingly, violence. Avoiding anyone who disagrees with us creates more distance and less opportunity to find avenues for positive change, while stepping up to challenge an idea can foment anger, conflict and more disagreements, making matters worse.
A starting place
Another option is to embrace Nonviolent Communication (NVC) as a practical tool to reduce conflict and disagreements while enhancing understanding and mutual respect.
Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a port in a storm for those struggling to find a method of talking with others in ways that lead to solutions, instead of more problems. With NVC, you can have a constructive dialogue with almost anyone, taking a stand for what you value, while reducing emotional escalation.
NVC was founded by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, a Detroit native and psychologist who spent his teen years in Detroit during the 1948 race riots, where he worked to improve race relations and find peaceful solutions to conflict. He founded the Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC.org) which has trained thousands of people across the world in conflict resolution, restorative practices and peacemaking activities.
Practice empathy, focus on needs:
Empathy (for self and others) is a foundational key for human connection, and core to practicing compassion and building trust between people, even if we don’t agree with their ideas or behavior.
All humans share the same fundamental needs- some for survival like food and water, and some so that we can thrive, like love, acceptance, respect, mattering and belonging.
Conflict doesn’t happen at the level of needs. Conflict happens at the level of “strategy”– that is, how we each go about attempting to meet the needs of ourselves and our loved ones.
In addition to empathy, we need honest self expression, sharing our needs in ways that allow others to hear and understand us.
While many agree, in theory, with these ideas, actually practicing empathy and focusing on shared needs while being triggered by other people’s words and actions is often daunting.
Space between stimulus and response
As a start to using the practical tools of NVC, a suggestion, when you are triggered by a conversation, or by anything that sparks reactivity, begin by calming yourself down, without judgment, even if it is just for a moment, because until you can calm yourself down, frustration or worry will likely feed into the escalating emotions that are already present.
Victor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, as well as a Holocaust survivor, wrote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
In other words, instead of turning your attention to what someone else is saying or doing, and connecting with how wrong they are, bring your attention first to your agitation. A simple method is to take a slow deep breath. Focussing on your breathing, quieting your voice, and consciously slowing down the pace of your talking, all can lower the intensity of an argument or conflict. If you have the ability in the moment, you can share, out loud, your experience by saying, “I’m getting upset (frustrated, angry, worried), and I’d like to be more calm while we’re talking so we have a better chance to understand each other. I’d like to slow down our conversation, or wait to continue it until I have a chance to calm down.” Sometimes stating what’s happening, saying what we’d like, and offering a new plan is enough to shift the quality of a conversation.
NVC uses feelings to connect individuals with their needs. Feelings tend to show us where we disagree, and shared needs can lead us to more understanding, acceptance and connection, the starting place towards an empathetic self understanding. Offering reflection and empathy for others, and honest self expression are the next steps.