My sister and her family were visiting from California, and we were enjoying a perfect “up North” evening at the outdoor bar at a fancy resort restaurant. We were happy to be together, the sun was still warm, there was a gentle breeze, and a spectacular view of Lake Michigan. The bartender, busy mixing drinks, didn’t seem to like that the four of us were wanting dinner outside, under his care. He was ignoring us, and the tension in the air was palpable.
When he finally did come over to us, he seemed impatient and irritated, and my sister nudged me and said in a whisper, “you talk to him!” I smiled at him and said, “Hey, hi there. It looks to me like you are really busy, and my guess is you’ve got enough to do already just making drinks without managing food too. Here we are adding to your work by wanting to sit outside for dinner instead of inside.” He stopped in his tracks, surprised, smiled at me and said, “Oh- thanks, um yeah, it’s ok- what would you all like?” By the end of this beautiful evening, filled with wonderful food, he had given us great service with a warm approach.
Connecting to another person’s experience
Later, my sister asked me exactly what I did to shift his approach to us. In some ways, this is the “magic” of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), and yet it is teachable, practical, and when it comes from the heart, a powerful tool for connecting with someone else authentically, no matter what your relationship is to them.
In this case, I made an “empathy guess”, a foundational part of Nonviolent Communication (NVC). I imagined what it might be like to be him in that moment, what he might be feeling, and what he might want, and I put some words to it so he might experience receiving empathy for what was going on for him. An empathy guess doesn’t have to be accurate, it simply opens the door to touching into someone else’s experience, and increases the chances that they will feel “seen” and understood.
Next time you are with someone who is telling you something that upset them, listen for what they might be feeling, and connect that feeling with what you guess they might need, and as a response, make an empathy guess. You might say, “Sounds like maybe you are frustrated (disappointed, sad, angry, confused), and it would be so great if you had some support (satisfaction, comfort, understanding, clarity).” Maybe your guess will be accurate, and maybe it won’t, but chances are the person you are speaking with will appreciate your attention and listening, and possibly help them get closer to what it is they are feeling and wanting in the situation.
Instead of blaming, naming
Another aspect of NVC is how to share what’s going on with you in ways that are easier for other people to hear. Using NVC, we move our focus away from blaming other people, or making them wrong, and name what we want instead. Rather than saying, “you make me mad because you’re always late to the movies”, you could say, “ I really like getting to the movies on time so I can be relaxed finding a seat. How about if we agree to the time we are leaving?” –It’s much easier to avoid being defensive when you don’t feel blamed for someone else’s feelings and needs. This is a foundational aspect of NVC, and can be used for self-connection when you are confused about what you are feeling and wanting, and for talks with other people to reduce tension and build more ease and connection into a conversation.