“I’m so angry at him – he’s a sick man, and I don’t want him to poison my son!” Amanda said, crossing her arms to stop herself from shaking.
Different voices in the room called out guesses about her experience, resonant with coherence and empathy:
“Would you like the man who is your son’s father to be modeling a better way to live?”
“Are you exhausted and wanting some support?”
“Do you long for partnership and support from the person you are co-parenting with?”
“Are you wishing for emotional health and wellbeing in your family?”
“Do you feel hopeless, and really want to look into the future with a sense that things will be better?”
After a few more exchanges between Amanda and the group, the group facilitator asked Amanda, “Where are you now on the anger scale?”
Amanda stepped away from the line of cards laid out on the floor. “I’m actually not angry any more. Now I just have a sense of mourning for my ex-husband’s alcoholism, for my son, for the years I’ve spent in pain about this. And I have a sense of acceptance. I see that he’s trying as hard as he can. And I see that part of my anger has been anger at myself, for having a child with him.”
What happened in that exchange? How did a woman who had been carrying anger for over five years put down her burden in a matter of minutes?
How can this be possible when so many of us wander around with unresolved anger and pain for years on end, without resolution? What can help us transform the pain of our history into a sense of calm self-understanding and compassion?
In this excerpt from a Nonviolent Communication workshop, every speaker referenced Amanda’s universal human needs, spoken of as her values and dreams. They also named possible feelings that might underlie the strong emotion indicated by Amanda’s placement of herself on the anger scale. This accurate recognition of feelings behind the anger helped Amanda’s limbic area calm (as evidenced by her movement off the anger scale, and her report of a sense of acceptance), and allowed her prefrontal cortex and her hippocampus to work together to see herself and her ex-husband with compassion and mindsight. Amanda was heard and acknowledged. She experienced something transformative in her sense of a shared reality with others, something that we can call empathy, although neuroscientists are not yet in full agreement about how to define it (Rameson & Lieberman, 2009).
Research in social neuroscience gives us some hints about the mysterious and transformative experience of receiving empathy. For example, the research of Matthew Lieberman and his colleagues at UCLA (Tabibnia, Lieberman, & Craske, 2008; Rameson & Lieberman, 2009) points to the importance of naming experience in selfregulation—calming the amygdala and activating the prefrontal cortex. Interpersonal neurobiology pioneers (and GAINS advisory board members) Allan Schore, (1999), Daniel Siegel (2010), and Stephen W. Porges (2007) have contributions to make to this puzzle, as well, with their writings about the effects of a right hemisphere circuits of attachment, resonance circuits, and a neuroception of safety in creating new neural pathways and enabling mindsight for self and others.
In keeping with the general lack of consensus on the precise definition of empathy, C. Daniel Batson (2009) lists eight uses of the term in The Social Neuroscience of Empathy, each of which has the common characteristic of a sense of the thoughts, feelings, and neural responses of others. However, none of these general uses captures the specificity that characterizes the Nonviolent Communication (NVC) approach, explored in Amanda’s story above. This kind of empathic experience emphasizes naming universal human needs.
In the words of NVC Certified Trainer Robert Gonzales (2010),
We all have a deep yearning that goes beyond words. It is a quality of yearning that is not for something outside of us, but for a resonance of something deep that’s alive in all of us…. There is this place that lives in each of us where we yearn for something beautiful…. This yearning exists in a domain of our consciousness [different] than most of us are used to accessing. This is the (inner) territory where the qualities of the heart reside. The qualities of the heart manifest as universal human needs.
Amanda, by having her feelings and universal needs spoken to by a room full of people, and by experiencing resonance, shifted in her view of herself and the situation. In Siegel’s terms (2010), she was being held with mindsight, in a coherent “you-map” by others. In that place of resonance, she was able to step out of her fight or flight reaction and move into a coherent understanding of self—the ability to see her own, her husband’s, and her son’s autobiography in context.
Is Nonviolent Communication something radically different from what we already know and do? Yes and no. “NVC is founded on language and communication skills that strengthen our ability to remain human, even under trying conditions. It contains nothing new; all that has been integrated into NVC has been known for centuries. The intent is to remind us about what we already know—about how we humans were meant to relate to one another…. The form is simple, yet powerfully transformative” (Rosenberg & Gandhi, 2003, p. 3). The difference from our usual patterns lies in bringing the power of mindfulness to the space between us, largely, but not exclusively, reflected in our use of language with one another.
Offering empathy by focusing on universal needs runs so counter to our usual methods of verbal selfregulation, and the extension of regulatory attempts to others, that NVC is often likened to learning another language. Think about what your knee-jerk reaction might be to your partner telling you he or she had a hard day and is feeling grumpy. You might say, “You should hear about my day!” (distracting), or “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” (silver lining), or “I bet your employees had a worse day!” (taking the other person’s point of view), or “You know, you could really use a therapy appointment” (fixing, giving advice), or even possibly “Buck up, it’s not that bad,” (denial). How likely would you be to respond with a guess about their universal human needs? Would you ask: “Would it have been nice to have a little support and consideration today?” or “Would you like to know that your efforts are having a positive result?”
There is more happening than the words describing the universal needs themselves. The empathetic relationship includes someone trying to be present, no matter what they say (intention, attention, and attunement) and the experience of a direct hit (resonance) when a feeling or a need is named with precision. The attempt to be present interrupts whatever cycle was happening, and then together the two people can attend to what the need might be until they hit on the right one. Given the way resonance circuits are suspected to provide both people in a relationship with similar information, getting the direct hit may not be too difficult once Connections & Reflections, The GAINS Quarterly/Spring 2010 17 they are calmly connected.
Universal needs are considered to be so key in NVC that they cannot be left out of an exchange. NVC mediation consists of making sure that each person can and is repeating the other person’s feelings and needs. Refrigerator magnet sets of feelings and needs can be purchased, as well as a new iPhone application that lets you choose your feelings and needs from the lists provided. Needs are a way to put the flavors and energies of our yearnings, our lives, and our purpose into words. They are resonance encapsulated.
Portland, Oregon’s NVC Certified Trainer Susan Skye (2010) has been teaching a way to give words to resonance for over a decade, an approach that she and her co-trainers call “The Living Energy of Needs.” The following is taken from her training that I attended this February.
My partner is talking, and I’m listening, but what am I really doing? I don’t listen from here— she points to her ears—I listen from my center, from my body. I’m sensing, feeling, really living in the energy. Say someone is telling a story, that’s what you are taking in, but at the same time, whatever it is that’s in us, that understands the resonance, not yet in words, a non-logical, undefined connection is what’s coming in. Now you have the live energy in your body, which you read and give words to, you’re reflecting to your partner a translation, a word picture of what’s happening. For example, if you were sitting with someone who was mourning a barren early childhood, the resonance might be something like, “You would really have liked to have been held with a deep love and attentiveness, a consideration of what was happening for you.” You are bringing the information about the other person in through your body. What flavor of experience is this? Learn the needs so that you can easily tell them apart. They have different qualities, and it feels different when there is a sense of fullness with that need, or a sense of longing for that need. Once you identify what is alive in you, give it words. Let the words flow out of your mouth and describe this universal quality that is enhancing life.
Before interpersonal neurobiology or the discovery of mirror neurons, such an approach would certainly have been considered unscientific. Now, though, compare Susan Skye’s words to Daniel Siegel’s (2010) description of the resonance circuits.
Our awareness of another person’s state of mind depends on how well we know our own. The insula brings the resonating state within us upward into the middle prefrontal cortex, where we make a map of our internal world…. All of our subcortical data—our heart rate, breathing and muscle tension, our limbic coloring of emotions—travels up the insula to inform the cortex of our state of mind. This is the brain reason that people who are more aware of their bodies have been found to be more empathic. The insula is the key: When we can sense our own internal state, the fundamental pathway for resonating with others is open as well. (p. 62)
NVC classes and practice groups encourage people to bring this resonating awareness of needs into our daily lives, providing an ongoing verbal foundation for conversation, and a continual nonverbal extension of empathy for others and for oneself as a practice of self-compassion. Sharing the selfcalming out loud can also be an interesting preventative measure to communication problems. I was in the kitchen with my 28-year-old son not long ago, and told him I had made a call to an old friend of ours. There were a few beats of silence, and then he said, “That’s just stupid.” I was quiet for a moment, and then, without even realizing Connections & Reflections, The GAINS Quarterly/Spring 2010 18 what I was doing, I said, “I feel so embarrassed hearing you say that—I guess I was wanting to share my excitement.” My son looked up at me in shock, and said, “Oh, no, I wasn’t saying what you did was stupid. I can’t get this lid open. It’s made really badly.” Relief rushed through me, as well as a curiosity about how many times in my life I have interpreted other people’s words as a reproof, and tried to learn from them, when in fact the lesson was merely that they weren’t talking to me.
At a class at Coffee Creek Penitentiary, a women’s prison south of Portland, Oregon, Leonie told how she brought empathy to a long-standing feud between her mother and her aunt. “Thanksgiving is coming up,” she said, “and my aunt and my mother haven’t eaten together in 10 years. So my Mom was visiting, and we were talking about my aunt, and I said to her, ‘Mom, I bet that you really needed a sense of acceptance and understanding when you put Grandma in the home,’ and she said yes, she did, and then when my aunt came to see me, I said, ‘Auntie, I bet you would have liked some support and a sense that your sister really understood what was going on for you when your oldest daughter went to prison,’ and she said yes, she would have liked that, and the next thing I knew they were planning Thanksgiving dinner together.” Leonie’s success, after only 6 weeks of Nonviolent Communication classes, reveals how powerful it is to connect with other people’s needs. Despite Leonie making it look simple, empathy is often easiest with people we don’t know, or if the situation doesn’t concern us. Often, the better acquainted we are, the more likely there is to be implicit experience within the relationship that can bump us into a limbic reaction, and disconnect us from our prefrontal cortex, disrupting our mindsight. So what do we do to make those intimate relationships easier? Just as with any mindfulness approach, the more we embrace a daily practice, the more we strengthen the new neural pathways that permit us to first calm ourselves, and then use our mirror neurons and resonance circuits, in their fullest expression of mindsight, to connect with and offer the experience of being seen to others. As we bring the focus of our conscious awareness to how we use language with one another, we become aware of the power of resonance to calm and connect on a minute-byminute basis as we move through the world.
We only feel dehumanized when we get trapped in the derogatory images of other people or thoughts of wrongness about ourselves. As author and mythologist Joseph Campbell suggested, “’What will they think of me?’ must be put aside for bliss.” We begin to feel this bliss when messages previously experienced as critical or blaming begin to be seen for the gifts they are: opportunities to give to people who are in pain.
Marshall B. Rosenberg
Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life
An Invitation to Resonance: The Practice of Nonviolent Communication
Batson. C. D. (2009). These things called empathy: Eight related by distinct phenomena. In J. Decety & W. Ickes. (Eds.). The social neuroscience of empathy. pp. 3-16. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Gonzales, R. (2010). Living the fullness of life. Retrieved from http://nvctraining.com/courses/telecourses/RG/fullnessof-life-201001/fullness.html
Porges, S. W. (2007). The polyvagal perspective. Biological Psychology, 74(2), 116-143. doi:10/1016/j.biopsycho.2006.06.009
Rameson, L. T., & Lieberman, J. D. (2009). Empathy: A social cognitive neuroscience approach. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3(1), 94–110. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9004.2008.00154.x
Rosenberg, M. B., & Gandhi, A. (2003). Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press.
Schore, A. N. (1999). Affect regulation and the origin of the self: The neurobiology of emotional development. London: Psychology Press.
Skye, S. (2010, February). The Living Energy of Needs. Paper presented at the Pacific Leadership and Training Program, Portland, OR.
Siegel, D. J. (2010). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York: Bantam.
Tabibnia, G. T., Lieberman, M. D., & Craske, M. G. (2008). The lasting effect of words on feelings: Words may facilitate exposure effects to threatening images. Emotion, 8, 307-317.