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In a Mucky Conversation come back to Observation

Ever been in a meeting where someone is offering a monologue of opinions and ideas?

You might have had a thought like, "This guy wants to control everyone and he's wasting our time giving his opinions without even knowing what's going on."

In Nonviolent Communication you can come back to four points of connection:  observation, feelings, needs, and requests.  If an interaction starts to go sideways, you can come back to any of these four points to help create connection again.

The element called observation in NVC means getting clear about the event you are talking about.  When you can refer to the situation or event in neutral terms you can start a dialogue with clarity.  However, this isn't always as easy as it sounds.  Interpretation seems to follow perception at the speed of light.  This makes it easy to confuse what happened with what you made it mean.

Often when you ask someone what happened in a particular situation you get one of the responses below:


  • An evaluation of good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, pleasant or unpleasant, etc.
  • A judgment about what should or shouldn't have happened
  • An analysis or about why it happened
  • An interpretation about what happened
  • A story about past related events
  • Predictions about what might happen
  • A justification for why it happened
  • Labeling of what someone is or is not
  • Blaming someone for what happened
  • Exaggeration or deletion of key facts

These are not observations. When you've asked someone what happened and they answer in one of these ways, you might have noticed yourself feeling uncomfortable. My guess is because you value giraffe honesty. A part of giraffe honesty is being able to say what happened without including all the stuff your mind makes of it or at least naming your interpretations when you express them.

Let's go back to the meeting with the person who is in a monologue.  Imagine this person is expressing about a recent decision to lay off 15 employees.  Her expression might sound something like this, "We just haven't been running things in an efficient way.  If we had had a financial meeting at the beginning of the quarter like I suggested this wouldn't have happened.  I want to bring in a consultant I know.  She says..."  If you aren't careful, you might get sucked into to this and start offering your own opinions about why it happened and what you or others should have done.  In my experience, these kinds of conversations feel like walking around in the muck and getting nowhere. 

You can interrupt and get out of this muck by steering the conversation back to the observation.  Move to observation by asking any of the basic observation questions: Who? What? Where? When? How long? How often? (Notice Why? is NOT in this list.) You might interrupt and say something like:

"Hang on, I am wanting to make sure we are all on the same page about the facts of the situation before we go into ideas about it.  What are the facts about the layoff?  How long is it?  Over what period of time will it occur?  Who is being considered?"

From here you can move to feelings and needs and then requests or strategies to meet those needs related specifically to this situation.  You may be able to skip analysis, evaluation, and blame completely.

This week notice if you are in a conversation where you start feel lost or fuzzy headed.  Ask yourself if you are clear about the actual events to which you and the other person are responding.  If there are several events or situations up at once, name that, and decide to which you want to respond first.


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You don't have to agree to be supportive
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Apologies That Mean Something

1 Response

  1. Apr 14, 2010


    Thanks for using a realistic work related example, in your Mucky Conversations gem. It helps me see where I have weaknesses.
    I often find myself wanting some effort from the other person which never seems forthcoming in tense situations,
    and feel exasperated and then drained of wanting to take responsibility for the direction of the conversation.

    Do you have any suggestions about how to stay strong willed and positive, even helpful....I don't even know if this is a very good idea. Sometimes I want very much to show how I am really feeling but at work, I don't.

    I think I am needing camaraderie, to be part of the team, but I feel very alone instead, as hard as I am trying.

    This is what is true for me, can you relate to that in one of your gems, I don't know another way to follow up.


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