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Facing the "Difficult" Person

Somewhere along the way whether in agencies, communities, the workplace, or even in your own family you have likely encountered one or more people that you thought were difficult if not impossible.  You consider their thinking and behavior to be shockingly inconsiderate, disrespectful, or small-minded.

Many times I have heard students of mine describing this scenario and saying, "I don't think NVC works in this kind of situation.  You can't connect to this kind of person."

I get suspicious whenever I hear the phrase "NVC works".  Hearing yourself say this you might examine if you have gone into thinking that NVC is about getting people to be "reasonable" and collaborate with you.  Hopefully creating connection does lead to collaboration, but when someone doesn't respond to your attempts to connect, it doesn't mean NVC is failing or you are failing.

Sometimes folks just don't choose to connect with you.  You could analyze these folks and why they are so "difficult", but you don't need to.  The really important question is what do you do in response to their choice?

You can't make someone connect with you, but you can choose to stay connected to yourself.  Making this choice is NVC. 

The first step is often just naming and watching your own rage, indignation, and shock.  Let yourself watch the jackal show.  Before you vent to your friend about this, name it for what it is:  "This is my jackal show.  I think this person is...!"

The next step is acknowledging your own hurt and sadness around not being met with consideration and respect. 

Then it is about naming what you really care about in that situation.  Reacting is deciding what to do based on what someone else does.  Responding is deciding what to do based on your own needs and values.  You don't have the support of this person in meeting needs, so you may have to change your strategies, but you don't give up on the needs.

As the initial shock and anger fades and you become centered again in your needs and your approach to meeting them, a little more space in your heart may open.  You can choose to dissolve your enemy images of this person in that space. 

Holding anger in your heart disconnects you from yourself and saps your energy.  Anger's purpose is to get you to attend to what's happening. Once it has served that purpose, it's not useful to hang out in it.

Reflecting on this person from a more full heart you might be able to remember that they have feelings and needs.  You might be able to picture them and see behind the exterior into a sense of vulnerability, fear, or pain.  Having compassion for this person, does NOT mean you accept their behavior or stop working to meet the needs alive for you.  It simply means that you do your work in a different state of mind, body, and heart.

Take a moment now to notice if there is someone in your life for whom you are holding anger towards.  Go through the steps above.  Begin by letting yourself feel that anger and then ask it what it wants you to notice, take care of, or be mindful of.  Often anger, just wants you to be clear about continuing to take care of yourself and meet needs as they arise.

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Analyzing Your Partner's Needs

15 Responses

  1. Nov 06, 2010

    Thanks for your reflections. The needs that motivate this comment and question are: respect for others, clarity, and effectiveness.

    I am uncomfortable with a part of the process near the end, when you write about transforming an enemy image: "You might be able to picture them and see behind the exterior into a sense of vulnerability, fear, or pain," and presumably you might also be able to see that the strategies this person uses tend to make it difficult for them to get their vulnerability, fear, or pain acknowledged, accepted, and addressed. The background assumption that accounts for these observations is that the person is not evil, but simply inept at choosing strategies that are likely to meet their needs, that they stand next to us NVC students as unenlightened, ignorant, hopeless, scared slaves of their emotions. In other words, leaving it at "you might be able to see ... a sense of vulnerability, fear, or pain" is just as dehumanizing as the enemy image it seeks to redress, slipping easily into pathologizing and pitying the other from the vantage point of a superior evaluator rather than a compassionate peer.

    Here's my question: how do we deconstruct an enemy image in a way that leaves us with a whole being, a peer with as much personal agency as we attribute to ourselves, rather than an inept, ignorant, scared, vulnerable thing around which we must tread carefully as light-hooved giraffes around a den of sleeping jackals?

  2. Nov 07, 2010

    Hi Lashelle and James

    I came in here to comment and share an experience I had with anger yesterday that I thought might contribute, and then I read your words,James, and the need that comes up as I comment now, is accuracy first-

    When I read these words...:
    "that they stand next to us NVC students as unenlightened, ignorant, hopeless, scared slaves of their emotions." I am asking myself: where did Lashelle say that? And correct me if I'm wrong, that's an interpretation if I ever saw one! My need for accuracy is not met. Still I'm struggling to hear your feelings and I think I'm hearing frustration from you, am I right?
    Clearly your words hit some nerve of mine, otherwise why would I be reacting?mmmm. Personally I see myself just as scared and vulnerable as the next person, wanting connection and understanding.

    I agree that sometimes, we students get into these pitfalls that can create an air of superiority, and judgments of who's doing it "right or wrong".

    mmmm Lashelle, I feel confused and wondering if you can help here.

    What I was about to say is that yesterday, in my peer group of Biosynthesis, which is a body oriented psychotherapy system I am learning, I chose to respond, not react, after noticing anger come up at two fellow students who were talking and not letting me here what the teacher was saying. I did a lot if inner work, noticed how easily I could either put a wall between us, or move, but that would just leave me feeling horrible and seeing them as an enemy. Instead I turned to them and said, girls I feel anger coming up for me and I want to stay connected to you, because I really like both of you, and I think that talking answers some need that you have, would you be willing to consider some other ways to meet those needs, cause I really want to learn!It felt really good, first and foremost for me!And the situation resolved itself easily after that. I wasn't being superior I was being clear. what a relief!

    Would appreciate your thoughts

    In Friendship Yael

  3. Nov 07, 2010

    Thank you for your response, Yael. To know that there is a community of learners engaging in these questions together meets my needs for collaboration and shared vision. Oh, and yes, I was feeling frustrated and disgusted because the way I was understanding certain tenets of NVC led me to infer certain unsavory background assumptions of the system that tend to go unacknowledged by NVC students--namely, an undermining of personal agency. Let's see if I can make it clearer:

    Indeed Lashelle never mentioned anything about non-NVC students as "slaves to their emotions," so if I had meant it as a paraphrasing of Lashelle's words, it would definitely have been inaccurate. However, I meant it as an inference drawn from some fundamental ideas of NVC. Here's what I'm thinking:

    One of the most often cited benefits of NVC is an expanded sense of freedom, since it allows us to see our actions as personally motivated by needs within, rather than coerced by external influences (i.e. "responding" instead of "reacting," or giving out of a need for contribution rather than to fulfill a moral obligation). Also, distinguishing between needs and strategies reveals more options than one previously thought viable (e.g. an intimate relationship is only one strategy of many to meet a diverse range of needs; once we see this, we feel more FREE because we no longer see our needs as tethered to external things we cannot control).

    Now, insofar as we believe these NVC ideas about freedom, we tacitly embrace their inverses as well: that those who do NOT distinguish between needs and strategies, or react instead of responding, or see themselves as giving out of moral obligation and not a need for contribution, are less free than NVC students who do. Lashelle did not say this, no, but it can be inferred from those very basic NVC ideas about freedom. In deconstructing an enemy image, then, we are said to reconceptualize the other as a peer-being who has the same needs as we do and would choose different strategies to meet them if only he/she were aware of the needs/strategy distinction, able to respond rather than react, etc. In other words, in order to exchange an enemy image for a kindred soul image, we assume that people WOULD act out of an NVC consciousness if only they COULD; we assume that NVC decision-making procedures would be universally preferred if only they were universally known. Again, you will not find this formulation of NVC theory in NVC discourse (and this selective attention is what I am objecting to), but I see it as easily inferred from other statements that are explicitly discussed (see above on freedom). It discredits or at least belittles the personal agency of non-NVC students, which I believe is perfectly acceptable and true, albeit a perhaps unsavory idea, but I am frustrated and disgusted when I do not see it acknowledged in NVC discourse because I have a need for transparency. Would you be willing to acknowledge that by claiming an expanded sense of freedom for its practitioners and deconstructing enemy images by assuming that people would act differently if only they knew how (as NVC students are more apt to do), NVC implicitly discredits or at least belittles the personal agency of others?

    To expand this into a larger context and illuminate a related way in which the NVC system puts pressure on the idea of agency, recall that Marshall himself distinguishes between his "chooser" and his "self" (Audio CD: Giraffe Fuel for Life). There seems to be a strange tension in NVC between the expanded sense of freedom it affords its practitioners, the theoretical constructs of self vs. "chooser" (as if the self were NOT free because sometimes it is overruled by this mystical "chooser"), and the process by which enemy images are deconstructed to reveal other non-NVC practitioners who are incapable of choosing (read: NOT FREE to choose) non-violent ways of getting their "vulnerability, fear, or pain" acknowledged, accepted, and addressed, as NVC users are more able to do.

    Thanks again for your engagement,

  4. Nov 07, 2010

    You wrote:
    "but I am frustrated and disgusted when I do not see it acknowledged in NVC discourse because I have a need for transparency."
    I sense that underneath all of this is a need for authenticity, that's not being met when you consider all of the above, something is really getting to you! Wow, it's strong, and it's something that I have heard from a lot of people, who feel outraged, that something is fake, in other words, about NVC, does that sound true for you?
    In any case, my perspective and experience is this: NVC is a tool, that assists me when I am able and courageous enough to use it. Yet it has also in a strange kind of way, sometimes, dis-connected instead of connected me to in that sense I agree with you.But I think it has to do with my situation,my history, tendencies, etc and not NVC.
    Yet,as my little story from yesterday shows, even though it wasn't NVC, by the book, so to speak, it definitely freed ME from my anger and myself, and a painful scenario. The best I can do, is be responsible for myself, you know? And show as much Empathy as a I can, when it's sincere.

    Marshall says: It takes only one person to create a change, a transformation. I believe this. Let's take responsibility for our choices. The rest is really not up to us.

    Wishing you well

  5. Nov 07, 2010


    Thanks for your empathy guess, but no, I do not believe there is anything "fake" in the interpersonal connection that is possible when we apply a sincere NVC consciousness in our dealings with ourselves and others. The closest I can come to calling NVC "fake," if this helps you understand my concerns, is that within the NVC discourse, certain theoretical commitments become obfuscated or simply go unacknowledged. The one I was pointing out in my last post was personal agency. I have to say I'm a little confused and disappointed because I have a need to be understood and I'm having trouble seeing how your response addresses the argument I put forth in my previous comment.

    It seems you have shifted the focus from the theoretical commitments of the NVC system to its practice without acknowledging or disputing the tensions I described among NVC's various approaches to personal agency (freedom). I am wondering if you have made this shift because it is more important to you to get what you can out of NVC as a "tool" than it is to examine its implicit underpinnings, and you see the two as in conflict? In other words, are you worried that if you examine NVC in the same way I have it will undermine whatever needs of yours are met by practicing NVC? For myself, I believe that the theoretical tensions I raised do not undermine the practical application of NVC, and in fact strengthen it by making its practitioners more aware the larger ideology in which it is embedded (namely a situativist conception of human character: people aren't good or bad, but are conditioned to respond to certain environments in ways that we then label "good" or "bad" after the fact). Maybe you disagree and believe my mode of inquiry really does undermine the practice of NVC. Either way, would you be willing to re-read my second-to-last paragraph and respond to the request I made at the end of it (either dispute or acknowledge my claims about NVC and freedom)?

    And just as a side-comment: you suggested we "take responsibility for our choices." What do you think this means in the context of Marshall's distiction between his self and his "chooser"? For example, he says things like "I really wanted to ______, but my chooser chose to _______ because of a need for ______" (paraphrase from Giraffe Fuel for Life). If there is a chooser that is distinct from the self and with more volitional force, then what do you really mean by "take responsibility for our choices"?

    Thanks for the discussion!

  6. Nov 08, 2010

    Hi James

    No I don't see any conflict between the theoretical discussion and practice of NVC, and yes personally, with so much going on in my personal life, the "how it can help me" from moment to moment, in my personal development, and relationships, is more urgent.

    I'm afraid I am not familiar with the 'chooser' terminology, ( maybe it hasn't reached Israel yet (-:.) What I meant is when I use NVC I am aware I am making a conscious choice, and that I take responsibility for my needs, my feelings, and how I express these. Is that any clearer?

    I may not be understanding you completely, in which case I apologize. And yes, when time allows it I will re-read what you wrote and try my best to address the issue again.

    Meanwhile I'm anxious to hear what you think, Lashelle...

    Best from Yael

  7. Nov 10, 2010

    Well, I have all your posts here. I appreciate that you both care about having clarity in how we express ourselves and hold others.

    Hmm, do I hold a sense of superiority because of an inverse of the NVC framework? Is this the question? Sure, I think somtimes superiority jackals get the best of me, that's a form of reactivity.

    When I am in a centered compassionate space I simply notice that we all suffer in different ways and we all release ourselves from suffering in different ways. When I imagine someone is suffering as I did for the "difficult person" in this gem, I also imagine they want release from that suffering, that like me, they long to be happy. Maybe the critical distinction here it that I don't imagine I know the "best" way for that person to find relief from suffering. Every person must find their own way.

    I hope this addresses what you are saying. Let me know.

  8. Nov 10, 2010

    Thank you Lashelle.

    I agree with you.


  9. Nov 12, 2010

    Ah, thank you; that does shed some light on it. The NVC practitioner does not believe he/she knows the BEST way to relieve suffering because she/he recognizes that there are many effective ways to do so. If you're willing, I'd like to push a little further here to see if we can acknowledge together some parts of NVC that are not usually acknowledged: while we do not assume we have the BEST way to relieve suffering, I would argue that we do assume we have a BETTER way than the self-perpetuating jackal habits into which most people are culturally socialized (right-or-wrong thinking, quick reactivity, obligation/duty, feelings caused by extrinsic forces and not intrinsic needs, etc.). When you hear someone express a need for love and consideration by shouting an accusation such as "You're so hostile!" I can't imagine us thinking, "oh, that's just their way of relieving suffering; everyone must find their own way; they've got theirs, I've got mine, and neither is better than the other." Rather, we would think something closer to "If only that person knew how to connect to their needs and express them in a way that was easier for others to hear and respond to compassionately." The point I would like acknowledged here is that even if NVC practitioners do not assume they know BEST, they DO assume they know BETTER than such folks. Indeed, there would be no reason to offer workshops or run websites such as this one if this assumption were not in effect (right?).

    But this does not mean, as I previously implied it did, that we therefore dehumanize or pathologize the person who struggles in jackal mode to get their needs met; rather, we simply acknowledge that while their social-emotional faculties are not as well equipped as ours are to get needs met, they (a) are fully capable of learning social-emotional skills and (b) certainly have other skills and knowledge that we do not have. This is parallel to a math teacher who acknowledges his/her students' ineptitude at math, but believes (a) that they can improve and (b) that their ineptitude at math does not undermine their worth as a person. We should note, though, that it is much easier for a math teacher to do this than it is for an NVC practitioner because math does not play as big a role as do the social-emotional faculties in the formation of personal/social identity, outlook on life, values, beliefs, and all the other things that seem to make us who we are.

    LaShelle, your response has clarified some things, and I hope mine has as well. Given what I've said above, would you be willing to acknowledge that NVC practitioners believe they have a BETTER way of getting needs met than the culturally imposed jackal habits enacted by most other people, even if they do not believe they necessarily have the BEST way?

    Thanks again,

  10. Nov 16, 2010

    Sure, NVC is a better way to get needs met than jackal habits. It's a bit circular to say that though. I guess it comes down to a fundamental premise in NVC that being in connection with life allows us to meet our needs in harmony with the needs of others. This is a premise beyond the syntactical skills of NVC, to me this is the consciousness of NVC, and what I teach, cultivate, and support. And so I believe that when I or anyone is disconnected there is suffering.

    Are we still on the same page? Did I connect to what you are saying? :)

  11. Nov 24, 2010

    Yes, thank you!

  12. Nov 25, 2010

    I think I know what you are saying... I have sometimes felt that some of the assumptions of NVC could be a little patronising to people who do not practise it (is this what concerns you?) When you talk about a belief that one has a way of relating to one's emotions that is superior I think this can apply to many different therapeutic approaches (if that is what NVC is!!). For example, having had a lot of cognitive therapy I sometimes find myself thinking "Why can't so-and-so just question some of their underlying beliefs or thoughts about the situation. Then they wouldn't be in so much pain!" This jackal thinking lead me to feel a little ashamed of myself for judging someone in such a way and thinking I know better than they do how to deal with stuff. I think however such thoughts, as well/including believing that NVC practioners have superior ways to get their needs met, draw what could be considered a false (or overstated) distinction between ourselves as 'practioners' and others. I see it as the ego seeking to strengthen itself by making arbitrary distinctions between oneself and others, therefore adding to one's sense of superiority and thus unfortunately isolation (we cannot really feel superior and connected at the same time), as the ego likes to do. I haven't really expressed this in NVC language but I hope that this makes sense or adds a different perspective.
    In relation to LaChelle's last comment, I suppose that if one was coming from true NVC consciousness that sense of superiority or distinction between self as NVC practioner (or any other category) and 'other' wouldn't be there or wouldn't be a problem, since when coming from this sort of consciousness categorsing and judging thoughts tend to drop away. Therefore these thoughts or assumptions are not so much a product of NVC practice but of a lack of compassionate connection (which could be developed though practise of NVC as one possible but by no means the only method, and sometimes just arises naturally anyway in all people- its not exclusively a result of any particular practise)
    Let me know what you think...!

  13. Dec 04, 2010


    Yes, thanks for that. I'm taking away two main ideas from what you've said, and thinking about them more, I find I agree. First, if we are truly thinking and acting out of an NVC consciousness, then the question of who can better relate to his/her emotions fades away as irrelevant, which means feelings of superiority don't even have a chance to arise. I suppose they would also fail to arise simply because the distinction between self and other would be all but disintegrated in a strong compassionate connection, as you say. Second, the sharp distinction I implied between NVC practitioner and others stands on shakier ground than I presumed. Indeed there are times when my thoughts are really no more NVC-like than the so-called non-NVC other. Maybe the key to regaining connection in those moments when our NVC training clashes with the jackal habits of others is to remember that we, too, think and act just like them at times, and are therefore not so different. Thanks again!

  14. Dec 05, 2010

    ...and that we are all humans doing (hopefully) , the best we can

  15. Dec 16, 2010

    Very interesting!
    I am new to this terminology and NVC in general and yet, Yael's idea stated in the last post - "...that we are all humans doing (hopefully) the best we can" - has helped me SO often to be compassionate with myself and others.
    Thanks to all of you for helping to make this a more loving and compassionate living experience for all of us on planet Earth.

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