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Basic Guidelines for Dialogue

One of the first things I do in working with a couple is slow the conversation down.

Most people think that more words mean more understanding. In an intimate relationship where emotion is often high, more words mean more to react to. More reaction means less listening.

Take for example, Adrian and Chris. Adrian expresses to Chris, "I feel like you're so controlling. You treat me like a child about money. Every time I come home you ask me how much I spent. Meanwhile you are off making huge purchases for work and not even telling me. You don't trust me about money, but you want me to trust you. I want to be treated like an adult!"

In the space of 15 seconds Adrian has made four accusations against Chris. Adrian has also has made the problem seem all pervasive by not naming a specific instance and by using the phrase "every time". How well do you think Chris can hear Adrian's feelings and needs? My guess is that Chris is preparing to defend her position.

Three basic rules are helpful for communicating with your partner around difficult issues.

  • One, talk about one event at a time. There may be many instances where you have been frustrated about money, but you can only talk about one event at a time and really be heard. State the event in observational terms (what happened, when, where).
  • Two, make it about you. Name the event and then name your feelings and needs. "Last night when I went shopping and you asked me how much I spent, I felt indignant and disappointed because I want trust and mutuality in our relationship."
  • Three, make a specific request about what you want. "Last night when I went shopping and you asked me how much I spent, I felt indignant and disappointed because I need trust and mutuality in our relationship. Would you be willing to tell me what was up for you when you asked me that? Or Would you be willing to tell me what you just understood me to say?"

The classical structure of NVC - "When I saw, heard, imagined. . . , I feel. . ., because I need. . . Would you be willing to . . . ?" - is quite simple and at the same time, quite revolutionary.

This simple structure is asking you not only to reveal your heart, but to do so without any justification, story, blame, or judgment - all the strategies you use to feel a little safer when expressing pain.

In addition to revealing your heart, NVC is asking you to take full responsibility for your feelings and needs and then to trust that the other person can receive you with compassion.  When they don't meet you with compassion, it is up to you to continue to honor your feelings and needs.  NVC asks a lot. It asks for a level of courage, self-awareness, self-acceptance, and responsibility that mainstream culture discourages. No wonder this stuff is so hard.

This week, notice your impulse to defend, justify, or explain.  Interrupt yourself and take a breath,  Then practice the skill of expressing one observation, feeling, and need at a time in just a couple of sentences and ask your partner or significant other to say back what they understood you to say.

Next Gem
Equanimity with Painful Feelings
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Asking for Presence


1 Response

  1. Jan 06, 2011

    Imortant and useful post, thanks. also a concise reminder of what NVC is ( or isn't (-:)\thanks, I'm going to share this on FB

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