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Threat & Trust

In an ideal world you could express your feelings and needs and negotiate to find a new way to move forward.  In a less ideal world you encounter people who haven't heard anyone express an emotion or need or request without blame, judgment, and manipulation.  The idea that you are attempting to take responsibility for your own feelings and needs by expressing them directly and making specific requests is foreign and quite unbelievable.  In this case, your most thoughtful expression is perceived as an attack.  The more you express vulnerably, the more it sounds like an attack or manipulation, the more reactive the other person becomes.

This is one of those times when you might be tempted to say NVC doesn't work.  As far as the structure is concerned, you would be right.  Zooming out to the bigger picture of NVC consciousness, you start over again with the foundational question;  "What's creating connection and what's not creating connection?"

Sharing your observation, feelings, needs, and requests, for most cultures and communities, is an unusual and intimate act.  If there isn't a container of trust and understanding for you expression to land in, then everything you do may be perceived as possible manipulation or attack.  What's worse is that in the face of the other person's reaction, you often find yourself doing exactly what the other person thought you would do.  Ugh, what a mess.

If you are not sure whether or not you have built the necessary trust and understanding in a given relationship, you can watch for these signs in the other person that your attempt to communicate was received as judgment or manipulation:

  • Minimizing:  Oh it was no big deal.  Just forget about it.  Come on that didn't really bother you.  I didn't mean anything by that.

  • Dismissing:  Why are you having such a big reaction?!  You are so sensitive.  You don't even know what you're talking about.  Nothing is ever good enough for you.  You want everything to be perfect.

  • Defending:  I was just trying to make a joke.  I am not trying to hurt you.  I am not…   Can't I just say things without you having a problem.

  • Attacking:  You're the one who…  Oh yea, well you….   It's always about you, you're so selfish.

  • Body reactions:  Looking away, walking away, remaining silent, flush in the face, tightening jaw muscles, heavy sigh, arms folded across the chest

When one or more of these things happen, your first impulse might be to push forward so that you are properly understood.  It's painful to be misperceived and you want to fix it.  You want the other person to see your good intention and you also want something to change whatever  hasn't worked for you.  You might push forward offering empathy or more honest expression and trigger more reactivity.

A couple of things are helpful to remember here.  First, once someone is triggered, it takes times for physiology to find it's way back to balance.  In a reactive state, the other person literally has lost access to the mindful compassionate receiving for which you were looking.  Second, a reaction like the ones mentioned above tells you that you don't have enough trust with this person.  He or she perceives you as a potential threat, at least in that moment.

Understanding this, you have a decision to make.  Do you want to do what's required to earn this person's trust so that your relationship can hold honest and empathic connection?  If you don't, you might move towards setting boundaries that indicate you are in a distant relationship with this person.  If this person does something to violate that boundary, you establish it not through an expression of feelings, needs and requests, but rather through simple statements like:  "No thank you, I don't want to do that."  "No, I don't want to talk about."  "That doesn't work for me."  etc.  You might also establish a boundary with lack of eye contact and maintaining physical distance.

If you are committed to building trust with this person, you start with acknowledging what's happening in the moment, grieving for what you thought would happen or wish was happening, and looking for ways to connect and communicate unmet needs or met needs that are at the level of vulnerability this person can tolerate.  As trust builds, you will both begin sharing more directly and vulnerably and be able to stay connected.

The tough thing here is that sometimes you want to connect with someone who has had so many violent experiences in life that trust building moves at a glacial pace.  It's important to keep checking in with your commitment to connection.  If obligation or fear are driving your decision to pursue the connection, it's pretty difficult to build trust.  Truly choosing connection means checking in with your heart moment after moment and noticing if it's alive for you.


Take a moment now to reflect on a relationship in which you struggle to be heard in way you would like.  As you think about interacting with this person and attempting to connect, what do you notice in your body and heart?  Is there a sense of contraction indicative of fear or obligation?  Or do you find a warmth and tune into your reason for wanting to connect?  What's really authentic for you in continuing in this relationship?


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4 Responses

  1. Apr 11, 2015
    Katherine Sri

    Hi LaShelle
    This gem was so helpful and timely for me. I have just come back from some contact with my ex-partner and was feeling sad and had experienced our connection as 'murky' and 'polite'. At one point he lied to me and when I pointed out the evidence that this was not the truth, he made no comment. I realise that trust is key for me. The above gem accurately describes a lot of our communication patterns when we were in relationship. I feel sadness around this. I am yearning for mutual authenticity, trust and caring in a partner relationship. Thank you for assisting me with more clarity.

  2. Apr 12, 2015

    Thank you for this post - so wise and kind. It helps me understand why being authentic and vulnerable can be a threat in some situations and relationships. And gives me a new ground from which to assess further interactions in those situations - based on information from my body's intelligence. To trust that the contraction is a cue to readjust my boundaries.

  3. Apr 12, 2015

    Your welcome Kathy. Yeah, it's painful when you care for someone and there isn't the opportunity to connect in the way you would like.

  4. Apr 12, 2015

    Your welcome Nancy, I am so glad to be of support.

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