She looks at her watch and says in annoyed tone: “You are home late, again! You always come home late! Do you have to go to the Gym after work every day?”
His reply is defensive: “Yes, I do! That’s the only time I have to myself. You don’t ask me for permission to have your hair done or your nails! You like to go into work early at least three or four times a week and I always have to take the kids to school instead of going to the Gym.”
She retorts angrily: “You make it sound as if I only think of myself but I am working full time like you and I am sitting home alone with the kids, every night after I have run them around to their classes. You never help me! Once in a while, you could come home earlier and make dinner for everybody!”
It is so ingrained in most of us to have conversations, like the one above, in which one or both people get defensive and feel attacked due to us using generalized critical statements and blaming each other. When we do not feel safe in a conversation, our fight or flight response sets in. We either attack, or we withdraw and shut down. Despite the anger on the surface, deep down both partners long for nothing more than a safe space to connect and express how they feel underneath the anger.
When I introduce my clients to the four steps of NVC, based on Marshall Rosenberg’s work, they seem so easy and straightforward:
- Bring up the situation you want to talk about without blame and in a neutral way. You could state what you have NOTICED.
- Use I statements to share how you FEEL.
- Explain your NEEDS, desires, fears or values that are at the base of these feelings.
- Make a concrete REQUEST of what you want from the other person.
Communicating using these four steps is like training completely new muscles. Let’s look at how we can change patterns of defending, withdrawing and attacking, using our example. What are the needs of both parents? She has the need for support; he has the need for alone time. They both have the need for recognition of what they do.
Based on those needs what do they feel? She feels alone and unsupported, he feels controlled. They both feel unappreciated.
Before you read on below, put yourself in her shoes and using the four steps of non-violent communication outlined above find a more successful way of expressing her feelings, explaining her needs, and finishing with a concrete request made to her husband. Remember to make neutral observations free of judgments in regards to him going to the Gym. Then use “I” statements which reflect that she is taking responsibility for her own feelings. Nobody makes us feel a certain way. Our feelings are a result of the meaning we give our perceptions. Next help her express her needs, values or desires which are at the root of her feelings. End with a request that can be negotiated between the partners.
Here is one possible way for her to communicate using the four steps of NVC and a calm neutral tone:
“I have NOTICED (step 1) that you tend to go to the gym after work and by the time you come home, the kids need to go to bed.
I FEEL (step 2) a bit left alone when you come home late almost every night.
I WOULD LIKE to (step 3) spend more family time with you and the kids.
WOULD YOU BE WILLING (step 4) to come home earlier once or twice a week, so we can spend more time together?”
But, let’s not forget that he also has feelings and needs. How can we help him express his side of the situation? He could for example say:
“I FEEL (step 2) that I only have time after work to exercise.
I NEED (step 3) to have some alone time. I also FEEL (step 2) unappreciated and taken for granted when I give my gym time in the morning up to take the kids to school. I really appreciate that you work full-time and run the kids to their after-school activities.” (He has recognized they both feel unappreciated and is giving her the appreciation they both need.)
Step 4 is negotiating her request: “I am willing to come home early on Tuesdays and Thursdays if you can commit to taking them to school the next morning? I WOULD also sometimes LIKE to hear that you appreciate what I do.”
Now it is up to her to respond, to acknowledge what he does for the family and to perhaps make a concrete request to cook dinner once a week. If one of the partners is struggling to connect with their feelings and the needs underneath, the other one can help by asking, “I am wondering if you feel…?” or saying “Do you perhaps have a need for…?” and offering, “Let me know how I can help you get what you need.”
Implementing a process like NVC takes patience and practice because most of us have never learned that our needs matter, how to connect with our more vulnerable feelings underneath our anger and to express our needs without blame or judgement.
To learn more about expressing our needs you can contact
for individual sessions or to take the Shadow Energetics Workshops
For 2016 workshop dates and locations go to Upcoming Workshops.
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