(Note: NVC is an abbreviation for Nonviolent Communication, a fluid, ever-evolving language process created by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. It is also sometimes referred to as Compassionate Communication, and is based on universal human feelings and needs, and making humble requests rather than demands.)
Today I phoned a close friend to ask a simple question. When she insisted on talking about a different topic altogether, and would not even listen to my question after three attempts asking it, I felt frustrated and irritated. Eventually I was able to give her several servings of empathy a la NVC, which also relieved all my frustration and irritation (which were linked to my judgments that she was ignoring me). It’s amazing how even when just one person gives lots and lots of pure NVC-style empathy, both people are served, and the emotional pain subsides quickly.
For those less familiar with NVC lingo, “Giraffe” means the language of connection and compassion, and “Jackal” means the language of moral judgment, criticism, diagnosis and evaluation. The conversation went like this:
STEVE: I just had a quick question to ask you, Jan…
JAN: You know, I got that email you sent the other day with the video of the super-wealthy health insurance executives denying coverage to people who will die without the coverage…
STEVE: Actually, I just want to ask you–
JAN: Steve, I don’t understand why those people who made the video are piddling around with an email request for $25, that’s not going to do anything!
STEVE: I guess they just want to spread awareness about a dead-serious problem. Can I ask you a quick question?
JAN: But that’s just stupid. They need to cut off the head of the snake!
STEVE (Irritated): What do you mean?
JAN: Well, there must be hundreds or thousands of policy holders who were denied life-saving treatments. They should all get organized and go together to the mansion where the fat cat lives, and tell him he can approve the coverage of their treatments, or they will get him fired. The guy has billions of dollars in stock options…
STEVE: (Jackal response: Are you out of your mind? Wait, remember your NVC skills!) Actual response: That sounds like a mob or gang mentality, it might work in Congo or Rwanda, but not here in the U.S. Then the sick people would have all kinds of legal problems, jail, police, etc.
JAN: It doesn’t make any sense for them NOT to do it. Or at least, one guy who is dying should sacrifice his life and just put the fat cat in his place, and demand all his money so he can help the others get the treatments they need. If the guy refuses, he should hurt him and then every other CEO that replaces him will think twice.
STEVE: (Jackal: Okay, now I can see that you’re so angry that your ideas are violent and maybe dangerous! I am tempted to speak angrily myself, but I want also to practice compassionate NVC communication.) Well, a lone vigilante guy might make a dramatic point in the press, but eventually he’d end up dying in prison.
JAN: They have to get rid of the fat cat, he’s the whole problem!
STEVE: It’s not just one cat, Jon, it’s a sort of hydra-headed cat. It’s the whole system in this country. He’d have to cut off a whole lotta heads of all the CEOs of insurance companies. And then what about the hospital administrators, big pharma CEOs, doctors, and the professional lobbyists they pay to fight for their interests?
JAN: They’re just piddling around with this email trying to raise some money, it won’t do shit. You know, Steve, I personally don’t give a shit about them, any of them!
STEVE: (Jackal: That sounds really callous! Where’s your sense of compassion? You need to learn some NVC yourself!) What do you mean you don’t care at all about any of them?
JAN: I mean, I don’t know any of them personally. Even if it was you or another neighbor who was dying from denied coverage, I wouldn’t even really care.
STEVE: (Jackal sarcasm: Sweet thought, thank you, you’re all heart!) I still don’t follow you, Jan. What if it happened to you?
JAN: Then, obviously, I would care because it affects me, and I’d find the fat cat guy and deal with him myself if he refused to help everyone out, including me.
STEVE: (Giraffe): So you are so deeply outraged that you’d actually want to do something to the guy, just to see some major changes in a hurry?
JAN: Damn straight I would! That’s the only way these bastards will listen and change.
STEVE: (Giraffe): So you really feel disturbed because you need fairness. You want to contribute to the well-being and health care of those people, and it’s so painful to see them out in the cold that you say you don’t care about any of them.
JAN: That’s right. I can’t even tell you, I was SO PISSED OFF when I saw that video, I wanted to tell the bastard off myself. Not one of those people should be suffering to death so these people can live in huge mansions and make selfish executive decisions.
STEVE: I hear ya, Jan. It is grossly unfair, and very painful to see.