Wednesday, August 5, 2015

NVC, Falconer Family Style

When James was two-and-a-half years old, I begged our minister to teach a class on non-violent communication (NVC) for parents. I hate the name of the communication style, even though I've discovered I admire its creator, Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, immensely. But a class on "non-violent communication" makes it sound like I'm going to rehab for beating my husband.

In fact, the premise is that much of the language we use is, inadvertently, tinged with violence and aggression, and words are very powerful things. James, at this age, was actively proving what a good friend said about the terrible twos - the terrible twos are only a "thing" because of the alliteration. Two is only the beginning, and the first half of two was a picnic compared to rapidly approaching three. I needed something to help me cope while he pushed every button he could. I was so grateful that Deane agreed to teach the class.

Side note: while I can't speak for other UU churches, at my church, our minister goes by his first name. I only call him Reverend Dr. Deane when I'm trying to be obnoxious...not that I have to try very hard. 

I wasn't the only one excited about the prospect of an NVC parenting class. Six or seven parents attended the weekly class regularly, which was comforting, because it meant I wasn't the only person ready to explode at home. Honestly, some of the information we swapped was even more important, especially on a practical level, than NVC: how to hide vegetables in other foods, for example. 

But we parents practiced the language component quite a bit, with each other and at our respective homes. It's a very different communication style than my naturally abrasive demeanor, but I do not believe that my natural state is an excuse to be a jerk to people, and I do care about people's feelings, so I did - and continue to - make my best effort at this. For those of you who have read the recent "jerk" post, you know my success rate is far from perfect.

Briefly, keeping in mind that I am neither Marshall Rosenberg nor someone who has studied this for decades, NVC is about identifying needs and finding ways to get those needs met. So, if my kid won't hold my hand while we are in a parking lot, and my inclination is to yell at him, why is that? What am I feeling? You might assume the answer would be "angry," and that my need is to have him follow the damned rules. But that's just glazing the surface, really. Underneath it all, I'm scared that he might get hurt, and my need is for him to be safe so I'm not overcome by that fear. But then, what's his need in that parking lot? His need is for exploration and burgeoning independence. These are significant needs that need to be met, also.

A slightly more complex example might be, I want to snap at my kid because he won't leave me alone. That means my need is to be left alone, right? Not necessarily. Once again, you have to dig deeper. Perhaps I'm feeling worried, or overwhelmed, or tired, and I have a need to finish a certain task, to lessen the list, or simply to get some more sleep. Perhaps I'm even feeling resentful, because my need is for some personal time. So the next step becomes, how to I convey this to my kid, find a way to meet this need and make myself feel calm, serene, energetic, and optimistic, instead, and somehow meet his needs, too? Then, it becomes my task as the NVC-aspiring parent to figure out what feelings and needs he's actually trying to express underneath it all. This involves a lot of repetition, parroting, and asking questions. For example, "I hear in your voice that you're upset and would really like me to do something different right now. Are you angry? (bored, lonely, annoyed, sad) ...can you tell me why you're angry? What could happen to make you not angry?" Ultimately, his need is probably for some quality time with me, though before having a decent grasp of NVC language, or of language at all, it might take a lot of patience and time to understand that clearly.

Once I've identified his feeling and his need, as well as my own, I, the adult, can try to figure out a way to get all of those needs met. This does not preclude the notion of him coming up with ideas, too - but when I started this path, his language development was much more limited than it is now. I can say, "James, I'm really scared right now because I'm afraid one of these big cars might not see you because you're smaller than me, and really hurt you on accident. I need you to be safe so that I'm not scared. I would be happy if you would hold my hand in the parking lot, but I know you want to do some things by yourself, too. So I would be comfortable with you not holding my hand on the sidewalk or in the store. How do you feel about that?" 

Or, in the case of the second example, I can say, "James, I'm sorry that I'm frustrated, I'm just feeling overwhelmed. I have to do (x,y,z) and I'm afraid I won't get it done, and I need to get it done. But I know you need me, too, and I also need to spend time with you. So, I would be happy if I got to do (x) right now, for ten minutes, and then we played for ten minutes, and then I did (y, z), and then we could wash the car together. That would all make me really happy. How does that sound to you?"

Honestly, I've found that if I can catch him before he's in meltdown mode, and figure out what the root of the discord in myself and in him are - the needs, as NVC puts it - Rosenberg's language techniques are very effective. James does respond to them, and even uses the language himself, more and more as he gets older. Sometimes I'm amazed at the introspection he achieves.

However, grasping the language and figuring out how to identify his own needs is one thing - an important step, but only one part of the process. The next step involves developing greater empathy, something that happens gradually in early childhood, and he also has to learn what some adults never quite figure out - the difference between a need and a want. After Warren and I both had been trying this NVC language for awhile, I got to hear James use it for the first time. 

He began, "Mom, I'm feeling sad." 

I was so excited - he identified a feeling before saying anything else! I responded, "Why are you sad, James? What do you need?"

"Well, Mom," he said gravely, "I'm sad because I don't have a cookie right now. And I need a cookie. If I had a cookie, I would feel very happy. So, how can we make that happen?" 

I was speechless for a moment. He stared at me expectantly. I tried really hard to stifle my giggles, and was proud of myself for succeeding. After all, I had to take his pain seriously, right? But I struggled with what to say. Did I take the time to explain the difference between a want and a need? Did I try to teach him anything about addiction to sugar? Did I suggest watermelon or yogurt instead?

Nope, none of the above. "Gee, James, I guess I'm sad because I don't have a cookie, either. Let's go get some cookies together."

Boom! Language processed, needs met, path to childhood obesity achieved, all in one sentence. Yay for my version of NVC!


  1. James sounds almost exactly like a young boy I know named Spudly Dave. Similarities frightening and awe inspiring. Loving your new blog, Baby Jessica.