Connecting with NVC Consciousness: It’s Not in the Words

I appreciate Emma’s comment and question to my post, “Sounds like NVC, Must be NVC …?” Emma expresses frustration at how easy it can be to find oneself simply masking old, habitual thinking in new NVC language, with very unsatisfactory results. She asks for recommendations on how to stay in the consciousness of NVC rather than just focusing on the mechanics and speaking tools. Yay!

Sometimes I feel pretty lonely with my story that there aren’t many people who want to explore at this level, Emma, even people who train NVC. I’m noticing pleasure and hopefulness as I read what you wrote. It nurtures my confidence that others do resonate with these ideas, which inspires me to keep exploring. Thanks for reaching out. I’ve got some ideas that I hope you’ll enjoy playing with.

My sweetheart and partner, Conal, and I like simple tests that help us stay centered and connected. One that we found works well is to ask, “Heart open, or heart closed?” When I have one of those frustrated “This is not working!” moments, I like to take a moment to breathe and actually place my hands near my heart, fingers of each hand pointing loosely towards each other in a protective position over my chest. I move my hands apart in an opening gesture and check in with what I’m hearing or telling myself and ask, “heart open?” and then back to closed position, “or heart closed?” My body usually gives me a pretty clear sense of whether I’m in that connected, life-serving place of “heart open” or not. If the answer is “closed,” then I need to take a moment for reflection of what is alive in me or the other person(s) that will rekindle (or just plain kindle) my inspiration.

While I’m reflecting, I like to remember that I don’t have to struggle for empathy or to force compassion within myself in order to “do NVC right.” In fact, any attachment to getting it right just trips me up. I do much better when I flow with what is–what really is, especially if it ain’t pretty. If I’m too triggered and wound up to find a truly empathic space for the other person, many times what works for me is radical honesty about where I’m at, emotionally and with whatever stories I’m running. In most cases, vulnerably sharing intimate details about what’s truly alive in me (without blame or criticism and in a way that makes clear I take responsibility for my stuff) gets me to that yummy, melty place of open-hearted compassion and connection.

Now, a word of caution, you may find that you’ll have happier results if you do any potentially triggering parts of your radical honesty process internally. Unless the other person is a skilled empathic listener, speak only when you have gotten relief from critical inner judges and in touch with the life-serving needs in you and them. That will increase your chances of the other person being able to hear you without freaking out.

Another idea to nurture NVC consciousness is to move focus away from the standard NVC formula for speaking. I have heard Marshall himself say over and over (and over and over!), “It’s not the words, it’s the consciousness that matters.” I have watched people in our classes connecting with each other beautifully, to the point of happy tears and hugging each other, using words that I personally could not have heard without being triggered. They were in their own little world of happiness and joyful giving for each other. The words didn’t matter. Each of them knew the other’s heart was completely open and flowing in compassion. That was a great lesson for me as someone sharing and teaching NVC: Gee, Marshall is right, it’s not in the words! Duh.

I agree with you, Emma, that, when my consciousness is in touch with the world of universal needs and compassion for myself and others, I do not have to work hard at figuring out what to say. If my thinking is stuck in old habits of judgment and blame, then no amount of struggling for the “right words” is going to get me to the yummy place where I become a joyful collaborator with others in working to get all needs met. By using NVC-sounding language I might get some relief and stave off a total relationship meltdown, but I’d be doing myself and others a disservice to believe that I had expressed the fullness of NVC consciousness in doing so.

That said, I do think that language influences our consciousness (as well as vice versa), and there are certainly words and ways of speaking that do not nurture and inspire compassion in me. What I’ve found useful about language that supports NVC consciousness is learning what our typically ouchy words and ways of speaking are, so that I can avoid the usual pitfalls and make more connecting, easy-to-hear choices. The four-step method is a very concrete model to help with that, and yet I’ve found that I like going my own way better than following the formula. When I’m tracking the four steps and trying to adhere to the model, I don’t know how not to get caught up in remembering what I’m supposed to say next, and thus lose the aliveness of what’s going on.

In 2006, Conal and I began to shift away from focusing on teaching the four steps. We ourselves had struggled with stumbly-bumbly efforts at “speaking NVC” using the model, and observed people in our classes do the same. Although we had heard it said that, “Learning NVC is like learning any new language,” and that we just needed to practice speaking with the formula, we wondered whether changing our focus to teaching the consciousness of universal needs rather than doing or speaking NVC, and creating ways to measure our responses (like “heart open, heart closed”), would more effectively help our students develop their own authentic NVC “voices.” Although our teaching has been mostly on hiatus since moving to California, we are still interested in exploring that question. Conal imagined a compassion lab, where consciousness co-explorers had the opportunity to try strategies for nurturing compassion and inspiration, and measure the results in a way that made it very clear what worked and what didn’t. This would fit with our fond view of NVC as evolving and alive rather than static.

Lastly, I recommend developing your own personal understanding of universal needs. Pay close attention to what inspires compassion and what doesn’t and trust that feedback. You might enjoy Conal’s post on distinguishing needs from vague demands helpful. I encourage you to notice when you’re not fully inspired by your own or someone else’s expression of their “need.” If you’re not feelin’ the love, then keep searching! Just because we can point to a “need” (like mutuality or consideration or honesty, eek) on an official needs list somewhere doesn’t mean it’s going to help nurture the joy juice. Yep, you got it, it’s not in the words.

Emma, I love hearing that you are noticing the dissonance of simply using NVC-style language to express judgmental thinking. That recognition in itself is, in my judgment ( :D ), a big juicy step toward what I think I hear you are longing for: a deep grounding in the consciousness of universal needs and compassion from which your words can flow and help inspire yourself and others to joyfully collaborate in meeting all needs. Does that capture it for you?

Thank you again. I have enjoyed riding the inspiration you stirred up in me to reflect on and write about something I care about so deeply. I hope you’ll let me know how it’s going.


  1. Emma:

    Awesome! I feel honored and happy to receive such an in-depth response to my question.

    I want to try out some of the tools you’ve discussed and think about what gets in the biggest way for me when I try to be in NVC consciousness. I think I’ve identified a big one: expectations. My mind throws up ideals–which I’ve always felt were a key part of me, part of my identity, these ideals, and so I didn’t want to let them go. And yet they interfere with being present. They become roadblocks instead of roadmaps. And yet they represent needs that I want to honor.

    I identify with your writing “Sometimes I feel pretty lonely with my story that there aren’t many people who want to explore at this level.” I feel that loneliness too sometimes, and a frustration. I’m trying to understand how I can honor that need in myself and meet it without going to expectation land (or resignation). Getting beyond the story and just being present with the feelings/needs is good. I feel a lot of sadness and a longing to be understood and met at a deep level.

    I love your idea of the compassion laboratory!

    You asked if your summary captured what I’m wanting. Yes. As much for my own healing as for wanting to be able to interact with more ease with others. Well, both of those things and they are intertwined. I long to feel deeply safe in the world.

    I am very inspired by your playing with the ways to teach NVC. The question of how to teach NVC is often on my mind (needs for efficiency and wanting to see it taught effectively to as many people as possible!). So I am happy to read about your wanting to see NVC evolve and be alive. That matches my ideas about it too.


    I also wanted to share my teacher’s site and her newsletter page:
    She has her weekly newsletter in PDF.
    The issue “It’s not about NVC” is apropos. =) Its Sep 19 2006.

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