How Nonviolent Communication and Focusing can enhance each other

Many of us are dismayed about the violent rhetoric in politics and on social media. We need ways to be able to communicate across social, cultural, economic and political divides. Both Nonviolent Communication and Focusing, when practiced, are accessible tools for change.

Nonviolent Communication (NVC), developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, provides invaluable guidelines for how to talk in a way that does not put people on the defensive. If these guidelines were taught in schools and other community groups, it would help move society out of labeling, blaming and judging–deeply ingrained cultural behaviors that block connection. NVC promotes seeking out and addressing the unmet needs that give rise to conflict, instead of only determining who is right and who is wrong.

In order to believe peace is possible, people have to experience how communication can produce change in their own lives. NVC’s needs consciousness is a game changer. I am convinced that if needs consciousness were widely studied and put in practice, much violence, strife and misunderstanding would be eliminated. The electoral process and political leadership would become more effective. Families would get along better. Schools would be more harmonious.

Focusing and NVC share the awareness that using the words IS and ARE when describing people and groups can be very limiting, for example:

  • John is aggressive.
  • Jane is kind.
  • Children are naïve.
  • Her ex-husband is insensitive.
  • His ex-wife is greedy.

In NVC theory, these blanket statements separate us instead of uniting us with the awareness that all people have needs, and our actions are strategies to meet our needs. Some strategies can be unsuccessful, but until the underlying need is identified and addressed, the strategy (action to meet a need) will continue, even if violent or ineffective.

So instead of “Marsha is incompetent,” one would say, “When Marsha failed to turn in the year-end report, I felt angry, because my needs for cooperation, efficacy, consideration and communication were not met.” That would be followed by an action request of Marsha, outlining what would meet my needs. There would also be a listening process with Marsha about the needs that might have led her to delay turning in the report. This hopefully would lead to mutual understanding of everyone’s needs and requests designed to meet those needs.

Focusing: According to the Philosophy of the Implicit, developed by Eugene Gendlin,  PhD., stating what someone IS, ignores the reality that life is a process that is constantly developing toward more life. This life-forward direction can become clear through listening gently to the pre-verbal “bodily felt sense” of situations. The body “gets” the intricate sense of the whole situation in a way that encompasses more than what can be put into words. When one attends to the bodily felt sense in an open, empathic way, then words, gestures, images, and memories emerge from the felt sense, giving meaning and indicating the next steps forward.

In both NVC and Focusing, empathic Listening is an essential catalyst to the process. In NVC, an empathic listener helps us acknowledge our feelings and needs. We then can listen to the others involved, and/or formulate requests for what would make life better for us. In Focusing, an empathic listener provides the space for the Focuser to listen to pre-verbal bodily knowing.  The Listener reflects back the essential words and images that emerge from the Focuser’s felt sense. The emerging of meaning from that which previously had no words has a transformative effect on the person and the situation as a whole.

In my blog postof October 14, 2017, I recounted an NVC/Focusing session I did with a puzzling feeling of annoyance. If I had paid attention only to my Feelings and Needs, I would have said, “I was annoyed at my women’s group because of my need for efficient use of technology to facilitate communication. I was annoyed at myself for not having implemented the use of better technology even though I am very familiar with using it.”

But after stating my Feelings and Needs, I paused and awaited the formation of a bodily felt sense of the situation. An uncomfortable tightness in my head moved down to my throat. I could tell that a lot more was going on in this situation. As I sensed into the feeling in my throat, it felt like two armies at war. I paused with the feeling of armies clashing. Then I could see that my inner conflict was between the very pro-active tendencies of my grandmother, versus my loyalty to my mother. I could see that the situation had much wider implications for my life. Once I had seen the pattern of being caught between the proactivity of my grandmother, and my own “not wanting to impose”, I could step out of that pattern, apologize to my group-mates, and offer to plan a future meeting using better technology. In my larger life, I was able to have more confidence in sharing what I know, freed from the mother/grandmother pattern.

Points where Nonviolent Communication theory and exercises can be helpful to Focusers

  1. Acknowledging feelings and needs can help quiet emotions so that felt senses can form. When an emotion like anger is overwhelmingly present, it can be difficult to quiet down enough inside to allow a felt sense to form. In that case, it can be very helpful to look at a list of feelings and needs from NVC. I can see “Oh, I am feeling all these emotions and they come from all these needs.” The list of feelings and needs helps me acknowledge what is going on inside on an emotional level and helps me understand myself. That really helps! Then I can let go of all those feelings and needs and allow a felt sense to form.
  2. Looking at Needs is much more forward-moving than blaming and diagnosing others and creating enemy images. One of the most helpful insights that NVC can provide for Focusers is this quote from Marshall Rosenberg:
    “The cause of our feelings is not other people’s behavior, it’s our needs.”
    –Rosenberg, Speak Peace in a World of Conflict, p. 35.
    We can waste a lot of time Focusing on other people as enemies if we don’t understand that everyone is just trying to meet their needs. My first task is determining what I need. Doing this leads me to a place where a felt sense can form and transformation can happen.
  3. Finding our needs makes it easier to feel compassion for the needs of others: Compassion doesn’t always come easily. In NVC theory, anger arises from unmet needs. When we are able to identify our needs in a conflict, our anger makes sense. Then we can accept our needs and look for ways to meet them. This sense-making can open us to wanting to know the needs of others. After this, it is easier to get a felt sense of the whole situation, which leads to further insight and next steps.
  4. NVC provides “training wheels” for learning Focusing. I have found that the above sequence can give people the experience of a felt sense and a felt shift without having to give instructions in Focusing. NVC provides “training wheels” that lead to natural felt sense formation. In the company of an experienced Focuser, the emerging felt sense can be noticed and followed, leading to the felt shift, where the larger meaning and relevance become clear.
  5. A window to implicit intricacy: Acknowledging feelings and needs is often a revelation. It’s surprising to see, during the Feelings and Needs card game, that we have, for example, 20 feelings about a situation and 15 needs! This opens us up to the intricacy of our own inner world. After we have become familiar with the process of identifying our feelings and needs, we are often immersed in the situation enough that we can let go of the words and allow a wordless felt sense of the situation to come. Meaning and next steps emerge from there.
  6. Developing “the Focusing attitude”: Felt sensing requires pausing in silence—at least 30 seconds to a minute, sometimes less, sometimes more. It requires developing a patient, curious, empathic attitude toward ones inner experience. Seeing that our feelings are the results of our needs, met or unmet, helps develop this empathic attitude, rather than the self-critical, self-negating inner voice that can come up in moments of introspection.
  7. Dealing with guilt and shame. NVC recognizes mourning as a basic human need. If we feel guilty or ashamed, NVC guides us to mourn the actions that we regret having done, and to acknowledge the needs we were trying to meet with the action we regret. This is an effective way to address the guilt and shame that often come up when we begin to look inside.
  8. Teaching felt sense formation:It is difficult to teach about felt sense formation without giving people the experience of it. Many people have difficulty when asked to “Notice how it feels in your body.” For other people, noticing how a situation feels in the body is quite natural. We don’t want to discourage people, so it’s good to find other ways of inducing the felt sense experience.
    Noticing feelings and needs takes us out of talking “about” the situation and gets us into actually experiencing it. Even if we are just looking at a list of needs or at cards with a need printed on each one, we begin to feel which ones resonate inside.
    If people are unfamiliar with the concept of Beautiful Human Needs, this process can be revelatory. It can take people out of their heads and into their bodies. This becomes especially powerful in the Feelings and Needs Card Game when a companion reads aloud the Needs cards that a person has chosen. The person feels deeply understood. This often produces a bodily felt shift in which the person begins to see the situation differently. This also teaches the power of reflective listening.
  9. The experiencing scale: In the 1960s, Eugene Gendlin and colleagues devised the Experiencing Scale (EXP). The EXP allowed them to predict which clients would be successful in therapy. When people are at EXP Levels 1 to 3, it is almost impossible for them to benefit from therapy because they don’t bring their own experiencing into the session. In Levels 4 and 5, people are talking about their feelings. At Levels 6 and 7 they are Focusing. Research with the EXP scale is summarized at http://www.focusing.org/research_basis.html – Experiencing Level. Rob Parker’s article about 2006 research with the EXP scale indicates that people who are able to be in Level 6 of the EXP scale are 20 to 27 times more likely to have successful results in therapy than people who spend time at lower EXP levels.

(Rob Parker, Focusing Oriented Therapy: The message from research Volume 1, Chapter 17 of Beyond the Talking Cure, Greg Madison, ed.)

Points where Focusing can enhance Nonviolent Communication

  1. Deeper insights. One gains further insight if one lets go of all the words, sinks into the body, and allows a bodily felt sense of the situation to develop freshly. Invariably, the felt sense of the whole situation takes me to completely unexpected places that are much more interesting and relevant than where I get to by looking at my feelings and needs alone.
  2. Making more room for implicit intricacy and autonomy. An NVC teacher who is aware of implicit intricacy will always make room for feelings and needs that are not on the lists or that manifest in uncommon expressions such as:
    “I need to see the trees still standing.”
    “I need dynamic empathy.”
    And especially: “It’s hard to express what I feel (or need)—I can’t find the words.”
    The speaker is probably a natural Focuser who can feel there is something important there but doesn’t know how to say it. Instead of making suggestions about what the person might need, the Focusing-oriented NVC teacher will make space and time for that which is as yet without words, so that relevant new meaning can emerge.
  1. Going beyond Observation-Feelings-Needs-Requests: Once one has taken a situation to the felt sense, the whole idea of what originally happened to cause a conflict can change completely. One might see that a situation is part of a lifelong pattern, and therefore might end up making a request of oneself rather than another person, or of both oneself and another. One might see a deeper level of responsibility for what happened, or get clear that the solution comes from a larger context than was originally thought.
  1. Going beyond “what is alive in you”. NVC teachers who are unfamiliar with Felt Sensing might think they are “going into the body” by asking “What is alive in you right now?” That is a good way to notice what is really happening inside at the moment, but it does not necessarily access the wisdom of the felt sense. It accesses emotions which can be felt in the body and which can be easily named, once acknowledged. It is a good starting place, but it might not reach the preverbal body-sense of the situation.
  1. Focusing partners supply the space to enter the implicit meaning: NVC practitioners are encouraged to have “empathy buddies” who provide a place to “let the jackals howl”, an important first step in decompressing during conflict. After the “jackal show” in which unlimited complaining and criticizing are encouraged, empathy buddies provide practice space for how to express ones needs and requests in an effective, compassionate way. A Focusing partner encourages the Focuser to take time with something inside that is nebulous and unclear, allowing the felt sense to emerge and change. Focusing partners are trained to listen for meaning. This takes NVC beyond being a language tool, in which people bend their inner sense of rightness to “speak proper NVC”. NVC language can be difficult to speak at first, because it goes against deeply ingrained cultural patterns. But there can be many points in which a Focusing partner can facilitate authenticity when one encounters legitimate problems in applying the NVC steps.

For instance, some people as children received the message that they should not “observe” what was going on around them, much less state it out loud. This can create a moment of blockage in the NVC steps, unless a sensitive partner can allow the person to explore right there, where the message to “not observe” is felt in the body.

Conclusions

I don’t think it is necessary to devise an exact formula for combining Focusing and Nonviolent Communication. NVC’s needs consciousnessis very enlightening if learned and put into practice. Focusing is a way of allowing inner meaning to unfold from the bodily felt sense.

Most people, even Focusers, don’t understand how counter-productive it is to judge, blame, shame and diagnose other people. They think that these tendencies are natural, that they are “just what happens” in conflict. Instead of concentrating on proving why someone else is wrong, evil, crazy or “deserving of blame”, we can shift our gaze inward to notice our own feelings and the very human needs that give rise to them. The self-understanding that comes from this can calm our emotions so that a forward-moving form of communication is possible. Often, noticing our feelings and needs gives the “holding and letting” space necessary for a felt sense to form.

Most people, even NVC practitioners, don’t recognize when a pause has the potential to lead to the emerging of implicit meaning. They don’t notice or honor the pregnant pause. Focusing partners allow space for the pause, and provide a welcoming reception for what comes next, even if it “goes against the rules”. Focusers are trained to listen and reflect meaning.

In El Salvador, where Focusing didn’t seem to make much sense to people at first, we have found that teaching NVC can cultivate the ground for felt sensing. If people pay attention to their feelings and needs over time, they can often be easily guided into felt sensing and they can experience a felt shift. It is nice to be able to say, “What you were just doing is Focusing” rather than trying to explain how to Focus.

Of course, if someone is actually angry at us, it is important to just humanly acknowledge that they are angry and upset before translating it into NVC language or doing Focusing moves.

My conclusions are that Nonviolent Communication is an effective door to Focusing if the teacher understands the power of felt sensing and can leave space for the More. And NVC theory can be life-changing to Focusers who are experiencing conflict in their lives.

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