The teacher turned to the child and said calmly, “I need to be able to speak to the class and I find it distracting when you’re drumming your fingers on the table. Would you be willing to stop doing that?“
The child agreed to stop and apologised. Within a minute a similar sound filled the classroom. The teacher turned around angrily, “what did I just say? You haven’t even gone 30 seconds before starting again”.
“Starting what?” the child replied surprised and with complete sincerity. “Oh, you thought I was drumming with my fingers on the table again. No, I did what you asked. I found these pens to drum with instead.”
The child did what the teacher requested but hadn’t understood what the teacher wanted.
What Did You Hear?
Marshall Rosenberg uses a great question as part of the Nonviolent Communication model. It holds the potential to prevent many conflicts from arising because it helps eliminate the need for interpretation and guessing about what the other person has understood.
“Can you just tell me back what you heard me say?”
From the teacher’s perspective, it’s massively tempting to diagnose this child as disobedient, disruptive, or attention-seeking. But what would happen if, before the teacher vents their anger at the child, they ask this question? “Can you just tell me back what you heard me say?”
It might become clear that the child heard them say that they didn’t want them drumming with their fingers. And while many people would realise that this request is about making noise and not the particulars of how the noise is made, the child has heard what the teacher said and heeded the request very literally.
“OK, if drumming with my fingers is the problem, I’ll do it with some pens instead.”
There is a No Man’s Land between our words and other peoples’ reactions. We often fill this space with judgements, assumptions, and blame.
Conversing With Ourselves
These misunderstandings don’t just happen with other people. They occur inside of us too. We might ask ourselves to stop behaving in certain ways only to swap out one frustrating habit for another.
What Need Keeps You From Being Willing?
Have you ever been frustrated that you can’t seem to get yourself to act in the way you want?
We might put this down to a lack of motivation, willpower, or flawed character. But what if there is also something about the way we communicate with ourselves?
When asked about how to communicate with someone unwilling to comply with a request, Rosenberg responds by saying, “I don’t HEAR that they’re not willing”. He says the judgement that someone is unwilling is simply our interpretation or fear. He would ask instead, “what need keeps them from being willing?”
At times we speak to ourselves as both the teacher and the child from that story. Perhaps there are things we want to do but we can’t seem to get ourselves to do it. We might try using punitive demands, where we threaten ourselves with blame and punishment if we don’t do the thing. Labelling ourselves as stupid, worthless, lazy, childish, a failure, a lost cause etc.
Marshall Rosenberg calls this ‘life-alienating communication’. Which is approaching things in ways that alienate us from our natural state of compassion.
He says that most of us grew up speaking a language that encourages us to label, compare, demand, and pronounce judgments rather than to be aware of what we are feeling and needing from moment to moment. And that we quickly learn to cut ourselves off from what’s going on within ourselves, even going so far as to say that it is wrong to have needs, feelings, desires, and fears in the first place. So we try suppressing and denying their existence.
Rebel gentleness gives us the courage to look beneath the surface and become aware of our feelings. So we might uncover the need that is keeping us from being willing to comply with the requests we make of ourselves.
To take a very simple example, maybe we want to feel healthy so we decide to go for a walk. But we realise that since making that decision our mood has dropped and we don’t want to go out.
The observing self might ask: “can you just repeat back what you heard me say when we talked about going for a walk?”
“You told me I should go walking because I’m being fat and lazy!”
We have written many scripts like this in various parts throughout our lives. But we can start to write better scripts when we observe our actions through the lens of some simple questions. These invite the opportunity to explore what is ‘alive in us’ right now.
“Can you share with me what I said that you heard as me saying you’re being fat and lazy?”
We might say something like this to ourselves instead…
“I noticed that I said I was going to go for a walk today but I didn’t. What need do I have in me that has led to a different outcome than the one I requested?”
- “I didn’t know where or when to go” (a need for clarity)
- “I didn’t want to go on my own” (a need for companionship, connection, or encouragement)
- “I don’t know how far I can go without getting out of breath” (a need for safety or security – or something else)
The list could go on. And we can use it for all manner of things we want to do but struggle to get started with.
We can never know the true sub-surface needs of other people without talking to them. We are often unaware of our OWN true needs unless we have the courage to look deeper. But once we allow ourselves to go there we can begin to fill the space in No Man’s Land with rich and beautiful scenery.