Compassionate Connections

I found this article about NVC (non-violent communication) by Inbal Kashtan an inspiring and, even better, applicable look at this respectful approach to raising children. It also works with male members of the species I have found!

When our baby was a week old, his grandfather expressed concern that my partner and I were holding him too much. Since then, Grandpa has worried about cosleeping and extended nursing, and we have continued to talk together about the differences in our parenting philosophies. At one point Grandpa tried to harmonize our obviously different approaches: “Surely we all want the same thing,” he said. “We want our children to grow up to become independent.”

We do want our son to develop the resources to care for himself and to meet his needs effectively. We also want him to be deeply connected to himself and to others, to become interdependent as well as independent. The conviction that by practicing attachment parenting my partner and I were creating the foundation for a lifetime of trust and connection has been deeply sustaining. Attachment parenting means nurturing independence and interdependence by prioritizing babies’ needs. We hold them, nourish them, wrap them onto our bodies, welcome them into our beds. Yet before our children are out of diapers our relationships with them become infinitely more complicated. As they grow, we encounter increasingly autonomous human beings whose desires often collide with ours. Faced with this greater range and complexity of needs, we are often less clear about our options for responding in ways that nurture trust, respect, and autonomy.

How do we deal with a two year old when he grabs every toy his friend plays with? What do we say to a four year old who screams in rage when her baby brother cries? How do we talk with a ten year old about the chores he has left undone, again? What strategies will keep our teenager open with us–and safe? Nonviolent CommunicationSM (NVC), sometimes referred to as Compassionate Communication, offers a powerful approach for extending the values of attachment parenting beyond infancy. A process for connecting deeply with ourselves and others, and for creating social change, NVC has been used worldwide in intimate family settings as well as in organizations, schools, prisons, and war-torn countries.

NVC shares two key premises with attachment parenting: Human actions are motivated by attempts to meet needs, and trusting relationships are built through attentiveness to those needs. Both premises contrast with prevailing childrearing practices and with the assumptions about human beings that underlie these practices. Instead of focusing on authority and discipline, attachment parenting and NVC provide theoretical and practical grounds for nurturing compassionate, powerful, and creative children who will have resources to contribute to a peaceful society.
Unlike conventional views of babies as manipulative and in danger of being spoiled, attachment parenting suggests that our babies’ cries are always attempts to get their needs met. NVC, too, shifts attention away from judgments about our own and others’ actions (as manipulative, wrong, bad, inappropriate–or even good), focusing instead on our own and others’ feelings and needs. Consider the following common situation, which we call “The Mess.” A child, Anna, leaves her clothes and toys strewn about the house. Dad may reprimand, remind, offer incentives, or punish. These tactics may or may not lead to the immediate outcome he intends. They will, however, likely result in unwanted long-term outcomes, such as hindering Anna’s intrinsic desire to keep her home orderly and impairing the sense of connection and trust in the family.

Anna’s mom may choose to say nothing out of confusion about what might work. Not getting her needs met, and lacking trust that her needs even matter to Anna, Mom might feel resentful and frustrated. The relationship is again impaired, and Anna loses the opportunity to practice finding solutions that will work for everybody–a powerful skill she needs in order to live in harmony with others.

NVC offers parents two key options that foster connection: empathy for others’ feelings and needs and expression of one’s own. In “The Mess” situation, Dad can guess–and thus connect with–Anna’s deeper feelings and needs. He can ask, “Are you excited because you want to play?” Or, “Are you annoyed because you want to choose what to do with your space?” Often, simply shifting to an empathic guess of the child’s feelings and needs eases the parent’s reaction. Dad no longer sees Anna as an obstacle to getting his needs met; rather, he is ready to connect with this other human being. For Anna, having the experience of being understood may nurture her willingness to listen to Dad’s feelings and needs and to contribute to their fulfillment. Mom may choose to express her own emotions. She may start with an observation: “I see clothes, books, markers, and toys on the living room floor.” The observation, instead of an interpretation or judgment (“The house is a mess.”), can make a tremendous difference in Anna’s readiness to hear Mom’s perspective. Then, when Mom follows with her feelings and needs instead of going immediately to a solution, she humanizes herself to Anna: “I feel frustrated because I enjoy order in the house.” Mom clearly expresses that her feelings are caused by her own unmet needs, not by Anna’s actions, thereby taking full responsibility for her feelings and for meeting her needs. She continues with a doable request: “Would you be willing to pick up your things and put them in their places?” Or if she wants to explore the broader pattern: “Would you be willing to talk with me about how we can meet your needs for play and choice and my need for order?”

Even if Anna were not willing to talk at that moment, her parents could continue to use empathy and expression until mutually satisfying strategies were found–in that moment or over time. In fact, one of the most profoundly connecting moments in relationships can occur when one person says, “No” and the other empathizes with what that person is implicitly saying “Yes” to: “When you say you don’t want to talk about this, is it because you want more confidence that we care about your needs?”

Every interaction we have with our children contains messages about who they are, who we are, and what life is like. The parent who takes a toy away from a toddler who just took it from another child while saying: “No grabbing,” teaches her child that grabbing is okay–for those with more power. The parent who unilaterally imposes a curfew implies that his teenager can’t be trusted to make thoughtful decisions about his life. Instead, in both words and actions, a parent could convey three key things: I want to understand the needs that led to your actions, I want to express to you the feelings and needs that led to mine, and I want to find strategies that will meet both of our needs.

By hearing the feelings and needs beneath our children’s words and behaviors, we offer them precious gifts. We help them understand, express, and find ways to meet their needs; we model for them the capacity to empathize with others; we give them a vision of a world where everyone’s needs matter; and we help them see that many of the desires that human beings cling to–having the room clean, right now!, watching television, making money–are really strategies for meeting deeper needs. Allowing ourselves to be affected by our children’s feelings and needs, we offer ourselves the blessing of finding strategies to meet our needs that are not at a cost to our children. Conversely, by sharing our inner world of feelings and needs with our children, we give them opportunities all too rare in our society: to know their parents well, to discover the effects of their actions without being blamed for them, and to experience the power of contributing to meeting others’ needs.

1 Comment

  1. Anna said,

    May 15, 2010 at 7:15 pm

    Amazing post. Thank you for such thoughtful words. I love the examples you give. It is amazing how just a small shift and mindset can do wonders for relationships.

    Do you have any book recommendations on NVC?

    Also, given the subject of this post, I suspect you will enjoy our recent blog post, “Accepting our children’s choices when they don’t match our own”.

    To compassionate connections!

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