Strong differences of opinions about policies and politics in small towns can result in damaging rifts, such as Lyons experienced over a proposal to build housing in Bohn Park after the 2013 flood. We conflict resolution specialists have used non-adversarial communication (NAC) successfully to mediate community-wide disputes, neighborhood conflicts, and family quarrels.
Adversarial ways of speaking and listening are so common that we are hardly aware of their painful, disconnecting impact. When we disagree with what’s being said, we tune out the speaker, silently critique what the speaker is saying, and think about what we’ll say when that person stops talking. Or we interrupt to say what’s on our mind. When experiencing intense emotions, the higher functioning part of our brain shuts down and reduces our ability to effectively engage.
Unlike most communication that focuses on content, ideas, or opinions, we use NAC to kindly refocus attention on what’s going at a deeper level. By bringing the human experience of feelings and fundamental needs into the conversation, people are likely to shift from their perception of the other as the enemy to seeing the other as human. Once people relate to each other as human, they are much more likely to move from adversaries to working together to resolve their differences.
Non-adversarial communication is based on Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, a communication process for listening and speaking that helps people who disagree to increase the peace between them. Once people feel heard and understood, their emotions calm, and creative problem-solving abilities increase.
When communicating using NAC, one strives simply to understand one’s own and the other’s emotional experience, i.e., their feelings, as well as their deep, fundamental human yearnings, such as need for respect, fairness, recognition, physical and emotional safety, appreciation, independence, connection, and understanding. When communicating in this way, speaking and listening become acts of kindness in our increasingly uncivil public discourse.
Kindness can have positive effects on physical as well as mental health. Kelli Harding, a professor at Columbia University Medical Center, has written about two studies examining the link between high cholesterol and heart health. Researchers found that kindness made the difference between a healthy heart and a heart attack in rabbits fed a high-fat diet.
NAC involves a vocabulary of non-adversarial language and phrasing, and is comprised of five components: Intention, Observation, Feelings, Needs, Requests.
Intention: This first component is often the most challenging. You really have to want to understand another’s perspective, rather than to persuade, fix, or convince the person that you’re right. Approaching a conversation with the intention of understanding rather than judging or criticizing keeps the dialogue going instead of shutting it down.
Because our buttons get pushed, staying with our intention takes preparation. When I first learned NAC, I engaged in a conversation over a disagreement with my mother. In order to hold onto my intention while we talked, I imagined a cartoon bubble above her head with the words, “She is my mother and I really want to understand her.” I kept looking at the imagined bubble to ground myself in my desire to heal our relationship throughout our conversation. By staying connected to my intention, I was able to avoid escalating the conflict.
Cultivating Intention is the first step toward being the change for civility and kindness.
Do you want to have a conversation with someone without it escalating into anger? If so, look for part two in an upcoming issue of the Lyons Recorder for a description of the Observation component of Non-Adversarial Communication process.
Arlene Brownell, Ph.D., is retired from a career as a mediator, collaborative divorce coach, social and behavioral scientist, organizational consultant, and executive leadership coach for the federal government. She has lived in Lyons since 2005.