In part one of our series, the five components of non-adversarial communication (NAC) were identified as intention, observation, feelings, needs, and requests. Intention was described as really wanting to understand the other’s perspective. If you want to convince another person that you’re right, then you’re likely to trigger an adversarial response.
Observation: The second component, observation, consists of what we hear others say or what we see others do. Both our observations and our thinking about what we observe trigger our internal, physiological reactions, i.e., our feelings, some of which are pleasing, and some of which are not.
How would you react if someone said to you, “Your room is a mess; you used to be so neat but now you’re a lazy slob?” Compare this to your reaction if you hear someone make a pure NAC observation, “When I see the dish with half-eaten pizza on your desk, three pairs of socks on the floor next to the clothes hamper, a chewed piece of gum on your nightstand . . .”
Unlike interpretation and judgment, pure observation is simply information about what we saw or heard, and that focuses on the problem without blaming or judging. Whenever we insert even a hint of judgmental thinking into our observations–no matter how positive the rest of our comments–the other person typically hears only our criticism. If we hear criticism, judgment, or blame, that’s what we react to by withdrawing or reacting in a defensive or adversarial way.
A pure NAC observation is similar to what a video camera would record. When we play it back, nothing is added to it. We and other viewers hear and see the same thing each time we view the recording. It is free of the thoughts and judgments that move us away from the simple truth of what we saw or heard. There are no embellishments based on our assumptions, or conclusions about how things are. The problem is that frequently we are unable to differentiate between our observation and our thinking, e.g., “you’re a lazy slob.” Until we learn to do so, we’ll continue to presume that our thoughts are as true as the observation that could be recorded by a video camera.
Author Judith Newman writes that “Kindness is doing small acts for others without expecting anything in return. It’s the opposite of transactional, and therefore the opposite of what we’re seeing in our body politic today” (see “You’re Not Going to Kill Them with Kindness. You’ll Do Just the Opposite,” New York Times). An observation is a kind way to create a common frame of reference as the foundation for a conversation. If you really want to understand another’s perspective (intention), then describing without judgment specifically what troubles you is an invitation to the other person to stay in a conversation with you.
NAC can be beneficial for improving self-clarity and insight, preventing everyday communication from going off-track into conflict, and regaining goodwill once conflict occurs. The universal language of NAC feelings and needs enables us to move from seeing the other person as the enemy and to connect as human beings across the divide. Requests move us from the intention to understand to the intention to find solutions that are most likely to succeed.
For descriptions of the remaining parts of the Non-Adversarial Communication process, look for part three of our series in an upcoming issue of The Lyons Recorder.
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.