Typically, when a couple first comes to me for mediation, they’re each firmly rooted in their ‘corner of the ring’. Often, the main issues they’re wanting to talk about have been discussed many times before, with increasing degrees of pain and hopelessness of ever resolving them.
About now, some well meaning friend or relative is likely to give them the time-worn advice that “all relationships take compromise.” This may add to their sense of guilt that they’re being unreasonable, but is not likely to allay their fears of ‘losing’ themselves if they ‘give in’.
Indeed, if one of them does compromise, they’ll both ‘pay’ sooner or later. I love Marshall Rosenberg’s definition of compromise: “agreeing to share the resentment 50:50.” If one person does ‘cave’ to the other’s demand, their ‘yes’ is not wholehearted, and they either do it begrudgingly or inconsistently. This resentment only grows and toxifies the relationship more over time, each partner keeping a ‘scorecard’, cultivating a climate of competition rather than co-operation.
When I first heard Marshall’s definition, I couldn’t quite get my head around what he meant. Isn’t compromise a loving, giving thing to do? And how do you come to agreements without at least one person compromising, if you both want something different?
I’ve come to see that we’ve been sold a lemon! – that much of the relationship advice and modelling I’ve been given over my life simply reinforces a joyless, obligation-filled sense of duty that takes all the fun and pleasure out of our natural state of wanting to love.
I was excited to find that through NVC, there is a way to resolve conflicts that doesn’t involve anyone giving in, giving up or ‘losing’. When we’re willing to take on board the premise that all behaviour is an attempt to meet needs, it shifts our whole viewpoint: when someone wants something different from me, instead of it being a threat, it becomes a process of discovery, fuelled by curiosity.
When we are focussed only on outcome, or the strategy we’re attached to, there will often be conflict, because you can’t have both things at once.
Let’s take an example that may sound stereotypical, but you’d be amazed how often it comes up with couples!
He comes home later than she’s expecting him, say a couple of times a week. She gets annoyed and calls to ask where he is. He’s angry that she’s ‘nagging’ him. Later they talk about it calmly and he agrees to call if he’s going to be late. But really it’s just to ‘get her off his back’ and so, when he remembers to call, it’s with some resentment about ‘being controlled.”
What’s challenging about living the principles of NVC, is that it requires us to empathise with the needs another person might be trying to meet by their behaviour, even when I’m not enjoying the strategy they’re using to meet those needs. This is the part that can feel scary, cos ‘win/lose’ is so bred into us that we believe that if we ‘agree’ with someone, we may have to give up what we want.
However, the rewards of loosening off my fearful grip on my preferred strategy just enough to make space for hearing what is important to the other, are beyond imaginable!
Back to our example, when she hears his needs for coming home late – perhaps choice, freedom, trust – and he hears hers for wanting him to be home – maybe support, consideration, connection – and I mean really hears, and empathises with those needs, connection can begin to take place.
That part of the process is what can take quite a while, particularly with longstanding conflicts. But once a heart connection has been made at the level of needs, solutions emerge almost by themselves. Sometimes it might be a strategy they’ve already been using (e.g. call if you’re going to be late), but now with what we refer to as ‘shift’ rather than ‘compromise’: 100% willingness on the part of the giver, and 100% gratitude on the part of the receiver. Other times completely new, creative solutions emerge in the new, much more expansive space of compassion, care and connection.
It is truly nothing short of a miracle some of the healing and connection I have witnessed taking place between couples, family members and work teams when this state is reached.
Next time you’re at loggerheads with someone you care about, why not have a go at pulling out your needs list and getting curious about the needs that each of you is trying to meet? From there, you may be surprised how simple it is to come up with creative strategies to meet both of your needs.
If you need any support with this new way of approaching conflict, feel free to give me a call.