The spring has come. I normally work on my computer from home a lot. So it sometimes seems that nothing has really changed. Birds are singing, rain is falling, trains are squeaking in the distance. But the life did change, and I now disagree with myself from the past, who wrote that there is no pandemic upon us. I do agree, however, with the point I made three weeks ago: blame is not likely to help us as we are waddling through this tunnel of uncertainty. Connection and empathy will.
See if any of these questions has recently crossed your mind:
- Why did they buy all this toilet paper?
- Why didn't you believe me before when I told you this is serious?
- Why are you panicking?
- Why aren't they thinking about my safety?
- Why is there so much contradicting information?
- Why are they trying to manipulate us?
- Why aren't they forcing people to stay at home?
- Why aren't you providing me with adequate support as I am moving my work online?
- Why did you decide to take this flight if you were not feeling well?
Before my classes started to move online, I was preparing for a fishbowl discussion with my students. One great video I found about this activity made a following suggestion: If you want students to have deeper conversations about complex topics, tell them to avoid the "Why" question. It is fine to ask: "Why is the sky blue?" But if directed towards another person, this word is often used to criticize their actions and opinions. And when our actions and opinions are criticized, we become defensive and often even offensive. This means the end of a civil conversation.
Am I saying that we cannot question other people's reactions to this crisis? Just to clarify, I do not suggest that. Critical thinking is an essential tool for figuring out any situation. But if we want to have a conversation with a person whose actions we are not entirely happy about, starting the interaction by suggesting that they are wrong might not be a winning strategy.
I have read and thought about empathy for a long time but it is not until recently that I discovered an approach that provides some concrete steps for putting empathy into action. It was created by Marshall Rosenberg and is called Nonviolent Communication (NVC). What I love about this method is that it allows us to express our feelings (even when they are very negative) without necessarily triggering the other side's defensive reaction. And if the reaction is triggered anyway (you cannot control people's interpretations), NVC teaches us to avoid escalating the conversation into a hurtful argument.
On the most basic level, NVC requires patience, vulnerability, and some memorizing.
1) You will need patience because you will have to rephrase your initial reactions into something longer than "Some people are idiots!" or "Why did you do this?". And if somebody else says triggering things, you will need patience to empathize with them instead of getting caught in their words.
2) You will need vulnerability because you will have to reveal feelings and needs behind your gut reactions. (If you have never heard Brene Brown speaking about the importance of vulnerability, I really recommend watching this video).
3) You will need memorizing because it turns out that there is a whole list of emotions we can be experiencing and needs these emotions are hiding. Many of us have little practice of putting these emotions and (especially!) needs into words. By the same token, we are also not well-trained in identifying feelings and emotions of others.
For example. As the whole world is transitioning online, you might not be happy about the way your supervisors are handling the situation. Maybe you want to use certain digital tools and it looks like they are against that. Maybe you want a different schedule. Think of your unique situation. Now imagine you need to talk to your supervisors or craft an email to them sharing your concerns.
According to NVC, one option is to start by formulating an evaluation-free observation of what if going on: "I heard that we are supposed to use <this tool> for working online now". Provide as many details as you can about what you know about the situation, but be careful not to insert any evaluations or interpretations.
Then you will need to specify what feelings you are experiencing about this situation. Pick your feelings from this list, and be as specific as you can. "When I am thinking about this transition, I feel <concerned, frustrated, sad, confused>." You want to make sure that you are not phrasing these feelings as blame. When people think they are blamed they often stop listening. Notice that when you say something like "I feel that this is a bad idea" you are expressing not a feeling (although the word "feel" is in the sentence) but an opinion that is also actually a judgement.
Here is the most challenging and vulnerable part. You need to explain your feelings by referring to needs that are not being met. You can choose unmet needs from this list. Maybe you need freedom to choose your own approach to working online, or more support from your supervisors, or more participation (in the decision-making process). Again, you want to avoid the language of blame. Focus on what you need and how you feel, not on what the other person did or did not do.
Finally, you want to phrase a clear positive actionable request that will show your supervisor how they could meet your needs in the nearest future. For instance, "I want to try <using this tool> next week and see how it goes" would give your supervisor a clear idea what they can do for you. It is better than saying something like: "Give me more choice" because this request is not very specific or "Don't make decisions for me" because negative requests often sound like blame.
This is the NVC approach in a nutshell. In order not to write a super long blog, I did not really cover what happens when the other person shows some resistance to your request (however wonderfully you phrased it). I hope this explains how you can share your feelings and ask for something in a non-threatening way by unpacking universal human needs behind your request. If you would like to learn more, Rosenberg's book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life provides many important details. Alternatively, send me a message to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will be happy to tell you more about this approach, for example over Zoom!
UPDATE: I have used Rosenberg's book to create a series of activities for structuring conversations about coronavirus. They include learning about the specific steps of NVC and applying them to discussions about the pandemic. Try these activities with your students or colleagues! You can find the activities here.