In the six months that I’ve been actively practising my Non-Violent Communication (NVC) empathy skills, I’ve noticed that there is a certain quality about children that makes them the ideal people to learn how to do NVC with. It’s the very same qualities that make them both so incredibly endearing and so incredibly frustrating to adults: most of the time, they express their feelings immediately and strongly. Before I dig into that a little more deeply though, what do I mean by practicing my NVC empathy skills?
What is NVC Empathy?
NVC empathy is a particular style of active listening in which the listener reflects back what they hear, making guesses about what the other person might be feeling and what unmet needs those feelings arise from. Anyone who is caring for babies or toddlers in a responsive way will be doing this fairly naturally – whenever a baby cries her caregiver needs to use empathy to make a few feelings and needs guesses: “Oh, you’re upset! Are you uncomfortable because you need a clean diaper?” We have to guess because a baby doesn’t have the language skills to tell us, “Hey Mom, I need a clean diaper!” She uses the language of her body to tell us, and we make guesses based on how she moves and what her facial expressions are like. We probably don’t explicitly recognize that we’re making guesses about a baby’s feelings or needs, but we are. When those needs are met, the baby visibly relaxes and is comforted.
These feelings and needs are somewhat universal – everyone has the need to feel safe, connected with others, cared for, to have their physical needs for shelter, hygiene and food met. As these deep, fundamental needs are met we open to the possibility of meeting higher level needs – to contribute to others, to appreciate beauty in our lives, to become our truest, most highly developed self. The way we choose to meet those needs is individual and personal. I have a copy of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that’s been living on my fridge for the past few years, a reminder of these fundamental truths: we all share these needs, we must have our basic needs met continually, and most distress comes from not having a basic need met either now or in the past.
Feelings are like warning flags that pop up to let us know whether or not our needs are being met. Feelings also warn us (albeit unconsciously) of times in the past when our needs were not met in similar situations. Learning to tune in, identify and honour those feelings and link them with their associated needs is the work we do when we practice giving empathy to others or to ourselves.
Practising NVC Empathy With Kids
Kids are great for giving us plenty of opportunities to practice NVC Empathy. In general, their feelings are close to the surface, rise up easily and then disappear again soon after receiving empathy. As we grow up we learn to hide, control and cover up our feelings, which makes us easier to be around but makes it harder for us to access and process those feelings.
Before I started studying NVC, I would try to figure out what my kids were feeling or needing when they got upset or started acting out, but I did a fair bit of that figuring out inside my head. Now I do a lot more of that out loud, both so that my kids know that I see that they’re upset and I’m paying attention to that, but also because feeling and needs guesses are just that: guesses.
No matter how intuitive I think I am, I’m not going to get it right all of the time. I need to put those guesses out there and let my kids or whoever else I’m listening to evaluate them: Am I sad? Do I really need to contribute or do I mostly need autonomy right now? I can tell when I’ve gotten a needs guess right because my child’s whole body relaxes, just like it did when she was a milk-drunk newborn falling asleep at the breast.
NVC Empathy and Gentle Discipline
As my kids grow up my approach to gentle discipline evolves, and NVC empathy is one of my main discipline tools at the moment. It works because most of the time, a kid is misbehaving because they are upset about an unmet need. Recognizing that need and gently holding the feelings that arise from the unmet need goes a long, long way towards resolving things, especially when the child is involved in evaluating the feelings and needs guesses I’m making. I also talk about strategies, which are different ways to meet a particular need, and I also help my kids guess what someone else might have been feeling or needing if we’ve witnessed someone else being really upset.
NVC empathy also helps me get a handle on my own feelings and needs, which are usually the main obstacle to me parenting in the way I want to. In all honesty, this is probably the biggest way that empathy helps me parent. When I can recognize and have empathy for my own emotional reactions I have a much better chance of being able to stand back and make a conscious choice about how I want to respond to a given situation.
More Resources on NVC Empathy
Non-Violent Communication – Marshall Rosenberg
The Whole Brain Child – Daniel Siegel
Non-Violent Communication – wikipedia
Feelings inventory – The Centre for Non Violent Communication
Needs inventory – The Centre for Non Violent Communication