Clearing The Air: Resolving Personal Concerns
Dive into this topic with the following exercise, then read the key concepts below it:
Air-clearing personal conversations that are about being understood or making requests for someone to change work best when they follow a framework of Nonviolent Communication (NVC)
NVC builds on many of the things we’ve talked about in the previous lessons about debate and dissent. It’s about owning your own thoughts and feelings, separating emotions from observations, and being clear about your needs and requests.
Using NVC makes scary conversations a lot less scary, and a lot more effective.
Note: the NVC framework taught in the psychotherapy community has some valid criticisms, in particular because some people advocate using it as a technique to force people to be emotionally vulnerable to you, which can be intrusive if they don’t feel comfortable doing that. I think that this is indeed often inappropriate and NVC should not be used to manipulate people. I advocate using the framework only for expressing yourself. If done right, it’s one of the most effective and honest approaches to difficult conversations you’ll find.
The formula for Nonviolent Communication is OENR (I pronounce it “Oh-e-ner” or “Owner”)
O is for Observations: Start your conversation with what you’ve observed. This should be completely judgment-free. It’s what a recording device would pick up, with no extra commentary.
E is for Emotions: Identify and own the emotion(s) you felt after you made the observation. This includes distinguishing between how you feel and what you think, not conflating them. You “feel” emotions like “sad” and “happy” and “angry” and “excited” and “confused.” When you say you “feel like…” that is usually what you think, not feel. “I feel like you don’t like me” or “I feel that we should set a higher goal” or “I feel like our customers will get mad” are all examples of things you think, not feel.
N is for Needs: Identify the needs and wants that are affected by how you feel. This is how you can help people understand the emotions you are expressing, while continuing to take responsibility for yourself.
R is for Requests: Once you’ve helped people understand where you’re coming from, the final part of NVC is to be clear about what you would like to change. The most important part of this is to, if at all possible, frame your request in terms of positive things you want—not in terms of negative things you don’t want.
If you’ve done a good job of identifying your observations, emotions, and needs, you will have built a good justification for your requests—so even if it’s denied, you’ve been able to cut to the heart of things and add transparency to your relationship with whoever it is you’re communicating.
Pretend your teammate recently sent you a string of angry messages about a project, and in the process insulted your intelligence. You’d like to clear the air with them that this was not cool, and set a boundary for how you’d like them to treat you from now on. Here’s how that conversation might go using NVC:
Observation: “When you sent me those messages yesterday…”
Emotion: “I felt sad and angy…”
Need: “Because I need my teammates’ trust in my abilities in order to do my job.”
Request: “So I’d like to ask that if you have an issue with my work in the future, you come to me to discuss in person, and that you address me with respect.”
This is an extremely difficult conversation to have with someone. But imagine how much better this might go than if you told them, “You need to stop being such an asshole to me.” (Although some rare people’s personalities may make this a more effective approach.)
A project you’re working on with your team has taken a turn in a direction that makes you nervous. You’d like to talk to the team leader about your concerns without angering them, and you want them to take you seriously. Here’s how you might get them to pay attention to your concerns using the NVC framework:
Observation: “When the team decided to stop developing the document analytics as part of the product suite…”
Emotion: “I started feeling nervous…”
Need: “Because I really want this product to be successful, and I think this is an essential feature to that…”
Request: “So I wanted to ask if we could sit down to discuss the pros and cons of this particular feature, and the impact it could have.”
Even if the team leader says no to this, you can feel good having been heard and having conveyed the seriousness of how you feel and think about this particular issue. And chances are good that if you frame your concern in this way, the team leader will be convinced that you really do care.
As you can see, this framework can work across a lot of different types of conversations. The key is to remember OENR, and to take time to practice.