"She's so rude!": Transforming Judgments with Nonviolent Communication
“NVC helps us create a more peaceful state of mind by encouraging us to focus on what we are truly wanting rather than on what is wrong with others or ourselves.” –Marshall Rosenberg
About halfway through the meditation class I was at tonight, a woman came in during the dharma talk (late) and set up her cushion directly between me and the teacher, completely blocking my view. Being that I was at a meditation class, I was extra-attuned to the thoughts passing through my mind, and was interested (though not really surprised) to see that the first thought that arose went something like, “Oh my god. She’s so rude and inconsiderate!” If I had a dollar for every time that particular judgment of other people—or something similar—runs through my mind in any given day…well, you know how this sentence ends.
Judgments. We all have them. If you pay attention to your thoughts, you may notice that you’re constantly judging: yourself, others, the world. For many people with some sort of awareness practice, one of the first insights that comes is how much mental energy goes into judging. And one of the second insights is how painful this can be.
Judgments are painful because they separate us. And yet most of us are so habituated to this pattern of separation that we hardly even realize we’re doing it. Instead, we just think we’re right. Rather than realizing, “Oh, I’m having a judgment that this woman is rude,” it’s very easy to believe that the woman is, in fact, a rude person.
Not so fast, says Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Nonviolent Communication (NVC). Just because you have the judgment that a person is rude, it does not mean that person is actually rude. What it does mean, however, is that you have an unmet need. If you’re judging someone else negatively, it’s a signal that something you value is not happening.
We’re so used to focusing on what’s wrong with other people when our needs aren’t being fulfilled that we completely overlook our needs. When we can shift our attention away from the judgment and towards our needs, we reconnect with what we value, what’s important to us, and then we are more empowered to take actions to get our needs met, or at least have more awareness of what matters to us.
To make this point clearer, let’s return to the meditation class scenario. Once I became aware that I was judging the woman in class tonight, I realized I had a choice. In fact, I had countless options: I could continue judging her, increasing my righteous indignation while simultaneously increasing the stress and tension in my body, and increasing the anger and sense of separation I was feeling; I could express my judgment out loud (I wonder how that would go over in the middle of a dharma talk!); I could try to suppress the judgment; I could note the judgment and focus on my breath; I could beat myself up for judging someone, thereby judging myself as “unkind,” “unenlightened,” or “unspiritual” (I am in a meditation class, after all. Geez, Ali!).
Alternatively, I could call upon what I’ve learned from NVC, and offer myself empathy, by connecting with what I was feeling and needing. Thanks to many years of committed NVC practice, I chose the last one--after enjoying the righteous indignation for a little while, of course.
As I connected with my needs, I realized there were two main things up for me. First, I really wanted to be able to see the teacher, because seeing him as he talked contributed to my sense of connection and helped me take in the teachings in a more meaningful way. This was easy to fix: I simply moved my cushion a few inches to the left and I could see again.
But it was more than that. I really value consideration, and I love when I’m in a group of people and everyone is holding a sense of awareness that other people are in the room and other people’s needs matter. When I perceive that someone is oblivious to my needs, and when I believe that they only care about themselves, I might feel angry, because in those moments I have an unmet need for mattering.
In this particular case, I didn’t care to engage in a dialogue with the woman who blocked my view. I was content to move over and connect with my own needs for consideration and mattering. However, if I continue to be in community with her and continue to experience these unmet needs in her presence, I may choose to say something to her. And when/if I do, I’m guessing she’ll be way more open to hearing me if I let her know about how much I value consideration and mattering than if I start with telling her how rude and inconsiderate she is.
I can take it a step further by imagining what may have been going on for her -- what needs might she have been attempting to meet by sitting there? In this way, I humanize her. She, like me, is always attempting to meet needs through her actions. What needs might she have been attempting to meet by sitting there? I’ll leave it up to you to guess, for practice. Here’s a link to a list of universal human needs to assist you:
Let me know what you come up with in the comments section below.
In the meantime, I bow to her for inspiring this blog post, and I bow to you for taking the time to read it.
Originally published on August 17, 2012 on Psyched in San Francisco