Tuesday, June 3, 2008

All ‘needs’ are not equal

My husband and I spent this Sunday at a workshop on “Nonviolent Communication,” a technique that was developed by Marshall B. Rosenberg.

The workshop was held at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Santa Rosa but the presenters hailed from the Center for Spiritual Living, which is a different religious community. The main presenter has been certified by the Center for Nonviolent Communication(www.cnvc.org).

The purpose of NVC, according to its Web site, is to create human connections, governmental and corporate structures that empower and support compassionate giving and receiving. “With NVC we learn to hear our own deeper needs and those of others, and to identify and clearly articulate ‘what is alive in us.’”

The workshop concerned various ways we respond to people’s concerns.

There was a lengthy list of responses that, according to the presenters, makes it all about the listener instead of the person with a problem.

I was surprised to see included upon this list, the type of response when the listener relates a similar experience. I had thought for all these years that responding in this way was how people demonstrate empathy. The definition of “empathy” is “identification with and understanding of another’s situation” (American Heritage Dictionary). How better to convey your understanding than to offer a concrete example?

Well, as it turns out, responding in this way could be subverted or misconstrued into “My problem is worse than yours.”

It’s humbling to think that I can have been completely wrong about something as important as empathy, although it would certainly& explain some bewildering responses I’ve earned when I’ve tried to& show empathy -- when one recipient, for example, responded with sympathy to me when I’d thought the point of our conversation was that I was showing sympathy to her.

I’m not sure I understand why the “correct” response is to ask what that person is feeling -- since if you possess empathy, by the very definition of the word, you should already have that insight. Maybe it has to do with that scene in the new “National Treasure” movie where Abigail tells Ben something like “Just because you know what my answer is going to be, doesn’t mean you don’t have to ask the question.”

I didn’t want to ask the presenters for clarification of demonstrating empathy, because my husband and I had serious disagreements with other areas of the presentation. In recreating an exchange from their own life experiences, the presenters’ message appeared to be that all “needs” are equally important.

I’m sorry, but if someone that I supposedly care about comes to me with a concern -- and particularly if something I did is the direct cause of their concern -- my “need” to watch television doesn’t come anywhere close in importance to that other person’s need.

And to say that there is no truly “wrong” behavior, that it’s just& how people interpret it -- why would the presenters go to the trouble of restricting the use of violence to cases of self-defense? It’s just a matter of interpretation, after all, that all other uses are wrong.

From the responses by other people in the audience on Sunday, I don’t think we were alone in being reluctant to accept these messages.

I think NVC has value but I’d like to go to the source -- perhaps a book by Rosenberg -- to ensure that my understanding isn’t perverted by flawed presenters. And in any case, I can’t let myself off the hook about making a botch of empathy.

I asked for clarification from people I love and trust to give me valid guidance and their consensus was that in this area at least, the presenters had been correct.

I appreciate the caring and compassion for the health of its congregation that prompted the UU of Santa Rosa to invite these speakers on NVC. I just wish the presentation had been of better quality.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Robust debate and even unusual opinions are encouraged, but please stay on-topic and be respectful. Comments are subject to review for personal attacks or insults, discriminatory statements, hyperlinks not directly related to the discussion and commercial spam.