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Using Nonviolent Communication to Come Home to YOU for the Holidays

Ann Scott Dumas

Ann Scott Dumas

Many of us are motivated to create a holiday season that is memorable and heartwarming. This quickly becomes a list of gifts to buy, treats to make, events to attend... but under all those starred “important items” there is one thing you may not find... and it’s deeper contact with YOU. 

Most of the self-care we see advertised is about indulging ourselves. While a bubble bath, glass of wine and scented candle may get us started, they usually don’t fulfill our deeper needs. Nonviolent Communication (NVC) makes the bold assertion that the most deeply satisfying activity is to respond to real needs—our own or those of others. But to respond to a need effectively, you have to have some clue as to what it is.

NVC as a Tool

When psychologist Marshall Rosenberg began designing NVC in the 1970s, he was aiming to help individuals communicate more effectively in their personal lives. However, the method turned out to be so simple, powerful and versatile that today it’s being used around the world in settings as wide-ranging as education, government and conflict resolution. The premise of NVC is simple: Humans naturally long to be connected and our activities are motivated by universal needs we all recognize and share.

Using NVC to Get Clear on What Matters

Around the holidays, feelings abound: excitement, loneliness, hope, resentment, peace, exhaustion and so on. Expectations are heightened and vulnerability intensified. We want to feel included but we don't want to feel obligated. We want to be generous but we don't want to get over-extended. We all have parts of the season that we savor... but we don't want to get lost in the parts we don't care about. These reactions are actually a compass to help us navigate toward what matters most.

NVC is designed around a simple formula: Observation/Feeling/Need/Request. It goes like this:

  1. Something happens (you see, hear, sense something).
  2. You have feelings in response.
  3. The feelings point to underlying needs or values (which may or may not be getting met).
  4. If the needs are unmet, ideas emerge about how to meet them. 

Connecting with yourself in this way provides presence (a true gift) so you can discern what's happening for you, moment to moment. There is no right or wrong answer; you're simply reading your own signals. The Minnesota NVC website, mncnvc.org, offers a variety of materials to help with this exploration. For example, people of any age can shuffle through the colorful GROK cards to help identify their current feelings and needs.

Returning to the Light

All the traditions we celebrate in December draw on the same themes: The power of light in the darkness, the presence of hope and love among us, the transforming power of community. As you attune to what matters to you, there are endless ways to align with the season. Maybe you feel a need for meaning and want to do some inspirational reading or offer volunteer time. Maybe you long for beauty and could listen to sacred music or photograph striking images and share them. Maybe you need self-acceptance, supported by intimate time with a loved one... or the creative self-expression of designing a card or gift... or simple rest in the form of a nap. As you clarify your needs, it's easier to move toward fulfilling them.

Listen for Needs, Not Demands

NVC notes that conflict often comes when we attach to our preferred outcomes before we've become clear on what needs we're trying to address. If you find yourself feeling resistant to someone else's holiday preferences, you can dig down a little. Why don't I want to give this gift/attend this event/talk to this person? If I feel like saying "no," is there a deeper "yes" to some value to which I'm trying to stay true? Once you know more about what's important to you, you can make clearer requests—and listen to others' requests. Like you, they're offering ideas that reflect what they value. If you can listen for what is fundamentally important to each of you with curiosity and empathy, creative solutions may emerge.

You can get started right now. Place your hand over your heart and ask, “What am I feeling? What do I truly long for or need? And how can I meet that need?" Maybe the response is as simple as sinking into the bathtub with the comfort and presence of someone who wants to understand... and it's you!

Ann Scott Dumas is a psychotherapist in private practice at Deep River Inc., 2432 Seabury Ave., Minneapolis. For more information, call 612-729-9869 or visit DeepRiverInc.com.

Machelle Lind is the owner of Lindly Success Strategies, in Duluth. For more information, call 507-581-3502, email Machelle129@gmail.com or visit LindlySuccess.com.

The two met recently at an international NVC workshop and got excited about applying NVC to the challenge of staying centered during the holidays. For more information on NVC, visit cnvc.org.

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