NVC in Action: Tovar

I often practice my NVC skills during conflicts with Tovar (my favorite five-year old :-)). Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. One night last week, it worked amusingly well, so I thought I’d share.

Tovar got upset when I trapped him under a blanket for a few seconds while we were roughhousing. He did his usual “I’m sad” response, where he gets into child’s pose, cries a little, and announces that he is sad. My instincts in this sort of situation are to apologize and tell him I won’t do it again, even though by now that listening to what he’s saying usually works better. First, I was concentrating on identifying his feelings, “you’re sad”, “it seems you were scared when the blanket was on top of you”. (I think he responded to that by saying, “I wasn’t scared! I was a LITTLE scared!”)

I was starting to feel a bit hopeless, but I kept going, trying to identify his needs: “were you scared when I put the blanket over your head because you like to be able to see and move around?”, and it was like I’d flipped a switch. He said that yes, he was scared because he wanted to be able to see and move around, and then he was immediately on to the next thing, as though nothing had happened.

I know usually ease out of being upset a bit, maybe partially because I’m afraid it’ll make my original issue seem trivial if I move on so quickly, but Tovar had no such concern, at least in this case, so good for him!

He’s been leveling emotionally recently, which might be why my NVC attempts with him have been going better. Whatever the reason, I like it :-).

NVC on Caltrain

I’ve decided to finally write up a story I’ve been bragging about ever since it happened (around this summer, I think). I was on the Caltrain heading to the South Bay from San Francisco, and somewhere along the line a bunch of drunk guys got on and started yelling pretty heatedly at each other about baseball. I gathered there had just been an important Giants game. I remember hearing one of the guys say something close to, “Everyone on this train who’s not a Giants fan, fuck you!”

No one was physically attacking anyone else, but there were some beer bottles, and the body language of the participants was pretty aggressive.

I noticed something odd. I expected, from past experience, that my instinct would be to move away from the angry drunk guys who were getting in each other’s faces, because that would be safer. This time, my gut was telling me something different; it was puling me towards the guys who were fighting. It wanted me to defuse the situation by empathizing with them. Presumably, this change was brought about by all the NVC I’d been studying. I’d memorized at least a few examples conversations of people successfully using empathy to calm people down and make things safer, and my brain seemed to be doing a patten match. Upon reflection, I decided that I agreed with my gut. My explicit model of reality predicted that I might well be able to help, and trying seemed fairly low-risk.

At this point, the (also drunk) friend of the most aggressive perpetrator was trying to intercede, and had somewhat cornered him over by the stairs to the upper level of Caltrain seats. The friend’s approach wasn’t working very well though, and the main guy kept pushing him aside and was continuing to shout at the other faction (I was beginning to get a sense of the bigger picture of what was going on), and at everyone on the train. So first I worked on positioning myself next to this main guy, whom I’ll now refer to as Drunk Guy #1, or DG1. Here’s about how it went; obviously the whole scene is quite imperfectly remembered: 

me: Hearing you raise your voice and seeing you holding that beer bottle, I’m getting kind of scared, because I’m thinking that someone might get hurt, and I want to feel safe.

Not much response from him at this point. I vaguely remember him seeming slightly sympathetic, but not paying much attention. Getting closer to him and telling him how I felt without provoking a negative reaction increased my confidence some. I think I chatted with DG1’s friend a bit–nothing memorable.

Before too long, DG1 sat down on the steps for a bit between episodes of shouting. I took my opportunity and moved over next to him.

me: It doesn’t seem like they’re really listening to you right now, and I’m curious about what you’re thinking. Why don’t you talk to me instead?
DG1: It’s just that a lot of these fuckers on the train aren’t Giants fans, you know?
me: So you’re noticing that a bunch of people on the train aren’t Giant’s fans, and you’re upset because…
DG1: They’re not real San Franciscans. That’s the problem.
me: The way you see it, they aren’t real San Franciscans, and that bothers you.
DG1: Yeah, you know that real San Francisco character. What do they know about that?
me: It seems like there’s something about the character of San Francisco that’s important to you, and you’re worried that these other people don’t have that?
DG1: That’s right. I mean, I grew up here. I know what it used to be like. And it’s not the same. All these new people coming in, and the city’s changing.
me: You’re worried that the character of San Francisco is changing because new people who are moving in?
DG1: It’s not how it used to be, you know? Being a San Franciscan used to mean something. me: I’m curious to understand how this relates to what you’re saying about the Giants. Is that what makes you upset when you hear about people who aren’t Giants fans?
DG1: It’s not just that.
me: So what else is there? I want to hear.
DG1: San Francisco always gets the short end of the stick, you know?
me: Sounds like you’re mad because you think San Francisco is being treated unfairly.
DG1: The rest of California, like LA, they’re greedy.
me: You’re concerned that resources aren’t being allocated fairly?
DG1: Yeah, like water. Did you know that the Bay Area produces X% of the state’s water supply, and we only get to use Y%? The rest of it goes down to Southern California. (I don’t remember the details of his exact complaint.)
me: Hmm. So the Bay Area produces more of the water, and then some of it gets used by other parts of the state?

I think it was around that point in the conversation that we arrived at his stop, and he and his friend got off the train. Pretty sure at least once early in the conversation he had gotten up to yell at the people on the train again, but I don’t remember the details. Notably, almost as soon as we started talking I saw him visibly relax, and seem much more lucid (seemed less drunk). I was making some effort to break down his points into feelings and needs, but mostly I was just repeating back what he was saying. The interaction surprised me mostly because it matched the examples in the NVC book so closely. Sure enough, when I empathized with him, we moved pretty quickly from his surface thoughts to deeper concerns. Who knew that a drunk guy on the train going on about baseball was actually worried about the changing character of the city he grew up in, and the fairness of California’s water distribution policies?

There’s one last piece of the story. After DG1 got off the train, the main guy from the other faction approached me. I guess I’d somehow put myself in a mediator role, and he wanted a fair hearing too. He was calmer, less drunk, and wanted to clarify that he’d gotten so upset because DG1’s comments had gotten racial in nature. (The other faction appeared hispanic.) I empathized with him too until I got off at my stop. That’s my story! Some takeaways:

  • NVC seems to work the way the book said it would. 
  • It’s easier to implement NVC with strangers, even in a heated and unfamiliar situation, than with people I’m close to.
  • Because of this incident I’ve started to relate to the world around me differently: angry and aggressive people don’t scare me as much, since I trust my strategies to defuse tension better.
  • Acting on my explicit beliefs when it doesn’t feel quite natural is fun every time I do it, since I get new information.

The situation I just described is the most attention-grabbing thing I’ve done with NVC. (Markedly improving the quality of my personal relationships matters to me, but it’s not dramatic.) Runner up would be that I’ve empathized with strangers and had them pour their hearts out to me shortly after having met me, which never used to happen before I learned NVC. That’s been cool too, in a perspective-shifting sort of way.

I want to keep testing my worldview, I want to further internalize the true extent of my agency, and I want good stories :-), so if you’re ever out and about with me and see a (not too dangerous) situation that NVC might help with, I welcome being encouraged to intervene.