“Maybe I should say he hurt me when he went to that NVC trainer instead of me? Or maybe I should say he has to talk to me before he talks to anyone else?” During a workshop at one of my first NVC festivals, two people had a conflict. One party of the conflict suddenly ran out of the room, apparently overwhelmed by the situation. He sought out an NVC trainer who listened to him with empathy. The man’s partner found this difficult and wondered why he didn’t come to her. She wanted to be the safe person he would turn to, not that he would go to someone he barely knew.

It was the first time the couple was in an NVC gathering and they did not know anyone else at the festival. The woman had attended a couple of my workshops and had some trust in me. She came to me and shared her distress about the situation. I listened empathetically. I listened and listened and listened for several hours. We missed dinner and I continued to listen, giving her free space to express herself.

Afterwards I heard that she went to her partner and said the same things she had told me. At that moment, some of my theoretical understanding of NVC transformed into practical experience. Roughly speaking, we can use the four components of NVC – observation, feelings, needs and requests – in two ways. Either we can listen to others with empathy or we can express ourselves with honesty. One could say that NVC rests on two legs. If we only use one of these legs, we will limp.

Scary honesty

When I started learning and practising NVC, it was pretty easy for me to listen with empathy. When I listened with empathy, I did not have to reveal anything about myself. I could easily hide behind a listening facade. It felt safe. Honesty, on the other hand, was scary. Expressing my feelings and needs was very vulnerable. Revealing what was going on inside of me was as if being nude.

I think there are several reasons for this. One reason is that when I express my feelings in connection to a situation, it may be perceived as showing that I have no control. Someone does or says something that triggers me. I react and get upset, irritated or sad. Although I learned in NVC that these feelings are linked to my needs and not to the other person’s actions, they reveal that I’m affected and not in control.

What will others think?

Another reason is a fear of what others might think of me. If I tell what is happening inside of me in relation to others – that is, when I express my feelings and needs – they might have judgments about me. They may think that I am sensitive, that I’m overreacting or that I have no sense of humour. If I believe that what they say might be true, it’s safer not to express myself honestly.

One additional thing is the fear of being rejected. What if I express my feelings and my needs and then, according to the NVC model, I add a request to potentially have my needs met. Then, if someone says no, I stand there, now both vulnerable and rejected. I rather be silent, not getting my needs fulfilled than being exposed like this.

Consequences of not being honest

All of this was scary to me. Far beyond the security of just listening to others. And at the same time, I saw the consequences of not expressing myself honestly. If I had added some honesty in the situation above, I might have said something like this: “When I hear what you want to say to your partner, I feel some worry. I don’t think that would lead to the contact you long for. What do you think when you hear this?” If I had expressed my honesty, I do not think the woman would have said the same things to her partner as she did.

Reflecting on honesty

When I reflect on the need for honesty today, there are mainly two things that come to mind. First, I would like to be more relaxed in relation to honesty. That I don’t wait to express my honesty till the moment when someone does or says something that pushes my buttons a lot. I want to lower the threshold. There are many occasions during a normal day I can express myself honestly. Not just when my needs are not being met. I feel things all the time, which indicates that my needs are either met or not, or both.

“Wow! Watch the sun beams between the leaves! I feel really overwhelmed, so beautiful! ” or “But damn, I’ve mislaid the keys again. So annoying! Can’t I be a little more orderly!” If I make it a habit to express my feelings and needs on an ongoing basis, it will be easier for me to express honesty when the going gets tough.

The other thing I think about is expressing honesty with care. I do not have to be so trigger happy and express my needs as soon as someone does something I’m not completely satisfied with. Virtually everything that happens in me, every feeling that pops up, is about myself. Being able to connect feelings to needs is a skill that not everyone is able to do. Using language in this way implies a certain form of power. I want to use this power with care. Therefore, I want to express honesty when it contributes to contact in relation to others.

Is it easy for you to express honesty? Are there any occasions you avoid expressing yourself honestly?

Leave a comment below or, if you are a Premium subscriber of “The Needs’ Year”, at the online platform: https://empathiceurope.com/online/courses/the-needs-year/modules/week-19/ 


Joachim Berggren (CNVC Certified Trainer)

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On 15 May at 18:00-18:45 CEST, you can participate in a Zoom Talk with me and Gabriel Stille. We will talk about the need for honesty.

Sign up for the Needs’ Year and you will receive a link to Zoom.

If you read this afterwards, you can watch the recording when you become a premium subscriber. Check the details HERE.

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