Marshall Rosenberg developed a communication practice called Nonviolent Communication (NVC) or Compassionate Communication in the 1960s when he was working with the civil rights movement.
A dozen of my neighbors, including Engineer Hubby and me, have joined a nonviolent communication “practice group” led by the capable and passionate teacher Pat Bevans (who is also a visual artist). She has told us, numerous times, that it will take years for compassionate communication practics to become reflexive rather than a process we have to consciously remind ourselves to do. Nonetheless I am already noticing incrementally seismic shifts in how I regard my boys, Engineer Hubby, and friends. And these are, for me, tied with several threads to my writing practice.
One of the first NVC exercises we undertook was to pretend we were video cameras, and describe interactions in minute, precise detail. Not “she smiled” but “the corners of her mouth lifted and her teeth were visible.” Rather than “he snapped at me,” we struggled to convey how, exactly, he spoke: more quickly than he normally would, with a slightly louder voice? Using only short words?
I nodded knowingly as Pat explained the exercise, thinking, oh, this will be easy! It’s like sitting in a coffeeshop and painting a word picture of a fellow caffeine-imbiber, from the color of their shoe soles to their coif’s careful arrangement or lack thereof.
I’m sure you know what happened next. That’s right. The proverb “pride goeth before a fall” came to roost at my chicken coop.
At our next meeting, when invited to share any observations in front of my fellow students, I floundered (in my head) to find neutral, expressive words that conveyed the incredible disrespect Engineer Hubby showed me by having left the soup-covered spoon atop the countertop OVERNIGHT, YET AGAIN. When I had to put it in purely descriptive terms, it seemed that I was, uh, perhaps overreacting.
“I walked into the kitchen at 7 AM and there was a spoon with dried tomato soup on it resting on the countertop, three inches to the east of the kitchen sink.” Doesn’t really sound that bad, does it? Nope. Perhaps because … it’s not that bad. It’s a First World Problem, as my friends and I remind ourselves when we kvetch about our coffee being not quite hot enough. I mean, really. It’s right up there with the Amazon toaster reviewer who gave a toaster three stars because “when toasting only one slice, the side of the bread that faces the interior doesn’t get as brown as the side facing the toaster’s exterior.” I choked on my (lukewarm) coffee when I read that one, partly in self-recognition.
Here’s how it connects to writing for me: the difficult, uncomfortable exercise of describing situations in factual terms, especially those that fill me to overflowing with emotion, has a remarkably calming effect. When I am calm, I respond to those situations much more creatively (eg, not yelling at Engineer Hubby). But!, I’m realizing I’m willing to do this difficult, uncomfortable work only because of the deep emotional connection I have with aforementioned spouse. Without powerful emotions, in other words, I am unwilling to do the work to become less emotional-but-more-effective. As with writing.
It can feel nigh impossible to find the words to convey the image in my head of my latest character – but I’m willing to walk in those uncomfortable shoes through the slippery crap of my chicken coop because I care about my stories.
Most of us, I’ll hazard, have a passion – be it a community of two or twenty, an art that’s private or public, an avocation or a vocation – which rouses in us such deep feeling that we are called to honor it in whatever way we can. These ways can be small (coffee with Engineer Hubby once a week, during the DAY when we’re both awake), or medium (sitting before the blank page and picking up the pen no matter what), or large (a complex problem which, when solved, gives such profound satisfaction we seek out the next problem. And the next.). We ignore our craving to “get better at” these things at our peril (see my previous post with the citation re: the nonwriting writer = monster courting insanity).
And to improve, we MUST practice. Effective practice, as Geoff Colin states in Talent is Overrated occurs at the boundary between what is difficult-but-doable for us, and what is too difficult (attempting it results in frustration, not improvement).
Effective practice requires us to assess ourselves, our capacities and resources, with a calm and objective eye – which is not complacency! If a video camera recorded our efforts, what would it see? Fifteen minutes of writing followed by 10 minutes of web surfing? Will that help me manifest my stories? Where can I do better?
Another lovely aspect of NVC is its inclusion of a “broom and dustpan” approach to mistakes. When we mess up, we go back and clean up. Forgive ourselves, and others. Try again.
But first we must make the effort. That which makes our hearts beat fastest deserves the calmest nurturing we are capable of.
I, for one, am stocking up on brooms and dustpans.