Only connect. That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect. ~ E. M. Forster
Five years ago, when I joined the organization where I work, I used to feel lonely because I only knew the few people in my department. Through Nonviolent Communication (NVC), it became clear to me how much we all long for connection. Realizing this, I endeavored to meet, and connect with, every coworker I could. I didn’t pay attention to the hierarchy. I connected with the people who clean the building and with the vice-president alike. I figured we all needed connection. Since then, I have continued the practice of connecting with my coworkers every day. At times it’s enough to make eye contact, smile and say a heartfelt “Good morning!” When we talk, I try to be empathically present. This
typically results in mutually satisfying exchanges. Well, most of the time. Here is a dialog between a co-worker and me this week. I will call her “Cynthia.”
Cynthia: Don’t you wish you could do the [therapy] group outside?
Me: It would be pleasant to enjoy the sun and some fresh air right now, wouldn’t it?
Cynthia: Yes! In my previous job we could take clients on outdoor outings and bill for it because we were promoting social skills.
Me: So you could work and have fun at the same time…
Cynthia: That’s right! If you see all of us [in my team] stressed out it’s
because we’re having an audit.
Me: Don’t you hate audits?
Cynthia, turning away: It will be OK.
What happened? Why did Cynthia end the conversation suddenly?
I believe it’s because I disconnected first. Initially, I was trying to connect
with Cynthia’s heart by guessing the universal human needs underlying her words: fresh air, sunshine, fun… When she talked about the audit I couldn’t guess the need right away. At that moment, I thought of a phone call I wanted to return, so I lost presence. Rather than trying to get her need, I said the first words that came to mind,“Don’t you hate audits?” NVC teaches that there are some common ways we communicate that are obstacles to empathic connection. This reply would be an example of one.
I uttered those words to fill the space. They were not coming from my heart, nor was I trying to connect with Cynthia’s heart. She might have felt this.
What could you have said instead?
According to NVC, connection is likely to happen when we empathize with the speaker’s feelings and, more importantly, with his or her needs. Since her need was not readily apparent to me, one option could have been to try to connect with her feelings: “Are you feeling anxious?” Likely, the dialog would have continued for a couple of minutes, it would have ended naturally, and we would have come away feeling satisfied.
What if she was not feeling anxious? Wouldn’t that be disconnecting?
According to my understanding of NVC, one doesn’t need to guess accurately. What matters is the intention to empathically understand the speaker.
What could have been her need?
In retrospect, maybe she had a need to restore peace of mind after the stress of scrutiny. Or maybe her need was for security as in, “I want to know that my charts are in good order and that I’m held in good regard in the organization.” Or maybe it was the well being of her team members… I don’t know, but with enough presence I trust I would have gotten there.
Cynthia and I usually talk for five minutes or so once or twice a month. Despite the brief and infrequent encounters, last week, referring to our relationship, she said: “We’re close.”
I am grateful to NVC for a clear model to create heart connection with my
coworkers which gives me a sense of community at the workplace.