Who Knew?

It has become more and more apparent to me that the more topics and ideas I uncover to expand upon in my life as a human, the sillier it is for me to say I really know anything about anything. I can think I do one minute, but then I am flipped upside-down and inside-out by some new discovery, some new switch in thinking that makes a loud CLICK

I love that sound.

Just this last weekend, I was invited by my best friend to join her and her coworkers at Camp Augusta. This is the friend I spoke of in the post “Lunch”. Some councilors at camp had the wonderful opportunity to attend a five-hour NVC training session given by Matthew Blom (please, please, please check out his website http://www.matthewblom.com; I promise you will not regret the time spent there).

NVC, by the way, is Non-Violent Communication. Just reading that, it sounds like a way to train yourself how to engage in conversations with others while not raising your voice, not saying mean things, and not getting angry and, well, violent. That’s what I thought when I heard about it. But I had visited camp a couple of times before, knew a few of the counselors, and thought that it must be an amazing topic to cover if it was part of the pre-summer counselor training. I was definitely not prepared.

The staff at Camp Augusta had all agreed to let me participate in this training session as a guest and a friend of one of their own, at no cost to them or myself. A joke was made later during the training about the normal cost of these group sessions, and even without the remark I couldn’t have been more grateful for the opportunity. Without even looking at the NVC training that day, my guest visit at this beautiful summer camp full of beautiful people was a gift I won’t soon forget. It’s a gift I would very much like to duplicate.

Matthew made several comments throughout the session that he had never done training like this, with people like the camp staff. The summer camp focuses on emotional intelligence, environmental awareness, self-exploration and growth both for campers and counselors, and there is a certain feel about the place that people pick up on immediately. Everyone in this beautiful space is there as they are. No pretending, no masks. Both staff and campers are encouraged to be honest, reflective, and to share thoughts and feelings verbally with those around them. As a result, this was not the normal training session, where the attendees take a few minutes in the beginning to silence themselves, look around, find the uncomfortable aspects of the situation and zero in on them. This was not the average group of people who gathered together in an awkward mindset because they did not know any other way to communicate with people, and were therefore resorting to NVC. This training session had been unwittingly tailor-made for the counselors here, or visa versa, and it was like releasing a bird from a trap and watching it fly away.

While NVC may seem like a way to work on how one controls one’s own emotions and ways of communicating, I soon discovered that it was nothing and everything like that description, and so much more. From my understanding, the core of NVC is in cultivating empathy, both for yourself and for those with whom you find conflict in your life. Even with those whom you interact on a daily basis; strangers, even. It is in shifting one’s thinking from, “What he said really hurt my feelings. What did I do wrong? How do I make this anger go away and fix things?” to “I hear everything being said, and this person is experiencing their own pain from their own needs that are not being met in this moment.”

Now, I’m not a professional in this field by any means, but I wanted to share this amazing topic, to make it available to those who may not have heard of it yet. During this training session, we spent a lot of time focusing on listening to another person, really listening, without thinking of what we are going to say or how their story connects to our own joys and pain. Even with people that I have never met before in my life, I found myself staring into another woman’s eyes and hearing her talk about her life, the changes that led her to an unexpected place, her fears of the choices she made that she would never take back. And I heard her story, found myself feeling like I’d known her for years, that we shared something only cultivated through work and time and experience with another person. But that wasn’t the case. The point of this, I think, was to highlight the understanding that as human beings, we all have the same basic desires: to be heard, understood, and empathized with for our experiences and the things we feel. We, as human beings, all have extraordinarily different backgrounds and lives, but the common spark that makes us feel is inside of everybody.

At one point, Matthew Blom asked for a volunteer. This volunteer was completely unaware of what lay in store, poor guy, but he was so excited to participate that we all felt the excitement and tuned right in. He was asked to briefly describe a situation in his life that was giving him pain, that was a difficult thing to overcome and that effected him in his daily existence. There were a series of exercises that followed, where various people were told to read responses from distributed cards to the volunteer, all to show the difference between what is and what is not empathy. It was interesting to watch even those reading straight from the cards flinch and cringe as they said things that would hurt anybody. This volunteer was one of their peers, a friend, someone they already knew and cared about. We then had the opportunity to ask this volunteer questions about his difficult situation. “Are you feeling frustrated because…?” “Are you hurt that she doesn’t…?”

As participants in the training, we thought we were able to easily get to the source of the problem, thought we were helping him. The volunteer would pause after each question, give a tiny frown, and deliver a genuine answer that he thought truly explained what was going on deep inside. We were asked to stop, and then about 25 of us witnessed something I have never seen in any training session, any therapy visit, any heart-to-heart talk between family members and friends. Matthew said he was going to play the role of the person in this volunteer’s life around whom his difficulty centered; the volunteer’s grandmother. I thought it was going to get a little bit awkward, going to be a bit of a silly experiment to see an almost middle-aged Caucasian man pretend to be, on the inside, a proud, independent African American grandmother in her eighties. I thought I would see the volunteer explode into giggles trying to wrap his mind around what was going on.

It was anything but silly.

The volunteer had a chance to tell “Grannie” how he felt, his fears and guilt over the situation and their relationship. And then “Grannie” was offered a moment to speak. The fears and worries of any grandmother for her grandson came out, the pride at watching him grow and the disappointment and regret in some of his choices. I have never seen a person so completely become someone else like Matthew did. He spoke with the emotional experience of the person he was attempting to be, and then the volunteer’s eyes suddenly went wide and his jaw dropped.

“Wow. I never actually thought about it like that. Yeah, that makes sense. I totally understand how you feel.”

The shift in the air was tangible, mingling with all the held breaths of we the observers. And as we exhaled in relief and empathy together, the volunteer’s eyes filled with tears and he choked up. The thing in him that he needed, the understanding and connection, had been fulfilled by an exercise targeted to his current situation. We had all tried to help him by talking to him, by being ourselves and trying to bring our experience into the situation. Matthew actually struck something when he did not try to change the volunteer’s perspective, but merely spoke with him about his own values and emotions as “Grannie”, merely listened and accepted the fear and shame that the volunteer carried.

It was the most emotionally intense, positively draining, enlightening experience I’ve had in a long time. The meaning behind it hit me square in the chest, and all I wanted to do, really, was run out of the circle of people and go cry under a tree. Not for myself, oddly enough, but for these people, in and out of my life, who simply yearned for the opportunity to be heard and understood. But I didn’t. I finished the training, and took all of that information home with me to think.

Yesterday, I purchased the book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg. It was the book Matthew Blom mentioned that helped start his personal growth and career in NVC. There had to be something there to add to the incredible things I’d just witnessed. I wasn’t wrong.

It’s really very simple, that sometimes when we engage in conflict with others, it’s really not about us at all. We don’t have to learn how to steady our tone of voice, or keep our hands from clenching, or refrain from making snide comments. We don’t have to restructure ourselves so that we can communicate more effectively or gain more rigid control over our emotions. All we need to do is to listen, to pay attention to what the other is saying, even if it’s not in words. All we need to do is engage and let them know that we are there for them, that we understand what pain is, and that we can give them something far more important than resolution, advise, or compromise; the realization that we are all made out of the same stuff.

Who knew it was that simple?

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