Thursday, 21 August 2014
Turning It Around
Today's guest blogger is Locana, a/k/a Elizabeth English, an NVC (Nonviolent Communication) trainer and a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order based in Cambridge, England.
Locana is the author of the Communication Blog. She describes here how our words can turn around, and transform, difficult or violent situations.
This blog is being published as part of the Blogging Carnival for Nonviolence, which is part of the International Week for Nonviolence. For more blogs, go here. Please share this with your networks. Thanks.
It was a balmy evening beside the river as I strolled with my boyfriend along the banks. We were admiring a swan patrolling his patch. This was the famous ‘Mr ASBO’, named by locals for his fierce vendetta against passing rowers. But as it turned out, any ‘Anti-Social-Behaviour’ we saw that night was not down to the swan ....
Behind me, I caught the whoosh of a stick slicing the air, and turning, I saw a thick branch covered in sharp twigs as it plummeted down, narrowly missing my partner’s head. He dodged sharply and lunged forward to grab the stick’s wildly-waving end. Three teenage girls were brandishing it proudly. Now, excited by the attack, they were swinging it skyward again to aim another blow – when something I said changed the scene around. I don’t know quite why these particular words came out, and even now, they strike me as a non-sequitur and oddly quaint. But I remember the feeling that went with them.
‘You’re such beautiful girls!’, I exclaimed. ‘WHY are you doing this?’ Despite the branch in their hands, I couldn’t help liking them. They were dressed to the nines, full of animal spirits, possibly slightly high, and buzzing with raw, youthful energy. With their wild, frizzy hair, slender bodies and cold, skinny knees, I suddenly saw them as lovely.
‘Oh, well,’ said one of the girls, standing still and tucking her hands into her pockets. ‘We’re Travellers, we live up the path there ….’ (as if that explained it). I knew well who they were – a neighbour of mine had been struck by sticks too.
‘Yes?’ I said conversationally, ‘And how long have you been there?’ … It was just a brief everyday exchange, as if nothing had happened. Then they turned and wandered off, singing a song, and dragging the branch behind them like an innocent trophy for a school nature class. That’s when I noticed my boyfriend who had stepped back into the shadows, calm but pale.
‘Good that you spoke,’ he said, grimacing. ‘I wanted to grab that branch and beat them!’
We might all have been lucky to escape unscathed; perhaps we were in. But for some years I had also been practising non-violent approaches to communication, particularly Nonviolent Communication. It’s a method that focuses on making connections easily and naturally, even under pressure. It’s less about the words we use – although those can be helpful – than (re-)discovering an instinctive ability to connect us to people whoever they are, across divides and differences.
Although for many of us daily life may be less threatening (outwardly, at least), knowing how to prevent conflict and difficulties – or how to calm and resolve them once they have started – is still an essential life skill. Most of us only learn it through trial and error when the cost of making mistakes is high, sometimes perilously so. What other skill, on which our happiness, success and safety balanced so precariously, would we leave to chance?
Learning about communication is no soft option, as anyone who has seriously tried will tell you. It’s certainly not ‘soft’, and not always ‘optional’ either. Some of my courses are modules on compulsory programmes where people can arrive distinctly wary. ‘There’s nothing wrong with my communication!’, their attitudes tell me. My first job, on those days, is to show people how much better life goes when communication is working well, and how much we lose when it doesn’t.
One of my most motivated groups started the day quite unexceptionally. I was setting up the training room for a course with young doctors when a number of them arrived early, and began talking about the price of cars. I was just buying a car myself, so I wanted to hear their views. The recession was at its height and garages were struggling to sell their end-of-season stock. I mentioned my negotiations with the garage, and their latest offer: over a third off the price of a nearly new car. Yes, they all agreed it was a fantastic deal. So they were shocked to hear I’d just turned it down. ‘But why?’ they asked, incredulous.
‘It still takes me over my monthly budget,’ I explained, and repeated what I’d just told the garage people: ‘I’d gain a great car – but lose my peace of mind!’
But at that moment my phone rang, and the sales assistant herself was on the line taking another £800 pounds off the price. The doctors looked impressed. And a moment later, I had another negotiation on my hands. The worried venue manager appeared telling us there were problems with our room allocation. We soon found ourselves settled in a new room, lighter, larger and airier than the last, and were just beginning the training when the venue manager re-appeared carrying a plate of posh-looking biscuits ‘for the inconvenience caused’. I think this was the deciding factor.
‘Jammy Dodgers!’ the doctors cried. ‘Okay – show us how you do it!’
However happy you are with your communication, there’s always more to learn. Whenever I hit a bump, I think my greatest credentials for doing my job is not because of any innate skill, but rather because I’m fascinated by my mistakes. Understanding how communication works means understanding people – which is a lifetime’s work. Yet change is possible. Naturally, not every one of my conversations goes as well as those described above; but many of them do. I used to find communication a stress factor, now it’s a pleasure. More often than not, tense exchanges ease open, angry people calm down, and awkward arrangements are resolved – at least most of the time. And if not, I know where I went wrong. I’m constantly learning; and that means there’s always hope. It’s true I may be stuck, but the situation never is. It’s only waiting for me to grow a little wiser!
So however you do it, the important thing is to learn – and to keep learning! I hope that this International Week for Nonviolence will encourage us all to do that. Luckily, we don’t need courage or determination (although those will help). A simply a grain of curiosity will do. And from that, wisdom and kindness will grow.
Elizabeth English (Locana) has been practising Buddhism within the Triratna Buddhist Community for over 30 years. She received her Buddhist name, Locana, when she was ordained in 2002, the year her book, ‘Vajrayogini’, appeared. A certified trainer in Nonviolent Communication, Focusing, and more recently, Laughter Yoga, Elizabeth introduces these approaches in a wide range of environments, such as businesses, doctors, the police, as well as with people from many different Buddhist traditions. She founded Life At Work in 2004 in response to a growing demand for her expertise in professional and personal development. She is currently writing a book on communication, of unique synthesis of her approaches. She also writes a monthly communication tip you can sign up for here: Communication Blog.