Want to foster more trust and cooperation with your child or co-parent? Feeling like you’re getting a lot of pushback when you try to tell your family what you need? Dr. Nanika Coor explains how you can improve mutual understanding and collaboration with your family by using Nonviolent Communication.
When you’re hoping your child or your partner or co-parent will do something to help you get your in-the-moment or long-term needs met, it can be tempting to lean on quick fixes like rewards and consequences. Using these strategies can indeed coerce others into compliance—at least temporarily.
But for any of these strategies to work repeatedly, upping the ante is required. The rewards have to get more rewarding and the punishments have to get more punishing. That generally involves creating more desire for a reward, or sprinkling on more fear, shame, blame, guilt, criticism, or obligation.
Eventually, your child or partner might simply decide they’re no longer satisfied with the rewards or even care about the consequences. You can use time-outs, removal of privileges, or even “force” them to do an unpleasant task. You can give them the cold shoulder as a consequence for not doing what you’ve asked.
And yet, eventually, they’ll be old enough—and/or potentially angry and resentful enough—to access the things they want without you being able to stop them. They may be so worn down emotionally that they even give up trying to stay in your good graces.
Ultimately, using your physical, practical, or emotional power to coerce others into doing what you want them to do creates disconnection in a relationship. Do you want your child or your partner to comply with you out of fear, or because they have genuine consideration for your needs?
In this episode, I'm going to break down the elements of Nonviolent Communication that you can use to more effectively communicate with your family.
Having consideration for own your feelings and needs is job #1
If you want others to listen to your feelings and be considerate of your needs, you’ll need to be able to identify and take responsibility for your feelings and needs yourself—and communicate them. This requires you to have an awareness of your feelings and needs in the first place.
You can start by practicing detecting when your needs are being met or when they’re going unmet.
When your needs are being generally met, you’ll feel positive, accepting of, or neutral about what is happening in your environment and what you or someone else is doing or saying. When you notice emotions arising in you like resentment, annoyance, frustration, uneasiness, or anxiety, your needs aren’t being met. Something is interfering with your enjoyment of life or your ability to satisfy your own needs. You might notice that you dislike a situation or what you or someone else is doing and you want something to change.
Notice any body sensations and emotions that are rising up in you, all by themselves, in response to what’s happening. When your needs aren’t met, you might feel resistance or tension in your body. Remind yourself that you’re allowed to feel whatever it is that you’re feeling. Speak to yourself with patience, comfort, and acceptance of your fallible humanity. One way to identify what you might need in this moment is to ask yourself: if things were happening right now the way you’d prefer, what needs of yours would that meet?
Pitfalls in communicating your feelings and needs
Sometimes when you think you’re telling your child or parenting partner how you feel, you’re actually expressing your evaluations, interpretations, judgments, or thoughts. Needs are the core values that matter most to you, that motivate your behavior or why you want the things that you want.
When you say you feel “taken for granted,” for instance, you’re using a “victim verb”—an interpretation of what you think another person is doing to you disguised as a feeling. Using “you-messages” (“You left your toys all over the room!”) is another way you might try to communicate your dissatisfaction, but these statements communicate blame or an accusation.
You might say that you feel “like your family should be more grateful to you.” But when you use terms that put a person, a location, an action, a time, or an object after the words “I feel,” you’re talking about strategies to get what you want, rather than the needs you have.
Rather than inspiring your family members to be open to your feelings or needs, your words may trigger in the other person a need to protect their own feelings and needs. That usually looks like defensiveness, resistance, or rebellion. It's better to communicate the effect someone’s words or actions are having on your emotions and trust them to respect your needs. Perhaps, in our earlier example, what you really mean is that you feel disappointed because you need more help or recognition.
Requests instead of demands
When you make a specific request about what you want in the moment rather than what you don’t want, and when that request is concrete rather than abstract and suggests that you’re open to hearing no or hearing other options and ideas for meeting your needs, you have a better chance of maintaining connection, collaboration, and trust with your family members.
You want someone to voluntarily choose to do something for you out of a genuine understanding of how it will contribute to you getting your needs met—not out of obligation, guilt, fear, or shame. So when you make a request, think about how the solution you’re coming up with can work for everyone involved.
It may not be easy to get a no to your requests, so practice responding to no with curiosity instead of self-righteousness or frustration. A no to your request is usually a yes to something else. Is it because they have some need of their own that makes it difficult for them to do what you’ve asked? Inquire about that, or ask what might work better for them.
You can also model saying no to your family members’ requests in terms of your own needs and proposing an alternative: “I can see why this is important to you, and I’m also seeing that it’s conflicting with my own need for ___. Can we think of what else might work for both of us?”
For the next 30 days, try to put all of these elements together. When you want to express your unsatisfied feelings to your family members, use Nonviolent Communication’s four parts of effective communication:
- Express what you observe—someone’s words or actions—not your judgments or interpretations of your observations.
- Express the emotions and body sensations that automatically arise in response to your observations.
- Express your needs that aren’t getting met as a result of your observations.
- Make a request that moves the conversation forward, meets your needs and the other person’s needs in the moment, and be willing to meet a no with openness and curiosity.
Does communicating in this way change the connection between you and your child, partner, or co-parent? Do your family members seem more receptive to what’s going on with you? Let me know how it goes!
It can be hard to imagine that your family might be voluntarily considerate of your needs.
Sometimes your needs are going unmet because your child’s or your partner's words or actions are directly and tangibly affecting you in some way. Honestly communicating your feelings and needs means family members are more likely to do so as well. You’ll avoid reciprocal blaming and name-calling, and develop family relationships based on authenticity where you’re all willing to be seen and known by each other on a deeper level.
It can be hard to imagine that your child or partner might be voluntarily considerate of your needs. But when your family members understand what your underlying feelings and needs are, they’re more likely to be considerate of what you need because they connect with you as a fellow feeling and needing human. Also—when your family sees that you’re committed to meeting everyone’s needs, they’re more open to considering yours. Your relationships with them may deepen and feel more connected, which can motivate the whole family to be more helpful to one another!