ARTICLE: Connection First

I give the name “Connected Communication” to the kind of communication I teach and attempt to use in my own life. The work is based on Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s “Nonviolent Communication (NVC),” which is often called “Compassionate Communication” – but I prefer to call it and think of it as “Connected Communication.” This name reminds me that I want to put connection first in how I communicate – and if connection with the other person is beyond me at certain times, I want to quickly move to “self-connection.” But what does this all mean in practice?

To check that we all have some kind of shared idea about what connection means I will often say to the participants in workshops “Could you all now indicate with your behavior, body language, facial expressions etc. that you are NOT  connected to me at this moment. No further instruction is needed as those in the room happily stare out of the window, take out their smart phones, pick lint off their clothing and so on, regardless of the fact that I’m continuing to address them. It reminds me of certain moments in my 7 years as a teacher of mathematics in London (if any of my former math(s) students are reading this – you may remember what I mean :-)   ). Back to my current work though… When I ask workshop participants to switch behavior so as to demonstrate that they are connected to me they immediately turn to face me, make facial expressions which appear to be related to the subject matter I’m talking about etc. So, we have a basic shared idea of what connection looks like.

When in conversation with another person connection also takes the form of listening to each other, and being curious about each other. If I’m connected to you I’m curious about how you’re feeling, what is motivating you, what matters to you, what leads you to think what you think, and whether you’re asking something of me. If I’m following my intention of putting “connection first” in the conversation, then I will also aim for self-connection – which means I’m also staying interested in my own feelings, motivations, what matters to me, and what if anything I’m asking of you. And I’ll also be interested not just in my thoughts – judgments, beliefs, opinions, assumptions etc.- but also in what leads me to believe those thoughts as true. Even as I write this now, it strikes me that a conversation of this kind is like juggling a large number of balls – or even doing partner juggling where two people juggle large numbers of balls while continuously passing them back and forth between them. So, clearly, some practice is required, plus a real intention to focus on the conversation and to collaborate… There’s another kind of conversation that looks more like two people throwing spears at each other, or one person throwing spears while the other holds up a shield, runs for cover, or freezes like a deer in the headlights. I’ve been in that conversation many times, and I know which one I prefer.

A frequent question arises – what if I’m wanting connection but the other person wants to throw spears – in the form of judgments, criticism, blame, demands, name-calling, threats etc. That’s a big question, and one we attempt to answer in Communication Dojo workshops, teleclasses and practice groups. One thing seems clear though – it does require two participants in order for a fight or argument to happen. So if you’re in a fight and you’re convinced that the fight is the fault of the other person, I’d recommend checking to see whether you are putting connection first. As soon as you start to do that the nature of the conversation will start to change, even if the other person is not putting connection first. It may take a little while and require some deep breathing on your part, as  your attempts to connect continue to be met with responses you don’t enjoy, but if you can, stick with it for as long as you’re willing and see what happens.

Sometimes it’s possible to stay in a conversation and create connection even when a big internal reaction comes up that’s pushing you to retaliate, defend yourself, or attack the other. On other occasions you’ll notice that you’re not finding the resilience to do this, and on those occasions if you’re self-connected you’ll notice that the upsurge of anger or retaliation is coming, and you might say something like “I can feel myself getting defensive here, so I’d like to take a little time to figure out what’s bothering me so much before carrying on with the conversation. I don’t want to fight you, and I do want to understand  your point of view. Are  you OK with us taking a break for 20 minutes so I can think about what’s making me so defensive?” This is a way that your self-connection leads to a connected attempt to actually break away from the conversation. You might say that even in the moment of “disconnecting” from the other person you’re still putting connection first.

A final thought on connection – being connected does not mean pretending to agree with someone when you do not. Nor does it mean pretending to be peaceful and content when you’re scared, sad, frustrated etc. You can say “I don’t agree with your point of view on this, but I do want to hear more about what leads you to hold that point of view.” And you can say “I’m having a hard time with what you’re saying and getting frustrated because I don’t get the sense that we’re understanding each other, but I want to keep working together with you to try and understand.”

Posted by Newt Bailey

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