What do I say when...

Hint: It's not about the words; it's about this

Very often, in my work, when I receive requests for support, it’s in the form of… “What do I say to…”

  • What do I say to my boss when he gives me work that’s outside my job description?

  • How do I tell my friend that I don’t like her making commitments on my behalf?

  • How do I tell family members that this isn’t a topic I want to discuss right now?

Perhaps what the asker of the question is expecting is this: a phrase, sentence or dialogue that’ll make the issue go away.

The problem with this approach is that it sees the communication process as beginning with the words we say.

Here’s what I’ve learnt:

When we focus only on our words, we’re likely to be coming from stress or emotional intensity; and this makes it more likely that we’ll be communicating reactively.

The communication process begins way before we say our words; and even before we initiate the conversation—it begins with what we’re thinking & how we are seeing the situation. After all, our words arise from our perspectives and our thoughts.

So how can we be more aware in our conversations, particularly the ones that matter?

Preparation before a difficult conversation is key to this.

What does this preparation look like?

It’s about taking the time to reflect and clarify:

  • What is the issue about? What did the other person do or say?

  • How do I feel about this?

  • What do I need?

  • Knowing what I need is, what would I like to say to the other person?

This reflection can help us focus on what really matters; and be more mindful in our conversation with the other person so we can have a more connected conflict exploration.

💬 3 quotes on labels

“Once you label me you negate me.” ― Søren Kierkegaard

“People are too complicated to have simple labels.” —Philip Pullman

“How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of "green"?” — Stan Brakhage

📰 On seeing each other beyond labels

When we hold labels about someone else, we fail to acknowledge that they are more than just one belief, characteristic or trait. We miss out on understanding them. This Guardian article puts it in the context of understanding each other’s political views:

Our beliefs are the result of accumulated life experiences: family history and intergenerational narratives and values, education, the areas in which we live, experiences at work, the institutions we inhabit and so on. These experiences and feelings form a lens through which we each view society, but this is often more like a kaleidoscope than a magnifying glass.


Gramsci despaired of progressives who were convinced of their own rationality but who were unable to understand other feelings or life experiences. If there is to be progressive change in this country, we need to appreciate people’s chaotic complexity, stop assuming views are fixed and can’t be changed – and rediscover the value of empathy.

Read the article here.

📚 Book recommendation

I picked up David Brooks' 'How to Know a Person' after I watched a video in which he spoke about the book: what struck me was that what he was describing was so similar to what, in NVC, we call the practice of empathy: the art of seeing someone else deeply.

In this book, Brooks (a new York Times commentator) weaves together stories from his life and experiences, references from his vast reading on the subject of what it really means to understand someone else...and suggestions on how to practice being vulnerable and connecting deeply.

I'd recommend this book to anyone who's interested in having deeper conversations and deeper relationships with anyone in their life.

What other books on this topic would you recommend?

🎥 Video of the fortnight

🗓️ Upcoming event

The NVC Academy is offering a new course for those who are new to NVC:

Bridging Differences, Building Bonds: A Revolutionary Approach to Resolving Conflict with Rachelle Lamb will an opportunity to learn the basics of NVC, including how to foster deep connection and understanding in all your relationships. Learn to navigate conflict with confidence, understand what sits behind your actions, and replace restrictive speech habits with empathic, honest dialogue.