My First NVC / Empathy Workshop

Last night, I celebrated my birthday by facilitating a workshop on Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and Empathy. It was the first time I had facilitated on these topics, and I am delighted with how it went.

Attendance

Eight people plus myself attended, although one person stepped out for nearly the entire thing due to a work emergency. This is the first time I’ve organized an event single-handedly that had more than 6 attendees, and more attendees than I was expecting. Since it was my birthday, I was highly selective about the people I invited, and I told them so. I think the combination of dinner at a vegan restaurant, my birthday celebration, letting them know it would be a small and intimate gathering (that they were selectively invited to), and the topics of NVC and empathy all combined probably helped bring more people out.

I deliberately chose people who I knew were interested in NVC or thought probably would be, people who I thought would want to celebrate my birthday with me, people who I thought would be very supportive, and people who I really wanted to spend my special day with. I think this was a good selection method. I ended up feeling my needs for connection, support, love, and appreciation were very much satisfied.

I also made clear what my background in NVC is, how much I’m familiar with it, and that I’m by no means an expert. But that I’ve studied NVC and practiced it on my own for a while now. Maybe this authenticity and clarity, and reasonable confidence, also boosted people’s confidence in attending.

Organization

I broke down the workshop into two parts based on two books I read: NVC and Empathy. These two are related because NVC is based on empathy, and both were about communication. The part specifically on empathy was intended to make for lighter, fun conversation since it was a birthday celebration. But it was also something I really wanted to do, and it fit pretty perfectly with a workshop on NVC.

Each part involved explanation plus group plus paired activities. I think this worked awesomely and created the exact kind of balance I like.

I made the NVC part longer because it was the most important and interesting part, and also required longer explanation. I prepared 3 pages of outline for this workshop, and went through the outline 2-3 times. For me, that’s decent preparation. I was nervous, but I was well-prepared enough that it didn’t go too badly.

Part I: NVC

Most of this part was spent explaining NVC—no one else had read the NVC book in its entirety, and my purpose was to give an introductory workshop to my friends. I really enjoyed this explanatory process.

Preparing for it gave me another opportunity to think long and hard about the whole thing, and how the concepts of NVC are organized. For example, I didn’t realize that the part of the book that talks about responsibility is in the chapter on needs, for good reason. I also reread parts of book and watched NVC videos in order to refamiliarize myself with it. And that’s what I wanted to be doing anyway – perfect motivation!

I had an opportunity to share my personal stories – as part of the explanatory process – of using and benefiting from NVC. That was gratifying. I also got interrupted 2-3 times for someone to jump in and share their experiences, and I greatly appreciated those moments. For me, those stories were self-affirmations as well as affirmations of the whole process of NVC. I heard subtle sounds or saw subtle nods of appreciation when I shared certain things. By sharing stories, I think we got to be vulnerable and honest in an unusual way, and to get support and love in return. That met my need for beauty.

I explained why I was doing this workshop on NVC, the four components and two parts of NVC, and the importance self-empathy.

I gave out two handouts, taken from the NVC book website, which corresponded with what I was explaining and helped with the activities. One was an outline of the components and parts of NVC, and the other gave lists of feelings and needs. “These are really useful handouts,” someone said, and others agreed.

The activities were:

1) Group activity: share stories of using NVC in our lives. A couple people shared some cool success stories.

2) Group activity: Does anyone have a conflict they’re working through right now that they want to share, and then we can work through it together using NVC? (Only had time for one.)

This activity didn’t go as I had planned because the person who offered their conflict was the same one who was resisting parts of NVC pretty hard. I also had trouble following the story of their conflict, which went on for several minutes, and I didn’t get a good sense for what the conflict actually was. So when I tried to apply NVC, it didn’t seem to work for the most part.

I also generally didn’t know how to deal with someone who was seriously resisting the very idea of NVC. When I asked if she would like to try going through the four components, I think she got a little upset and replied in a shaky voice, “I think it’s pretty clear that I already went through the four components.” And it turned into that person using it as an opportunity to say something like, “I don’t know if this process works. And I don’t like using it the way it’s described in the book.” So I ended up keeping quiet after that, and just saying, “Well, I still believe in this process, but I’m not very good at it.” What I meant to convey in saying that was that I still believe in it, but didn’t know how to respond to what she was saying at that moment. I am of course not a formally trained facilitator, and I knew how limited my skills were.

Yes. This experience did not shake my belief in the power of NVC, and I would have been more disturbed by this experience had this person not already expressed to me their strong reservations about (as well as interest in) NVC before attending.

Another attendee ended up offering a seemingly better listening ear than I did, though not by going explicitly through the four components of NVC. I was so glad she was there.

I’m pretty frustrated by  how this activity went not getting my need for harmony/truth/growth met here, and it was exactly the sort of thing I feared would happen. That I would propose an activity and have no idea how to walk through the process of NVC with the other person. I did have further thoughts about why I thought this person was frustrated and why the process of NVC wasn’t working for them, but I didn’t know how to effectively express those thoughts in the framework of NVC.

Now I’m dying to know if this was just not a great example of a conflict, or how a very skilled NVC facilitator like Marshall Rosenberg himself would have handled this. For me it’s difficult because in general I have trouble following what people are saying a lot of the time, especially if they ramble. This wasn’t the only person who shared stories I had trouble following during this workshop. Although I was perhaps extra distracted since I was also facilitating this topic for the first time.

3) Paired activity: name a feeling we’re experiencing right now, and then name a need that’s causing that feeling. I did this activity with the attendee who I thought was most helpful to the participant I was struggling with in the last activity. I explained that I was feeling anxious about not knowing how to respond, and this person said something to me that helped me meet my needs for support and reassurance.

4) Paired activity: share a conflict someone is going through and work through the four components of it. We didn’t do this activity because we got started about 25 minutes later than planned (due to eating and late arrivals) and didn’t have time.

5) Group/closing activity: share a feeling you’re experiencing right now, connected to a need. Most people shared something. Some said they were feeling fulfilled or stimulated to be learning about NVC, which they thought was important. One said their need for connection was being met. I shared that I was feeling very appreciative that all of them were there, and it was meeting my needs for support and connection. I wish I had added that it met my need for celebration!

Part II: Empathy

This part was inspired by a book by the same name, by Roman Krznaric. In this book, Roman shares ways in which we can create a culture of empathy. He defines empathy as both an emotion (feeling with) and a intellectual, imaginative leap (stepping into another’s shoes), which I think complements the idea of empathy as a need. Then he goes on and on about the importance of conversation, and curiosity, in inspiring a culture of empathy, and in creating a deeper connection between people. He offers the ideas of the Empathy Café, with an appetizing selection of empathy-inducing questions, and the Empathy Museum, among other practical ideas.

So I explained all this, and explained the importance of curiosity. I told a couple of stories—one of how I used this book’s inspiration to increase my sense of connection. And one of how the most memorable conversations in my life were long, intense, profound, and empathic conversations driven by curiosity. Those conversations changed my life. I have never felt more deeply connected to another human being in my life than I did with this one person who I had conversations with like that for 10 days straight. I will never forget the passionate way she asked me questions. I will never forget the inspiration I felt when she said, “I just want to learn about you.” It opened my heart not just to her, but to the world and other people.

Then we did four activities.

1) Group activity: Share stories of how curiosity has contributed to some of our most wonderful, memorable, and empathic conversations.

2) Paired activity: Empathy Café Menu. I took this straight from the book. I just typed it up into a fancy-looking menu, and handed it out. It’s broken down into the “six habits of highly empathetic people,” which are chapters in the book. Plus “Dessert.” Under each habit is a list of questions. I asked participants to pair up and ask each other questions from the menu. This was fun and interesting. We were running short on time, so it ended up being much briefer than I’d have liked.

What I would improve: I totally meant to tell people that if they didn’t want to answer a particular question, they could decline and go with another question. Maybe even let people pick the questions they wanted to answer. Must remember this for next time.

3) Paired activity: My personal Empathy Café Menu. This one had my name at the top. I had brainstormed a long list of questions in my journal, and I decided it would be faster to type up this menu if I invented my own categories rather than trying to decide which ones fit which of the original categories—since my brainstorm wasn’t based on the original categories, but upon categories of interest to me, and the types of questions I thought would create the most mutual connection for me. Questions that stimulated my own curiosity!

I ended up with a selection of question categories that I was pretty damned pleased with: The Convo, The Dancer, The Erotic, The Definition, Communion, The Type, The Storyteller, The Fear, The Helper, The Revival. The second and third categories were perfect because 4-5 of my known kinky friends were there, and 3 of my dancer friends were in attendance. When I read the categories and got to “The Erotic,” someone said, “Oh! That’s me!” 🙂

I also printed out this menu as a fancy document. And I had participants do the same activity with this menu as with the last. Some said they were excited by this idea and made immediate plans to use the menu on their own.

This time, using my own questions, I ended up having an even more interesting conversation than in the last activity. But again, running out of time, so it didn’t last long.

4) Solo/Group activity: Jot down 2-3 of your own questions. Initially I was planning on doing this as a paired activity, but people wanted to do it as a group, probably since it was the closing activity and we’d just done 2 paired activities. We had time for one person to ask a question, and 3 people to answer. That was fun! The question was, which work of art are you most proud of creating? For me it was poetry, for another it was something for an art gallery, and for another it was a theatrical performance.

Actually, someone else also asked a question to the group at this point, but it was from my menu. It was, “Do you think partner dancing enhances empathy?” The person who answered said she wants to become a dance therapist, so I thought her answer was pretty awesome.

After the workshop,

three of us dancers went swing/blues dancing together. I ended up asking someone a question from my menu, and he gave an interesting answer, and then he wanted a copy of the menu. The coolest thing about that was just sharing the menu with him. We discussed some of the other questions. He said he was planning on using it the next day, and I’m sure he did since he’s extremely outgoing and talkative.

I also had the opportunity to talk further with the person who was resisting NVC in the workshop, and they said they’d get very angry or upset (?) if someone asked them how they were feeling during a conflict. They said they were very skeptical of one of the examples given in the NVC book and thought “there was probably a lot more going on” in the conversation example than was explained.

I still don’t know exactly what would help them to appreciate NVC, but I pointed out that I thought that something they said was coming from a place of blame rather than empathy. I don’t think I got significantly further at convincing them of anything, but I responded to their skepticism of a success example in the book by mentioning another example…. before I said anything, I sensed that they were about to again express grave doubts about this example. But before they could say anything, I told them how I had cried reading that because I could relate to that story so much, and I knew it was real because it resonated so deeply with me. And I explained that I do prefer to be talked to the way that’s described in the book.

Then this person sounded a little surprised and said, “Huh. That’s interesting.”

I wanted to at least get across the point that even though they might not think this process would work for them, it works for me, and it really does work for other people. Because I thought they seemed skeptical that certain parts of it work for anyone, at all.

Honestly, I was resisting in response to their resistance, and this wasn’t the most empathic place to be coming from. I told them I was nervous about someone coming who was strongly resisting the idea of NVC, because this was my birthday celebration and my first time facilitating this, but I absolutely didn’t want to rescind the invitation if they were interested in NVC. I am still resisting in my head, and I am still frustrated, but I’m sure I will use this as a learning experience somehow.

Reception / Feedback

I think all except maybe one person (who was strongly resisting certain aspects of NVC) really liked the workshop overall. One attendee wrote: “Thanks so much for hosting us! I had a great time. :D:D” Another wrote: “I had a wonderful time as well! Thank you for all your hard work to make this workshop terrific.” A third person wrote: “Thanks for a very interesting and engaging evening! I had fun explaining the whole thing to [my wife] in the car on the way home. We might buy the book and read it together. You did a great job at facilitating the evening.” A fourth person (who was already familiar with NVC) wrote: “It was a lovely evening and I enjoyed practicing NVC and meeting some new friends. You did a really great job giving a concise overview of NVC.

And another person told me (I’m paraphrasing), “I found it very affirming for everything I experienced over the last weekend. This was the kind of conversation I had with a friend, and the workshop really affirmed for me that I’m on the right track and need to do more of this. That was the biggest thing I got out of it.” This last person also said they’re very interested in attending further workshops like this if I do more.

And on that note, when 3 of my friends left, we were like, “We totally need to hang out again/one-on-one soon!” Which I find really affirming and another sign that they enjoyed the workshop and think I have worthwhile things to say.

The Last Conversation

Someone who attended the workshop, and drove me to the dance, also gave me a ride home. This was the person I thought helped me the most to meet my need for support during the workshop. This was also the person I was most excited to have there, although I was very excited about the people attending in general. She is one of my very favorite dancers, and I feel a strong connection and intimacy with her.

When we got to my house, we sat in her car and talked for hours. This was the first time I had her completely one-on-one – not at a dance, not at an event. This was our first extended conversation together. And we both found it really fulfilling. The workshop provided a LOT of fodder for discussion, and we ended up having a pretty vulnerable discussion. She shared things with me that she said she had shared with very few people, and I felt so connected to her as a result. We even practiced a little using the tools of the NVC framework, such as by talking about our needs. I remember discussing the NVC book, the significance of anger, the five love languages, the difference between the erotic and the sexual, and the personal significance of eye contact. I just really got to know her in a new way, and it was absolutely wonderful. The time flew by.

The Birthday

There’s not much better way to end my birthday. NVC is a language of life, so what better way to celebrate life? I highly recommend facilitating a workshop on NVC or empathy (if one is well-prepared) as a way of celebrating one’s birthday. My friends thought it was pretty neat and creative. My need for creativity was certainly met, among many others.

And you know, getting older is scary for many of us. This is a great way to give ourselves empathy as we go through this fear of getting older.

Conclusion and Chinese New Year’s Resolution

I consider this workshop as fitting in nicely with my resolution to embrace fear and vulnerability and shyness with empathy. I got to practice public speaking in a really affirming way, which is in total contrast to the last time I engaged in public speaking (also facilitating a workshop). The previous time was a couple weeks before I started studying NVC, and at that point I was feeling pretty terrible. I was terrified during that workshop, and thinking back on it hurts. But having this new experience is healing for me. I find speaking in front of groups very, very scary, in general. And I want to join Toastmasters or something to get into a regular practice that will allow me to overcome this fear.

So I am considering doing a workshop like this as a monthly occurrence, as a yearlong commitment for this Chinese year. I have a lot of fears around this, a lot of reservations.

For example, how could future workshops possibly be as good as this one? What if it becomes mundane, and the people I so enjoyed coming this time no longer feel it is special and therefore don’t come back? How am I going to sustain strong attendance? I’ll be damned if I’m going to get all prepared and then no one shows up. Or one person shows up, and it ends up being awkward and unfulfilling. Or what if I publicize it and the type of people who come are not the type of people I want to be surrounded by? I’ve attended other workshops and my sense of belonging was greatly hindered by the fact that I was the only person under the age of 40. It also didn’t feel fresh–it was like, here are these people who’ve been coming to this event for months or years, and to them it’s just another day…. boring. I didn’t even feel like they considered my presence there remotely memorable; the sense of connection was lacking. If that happens to my workshop, I will shrivel and end up only begrudgingly motivating myself. I’ll be damned if I’m going to force myself to do this workshop while lacking the motivation.

I have other fears as well.

But if I do this, I’m thinking it won’t just be a workshop on NVC. It will be a shifting workshop on vulnerability and empathy, with energizing themes. Because I’m having trouble imagining what a yearlong NVC-only meetup would look like for me as facilitator. This workshop worked well as a thing that I was introducing my friends to. But if it’s just that intro, it’s got to be new people every time, not regulars. But then, if it’s just like that other group I attended, it would be like, each week we focus on a different aspect of NVC, and you’d better be familiar with NVC already or you might not know why the hell you’re there. What I mean is, why would someone attend if they weren’t already familiar with NVC?

So what would these energizing themes be? One time it might be an Empathy Café Menu specifically for dancers, or specifically for those interested in talking about sex, or specifically for women or kinksters or queer people. Or just, an entire event focused on the Empathy Café. Or a workshop specifically about vulnerability as a thing to embrace. Or about shyness. Or connection. Or story-telling. Or mental health. Or socioeconomic issues. Or vulnerability at work. And sure, I might also do some themes that are just aspects of NVC, but that would only be 50% of the workshops at most. Or maybe all the events will be split up between NVC and Empathy Café discussions. I might also partner up with other organizations for these workshops, and have co-facilitators or guest facilitators for some of them.

I would like it to be such that there could be regular attendees, but at the same time, people might not want to attend all the events because they will change enough that a different group of people will come to the next one. But when they hear a specific theme that resonates with them, they will get excited about attending.

It would be a way to do so much of what I love. To have a pretty broad plan that would allow me to explore all kinds of ideas and interests through workshops, with other people. The public speaking aspect in itself would require embracing my fears. But I’ve noticed that the other workshops/discussions I’ve facilitated were also along the theme of vulnerability, so clearly this is a theme I’m very interested in as a facilitator. I want to start these conversations. I find them exciting.

And maybe I could do for this what I did for the birthday workshop: I could invite input as to what people are interested in.

So I have a vision. I’m not ready to make a decision yet. But I’m using this post to visualize, share my ideas, and invite feedback.

My concrete plan: over the next three weeks, ask people in my social circles for feedback on this idea and gauge interest level.

Update: A few days after this workshop, I got into a conflict with a housemate that became very verbally violent. I was having a lot of trouble empathizing with someone who was judging me very harshly and hatefully. One of my workshop attendees (the most supportive one) had messaged me the previous evening expressing a joyful feeling caused by a need being met. I was happy to see her practicing NVC with me, and I took this as an opportunity to reply back expressing how upset I was about this conflict, also practicing NVC. She asked if I wanted to talk about it.

Since I was having enormous difficulty practicing empathy on my own in this moment, it was so helpful to have a friend to talk to about it who was familiar with NVC and eager to practice it with me. That conversation was very comforting and wonderfully met my need for support and reassurance, and helped me get closer to meeting my need for empathy that was sorely lacking from the previous violent conversation.

Often when I get into a conflict that I haven’t resolved, I will turn to a friend and just let off steam, and I may or may not feel slightly better. They’ll give me some advice that may be a little helpful, or maybe that I don’t think is relevant at all. Typically, not much changes in those conversations, other than distracting me from the conflict, or giving me a slight, vague sense of reassurance.

But this time, she asked me very relevant questions that helped me get focused on resolving the conflict, and strongly reassured me. We also had general conversation about NVC while discussing this conflict. And I found out that she had come up with her own empathic communication framework on her own when she was very young. This makes me so glad I did this workshop, because I have now connected in this area with such a naturally empathetic and like-minded person. Now I have a new friend to practice NVC with, and I wouldn’t have even shared my conflict with her if it weren’t for her attendance at my workshop. By doing a workshop like this, I am preparing my friends to be able to help me work through conflicts and listen to me in a more productive way. And hopefully to be able to do the same for them. If conversations are more productive, this enhances the friendship and sense of connection in that relationship as well. How revolutionary is that? For me, very.

Although I haven’t yet resolved the housemate conflict, I’m feeling a lot more confident about it than I would have previously.

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