By Misty Wittenberg
Every second Wednesday, a group of people wanting to learn and practice a new way of communicating, gather in Westlake, Cape Town. This new consciousness can be called nonviolent communication or compassionate communication, and was developed by Marshall Rosenberg.
As the chosen facilitator for the session, I decided to use the three chair process to explore the question: What if I am feeling triggered or upset but the other party is not open to listening, is not around to talk to or the other party is my “inner critic”?
I had no idea how magical it would be……
Olivia’s ex-husband sent her an email in which he said: “I haven’t heard back from V. Perhaps the simplest is if you give them a call.“ He seemed to have assumed that she would be willing to assist him in his personal legal matter, perhaps because she had assisted him some years before.
She began by sitting in the first chair and giving herself empathy this situation – she expressed that she felt annoyed and a bit sad about the email as she really longed for a more loving relationship with him, or at least a more respectful one.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In those choices lie our growth and happiness.” – Victor Frankl
After fully expressing out loud to the rest of the group the feelings and needs that had been triggered by this email, she was ready to move to chair two. Sitting there, she spoke about the possible feelings and needs her ex-husband might have been having when he sent the email. It seemed clear that he was needing support of some kind and possibly, ease in ‘handing over’ this difficult phone call to Olivia to take care of.
After fully exploring his possible needs (which could only be guessed at, as he was not physically present), Olivia was ready to sit in chair three where she expressed what she would like to say in actuality, to her ex-husband. She spoke out how she felt when she received the email and made a request to him to ask first if she was willing to assist him in this matter.
“To practice NVC, we must completely abandon the goal of getting other people to do what we want.” Marshall Rosenberg
Then it was Alan’s turn in the three chair process. He had a big event coming up in a few days and was feeling extremely anxious about it and doubtful of his ability to make it successful. These feelings were heightened by the fact that two people that he really admired were due to attend the event. He chose to use the chair process to talk to his inner critic. He first gave himself empathy – he acknowledged and encouraged himself for still pushing ahead despite a nagging head cold that came as a result of the accumulated stress.
Sitting in the second chair, he imagined the critic’s need for security, to protect him and make sure that he doesn’t make a fool of himself. In the third chair he addressed the critic, telling him that he was not trying to be a shaman, and that he just wanted to feel free to be himself.
Jess was next, she chose to explore her situation of a difficult decision more deeply. She gave herself empathy by sharing how overwhelmed she felt by the decision and was actually in a state of terror when she thought about it. She needed safety and to protect herself. She imagined and guessed that the other family members involved in the decision were feeling frustrated and impatient because she had not responded to their email and that they were needing a sense of order and efficiency so that they could make their travel plans. In the third chair, she spoke out to her sister, saying that understood her sister’s needs but that she was just feeling too overwhelmed to respond and that she would like support and respect.
“Understanding the other persons’ needs does not mean you have to give up on your own needs.” Marshall Rosenberg
All three people felt a visceral reduction in their mental and physical tension after these processes and we all parted ways. Within a day or two I had heard from all three.
Olivia had written to her ex and put the request she had to him. He had replied very soon after, apologising for not having asked her in the first place, and asking her respectfully if she would be willing to help. She didn’t remember him apologising before in the twenty odd years she had known him.
Alan got a text message shortly after leaving the practice session from one of the men he admired, reassuring Alan that “you just have to be yourself, you know this stuff, it is in your DNA”. The event also turned out to be huge success and turning point in his career; he shared with me a few days later.
Jess received a phone call the next day from her sister, giving her information and reassurance which made the decision less stressful for Jess and she was able to go ahead and make the decision.
Neither Jess nor Alan had conveyed anything about their feelings, needs, doubts or what had happened in the practice session to the people who contacted them.
After my initial surprise and delight, I also found clarity about what happened on a more ‘rational’ level. In my understanding, by connecting with what they were feeling and taking full responsibility for their needs, all three people had already created the mental peace, harmony and resolution that they were longing for, so the third parties involved were simply playing their parts in completing this reality in the external, material reality. What do you think?
To find out more about NVC practice group sessions in Cape Town and to RSVP to join one, go to