Author, Consultant, Executive Coach - Helping people and organizations grow into desired results

Monday, 21 April 2008

Needs-based communication can save your life

This past weekend I attended a workshop on “needs-based communication” (a.k.a. NVC) which encourages people to get clear on the difference between needs, thoughts and feelings and learn how to formulate strategies to get needs met, typically through clear requests of oneself and/or of others.

What I noticed in particular was the importance of accurately distinguishing between feelings and thoughts. In everyday English usage people frequently say things like “I feel you’re being disrespectful” or “I feel this is unfair” or “I feel that you’re not listening to me.” Strictly speaking, these are judgements and evaluative thoughts, not actual feelings (which tend to fall into the broad categories of mad, sad, glad or afraid) and you ought to be saying “I think you’re being disrespectful, this is unfair, you’re not listening to me.”

So is all this just wordplay? What possible difference could it make?

Well…learning these communication skills might just save your life.

Brain function and stress chemicals

Brain research has shown that there are dedicated areas of the brain that serve different functions. The limbic system, for example, figures highly in emotional reactions and their associated feelings. Stressful emotions trigger the body to pump out cortisol and epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline) in a fight-or-flight reaction. In small doses, these hormones and neurotransmitters saved your ancestors’ lives by helping them to avoid danger and/or defeat enemies. They’re part of the reason they survived and that you are here today.

Now the kind of energy needed to outrun a tiger or defeat a club-wielding aggressor is not really required anymore in most of our daily lives. Yet when ongoing stress and anxiety or anger reactions in our lives cause our bodies to be continually flooded with these chemicals the result can be damage to internal organs and wearing out the body’s tissues.

What all this means in simplest terms is that when you use sloppy language to mislabel your feelings and then wallow in anger and negativity, your brain releases chemicals that wear your out body and that can even lead to chronic illnesses like cancer.

An effective way to moderate the limbic function that governs fears, anxieties and anger (that is, the knee-jerk, emotional part of the brain) is to engage the frontal and prefrontal lobes of the brain – the higher “rational brain” functions that are more developed in humans than in any other animal and that enable second-order thinking.

Using your NeuroLimbic/NeuroRational Types

In NeuroPower terms (the framework developed by author and strategist Peter Burow), each individual’s behaviour will be influenced by interplay of your NeuroLimbic Type (NLT) and your NeuroRational Type (NRT). Your NLT is indicative of how your particular brain’s limbic system engages the emotional fight-or-flight-or-freeze reactions to external stimuli, while your NRT is the type of rational response you are capable of choosing when you are able to engage your higher intelligence centres and tap into your particular gift and noble qualities.

Needs-based communication theory tells us that no one is able to give empathy to others when their own emotional needs for empathy remain unmet. This makes sense: when a person is highly emotional and reactive it’s impossible for them to engage the higher thought processes required to imagine what another person may be experiencing, which is the hallmark of empathy.

The ultimate goal, then, is to use your NeuroRational Type to govern your NeuroLimbic Type, and to do so as often and as swiftly as possible. Put another way, you want to be in control of your emotions rather than your emotions being in control of you.

When you are able to engage the higher rational brain to creatively solve problems, create meaning, choose different ways of reacting to stimuli, and empathize with others, there’s a payoff: dopamine. This powerful neurotransmitter and hormone rewards positive behaviour, enhances motivation and can counteract the effects of harmful stress hormones.

There’s good news here: you’re not “broken.” You have everything you need to be happy and to get your needs met. The trick is to identify what those needs are and tap into your NeuroRational Type’s gift to develop a strategy that gets your needs met. So if it’s that simple, why don’t more people do it?

Stay on the surface, or enter the depths…?

Cheers to Sonny Navaratnam for the following useful metaphor: people are like the ocean.

On the surface of the water it may be sunny and calm, windy and blustery, or stormy with huge waves. Conditions can change in an instant and unleash tremendous energy and destructive force. This is the realm of emotions: volatile, unpredictable, intense.

At a deeper level there are movements and currents but these are more enduring and less changeable and momentary than what is at the surface. At base, all people have the same basic needs and when we plumb the depths of ourselves we can identify what it is we need. To do so, however, we need to go beyond the emotional turmoil at the surface. And it can often be a journey into the unknown, a place where >cue pirate’s voice< “Thar be monsters…!!”

Many people avoid grappling with these depths for fear of what they might find; because the surface is stormy and difficult they may assume that’s all that life has to offer and rather than seeking to understand the source and nature of their needs they try to avoid and outrun every storm that’s blown up at the surface. As a result their lives are tossed around like ships on the open sea. Only when people do the work of self-awareness to accurately identify their feelings and underlying needs will they be better placed to get those needs met, as captain of their own ship.

Observation - Feeling - Need - Request

The needs-based communication approach is simple, yet challenging to do effectively.

1) Observation: this involves making an objective statement about a behaviour or event, one that is separate from the associated emotions, feelings, evaluations or judgements.

2) Feeling: identifying the feeling that was evoked. Again, as a rule of thumb, feelings tend to fall into the category of mad, sad, glad or afraid.

3) Need: feelings are simply expressions of unmet needs; in this step, identify that unmet need.

4) Request: make a request that gives the opportunity to get that need met.

An example might look like this:

O: “When I heard you say, That presentation was really pretty average.

F: “I felt irritated and anxious…

N: “because I need to be competent and respected by my peers…

R: “so would you be willing to provide feedback about both what you liked and what you thought I could do differently next time?”

While it has offered a fairly rudimentary overview of the needs-based communication method, my hope is that this post has highlighted the value of effective communication by putting it in the context of brain function.

When you are emotionally reactive and operating only from your NeuroLimbic Type your body is flooded with stress hormones that prevent you from getting your own needs met, let alone being of help to others.

On the other hand, when you access your NeuroRational Type to accurately identify your feelings and needs, make clear requests and connect empathically with others, your body is bathed in positive and motivating chemicals that might not only save your life, but will improve the quality of relationships you have in that life.

So take the plunge…there are some truly beautiful things beneath the waves if only you have the courage to integrate them into your worldview.

(Hat-tip to Sakyakumara as sounding board for this article.)

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