The Power of Focusing, The Power of NVC II:  Healing Alienating


Spring 1985, Sunday night, and Marshall Rosenberg, in Chicago for a workshop at our home, unexpectedly drops by for Changes.  As usual, we split into a couple of subgroups for Listening or Focusing, and Marshall joins mine.  Also as usual, I go first; we learned that a leader going first often promotes deeper, more real processing in those that follow. 


An "old timer", S -- truly oblivious to the needs of others and to his own processing -- offers to listen.  Not-at-all to my surprise, within a few minutes, he reverses roles, and I'm Listening to him. 


We follow this to its end -- S says what he comes to say, what he's said every time he's come for years and with no change, none at all.  The Listening over, there's the pro forma, "How was that for you?"  "Fine, and for you?"  Etc.


Marshall erupts:  "Well, I'm not fine!  I'm really pissed off at you, Dave!  Because you're making me feel like a gorilla!"


Me, stunned:  "Huh?"


Marshall:  "If that'd been me, I'd be mad as hell!"


I check, and by golly, I am mad as hell.


Marshall:  "And I'm guessing that S is pretty mad, too!"


By golly, S is mad, too.

Marshall listens to S, but in a much different way, and S gets to some honesty -- not to change, but to a touch of reality, connecting with what's alive in him. 


All my classic, careful empathic Listening, and all Jane's and many others' beautiful Listening -- hours & hours for years -- didn't do what Marshall did in a few minutes. 


During an earlier Changes, Jane had spent the entire two hours Listening to S, determined to get through.  Nothing.  With Marshall, S arrives at what Gene might call "the edge".  S rejects the edge and turns back.  But at least he gets to the edge.


Afterwards, I ask Marshall how he knew to do that.


"Have you noticed," Marshall asks, "when you reflect content, you get more content?"


"Sure, Marshall," I reply, puzzled.


"And have you noticed, when you reflect feelings, you get more feelings?"


I frown.  "Of course."

Marshall fixes me with his dark intense eyes.  "When you reflect an alienated view of the world, you just get more alienation."


Marshall, thereby, gave me as great a learning as I'd received from Focusing.


 This led me to The Power of NVC, and out of the dead end I'd increasingly experienced with people not just stuck but entrenched.  And Marshall led me toward many understandings and healings that still came out of the client-centered worldview & The Power of Focusing.


At the start of my first posting, I distinguished between now-existing forms of Focusing & NVC and The Power of Focusing, The Power of NVC.  In this readership, I think we may more confidently expect better understanding of The Power of Focusing, which goes well beyond any Focusing definition or sets of Focusing steps.


 But this Focusing/NVC discussion often seemed to lose touch with The Power of NVC, tending to substitute an existing NVC form:  reflecting feelings & needs.  (I'm certainly open to correction; I may well have misread, misinterpreted or just simply missed something.) 


As my first posting concentrated on The Power of Focusing, this posting will concentrate on The Power of NVC, and will also use the notion of processing and the four-part model of basic orderings of our experiencing:  felt-sensing, understanding, in-the-worlding and homing. 


(Briefly, processing is our natural, potential embodying-opening from/with/towards all four orderings:  felt-sensing, understanding, in-the-worlding and homing.  The orderings aren't separate, but always found, in some ways, together in all human experiencing.


 To use Gene's terms, presented in my earlier post, the orderings are always interacting first, ev-eving as one whole before any separating, though we may distinguish different roles each ordering has within that whole.  For defining the orderings, please see my first post.)


Marshall doing NVC-ing goes beyond feelings & needs, just as Gene doing Focusing goes beyond "the steps" or "reflective listening".


 Let me give Marshall's definition of NVC from a recent (2006) workshop:  "NVC is getting connected with what's alive in another person, and what we can do to get increased life between us."


 Let me quote an NVC direction in Getting Past the Pain Between Us:  Healing and Reconciliation Without Compromise (Rosenberg 2005, PuddleDancer Press, available either through or his Center's website,


"Step One is for someone to listen empathically to a person who is hurting, angry or frightened.  The listener is present for the person, listening for 'what is alive in them' without judgments, moralizing, diagnosing, or offering unsolicited advice." (p. 36)


This highlights The Power of NVC beyond the form of "feelings & needs":  being "present for the person", empathically receiving "what is alive in a person", in particular, a person's vulnerabilities, thereby increasing "life between us". 


When Marshall writes about or teaches NVC, he always includes empathy.  And whenever he teaches empathy, he's clear:  how you empathize is much more important than following any form. 


Yes, over the past 20 years, Marshall has increasingly taught listening for "feelings & needs".  But when Marshall empathizes, you know it's beyond reflecting feelings & needs. 


For example, if a person's intention is to achieve a particular end, to control, to unilaterally direct or in any way to manipulate, that poisons all forms of empathy.

Marshall has consistently, clearly taught this over the 25 years I've known him.


 Of course being present for the other person, getting connected with what's alive in them, which as Marshall says comes as a gift, is NVC's take on Presence, Focusing Attitude, Caring-Feeling Presence, presencing.  And so this centers on what I call homing or the with/toward-Being ordering.


To omit discussing this quality in NVC is as serious as to omit discussing, in Focusing, the quality of presencing.


Presencing has a long history in everything person-centered & Rogerian.  One of Rogers's most precious writings was his "Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change" (1957), from which comes "congruence", "empathic understanding" and "unconditional positive regard" -- cornerstones in all that's humanistically, humanely healing.  Much in Gene & Marshall, much in Focusing & NVC flows from here. 

(If you haven't read this short paper in ten years or more, treat yourself.  It's easily & cheaply available, along with other key Rogers's writings in Howard Kirschenbaum's The Carl Rogers Reader.)


Everything on presencing I said in my earlier post holds for NVC, though we recognize that Focusing is vastly clearer, more explicit & precise about the "internal" physical embodying-opening of felt-sensing -- the implicit ordering. 


NVC when well done - or in other words, The Power of NVC-  certainly includes felt-sensing.  But compared with NVC's explicit understanding, its now-existing forms, Focusing has the strong advantage. 


Where NVC talks about "feelings" or "emotions", Focusers know that we need to get to the "murky zone", the place of revolutionary pausing & noticing, the embodying-opening of felt-sensing & the implicit ordering.


And we Focusers must also recognize where NVC, in its explicit teachings of empathy -- highly relevant to presencing -- has advantages & clarities over the now-existing forms of Focusing (though not The Power of Focusing).  In particular, I wish to highlight The Power of needing & "increasing the life between us".



The Power of needing.

The rest of this post concentrates on The Power of needing.  Again, I want to distinguish needing's "now-existing forms" & The Power of needing.  Over the last 25 years, Marshall's understandings & teachings have evolved more here than in any other section of his four-part model -- the "because I" of his "When you...", "I feel...", " because I...", "and so I want..." 


A short history of Marshall's growth may help us understand The Power of needing.


When I first learned NVC, Marshall was asking me to ask myself, "What am I doing that contributes to my feeling as I do?" 


Marshall made many enormously valuable distinctions, helping me experience that my feelings came not only from another's actions, but also from my interpretations of that other person, my past, my hopes & wants, and the values I held.


 These were often not natural or in-born, but came loaded with indoctrination.  Quoting from Marshall's manual at that time, From Now On, 3rd edition, 1979:  "...each of us is exposed to indoctrination and propaganda daily.  When we are listening to our parents, teachers, colleagues, bosses, politicians, and television announcers we are bombarded by requests to think and act in certain ways.  Some of the indoctrination and propaganda to which we are exposed was introduced so early and repeated so often that we internalize it and forget it is within us.  A good deal of my prior indoctrination does not support nonviolent ways of influencing people." (p. 35)


This, of course, begs the question, Is there anything other than & prior to or beyond "indoctrination"?  Are we just blank slates shaped by our environment?  Or chaotic ids & self-centered egos requiring culturally-imposed super-egos for any abilities to work together?


Marshall was always clear, even in the Preface of his first version of NVC, "A Manual for 'Responsible' Thinking and Communicating" (Community Psychological Consultants, 1972):


"Buddhists are fond of the parable of the raft.  A raft, sufficient to the need, is constructed at the bank of a river.  It is used for the crossing, but then it is left behind.  He is a fool who continues his journey to the mountain top with the raft well fastened to his back.


"I offer this manual as a raft to aid you in overcoming a sea of words and communication habits that might keep you from enjoying the humanity in yourself and others.  I would not want anyone to confuse this raft itself with the joys of meeting.  To whatever joy with others it leads you, I rejoice."


[DY:  A beautiful distinction between "the now-existing forms" & "The Power of", eh?]


Inherent, inborn in us all is "enjoying the humanity" in ourselves & others, "the joys of meeting", "joy with others".


 In that first manual, Marshall quotes Martin Buber to introduce his "Introduction":  "All real living is in the meeting." 


But tragically, indoctrination, coming out of various forms of oppression, hate, authoritarianism, domination & control -- what Marshall has, for 25 years, called jackal-talk -- blinds us to & alienates us from who we really are, who we can be.


 Indeed, many of Marshall's distinctions were developed to free ourselves & others, to free our we, so to speak, from these traps of outer-imposed alienations. 


We Focusers are quite good at helping people who, by virtue of their life's tragedies & their cultural/family training, were alienated from their bodies, in particular from their felt-sensing.  We have only to look at someone, to listen carefully not just to their words, but also to their voice tone & rate-of-speech to know whether their bodies are felt-sensing, are truly embodying-opening, or whether they are trapped in stopped-processing. 


As I mentioned in my first post, in the late 1970's, longtime Focusing teacher and psychotherapist, Jim Iberg developed easy-to-learn ways to spot whether a person is, as I would say, in stopped-processing, as opposed to two states of felt-sensing:


           - within that revolutionary pause (Jim calls this parturient or in labor, which is often called checking in with the felt sense)


-          speaking from the felt sense (nascent or giving birth) -- something all experienced Focusing guides recognize.


When this felt-sensing embodying-opening is flowing, we readily experience what Marshall calls, "what is alive" in them & in us.


And Marshall realized that sometimes our "feelings", and I would say, based on long & sad experience, sometimes even our felt-sensing can become trapped within alienation.


 I learned this early in Changes from many of our "old timers", like S in my introductory story.  And I continue to see this in my clients, particularly those severely abused & neglected as young children.


 One way of re-connecting them with the larger truth of who they are, individually & with-others, is through The Power of needing.


By the mid/late 1980's, in advance trainings, Marshall was developing the familiar form of giving empathy:  "you're feeling... because you're needing..."  His definition of "needing" was still struggling -- not surprisingly, it seemed, by my recollection, closely related to Maslow's famous "Hierarchy of Needs".


  (For this and a much more fulsome & realistic description of Maslow's beautiful understandings, see his Toward a Psychology of Being, 2nd ed., Maslow 1968.) 


Marshall was reaching towards something that all humankind shared, something that, even through the twists & stranglings of life-defeating indoctrinations, still, beyond them found expression in co-creating how we were felt-sensing. 


His needs were, indeed, a processing we all shared, and they were basic to who we are and why we are so bondedly, passionately with-others.  Needing, as I call it, was the engine driving Marshall's "joy of meeting" & Buber's "All real life is found in the meeting."


In its current explicit form, needing is presented as a list of needs, which can be found somewhere in almost all of Marshall's published work for the last ten years. 


As taught, these needs are never the specific strategies of what we can do specifically to satisfy our needs.  This lets us negotiate ways of meeting, together, even very different needs.  Over & over, Marshall says, "Needs are never in conflict, only strategies are."  (Strategies are the specific do-able, positive wants, not demands -- the fourth part of NVC.) 


As I would say it, needing, as an aspect of homing, always has a greater potential not for conflicting, but for bonding -- a thought which, sadly in psychology & in our social/political discourse, is revolutionary. 


But a list of needs is still only "a now-existing form" of needing, not "The Power of needing."


This adds two key points to our Focusing.


First, "The Power of needing” helps us both give empathy and heal alienation between us as well as within ourselves & others.  When we attune to needing, we're truly attuning to "what's alive in us" in a place that's never only cultural programming or merely situational, although both programming and the situational are always with this, too.


 Attuning to needing, in ourselves & others, also helps us guide felt-sensing beyond these alienations. 


Anyone who has worked through, personally, or done therapy with NVC has seen, here, "The Power of needing" in ways nothing short of astonishing.  (See Marshall's many experiences presented in his most current book, Nonviolent Communication:  A Language of Life, 2nd ed., PuddleDancer 2005, available from or from Marshall's .)



Now we're more ready to define needing in a way that may help us, better than lists, attune to & live The Power of needing.


Needing is aspect of homing ( the with/toward-Being ordering).  As such, needing is shared by all humans - though its explicit understandings & in-the-worldings, and also its implicit felt-sensings, will always also include some individualities & differences, which are best often honored & included. 


Needing shows itself when, as others accurately attune to someone's needings in a deep way & free of demands, empathy & presencing emerge. 


All this creates a meeting, an encounter, a two-made-one, a we - which comes as a gifting and which is experienced as a true & real homing.


[ From this flows more true, more real, more healing & embodying-opening felt-sensings, understandings, & in-the-worldings. ]


 Furthermore, when we're alienated from ours & other's needings, this leads to stopped-processings in all four orderings -- felt-sensings, understandings, in-the-worldings & homings.



It's important not to reduce needing to a series of evolutionarily in-bred survival-of-the-fittest strategies which promotes shoving our genes onto the next generation.


 [See, for example, the fascinating book, The Evolution of Cooperation (Robert Anxelrod, Basic Books, 1984), which through "The Prisoner's Dilemma Game", purports to show how cooperation, in the long run, has a clear survival advantage. 

I don't dispute the advantage; I do dispute reducing cooperation to a survival strategy.  William of Occam's razor was just that -- a razor to be used appropriately, not a nuke for reducing everything.] 


This reduction misses the transcending feel within experiencing The Power of needing & The Power of homing.  This reduction misinterprets the "function" (itself a reduction) of the with/toward-Being ordering.  These qualities are readily experienced as very much beyond any reductionisms, just as felt-sensing is so experienced. 


And this reduction leads us to understandings where "needs" are separate "things", competing for attention inside the container of our body - - - -   as opposed to needs being always-present, interaffecting & interaffected-by aspects of one whole processing, where in some ways body & environment are one, where we can participate in world-evolving toward peace.



My next posting, continuing my discussion of The Power of NVC, concentrates on the above-mentioned quality of "increasing the life between us" -- a quality I call we or, using Gene's A Process Model concepts, we-ing.


With love, peace & hope,