18 August 2010


I spent last week in the Santa Cruz Mountains at a "Non Violent Communication and Diversity" training retreat. The event was staged at the Pema Osel Ling retreat center, a beautiful campus in a 100+ acre redwood forest.

Like many other "people of color," I cringe when I hear the phrase "diversity training". We've attended too many of them, for one thing. For another, it's hard to detect any growth or change or transformation in ourselves or the world after attending. Eventually, one begins to wonder "What's the point?" of diversity training.

This training was a different kind of training for me and, based on conversations with other participants, also for the other road-weary people of color who attended. One of the first notable differences was the racial and ethnic demographics of both the trainer-group and the participant-group. People of color formed the majority in both cases.

A second important difference was the NVC frame in which the training took place. NVC is based on a number of fundamental beliefs, such as:
  • all humans have needs
  • needs are the underlying motivation for thoughts and feelings and behavior
  • clarification of the needs at work in an encounter can be achieved through empathic listening
  • awareness of needs (and their attendant thoughts and emotions) makes non-violent communication possible
Not long before attending the training, I was in a difficult conversation with a friend and stated that I was annoyed by her "neediness." She said she believes that everyone is "needy" and people who are impatient with neediness should "get over it." This was a new perspective on "need" and I've thought about it a lot since that day. The NVC training was a continuation of my contemplation.

Is "neediness" the same as "need"? I realize now that, for my friend (who is also familiar with NVC principles), the answer might be "yes" but, for me, they are not the same.

NVC teaches that awareness of an unmet need, in myself or someone else, does not carry a requirement or assumption that the need be met. I might, for example, notice that as I approach a podium to speak to a large group, I am feeling some fear and that this fear is based on needs to be perceived as competent, to receive approval and respect, to be noticed, etc. I can request that the audience members give me their attention, that they not interrupt me, etc. in an attempt to meet my active needs
BUT there is no guarantee the audience will grant the request and I make the request with that understanding. To whatever degree I make the request with an assumption or hidden demand that it be fulfilled, I have become "needy". And this is the difference I appreciate between the terms.

One of the world-rocking and comforting precepts of both NVC and the Landmark Forum is the limited (sometimes non-existent) relevance of "right" and "wrong" in the realm of human
interaction. My friend and I can hold different definitions of "need" and "needy" and "neediness" and neither of us is wrong; we simply see things differently from where we stand. Neither of us must carry the burden of trying to convince the other to adopt our point of view.

I was reminded again of my experience during the Landmark Forum when the trainer told the story of meeting his wife. "I will never need you" they promised each other during their wedding ceremony. Nuances of the vow become apparent when considered through the lens of NVC. "I will never need you expands to: "During the time we are together, I may experience needs for recognition, comfort, beauty, consolation, entertainment, companionship, encouragement... I promise to never merge my needs with who you are. I promise not to hold you responsible for meeting my needs."

What would the World be like if everyone everywhere took this vow?

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