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Common Pitfalls When Only One Partner is Learning NVC


Learning and practicing the skills and consciousness of Compassionate Communication (NVC) is one of many doorways into building a loving and healthy relationship with your partner.  It may not be a doorway that your partner chooses.  This difference doesn't have to trigger disconnect.  You can bring intention and clarity to this difference by naming the context, common pitfalls, and what keeps you out of those pitfalls.

It's helpful to start by naming and accepting some basic facts of the situation in the immediate context and in the larger context.  In the larger context, learning how to be in relationship is largely an implicit activity done through modeling and nonverbal social cues.  When you decide to learn and practice NVC you are doing something unusual relative to this larger context.  The most common initial reaction to unusual behavior is suspicion.  Name and accept that you will encounter this difficulty.  To accept means to soften in your body and rest your attention any emotion associated with this context without having to move away from either the context or your own feelings regarding it.

In the more immediate context, when you are practicing NVC, even in your most awkward moments, you are touching your own and another's vulnerability.  When you touch vulnerability, you also awaken the experiences connected to it.  If your partner grew up in or has significant life experience in which vulnerability was consistently embraced and honored, then your NVC practice likely inspires a positive response in them.  If your partner grew up in or has significant life experience in which vulnerability was ignored, shamed, or devalued, then your NVC practice likely triggers suspicion, distancing, defensiveness, shame, or criticism.  Since most folks have a mixed history of how their vulnerability has been received,  you likely get a confusing mixture of both responses.  Understanding what you might be bringing up in yourself and another when you practice NVC helps you access patience and compassion.

Next, it's useful to name some common thought pitfalls you and your partner can get into as you learn NVC.  The most common pitfall I see NVC students get into is the idea that you can learn NVC conceptually, memorize and follow the structure, and then you will be connected.  Understanding concepts and memorizing components is how you effectively learn many things in life so it's understable that confusion happens when it doesn't work this time.  So, what's missing?

Emotional connection requires emotional attunement.  Attunement means tuning in to another's experience as fully as possible with the intention to offer caring and support.  It's important to distinguish this from vigilance, which involves tuning in to assess and avoid threats.  On a practical level attunement means that you are often looking at and/or listening to your partner with curiosity.  You get curious about his or her feelings, energy level, needs, and activities.  You remember what your partner shares and consider how s/he is affected by things.   In summary, you are willing to make space in yourself for your partner's experience.*

When you are first learning NVC it might mean that you are engaging in the cognitive learning approach, this means there is very little of your attention left for attunement.  While attunement can be hard thing to name when it's happening, it's easy to name when it's not happening.  If you try to do NVC with your partner in a cognitive way, you will usually get an immediate reaction to the lack of attunement.  You hear back things like:  "Why are you talking like a robot?!", "Do you really have to repeat what I say?!", "I feel like you are trying to manipulate me."

If you are not uncomfortably struggling with a sense of vulnerability, then you are likely caught in this pitfall of doing NVC in a cognitive way while hoping for an emotional connection.  

The second most common pitfall I see with couples is the pitfall of unexamined judgments and assumptions.  Unexamined judgments and assumptions block connection.  Check your thoughts for these typical judgments and assumptions regarding your partner:

o   If you cared about us you would learn NVC with me.

o   You can't handle intimacy

o   You don't know yourself very well

o   We are doomed if you don't learn NVC

o   Now that I understand my needs, you better meet them

o   Now that I understand my needs, you will probably leave me

o   I am done guessing your needs!

o   If you don't make a clear request, I won't do it.

o   I am always the one trying to make things work

Your partner might be having their own judgments or assumptions in regards to you and your NVC practice:

o   You think I don't communicate well

o   I'm not enough for you

o   You want to get inside my head and control me

o   You are trying to get around the truth

o   You want everything to be polite and calm


To keep from falling into these pitfalls communicate about your intention and your process,  examine your judgments and assumptions, and look at the big picture.


NVC was created to help people attune to one another and create self-responsible, mutually honoring, and connected relationships.  If this is not your intention, then you may want to look deeper into what you do want to create.  If this is your intention, communicate that regularly to your partner in as many different words as you can.  Remember, with vulnerability often comes a whole entourage of other experiences, don't assume that if you stated your intention once that's enough.  You might dealing with a tidal wave of habits that mistrust vulnerability.


Reveal your process to your partner.  Name the awkwardness.  Explain how, that as you learn, you habitually go into your head to try to follow the concepts and structure and then you miss what's happening emotionally.  Explain that it takes a little while for these two to come together and that until then you might seem robotic as you try to make use of new skills while staying attuned emotionally.


In the midst of a difficult time with your partner, pain can easily trigger judgments and assumptions about what's happening or what should be happening.  Set up weekly time with an empathy buddy or for reflection and self-empathy.  Explicitly ask yourself, "What judgments and assumptions am I holding regarding my partner and this practice?".  Then name the observations, feelings, needs, and requests to which the judgment or assumption is pointing.



Lastly, when you are intent on learning NVC and bettering your relationship, take time to see the big picture.  Intense focus is balanced by standing back to get a wider view, much like a camera lens that zooms in to reveal the delicate pattern in a dragonfly wing then zooms out to show the pond and surrounding mountains.  Keep track of what you appreciate about your partner and how s/he contributes to your life together and the relationship.  Name and notice all the ways you and your partner connect (especially those not related to dialogue).  Reflect on the bigger picture of your partner's life, both present and past with compassion and celebration.


This week each time you notice yourself "using NVC" pause for one full breath just relax around your heart notice sensations and emotions present in the moment.

*You can read more on attunement here:  span style="font-size: 14.6666666666667px; font-family: Arial; color: rgb(17, 85, 204); text-decoration: underline; vertical-align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap; background-color: transparent;">

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2 Responses

  1. Sep 02, 2015

    This made such a loy of sense. Practising NVC doesn't mean suppressing emotions but being aware of them. I found the list of judgements helpful too.

  2. Sep 02, 2015

    I tried to tweet this but there seems to be a problem with your connection to twitter.

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