Nonviolent Communication with Teens - My Story
I want to preface by saying that this post is much more personal than all of the other posts from this blog to date. Typically, this blog features tips and educational pieces about Nonviolent Communication, restorative practices, and empathy. Today, I'm trying something a little different and sharing some personal experience related to this work. I'd love to know what you think about this kind of content; please share in the comments.
I first learned Nonviolent Communication, or NVC, in a group of adults. I went on to practice it for years with even more adults. I then started teaching it... to adults. (By the way, if you are interested in taking that course, I still teach it. You can check it out here). In this last month, I was given the opportunity to share this process with teenagers in summer school at a Title 1 school, and while the information is all the same, the experience was a whole different ballgame.
I don't spend a whole lot of time around teenagers in general. I just don't have much exposure to that demographic in my daily life. I did, however, have some preconceived judgments about teenagers and what it would be like to work with them, and those stories in my head left me feeling terrified. I was so nervous and insecure around this work - work that I otherwise have a considerable amount of confidence around - because I had thoughts that they wouldn't want to listen to me. I was concerned for my own emotional safety and I really wanted them to not only respect me but also to like me.
The first couple of classes with them pretty much fed my fears. I struggled so much with presence. I didn't know how to convince them that I had something worthwhile to share. Every lesson plan I had went out the window because I spent most of my time asking them to get off of their phones... and then something clicked. I remembered that I had this amazing tool that brings people to connection: empathy! It may sound silly that I was there to teach them NVC and I didn't think to really use it until day 3. I suppose that goes to show how powerful fear and stories in one's head can be. The moment I started giving the students empathy and truly hearing them instead of trying to control them, everything changed.
This quote from Bruce Lee keeps coming to mind, "Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it". I remembered to meet them where they were, use the process that I know works, and let them lead.
Here's the thing: most teenagers do not have experiences of truly being heard by adults. Read that last sentence again. Adolescents are so used to people telling them what to do, where to be, how to act, etc. and it's rare for an adult to simply listen to them with full presence and take some guesses around their needs. Without fail, every time I gave one of those kids an experience of being heard, they softened. If they had charge, frustration, or anger around something, I would lean into that and give them empathy, and their demeanor and energy would shift. Instead of telling them to calm down or act differently, or even explain myself, I just listened, and they had so much appreciation around that.
From there, I was able to teach them some lessons around nonviolent communication and by week 2, they were giving me empathy! And quite frankly, many of them picked up on it much more quickly than a large fraction of the adults that I have worked with in the past.
I learned a great deal from those kids. They reminded me that staying in integrity with the process of NVC works. They also gifted me with a lens into their worlds - realities that are so far removed from mine - and I am honored and touched to know them in the ways that I now do. I think (and hope) they learned a bit from me as well. Regardless, I am certainly grateful for my time and connection with them.