Why would they do that?

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One of the Nonviolent Communication (NVC) exercises is to describe your observations about a situation where someone is making your life less than wonderful, which means they are doing something you don’t like. In a practice group this evening, I quickly shared a game that I have been playing for decades that expands upon this concept. It struck a nerve because this simple game transforms judgment into compassion. Let’s look at it in detail and see how far it can go!

We’ll start with something that is making my life less than wonderful. Here’s one way to describe the situation:

There is an inconsiderate woman who walks her dogs on the path outside our condo. She thinks the rules don’t apply to her because the dogs are off leash, despite the signs. They poop on the path and she doesn’t care about her neighbours because she doesn’t pick up after them, leaving the poop for others to step in. Someone needs to take those dogs away from her!

Processing the world through stories:

What do you notice about how I wrote this?

I see that it’s got a lot of story in it. My understanding is that we constantly make up stories to make sense of the world. When we don’t like what someone is doing, the stories usually include what is called an enemy image in NVC, which includes thoughts like judgments, evaluations, and criticism. In the above description of events I’ve mixed my observations and my imaginary stories about what I saw that help me understand how this can be happening and why someone would act in ways that I cannot relate to.

Stories are just guesses, and they might not be correct. A person standing beside us, observing the exact same things, might come up with a totally different story.

Stories are just guesses, and they might not be correct. A person standing beside us, observing the exact same things, might come up with a totally different story. And, I can guarantee you that if we asked this person with the dogs if that story was correct, she would not agree.

Our stories shape how we show up in the world:

How do you think the conversation would go if I had those stories in my head when I approached this person to talk about her dogs? That judgemental energy will come across, and whatever I say will likely not be received very well. In fact, I know it won’t, as I’ve heard people yelling at her that they are going to call the pound on her, and I’ve heard her yelling right back at them.

Coming into a discussion with the energy of judgement typically escalates situations and makes it very difficult to get your needs met. It actually usually ends with less of your needs being met than before, as it can easily create a spiral of intensifying reactions.

NVC encourages us to get really good at removing stories from observations so we can show up in the world differently. I invite you to scroll back and read that example again. See if you can rewrite it in your head to be just an observation. That means it’s just the facts as a video camera would report them, with no interpretations, guesses at intent, or any other kind of thinking going on about what is observed.

Here’s what that might look like without any stories at all:

There is a woman who walks her dogs on the path outside our condo. The dogs are off leash and poop on the path. I haven’t seen her pick up after them.

See the difference? Even if I said, “She doesn’t pick up after her dogs”, that would be a story I was telling myself. All I know is that I haven’t seen her pick up after them! That is pure observation. Now that all the stories have been removed, we have room to replace all the judgments with something else. But, with what?

The simple game to change your stories:

The, “why would they do that?” game is a little mental game I made up that I’ve played for decades to replace the judgmental thoughts and stories with something new.

Here’s how to play: Whenever anyone does anything that you don’t like, come up with alternative reasons for their actions that are different than the initial negative story you told yourself.

Whenever anyone does anything that you don’t like, come up with alternative reasons for their actions that are different than the initial negative story you told yourself.

For example, did a jerk cut just you off in traffic? What if it’s a scared parent rushing their injured child to the hospital? How does that story change your thinking?

How does it change how you’re feeling?

With the woman and the dogs, the initial reasons I suggested that could be behind her actions are that she is inconsiderate, that she thinks the rules don’t apply to her, and that she doesn’t care about her neighbours. This led to a conclusion about what needed to be done, which was that somebody needs to take her dogs away!

Can you think of any other reason that she might not be picking up after them? I challenge you to take a moment to see if you can think of one reason before continuing. It’s often not easy!

Here’s four guesses I came up with off the top of my head, along with guesses about how she might be feeling:

  1. She has injured her back, or has arthritis, or some other physical problem that has stopped her from bending over. She is terribly embarrassed that she can’t currently pick up after the dogs and too proud to ask for help. She desperately hopes nobody notices.
  2. She lost her job and is saving money wherever she can. She’s deeply ashamed that she can’t even afford doggie bags and angry that people with more privilege are looking down at her and judging her.
  3. She loves and needs her dogs, and she has Sensory Processing Disorder causing a violent reaction to the textures when picking up after her dogs. She’s disgusted with herself for not being able to do such a seemingly simple thing to care for her dogs.
  4. She has suffered deep trauma and her dogs are her emotional support animals. Putting them on leashes feels like imprisoning them and creates intense, debilitating anxiety. The dogs walk at different paces, so she doesn’t always notice when they stop to poop.

What we can learn from this game:

Again, the original critical story I made up about her may be right, or they may be wrong. One of these new stories I suggested might be right, or they may all be totally wrong. In every case, they are all just made up stories in our heads.

The point of the exercise is to bring us out of judgment and into compassion and curiosity. How do you think a conversation with her about the dogs might go when holding in our heart the possibilities of these and other stories that we didn’t think about compared to a conversation coming from judgement?

The point of the exercise is to bring us out of judgment and into compassion and curiosity.

Remember the solution I had before, that her dogs needed to be taken away from her? Does a new solution come to mind with these new potential reasons in mind? Maybe to give her care and help?

Needs behind the stories:

To take it into a deeper NVC mindset, the game could be, “What needs are they trying to meet by doing what they did?” In NVC, we believe that every action we take is in service of a need. In my first example with the car, if it were a parent rushing their child to the hospital, they might have needs of wellness, safety, and to protect their child from harm. Those needs are taking precedence over their needs for community, peace, and collaboration on the road.

What do you think the needs would be for the woman with the dogs in the four examples I came up with? Here are a couple of guesses of some of the needs that may be driving her actions for each scenario:

  1. Physical problem: Need for comfort, protection from pain.
  2. Lost job: Need for prosperity, dignity.
  3. Sensory disorder: Need for ease, courage.
  4. Trauma: Need for security, confidence.

Taking it another level deeper, what do you think she might be needing from me and the other people in her community who might otherwise be judging her when we see her not picking up after her dogs? Here are some guesses:

  1. Physical problem: Need for understanding, compassion.
  2. Lost job: Need for kindness, generosity.
  3. Sensory disorder: Need for flexibility, sensitivity.
  4. Trauma: Need for friendship, autonomy.

How we show up in the world with new stories:

In playing the game, it doesn’t matter if we get the right motivations for actions. I would suggest that it doesn’t even matter if we agree with or condone whatever the real reason is, as that can lead back to moralistic judgement.

I encourage you to let go of all that and use these exercises as tools to retrain our brains and hearts. When someone is doing something that makes life unpleasant, we can replace the automatic stories that create negativity and division with more conscious stories that create compassionate thinking, curiosity, and connection. This conscious mindset can change the energy with which we respond to people, which changes how we will be received by those we interact with.

As I wrote above, when we come in with negative stories, we typically disconnect from each other and escalate situations. In contrast, when we come into discussions conscious that our stories aren’t real and from the compassionate mindset that these exercises create, I think it greatly increases the chances of creating a connection and of all parties get their needs met!

Is there someone doing something that is making your life less than wonderful? Are you willing to try replacing any judgemental or critical stories about them? Here are steps that can consciously create connection:

  1. Remove any story from the observation. What would a camera see?
  2. Guess one or more alternative reasons they may have done what they did. Why else would they do that?
  3. Guess what needs they may be trying to meet for each reason you came up with.
  4. Guess what needs they might have from people who are judging them? What do they need from you to create connection?

I’d love to hear how this impacted you. Please share in the comments or get in touch! 🙂

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John Reel

Want better relationships? Get in touch for coaching on how to connect on a deeper, life-affirming level. I’m trained in Nonviolent Communication mediation, and on the path to NVC trainer certification. I'm also a coach, currently training to specialize in relationships.