To blame is human; to find mutually satisfying solutions, divine.
It is extremely challenging for parties locked in conflict to find mutually satisfying solutions. Not because myriad solutions aren’t available, but because we haven’t been taught how to communicate effectively.
This was exemplified through the clash over the bathroom sign at HomeSlice Pizza. If you missed the story published by The Durango Herald (Oct. 18), the owners of HomeSlice were asked to remove a multi-gender bathroom sign at their north Main location. The issue? The male stick figure was lifting the female’s skirt. Some patrons believed the sign trivialized sexual assault. Others saw the sign as cute, funny and harmless.
The sign was removed, though not as a mutually satisfying solution, but in anger and dismay over what owner Lynn Kitch called a “cyber lynch mob” enacting a “jihad” against her business and employees. Hundreds of locals weighed in online. Flames were fanned, creating an inferno of disagreement.
I watched this discord through the lens of nonviolent communication, tools developed by the late psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, aiming to increase connection through shared understanding of one another’s positions while seeking mutually satisfying solutions. It’s not rocket science, but given our typical discourse, in which we assert opinions like so many dogs marking their territory, it can appear equally mystifying.
One of the first tenets of nonviolent communication is to honestly express what’s important to us without alienating others. How do we do this? We start by sharing what’s up for us without labeling or name-calling. We take ownership of our reactions without standing behind some unseen force of moral judgment. This might sound like, “Hi, I have some concerns about your bathroom sign. It looks like the man is lifting up the woman’s skirt, and I feel concerned and worried viewing this. To me, it makes light of nonconsensual sexual activity. Can we talk about this?”
Notice, we avoid judgments or demands, because when these enter the conversation, you can be sure the other party has stopped listening and is forming a rebuttal. In fact, labels and judgments can create defensiveness, which stimulates stronger allegiance to our positions. Conversely, receiving empathy or understanding helps us loosen our grip on being “right.” The goal is to get both parties to hear each other. Only once that is complete can solutions be discussed.
This stage of listening takes time. It’s important to alternate between communicating about the issue and reflecting back what you’ve heard to demonstrate your willingness to understand what’s behind someone else’s actions. For the HomeSlice patron, acknowledging that they have heard the business owner might sound like this: “So, you saw that sign as cute and funny, just a couple in a flirtatious moment. You like to express yourself through humor and your customers have always appreciated that. Does that sound accurate?”
Through listening and reflecting, we’re actually building the road of care and connection. Perhaps we still don’t like the sign, but can now understand the motives behind it and see that no malice was intended. Let’s also recognize that we’re in new territory. On the heels of over 50 sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Uber’s reported sexism and the #metoo campaign, society’s awakening to the subtle and not so subtle misogyny against women, once largely invisible. And clearly, Durango is not immune to sexual assault, as was made tragically clear with last month’s incident.
Now with new, mutual understanding, we look at what “needs” are on the table for the different parties, as a guide to solutions. Nonviolent communication refers to needs as universal components to a healthy, enjoyable life (that include sustenance, belonging, contribution, autonomy, rest see http://baynvc.org/list-of-needs/ for a comprehensive list).
I’m guessing the HomeSlice owners’ needs were for fun, humor and playfulness, and also as a generous, community-minded business, trust and appreciation. And for those who opposed the sign, needs were likely for safety, equality, integrity and understanding. If we’re not attached to one particular strategy to meet needs, possibilities increase.
Dr. Dian Killian, founder of the Center for Collaborative Communication, says “the need to enrich the lives of others, to find a purpose in life through service to others, is one of the strongest of universal human needs.”
Knowing this, had the owners of HomeSlice received understanding, they might have decided that removing the sign would be a wonderful way to contribute to the inclusiveness and ease of their patrons, while building trust and appreciation within the community. They’d be free to look for ways to achieve fun and playfulness that didn’t stimulate pain and discomfort in others.
I could imagine them composing a very different email announcing the sign removal, propelling those folks who’ve decided to withdraw their support to become enduring, loyal customers instead.
Nonviolent communication takes time, effort and a commitment to understanding another person’s points of view. It is always quicker and easier to launch blame and judgment, but this life-serving language works like a hardy campfire, burning away resentment completely and leaving everyone warmer and more connected.
Rachel Turiel is a student and teacher of non-violent communication. She writes “Adventures in Motherhood” monthly for the Herald and is managing editor of Edible Southwest Colorado magazine. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.