Guest blogging for Theresa Latini today is Nkiru Okafor. Sr. M. Nkiruka C. Okafor IHM is a member of the Religious Institute of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Mother of Christ. A PhD Candidate in Pastoral Care and Counseling at Luther Seminary, she is interested in research on spirituality in youth ministry, media, culture, and religion.
“They stopped their ears…” (Acts 7:57 NKJV) This is a verse from the scene of Stephen’s narrative in the Acts of the Apostles. The scene describes the response of the council when Stephen made the outrageous claim of seeing the glory of God.
I can recall several times that I have literally or figuratively stopped my ears in a communication process. Literally, I sometimes, stop my ears with my hands so as not to hear a difficult message. At other times, I do the same by choosing not to hear myself, the other, or even God.
Stopping one’s ears describes the attitude of a person who is uncomfortable with and highly anxious about what s/he is hearing. It paints the scenario of defensiveness. If this defence does not work, then the person might proceed to drag the conversation partner outside and stone him or her to death (fight), or leave (flight), or pretend to be there while not listening (freeze).
Nonviolent communication (NVC, also known as Compassionate Communication, CC) is helping me today to be aware of why I want to stop my ears with my hands in a communication process. NVC’s four skills, observation (O), feelings (F), needs (N), and request (R) help me to uncover why and how I respond to difficult conversations. It is helping me to unstop my ears and make empathy the connecting thread. According to Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of NVC, the need for connection is at the root all communication process. Practicing these skills keeps me rooted in myself while honestly seeking connection with the other.
This is not my default mode of being. I normally have two responses or two ways of stopping my ears. When I sense that my need is not being met in a communication process, I easily stop my ears by churning out ready-made answers, in fact, letting the conversation run like a parallel monologue. Both of us may end up feeling hurt as we end up not hearing each other. At other times I choose to remain “physically present and psychologically absent.” I might stay there, but I have fully stopped my ears with safety valves. I recall one incident vividly. I was invited to discuss an issue with a person in authority. Knowingly, I had stopped my ears before the conversation started. I sat there while the person spoke nonstop for about ten minutes (no exaggeration here). I did not hear a word that was said. My stuffed ears at this scenario looked like this. I constructed a court of law while sitting there. In this court, I was the complainant, the prosecutor, the witness, and the judge. Within a short time, I had already judged the case and found the person guilty. By the time I delivered my judgement, the person was physically showing signs of frustration by shouting in a loud voice. We both ended up frustrated. Needless to say, neither of us achieved the desired connection in that process.
My introduction to NVC through my professor, Theresa Latini, in my PhD program at Luther Seminary has helped me to listen deeply by un-stuffing my ears. Whenever I find myself hearing a difficult message, I stop to ask, “What is going on?” which is a helpful way of making an observation (O) without judgement, blame, evaluation, or other life alienating patterns of communication. I then proceed to name my feelings (F) or pay attention to the feelings of the other(s). From here, I proceed to guess the needs (N) being met or unmet. Finally, I make a request (R) that helps me to achieve the connection I seek.
Unlike Stephen’s hearers, I no longer rush for stones when I hear difficult messages. NVC is one of the ways of holding difficult conversations and it has served me well in human relationships. Undergirded by a theology of compassion, it offers the world an antidote to the hate which begins with “stopping the ears.”