Pilar de la Torre

Psychologist and psychotherapist

"Judgment and threats prevent you from having a good relationship with your children."

The secrets of nonviolent communication

In any happy or difficult situation, what we all want first of all from the person experiencing it with us is for them to look at and speak to us warmly. Nonviolent communication helps us find the strength to be warm and to express ourselves accordingly.

Nonviolent communication is a very powerful tool. It has four steps: facts, feelings, needs and action. Imagine a teenager arrives home having failed five subjects at school. You didn't think they would fail so many subjects, and it looks like they didn't either. However, their report card clearly shows that they have failed a lot of subjects. Five in all, and they're the most important ones. So, as with any family dispute, you find yourself at a crossroads. Which road will you take? Will you choose the route littered with obstacles that will mean you'll have to waste an enormous amount of energy to achieve the outcome you want? Or, will you go down the more compassionate road that leads to an in-depth discussion of what's happened involving empathy and honesty? You can use threats, punishments or try to bribe your child by offering them a reward, or you can judge them by telling them they're lazy or irresponsible. You can give them a long lecture on why, at 14, it's important for them to pass these subjects for their future career prospects. You can give them advice. 99% of the time, we give our children advice in positive or difficult situations when they haven't asked for it. It's also not what they need from us at the time. What they need is to be listened to, understood and accepted. They often actually don't need advice. And, the few times they do want our advice, they want to feel listened to and understood first. We can ridicule them and even remain silent by using emotional blackmail. We can make them feel guilty for annoying us.

Just like your body, relationships need nourishment. Throughout the day, you can eat things that are or aren't nutritious. Just because you've eaten something that isn't nutritious, that doesn't make the foods you've eaten that are nutritious any less valuable. It's the same with communication. We experience all types of situations and we have to try to resolve them as best we can. After all, we are only human. Given the speed at which we live our lives nowadays, I don't think anyone truly resolves all the problems they have with either their children or anyone else using compassion, attention, understanding and empathy. With children, it's a lifelong task that never ends. You have to continue working on it forever in order to reap the rewards. You have to stop and use your energy to try to find out what's going on with your children. What might they be experiencing? What might they need? What might be important to them? When you make the effort to pause and to restrain the impulse that sometimes leads you to be guided by your brain, you'll be able to choose the other road. The result of doing this is wonderful. Furthermore, every time you take this road and obtain a wonderful result, it becomes easier and you become more motivated to do so in future because you realize that it's worth the effort.

Clearly, when parents are demanding of their children, it's because they want the best for them. However, nobody, of any age, reacts well to being forced to do something or to having demands placed on them. That's not a theory, it's just how any human being reacts in these situations due to the way our emotional systems function. From the time they are born, humans are emotionally primed to defend their freedom to choose. This means they are likely to reject any demands placed on them. With this in mind, it's easy to see that you might have to pay a high price if you are too demanding of your children. So, you find yourself in a situation where you don't know which way to turn. You don't want to stop being demanding of your children completely, because you love them and want what's best for them; however, at the same time you realize that, by being demanding, you often don't get the results you would like.

The alternative to being demanding is to engage in dialogue and set limits. Clear, structured limits that come from a place of love. Through dialogue, you can make a connection to establish what the needs of both you and your child are and to decide what you can do together to satisfy these needs. You no longer need to be demanding, because there is progression and motivation, which is what being demanding is all about deep down. Of course, parents set the limits they deem necessary at any given time. Therefore, it is no longer necessary to be demanding, as your actions and the limits you have established help you move the situation forward.

Nonviolent communication involves setting limits. If you don't establish these limits, either with your children or anyone else, sooner or later you're likely to experience violent communication. Without limits, the needs of one of the parties might not be respected or dealt with. Sometimes, nonviolent communication is confused with not saying no and not setting limits that might be frustrating. Ultimately and as stated before, this is not constructive as, by failing to establish limits you're essentially not giving the other person the support they need as you're ignoring what's important to them. Is it possible to set limits in the knowledge that someone is likely to feel frustrated during the process? The first thing I want to clarify is that you don't set limits for the other person's benefit, irrespective of the situation. Limits are something you set for yourself to take care of your own needs.

Find out more about Pilar de la Torre

Pilar de la Torre has a degree in psychology from the Complutense University of Madrid. She is an expert in Gestalt psychotherapy and is the founder and Director of the Nonviolent Communication Institute. Ms. de la Torre was also a student of Marshall Rosenberg and wrote the book 'Nonviolent communication rationale and practices'.
How can we help our children to be assertive?

Imagine a situation where you've distributed the household chores and have asked one of your children to take the trash out and they reply that they don't want to do it. You basically have four choices: You can be aggressive: by threatening and punishing. You can be passive: by not saying anything, by being a victim or distancing yourself, or by making it clear that the other person will have to pay for their actions in the future. You can also be assertive by only paying attention to the way an action is performed, which means you can either react like a broken record, rethink your reaction or ask questions. Alternatively, you can act assertively by asking yourself in a nonviolent way, "What do I need?" The response to which might be that you're tired, need a break, require support or want collaboration and that you'll feel better if each party assumes their responsibilities and respects the agreements made. You can then say to your child: "Look, I've asked you to take the trash out and you say that you won't. We've already agreed to this, so please, take the trash out today and then tomorrow we'll take a look at which of the house rules you don't agree with so you feel like you have a choice about what you do and don't feel like you're being dictated to and so that all the chores are shared equally. It's very important to me that we look at all the chores you do and those the rest of the family do one by one." The guiding principle I use both in my relationship with my daughter and with the young people I work with that helps me a lot and that I immediately turn to is: “Connection before education.” I turn the social education model round the other way. First and foremost, children are taught what they can or can't do and what's correct or incorrect. Then, a connection may or may not be made. Therefore, if you make education more important than establishing a connection, it becomes very difficult to establish a relationship afterwards. However, if you focus on establishing a connection before you start trying to educate a child, you'll find that they respond better to being educated. This can be explained by the concepts of sharing and mutual understanding. Connection before education.

"The aim of nonviolent communication is to take care of both our own needs as well as those of others."

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