I hate socially uncomfortable situations. I hate them to the point that I prefer when they reveal themselves to actually be asocial situations: I know how to deal with those. Yes, there is a slight risk of, like, death or grievous bodily harm… but that feels so much better than the possibility of getting social egg all over my face.
The above statement ought to provide anyone reading with the clear indication that I’m a complete idiot. However, it should also provide you with an indication that if a system for navigating socially uncomfortable waters works for me, it can work for anybody. We’re talking serious idiot-proofing here.
A few years back, I discovered Dr Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC) Process. NVC is often marketed as a cure-all to all types of conflicts, which it isn’t. At its very core is the belief that there is no such a thing as asocial conflict. If you use NVC techniques in asocial settings, which it isn’t designed to deal with, they are very likely to fail (or, if they succeed, they will do so by accident). Treating tigers as if they were misunderstood pussycats, and just trying to bond with them, can get you killed. If you are looking for something that can help with conflict in general, Conflict Communication by Rory Miller and Marc MacYoung is your baby.
However, when it comes to social conflict, NVC offers some miraculously helpful scripts for dealing with emotionally charged situations. This includes those situations in which you yourself are one of the people who is emotionally charged, as well as those where there is a high risk of you causing someone else to get emotionally charged. If there’s anything better out there for that specific purpose, I’ve not found it yet.
NVC communication is based on a few concepts that sound ridiculously, mindbogglingly obvious… until you realise that hardly anyone ever uses them. For instance, it’s based on actually understanding what the other person means before reacting. It’s based on de-escalating yourself first (though it doesn’t use that expression – I stole that from Conflict Communication). It’s based on fostering an internal dialogue that makes you better able to respect your emotions AND to realise that they ultimately stem from how you are parsing your reality. It’s based on communicating what you mean clearly, yet without pissing the living bejesus out of everyone around you. Seriously, it’s wicked good. And it’s heavily scripted, which makes it suitable for those whose social communication skills are rated at Potato. Like me.
Each communication has a four-part script:
- Express objectively what you observe.
- Express how that makes you feel.
- Express your need that is being unmet.
- Request the change that would meet that need.
So, for instance, if you are dealing with someone you find creepifying because they are standing too close, the script would go:
“Alfred, when I see you standing this close to me, I feel crowded out. Because I need more personal space to feel comfortable, would you be willing to step back beyond arms’ length, and stay there while we talk?”
Yes, it’s a bit long winded. But it achieves several things:
- It makes the issue YOUR issue. It’s not a personal assault on the person you are talking to. Please note the use of “I see” and “I feel” vs “you do” and “you make me feel”.
- It makes both the problem and the solution quantifiable. (Hint: if someone didn’t even know they were causing you a problem until you told them, chances are they won’t be able to immediately work out a solution unless you help them along a bit.)
- It clearly states your requirements. Provided that they are reasonable, if the person refuses to meet them or at least negotiate them, then you know that you are not dealing with someone who is “just” socially awkward. You are dealing with someone who either doesn’t care about how they make you feel, or takes delight in making you feel bad. They might be socially awkward, for sure, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not also horrible people, or perverts.
I love NVC because it’s structured and reliable. Provided I don’t mess with it, it won’t mess with me. More than that, it gives me the opportunity to either solve the problem, or know for a fact that I’m dealing with another type of problem altogether, which will require other solutions. The uncertainty is over. And in my book that’s worth throwing a few extra words at a person.
[Note: this is a very simplified solution, which solves a simple problem. Interpersonal interactions, unfortunately, are rarely this simple. Many other variables and considerations apply. For instance, if you attempt to use this method on people who are wilfully trying to make you feel bad (people the NVC model ignores the existence of), for instance bullies and Cock-Roaches, the game gets deeper. On the one hand, if you’ve expressed any hurtful emotion in your statement (e.g. “when you stand this close, I feel scared”), you’ve just told them that what they are doing is working. If, however, you express a kinda unemotional emotion (which is why I like “crowded out”), you’ve told them that you’re noticing their game, it has not achieved the desired emotional results, and will not play along quietly. This only works if you can also regulate your non-verbal communication: you can’t make someone believe that you’re not scared while you’re shaking and your voice is quivering.
But this is still better than any alternative I’ve seen, and infinitely better than no alternative at all.]