It’s not (just) what we say, it’s how we say it (which is all about the nervous system)

I first came across Non-Violent Communication (NVC) in Marshall Rosenberg’s book that my then partner had picked up at the book shop. We were needing some support with our communication, and this one jumped out at him for some reason. Needless to say, it was too late for us. I kept the book when we separated! And I continued to dive deeper with NVC, attending various trainings and practice groups.

If you’re not familiar with NVC, I would describe it as a framework for self-enquiry and communication. It offers a framework to identify our own feelings and understand the needs underneath them, as well as to share them with other people, with a focus on connection and empathy for self and other. The suggested format for expression is, “I feel (feeling), because I’m needing (universal need). Would you be willing to (request)?”.

It’s occurred to me recently that one of the things that NVC attempts to do is to support people to communicate in a way that feels safe to others. By focusing on an intention to connect, using language that is intended to be self-responsible (“I” statements, feelings rather than “faux feelings”), and generally steering clear of judgment and blaming, our expressions are less likely to be perceived as threatening by our partner.

However, a lot of people who really like the framework seem to have trouble using it in their relationships (myself and hubby included!), especially when it comes to “charged” topics! Even if we’re using the “right words”, and despite our best intentions, if a conversation is even mildly “triggering” for either one of us, then NVC is likely to be challenging, to say the least, and may not have the desired outcome.

Let me talk you through it.

If we are feeling triggered, we aren’t feeling safe in our nervous system. Our sympathetic nervous system will become activated, and go into fight-flight. Adrenaline makes our heart beater faster, our breathing faster, our muscles tense, and our pupils dilated. Our face will be quite flat and rigid, our tone of voice will be harsher, and we will feel agitated. We tend to get “bigger”, louder, and faster in our communications.

The fight-flight protection mechanism of our autonomic nervous system, often makes us feel a sense of urgency. It feels like a matter of survival! We will have a tendency to think that we are right and the other is wrong (and/or has wronged us). We may start to hold our own needs as more important, and it will be very hard for us to allow space for our partner’s feelings and needs.

Regardless of the words we are using, the state of our nervous system is communicated through our verbal and nonverbal behaviour, sometimes very subtly, so that we might not even notice it if we aren’t in the practice of tuning into and noticing our states. But if we are triggered, our way of interacting is likely to feel unsafe to our partner. The energy will be more confrontation or competition (even subtly) than connection.

We all have a sophisticated inbuilt mechanism, called “neuroception”, for picking up on this. It is finely tuned to pick up on micro-signs of threat in our tone of voice, facial expression, and body language. If we are feeling even slightly agitated, our partner might not feel safe to listen, or confident that we will listen to them. They won’t feel that we are both on the same side.

Sometimes we only need a tiny bit of sympathetic activation, which we might experience in the form of slight impatience, irritation or frustration, for our words to miss the mark. We might be unaware of our own activation, insisting that we are “fine”, and using the “right (NVC) words”, but our partner can feel that something is “off”. (And some people have more sensitive neuroception than others.)

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All of this will likely automatically and unconsciously trigger our partner’s amygdala into detecting threat, and they will join us in activation, which can take us both into a bit of a spiral of fight-flight energy, where we continue to trigger each other, and it can be difficult to find a gracious exit.

While we are in fight-flight, it is impossible to convey a sense of safety interpersonally. Even if our nervous system unconsciously applies a bit of the dorsal vagal “brake”, which will “temper” our expression by partially immobilising us (referred to as “fawning”), we will still be showing the subtle signs that signal threat.

This can lead to a form of inadvertent gaslighting, as we insist to our partners, “No, I’m not blaming you! Yes, I’m willing to listen to you!”. But they can perceive the incongruence between what we’re saying, and how we’re saying it. And our denying this can be an even bigger obstacle to connection.

In contrast, when have a neuroception of safety, the ventral vagal nerve, which is responsible for social engagement, is engaged. We feel calm and connected to ourselves, and we can connect easily with others. Our heart rate and breathing will be slower, we will look relaxed in our posture, speak with a gentle rhythmic intonation (prosody), have a soft gaze, and expressive face.

What I find particularly remarkable is that, because of the connection of the ventral vagus nerve to our middle ear, when we are in a calm and connected state, we are actually physically more capable of hearing and understanding our partner’s words. And the part of our brain that is responsible for empathy will be online.

When we are in this state, we feel safe, and we give off signals that we are safe to be around. We give our partner a sense that all is okay, that we’ve got this, that it is safe for them to listen and express themselves, to be vulnerable and let their guard down. This is the physiological state that fosters connection. We can be gentle, flexible, creative, and playful.

When we are in a ventral vagal state of “self-connection”, we don’t really need a prescribed formula to guide our expression and listening to each other. Because if both partners are feeling safe, the conversation will naturally flow in a way that holds both people’s feelings and needs as important.

You might be wondering about the third dominant state of our autonomic system, shutdown, where the dorsal vagal nerve becomes dominant. Well, if one of us is there, then a conversation like this is unlikely to even start. In that state, we may feel like our needs are not important, that we are wrong, or that there is something wrong with us.

We won’t have the energy or the motivation to express ourselves. It will feel hopeless, like there’s no point. We might be feeling too disconnected from our bodies and authentic selves to even start to express what we’re feeling, because we won’t be feeling much at all. And from this state of disconnection, we won’t have the capacity to listen or empathise well either.

Alternatively, we might enter this shutdown state when we are part-way into a conversation, if the fight-flight activation becomes too much for us. That’s when the autonomic nervous system unconsciously and automatically switches on the dorsal vagal “brake”, which immobilises us. We won’t feel like talking or listening anymore, we will go quiet and tune out.

As helpful as I’ve found NVC as a framework in the last 10 years, I believe that an awareness of the role of our autonomic system is crucial, but mostly overlooked. As Stephen Porges says, because of the ventral vagus nerve, we’re always “wearing our heart on our face”. Connection can’t just be “intended”, and it can’t be constructed cognitively. Connection requires embodiment of a safe autonomic state.

Increasing our awareness of our own states – what it feels like to be in the ventral vagal state of self-connection, sympathetic dominant of fight-flight or dorsal vagal dominant state of shutdown – can be one of the missing pieces. And, of course, we must listen to our partners when they tell us that they don’t feel that sense of safety or connection! Sometimes they know something that we aren’t yet aware of!

Learning to better regulate our nervous system is not necessarily straightforward. For many of us, it takes a lot of support and practice. These are the things that Angela Hill and I will be offering in our new program, “Rewire through Regulation and Repair”, which will be supporting parents to embody a sense of safety in the context of parenting (although a lot of it will be generalisable to any relationship).

If you’re interested in learning more, please send me a DM or email me at herewithyouparenting@gmail.com, and I will send you details when we launch the program.

Note: I’ve written this in reference to NVC, but it could be related to any framework for communication.

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