How NVC Saves Time – Long Answer

(Time to read: ~8 minutes)

I was presenting to a group of social workers when a participant made this comment, which is a variation on something I hear often: “We don’t have time for that.”

My understanding is that they were referring to my suggestion that when someone wants them to do something they are not willing to do, they start by reflecting back what’s important to the other person.

This response is divided into 2 parts:

  1. The 5 Options in such a situation – and the short- and long-term consequences of each
  2. 2 Preparation Steps that save even more time when you’re “under the gun” time-wise

There is also a “short” response that reiterates the two preparation steps and summarizes the benefits of the strategy I recommended.

The 5 Options

So what are the options in such a situation?

The context we were discussing is one which the social work area has a standard protocol for handling. But the particular school official they were talking to was unwilling to follow that protocol because of the amount of their time it would take, time that they felt they needed to use in other ways to support a large group of students.

So what are the social worker’s options?

  1. Tell the other person your strategy
  2. Give in and follow the other person’s strategy
  3. Explain the “good reasons” (needs) behind your strategy
  4. Hear & reflect back what’s important to the other person
  5. Propose a strategy that you think will work for both of you (if you have one).

1 – Tell the other person your strategy

In other words, they can tell the other person that they “have” to do this, or that “this is the way things are done”. In other words, focus on the social worker’s strategy.

I think what most of us (perhaps unconsciously) expect will happen in this situation is that the other person will say “Oh, okay” and willingly and effectively contribute to the way we tell them. This, of course, would be the most time-efficient option, if it ever occurred.

But all my experience (from my own life and that of my clients) indicates this almost never actually happens.

Instead, I find that two things generally happen in response to this approach. Either the other person will give in and agree (perhaps to get rid of the social worker for now so they can focus on other work). Or they spend time talking about the original strategy they proposed – perhaps defending it. Maybe even wearing down the social worker to the point that they’ll find some other alternative.

  1. When Someone Gives In
    When I’m in the social worker’s shoes, I feel nervous when I’m sensing someone is giving in, for three reasons. First, unless the action I’m wanting them to do is something they are going to do while I’m with them, I worry that they won’t actually follow through on it – that they will “forget” or be “too busy” on the day it’s supposed to happen.
    Second, if the task is not simply a rote task, like signing a piece of paper, but actually involves some care and thought on the part of the other person, I’m concerned that the purpose of the social work strategy won’t actually be fulfilled. For example, in my experience, having someone attend a meeting feeling resentful about being there reduces not only their participation but the effectiveness of the whole meeting.
    Finally, I worry that feeling that they’ve “lost face” is going to undermine the working relationship between the other person and me. They will be looking for a way to “get back” at me for “making them” do what I did. The image that comes up for me is of rust on train wheels, that means it takes much more energy to move things forward because there is always friction and resistance.
  2. When Someone Defends Their Strategy
    In my experience, people who are defending their strategy will keep on defending it until they feel they’ve been heard (or they will give in, as outlined above).
    There are two main ways of letting people know they’ve been heard.
    The first is to reflect back their strategy. “I hear that you’re wanting me to ….” The problem with this strategy in this context is that the social worker is not willing / able to do what the other person wants. So reflecting the strategy back is not going to move the conversation forward effectively.
    The second way of letting people know they’ve been heard is to reflect back their needs (and possibly their feelings). For example, “So you’re wanting to address the situations of the students waiting out in the hall.” (For me “address” is a natural language expression of the need to “support” – whether the support is to these specific students, or to others who have been disturbed in some way by these students, or both).
    In my experience, this kind of needs-oriented reflection contributes to the other person feeling heard, and thus a reduction in their stress and anxiety, which makes them more available for effective mutual problem-solving.

2 – Give In and Follow the Other Person’s Strategy

For the social worker I spoke to, this was not an option in this situation – there were many important reasons why the proposed strategy would not meet the objectives of either the social worker or the other person.

And this is generally the case when we feel feel stuck or stumped, as this social worker did. The other person’s strategy just really doesn’t work for us – and we know both we and they are going to regret it if we agree.

I so appreciate that this social worker was really clear about this.

3 – Explain the “Good Reasons” (Needs) Behind Your Strategy

It will be important for the other person to understand these “good reasons” because otherwise they won’t see the value of the social worker’s strategy.

And my experience is that most people are much more able to hear the good reasons behind my strategy when I’ve first heard the good reasons behind theirs.

There is even a risk in sharing my good reasons before I’ve reflected back their good reasons – it can actually “inoculate” them against my needs. Because people tend to stay in a place of resistance until what’s important to them has been heard, they will apply that resistance to whatever I tell them. If they’ve done this out loud, then to later acknowledge some value in my perspective can feel like “losing face”.

Better for them not to hear my good reasons until their resistance has been lowered.

4 – Hear & Reflect Back What’s Important to the Other Person (Their Needs)…

…and that person that those factors are also important to you.

Again, it is my understanding that this is what the person who spoke up was concerned about – the time this would take.

And it does take more time than just telling someone “You have to do this” and having them immediately agree, which is what we may expect will happen.

But my experience is that very few people in very few circumstances actually do immediately agree to something that they don’t think will meet their needs. We tend to get the kinds of responses I outlined under option 1 above – arguing / presenting the merits of their strategy, or agreeing but not really intending to follow through on the spirit of the agreement.

Start by reflecting back what you are hearing is important to the other person (needs), let them know that those things are important to you too and you want to find a way forward that addresses these. This tends to reduce resistance and increase willingness to hear what’s important to you.

Then, once they’ve been heard, check that they are willing to hear the factors that are important to you. Asking and dealing with the responses to this question further reduces resistance and increases their willingness to hear.

Stay focused on needs / criteria for a solution until you sense you are both hearing what’s important to each other. This helps to ensure maximum openness to solutions that will work for you, and avoids someone rejecting a solution because they don’t understand the full situation. It also helps to avoid the resistance that occurs when someone feels they will “lose face” by accepting a solution that they rejected earlier.

5 – Propose a Strategy You Think Will Work for Both of You

This option sometimes works – when you and the other person already understand what is important to each of you in the situation.

So, when the person initially proposes something that doesn’t work for you, and you are aware of the range of options that does work for them, you propose an alternative strategy that works for you and you know will also work for them.

This is very time-efficient when it works. And it tends to depend on a solid base of shared understanding and trust, which is generally built by following option #4 the first time a particular type of situation arises, to ensure mutual understanding of both sets of needs, and to discover a solution that does work for both of you.

And, if you encounter resistance to the strategy you propose, my experience is that following option #4 above is the quickest way to find a mutually workable way to move forward.

2 Preparation Steps to Save Even More Time

I find the NVC vocabulary of needs is a very concise and effective way of conveying what is important to us and others in any situation. Words like effective, consideration, included, cooperation, and support.

Because they are things that everyone wants – we don’t have to sell people on the value of these things. We just have to help them trust that it is possible to find strategies that will satisfy what’s important to both of us in the situation.

So two ways of preparing to reduce the time involved in conflict-resolving conversations are:

  1. Identify ahead of time the needs underlying some of the common strategies used by you and your department. Preparing some standard needs-centred phrases that you can use to help others understand the “good reasons” behind these strategies.
  2. Identify the common objections  you encounter to the strategies that you and your department propose. What needs are behind those objections? Again, you could prepare some standard needs-centred phrases that let you quickly get to the heart of what’s important to  people who raise these objections.

My experience is that as I’ve done this, and refined my phrases based on the responses I get, is that I’m able to quickly disarm resistance and get the other person and I on the same side, looking for mutually workable solutions.


Again, I appreciate the person who shared the comment that inspired this article. I hope that this response may support you and your colleagues in getting even more cooperation and support from others you work with.