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Conflict Management in Higher Ed Report
Volume 6, Number 1, Nov 2005

Nonviolent Communication
and Ombuds Work

Universities are the perfect vessel for brewing conflict. The combination of thousands of young adults away from home for the first time discovering who they are, mixed with overworked professors passionate about usually quite narrow fields of discipline, administrators who struggle to keep an increasingly complex bureaucracy functional, all leavened with constant financial crises, cooks up into a rich stew of friction where conflict freely bubbles up.

doveI should not have been surprised. But until I took on the position of University Ombudsperson, I was unaware of the extent and the depth of the conflicts within the university. I did not realize I had colleagues who went home each night and cried because of their interpersonal conflicts at work.

Most the people I see as a University Ombudsperson are in distress. They may be frustrated, angry, frightened or desperate, but they rarely bother to contact me unless they are feeling considerable pain. Shortly after taking the position at Humboldt State University, I began looking for tools that would better help me serve the people I see. Despite my former experience as a psychiatric nurse and my courses in conflict resolution through the Institute of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ISADR), I longed for skills that could help me address some of the emotional pain my people experience.

I discovered that Nonviolent Communication (NVC), created by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D, outlined a model that was uncomplicated yet deeply powerful. I can use the tools for a variety of purposes: enhancing active listening, offering empathy, relieving emotional distress, coaching complaints and requests, and full-out mediation. I also can teach individuals and groups how to use the NVC skills on their own. Nonviolent Communication's elegantly simple model can be quickly sketched to others, although like any new behavior approach, takes awhile to fully assimilate.

The NVC model comprises of four components: observations, feelings, needs and requests. [1] The first component is making clear observations without evaluations. This sounds easy but most of our descriptions are freighted with judgments. "He's so unreasonable about my grade," says a student. "I told him I have a learning disorder." Or one faculty member talks about another: "She's rude and hysterical. I can't work with her."

NVC advises us to separate out the behavior from the judgment by focusing on what a camera might record: The above student statement might be translated: "I told him about my learning disorder but when I asked for more time on the exam, he said no." This approach not only removes evaluation, but it offers much more specific information. The faculty statement might be more effectively expressed as: "When I brought up the subject of retirement at the committee meeting, she started breathing heavily then left the room."

Not only is it easier for people to hear us when we use neutral, non-judgmental language, but also we can often begin to see our situation in another light. As ombudsperson, I can assist people by reframing their judgments into observations.

The next component of NVC is identification of feelings [2], separated from thoughts. Most of the people I see in the ombuds office are in a charged emotional state: they usually are angry, often frightened and the feelings of sadness and hopelessness also frequently come up. Reflecting the client's feelings can be an important part of active listening, especially when the person has not identified feelings him- or herself. NVC teaches us to discern true feelings from thoughts. Often we use the words "I feel" when we mean "I think" or "I believe." Statements like "I feel our department is in a real mess," or "I feel that financial aid doesn't care about students," do not express feelings at all. They are statements of beliefs. When I listen to the story of someone who is not in touch with his or her feelings, I can try to guess them. "Are you feeling upset about the personnel conflicts in your department?" or "Do you feel frustrated by the policies in financial aid?"

Sometimes thoughts more deeply conceal themselves as in statements like "I feel intimidated by my professor." This statement is more an interpretation (and a judgmental one at that) of the other person's behavior (intimidating) rather than our own feeling response. Again, I try to reframe: "Are you feeling nervous and a little scared when the professor talks in a loud voice." If someone balks at my attempts to deal with their feelings directly, I might back off expressing them out loud but keep an inventory in my head because this identification is an excellent route for my connecting with them empathetically.

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