Take out the garbage. Who, me?

Original publication date: 12-29-05
In Sonoma Sun by Joan Huguenard

What might be the reaction when a little kid is asked to do something unpleasant?

Catherine Cadden, an extraordinary peacemaker barely mentioned in last week’s column, knows the answer need not be the automatic response of habit.

In October I had the opportunity to observe Catherine, an internationally acclaimed trainer in non-violent communication (NVC) who specializes in childhood education. I was struck by the quick connections she made, effectively using a series of exercises to teach compassionate communication at Sonoma’s Flowery and Charter Schools.
“Sometimes we receive hard-to hear messages,” began a new game. “Whenever we’re listening, we can choose different ways to listen. With option one, we hear blame and then blame ourselves. In option two we hear blame and then blame the person delivering the message. Option three has us connecting with what is going on inside of us and then giving it honest expression. And the fourth option is to do our best to hear the feelings and needs expressed in the message.” Catherine called this last option “listening empathically.”
Numbering a group of chairs, the visiting teacher declared students would sit in these four options and listen. “Do you want to?” she asked. Not every student showed enthusiasm, so she queried whether those who said “no” might be willing to just listen while the others play. I was charmed by this simple request giving a sense of inclusion to everybody in the class.
Catherine said there would be no prizes, just improvement in the ability to hear. When she asked for volunteers, a lot of hands went up. “Can you suggest a hard to hear message?” was followed by “Take out the garbage” and the game began.
The student in Chair One responded with, “I throw away too much so I’m always having to take out the trash” while Option Two threw back, “You make way too much garbage.”
Options three and four required coaching but the kids were able to come up with, “When I hear you ask me to take out the garbage, I feel angry because I need respect” for option three, and “When you ask me to take out the garbage, I guess maybe you’re feeling hopeful because you need cooperation” for the fourth option.
Later, Catherine played the role of Mom making another hard-to-hear request. When Option Four said, “Are you feeling overwhelmed because you have a need for order in the house?” Mom responded, “No, I’m actually feeling frustrated because I have a need for play and I’m afraid we won’t have time.” How would a kid you know respond to such a message?
Catherine explained that whatever you are feeling is okay. Because feelings come from within, she said, other people can’t make you feel anything and you can’t make someone else feel a certain way. She drew a large heart around the word “heart” and circled the three letters in the center. This helped the children to understand that learning to really hear could turn on the EAR inside their HEART.
Could these little third-graders understand the concepts? Consider one child’s response: “Wow! If everyone did this, there would be no more war!” Catherine herself believes this to be true.
Ms. Cadden concluded her visit with an evening workshop for adults. “Let’s shift out of the ‘you or me,’ blame and shame mode,” Catherine proposed. “What happens if we change the paradigm to: What would make life more wonderful for you and me? If we each have a way to get our needs met – peacefully – that would certainly make life more wonderful all around.”
Once in a notoriously rough high school, two boys involved in a huge fight and threatening to kill each other were sent into Catherine’s workshop. One was wound tight, sitting with folded arms and a face contorted with rage. The other was splayed out on his chair displaying disdain and indifference. Catherine told us what she saw was not two kids having tantrums, but two tragic expressions of unmet needs.
When she was able to elicit from each of them an expression of what feelings were alive in them, neither spoke of anger! As they shared their feelings, Catherine helped them to understand what their needs were behind those feelings. Later the two walked out of the room as buddies again after commenting, “It is amazing to find out there are needs that cause me to say the things I say.” and “Once the need has been spoken, I realize lots of different people can help meet the need.”
“Empathy,” Catherine concluded, “is the gift of our presence connecting to the needs and feelings alive in ourselves and the other person.” Any time we hear a message, even when hard-to-hear, if we take a moment to connect to the need, we may be surprised to find an abundance of ways to meet those needs.