Friday, 9 September 2011

Q4: What would you say to a 9/11 bomber? – Extreme Communication

Have you ever wondered what you would say if you came face to face with a 9/11 bomber? As the tenth anniversary of the attacks on New York and Washington arrives, I find myself wondering: what would it be like to meet a person who instigated, planned, or even helped to carry out those attacks? And if I met them, what would I say?

Of course, many of those people are now dead themselves, so my question really is: how to handle extreme communication, whoever it is with? 

This is not just an idle wondering. Extreme communication happens whenever we face a situation that is outside our normal frame of reference; that somehow feels bigger than we are.

So it's not just like meeting a 9/11 bomber. We all face moments when another person says or does something which goes beyond our limits. And while we cannot change tragedies in the past, or necessarily prevent them in the future, we can always influence the interactions we have here and now, in our own lives.

Face to Face – A Tall Order

For some people, even the idea of talking to a 9/11 bomber may be a tall order. It may be worth pausing to fully imagine it ... to really notice our reactions. Sometimes, our feelings seem to hinder, rather than help; to make matters worse. I often hear people naming their reactions as a sign of their own incompetence:

'I froze – I just couldn't say a thing!'
'I argued til I was blue in the face, it made no difference.'
'Nothing I said worked.'
'I went hot all over, and started to justify myself.'
'I just felt faint and wanted to run away.'
'I had an overpowering urge to punch him.'

But contrary to common belief, whatever our responses are, they hold important clues for the way we handle important or stressful situations. 

The first step in handling extreme communication is to realise that:these responses are here for a reason – they are here to help.

Let's see how this is so.

1. Solving and resolving
At best, we find ourselves resourced and capable – it's certainly what we'd wish. At these moments, we know instinctively whether to listen to others, or to say what's bothering us. And if we do decide to speak our minds, we can often do it in such a way that the other person understands us; and if we're lucky, we may even convince them of our values – such as making compassion our basis for action. But the more extreme the situation, the harder it is to respond like this. 

2. Nothing to say
Instead, just when there's something vital to say, words can escape us. When we finally have the chance to express the one thing that matters, it's as if we have nothing to say. We go blank, or freeze; or we back off with a sense that it's hopeless and there's no point. 

How to move forward?
Extreme situations often feel overwhelming, at least to some part of us. It's as if our system doesn't know how to deal with their immensity. As they lie outside our usual range of experience, it's difficult to connect with them. They may seem unreal, or we may feel distant. 

This is nature's way of applying the brakes. School and society have created an expectation that we know how to respond - now! We're asked to know what we think, or to know what we feel. If we don't, we fear looking daft or incompetent. 

Yet our responses need time to form. Strong situations affect us in ways which are complex, contradictory and many-faceted. We need time to explore and discover the whole picture. Innately, we respond in ways which are true for us, and our most telling comment is one that comes directly from our core. If we reply too soon, we miss the chance to discover what that is.

3. Too much to say
Equally, there may be too much to say. How could we even begin to list the horrors of the 9/11 attacks, to express the scale of the tragedy? When something unspeakable happens, a myriad reasons come to mind to explain it, or to understand how it could have been avoided. The attempt to marshal our teaming thoughts can be overwhelming in itself, and faced with this internal pressure, if we don't find ourselves going blank, we may do the opposite. 

So a torrent of words pours forth, issuing facts, examples, opinions and ever more authoritative arguments. But words, though powerful, rarely do justice to the force of our feelings. So we repeat ourselves, we become emphatic. Even when a small voice on our shoulder tells us that we'll never truly convince the other person, however cogent we are, still our rational, analytical arguments continue. If others refute us, we grow cleverer, sharper perhaps, and more cutting. This now creates more distance between us and the other person - so we must work even harder to uphold what is true and right for us.

How to move forward? 
Tumbling thoughts and loquacious arguments are usually signs of deeply felt needs and values. These are rooted in our emotional intelligence, in our innate, fundamental responses to the circumstances before us. 

But once again, societal conditioning interferes. It tells us we must make rational sense. So we quickly employ our rational intelligence in an attempt to give voice to what we know with our emotional selves. Through habit or misplaced confidence, our analytical minds take over. In these cases, rational argument hijacks the power of what we want to say. The real force of our argument lies elsewhere. 

When we have strong messages to impart, we need to pause. Once again, it takes time to engage with what lies below the surface of our rational words - our feelings, needs and values. We can stop, breathe deeply, feel ourselves rooted and embodied. What we say is most potent (and most keenly heard) when the language of head and heart comes together.

4. Visceral feelings
Responses which seem to hamper communication most effectively are more instinctive and visceral still. The very thought of meeting (say) a 9/11 bomber might bring intense, difficult-to-describe bodily sensations. We may feel hot, confused, sick, faint, frozen; we want to flee, we want to fight – or a mixture of all these, and more. We may want to inflict hurt and pain on the other person, to overpower them in some way. These involuntary, gut responses can be so unsettling that communication of any kind becomes hard or impossible while we are in their grip.

How to move forward? 
Our bodies usually know more about how we feel than we do. So it's particularly important to give room to visceral responses. It's easy to dismiss them as signs of weakness or failure. Yet they are usually describing, symbolising, or doing for us precisely what we need; perhaps providing much-needed distance, demonstrating distress, acknowledging understandable aversion or overwhelm. Our needs are not wrong; they are innate mechanisms for survival and well-being. If we prohibit them, we cut off our access to a well of wisdom; that is, to the most fundamental, instinctive, spontaneous and creative strategies we have for dealing with an extreme situation. 

Even the wish to inflict hurt is another way of expressing our own needs. It's a way of showing just how much hurt or pain we are feeling. In the case of 9/11 we may feel it for ourselves, or on behalf of others. Either way, we contain the feeling within us. So the urge to harm or hurt is a clear message – 'Take THAT! THIS is EXACTLY how it feels within me.' The bigger the hurt, the more extreme the ways we express it. The bigger the feeling, the bigger the need.

Trusting our Responses

Our human systems are extraordinarily capable, complex and full of potential. Even though we seem to be in the grip of something that stops us communicating, our responses are actually doing something useful. Our system is taking the time it needs to adjust to an extreme situation. The very first step is to allow and make space for those responses, without judgement or criticism. Each response, whatever it is, has its own good reason for being there. If we can welcome the response, we may find a solution emerging from a deeper place within us. Then we can find a path or a bridge towards the extreme situation, where fresh and spontaneous communication can happen in just the way it needs.


  1. Thanks Locana for a great post. It really helped me become aware of the fact that, when I feel overwhelmed in a situation, I judge this reaction; much better, as you say, to allow myself whatever reaction I have and give myself some space.

  2. I just soooo love how you have clearly and thoroughly articulated what can go on inside of each of us in the face of deep distress and how to have greater consciousness about how to respond differently - I have been wondering how to teach/share how NVC can help in these particular aspects of life - this post has given me much greater clarity and will support me in articulating how an NVC consciousness can help in these kind of moments. A Big Thank you, Love to you, Penny S