Our Mutual Friends

Our Mutual Friends

Yesterday Tony DaSilva (@Bulldozer0) provided me with a wake-up call in the form of a tweet illustrating how a lack of mutuality commonly pervades relationships in our workplaces. A wake-up call, because I had forgotten just how strange the idea of mutuality must be for many folks, especially in the context of work.


When we talk about attending to folks’ needs, we’re talking about everyone attending to each others’ needs (although not to the complete exclusion of each attending to their own needs). You may not yourself have experienced the joy that comes from seeing other folks getting their needs met. It makes me sad to think just how many people may be in this situation. And I’m feeling thankful, even blessed, that I have experienced it myself, albeit rarely but at least occasionally.

When Rosenberg writes about this feeling, I can immediately and profoundly relate:

“… we have such power to make [everyone’s] life wonderful, and that there is nothing we like better than to do just that.”

“How basic is this need to give to one another? I think the need to enrich life is one of the most basic and powerful needs we all have.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

Aside: When I’m thinking about mutuality – it’s generally in the sense of “common to or shared by both or all of two or more parties”.

So, how does Tony’s tweet fit here? As an example of the typical dynamic in so many organisations, and so many relationships:

  • Unilateralism rather than mutuality.
  • “What’s in it for me?” Rather than “What can I do to make someone else’s life more wonderful?”
  • Selfishly attending to our own needs and ignoring that others have needs too.
  • Missing out on the joy of serving others’ needs.

So how *could* this kind of dialogue have gone differently, had the participants been attending to each others’ needs?

Employee: “I feel depressed and frustrated because I work best and most creatively when what I’m doing feels like play. Would you be willing to let me play with this and see what emerges?”

Boss: “I feel uneasy when you mention play because I imagine my job’s on the line if this doesn’t get done soon. Would you be willing to tackle it urgently?”

Employee: “No problem. I feel energised when I have some purpose to my play, and joy when I imagine I’m making folks life more wonderful. Would you like me to keep you posted?”

Evolving Competence

A little futher down the line, time-wise, when these folks have had the opportunity both to practice, and to experience the joy that comes from seeing other folks’ needs being met, we might imagine a similar situation unfolding thusly:

Employee: “I’m guessing you’re feeling like your job’s on the line if this doesn’t get done soon?”

Boss: “Yes. I’m feeling reassured that you’ve picked up on that, because I need to keep this job at the moment, and I like to think of myself as being capable of doing a good job, generally.”

Boss: “I’m guessing you’d be happier if you could just play around with it some?”

Employee: “Yes. I feel happy and focussed because I work best and most creatively when what I’m doing feels like play.”

Boss: “Would you be willing to make it your priority?”

Employee: “Happy to. I feel energised when I have some purpose to my play, and joy when I imagine I’m doing what’s most important for others. I’m guessing you’d be happier if I kept you posted?”

Here we see empathy as the starting point for a dialogue in which each is attending more to the other’s needs than to their own. Of course, if the whole organisation has adopted this new frame, then the dynamics and context of such conversations might be somewhat – and fundamentally – different.

Absence of Judgment

We can also see, in both examples, an absence of judgment. Neither person is tied up with forming a moralistic judgment of the other person’s needs – e.g. whether they are “reasonable”, “valid”, “acceptable”, “outrageous” or whatever. Nor do they judge their own needs. Each simply takes the needs as “givens”.

Aside: In situations where folks are having difficulties in identifying or articulating their needs, it may take some mutual assistance and exploration to arrive at clarity. This is not the same as e.g. watering-down or otherwise negotiating on needs. And remembering:

“We can’t really know what we need until we get it. Only then will we know whether we need it or not.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg



Jon has posted a comment requesting a version of the example dialogue where only the employee is conscious of attending to folks’ needs. One of the many reasons I’m particularly fond of the Antimatter Principle is that it can start small, with just one person. However, it can take some patience to start with building the empathy necessary for the other person – in this case, the boss – to take the time to listen.

Here’s one way I guess such a dialogue might unfold:

Employee: “I’m guessing you’re feeling like all our jobs are on the line if we don’t get this done soonest?”

Boss: “Can you just get on with it, asap?”

Employee: “So I’m sensing that it’s important to you that the team’s in a focussed and creative frame of mind for this piece of work? That we’re able to fully give of our best?”

Boss: “Damn straight!”

Employee: “I also guessing you’re worried we won’t be able to meet the deadline, and we’ll all end up looking hopeless again?”

[It may take some time, like ten or twenty minutes maybe, continuing in this vein, with the employee reflecting back the feelings coming at them from the boss, until there’s – maybe – a ‘shift’. A shift wherein the Boss just may begin to consider the needs of the employee.]

Boss: “Yes. I guess how the team feels about this is going to impact its ability to meet the deadline…”



A Request

When writing these kinds of posts, I often feel uncertain and unfulfilled because I rarely know whether I’ve met anyone’s needs by writing them. Would you be willing to provide feedback in the form of e.g. a comment, below, about the extent to which this post has met – or failed to meet – your needs?

– Bob

Further Reading

Nonviolent Communication in Action – The REAL Center

  1. Bob, you meet my need to be in this conversation and importantly to keep it in existence. More importantly, through your writing it occurs to me that I am not alone! There are kindred souls who are called forth by the possibility of a world that works for all. And that a great access for such a world is to start with the way of being that Marshall Rosenberg communicates through his living-speaking. And the simple yet powerful technology he has developed for putting his philosophy into action.

    YOU MATTER to me. I know that your existence contributes to my existence.

    Above and beyond that, it occurs to me that your sharing of that which speaks to you, is you creating-defining yourself, making a contribution, and ‘creating-leaving’ a legacy.

    With my profound gratitude and love,
    maz iqbal

    PS email me your mobile number and I give you a call. It would be great to talk.

  2. Jon said:

    Alas, unless you were my boss, I feel it is unlikely that two people would participate so eagerly in NVC, so in that respect this post has failed to meet my need to find ways to improve my workplace. Would you be willing to re-imagine this dialogue with only the employee trying to meet the boss’s needs?

    • Hi Jon,

      Thanks for your feedback. I makes me happy because I like the opportunity for making meaningful connections with people. But I’m also a little anxious that I may not be able to meet your needs. Nevertheless, I’ve given it a go (see update to the post, above).

      – Bob

      • Jon said:

        I appreciate you taking the time to respond to my request. Your example of persistent empathy makes me feel excited and positive since I can imagine myself applying this technique in my workplace.

        Reading and endeavouring to reply to your blog posts meets my need to understand NVC further, and makes me feel more confident that I will be able to use it effectively. It’s hard not to just write, “That’s great, thanks”.

  3. Love this post and all your writing around NVC and antimatter…
    Every post is like a good big hug 🙂
    It gives me hope, and a sense of purposeful, passionate community.
    I’m grateful you’re there, thinking, and writing, and DOING.
    Hugs back

  4. Bob,
    I find your blogs of practical examples very useful in helping me visualize what entering into NVC mode of conversation looks like as well as likely paths through the conversation. Being a beginner I will often feel nervous and therefore become distracted rather than remaining in the moment.

  5. Love this blog and this post! This post has nice examples that illustrate in such simple language the value of NVC.

  6. Bob, I first encountered NVC about 15 months ago via one of your tweets. I totally relate to the one sided example that your posted in response to Jon’s comment. Despite mindfully practicing NVC I’m aware of my tendency to regress, especially as I work in an environment where attended-to folks’ needs are typically limited to ‘the business’. Thanks for the example, it meets my need to be reminded of how things ‘could’ be.

  7. Yes Bob, needs met with this well-done post. Like to see more on needs. As a long time “student” of NVC and Rosenberg’s work, there isn’t a conversation I have in my work where needs are not discussed. The classic response we usually get from people in the workplace is a discussion of the “business” needs. It takes a long time to even comprehend the presence of the human, indivdual needs within the task-driven relationship model that prevails in most workplaces.

    We’re not taught to identify, understand and express our needs let alone the needs of others. Of course- this has been (and still is for many) sort of taboo and a sign of self-obsession.

    We’re also not taught the nature of mutuality in relationships. Reciprocity is built into the nature of the “old Story” of who we are. And that “nature” is an essential component of an economic system based on exploitation and dominance.

    So we’re a LONG way from the full expression of NVC~like needs dialogue in the workplace. But we at least begin to imagine and understand the liberation of authentic expression of needs and feelings within it.

  8. Bob, I find all of your posts useful. They remind me of things I’d forgotten, and point new ways to view things. They also remind me and all of us of basic values, which should be underpinning all of our interactions. I just need to work on finding ways to bring these ideas into the work I do as well. That seems to be my sticking point sometimes, but it’s getting better. Thanks for all of the posts.

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