Adolescence is an important developmental stage where emotional vocabulary blossoms. That said, identifying and expressing emotions is a skill that youth have to develop. Putting a name to an emotional experience is challenging, and the knee jerk reaction can be inflammatory. Adolescents tend to “react” to relational distress or conflict versus “responding” to it. This “reaction” could be blaming, withdrawing, lashing out, or other maladaptive reactions puts a great deal of strain on a young person’s relationships, whether that be with family, friends, teachers, or other helping professionals. At True North, we support youth with this developmental process, helping students build tools for healthy emotional identification and expression.
Fractures in relationships happen; they are inevitable- and they are important learning experiences. True North students make mistakes, and with their emotions at the driver’s seat of their experience in this particular developmental stage, things fall apart. However, the ability to repair fractures creates a secure attachment. Further, humans actually feel more secure in relationships where repair has occurred. Think back to this in your own life. When the person across from us takes ownership of their feelings, and shares how those feelings have impacted their behaviors and perceptions of a conflict the attachment strengthens. By identifying emotions and connecting the dots between emotional experience, how we perceive the world, and actions, people bridge the gap of misunderstanding that is often at the heart of many relational conflicts. In essence, with practice, True North students learn to repair missteps by conveying the emotional context of their experience and therefore help others empathize and understand their experience more holistically. And vice versa- they learn the critical tools to empathize when they are on the receiving end of this as well.
The experiential environment of wilderness therapy provides students with the ideal space to practice the skill of relational repair through grounded communication and emotional expression. When grounded, I have found no better tool to support students in naming their emotions and bridging that empathetic gap in relationships than Nonviolent Communication. Nonviolent Communication (NVC), developed by Marshall B. Rosenberg provides a framework for people to learn effective, compassionate, and open means by which to communicate from the heart. Within the context of a conflict, the NVC process directs people to first get grounded in what are the observable facts of the conflict, followed by the process of identifying feelings, noticing what one observes, and then identifying the needs, values, or desires that create those feelings. Finally it is important that one takes specific actions to heal from the conflict. For the sake of conciseness, I will focus primarily on the second step of emotional identification.
A challenge I regularly observe is the True North students’ struggle with accurately identifying and communicating feelings. Often, I hear students say something to the effect of “I feel like you aren’t listening to me!” In their minds, they believe that they are truly expressing their feelings. While there is often emotion present as an undertone in the communication, they are not clearly stating how they feel. Instead, they are identifying what they think the other person is doing, which will only likely trigger defensiveness as it comes off as blaming. With the support of the NVC approach, students are able to understand the difference between perceptions and feelings. When they say “I feel like…” almost exclusively, what comes next is a perception and not a feeling. With practice, students learn to differentiate between perceptions and feelings. For sake of clarity, let’s return to the earlier example. With the support of the scaffolding provided by NVC, a student can learn to say, “I believe you aren’t taking the time to listen to me. When I believe people aren’t listening to me, I feel insecure. When I feel insecure, I tend to get angry and lash out.”
The NVC approach to communication acknowledges that perceptions aren’t always truths, and thus is less likely to elicit defensiveness from the other person. The approach simultaneously propels the student to connect to their behaviors and underlying needs to feelings. In turn, compassion and empathy are nurtured, and relationships deepen. As quoted by Marshall Rosenberg, “When we listen for feelings and need, we no longer see people as monsters.”
About the Author: Will Kraman is a therapist with True North Wilderness Program.