A trap for the conflict unwary

Posted on: August 30, 2009

stairwellI was recently trying to work through a misunderstanding and I had just finished reflecting back what I had heard the other person saying. I guessed their feelings and needs and they breathed a big sigh of relief and said:

“I am so glad you really get it and agree with me!”

Oh dear. I clearly needed to bring some clarity to this situation.


Understanding is not agreeing


Understanding is simply understanding what the other person is saying.

You are understanding what the person values, how that’s important to them, how it may have been missing for them in the past and what they would like about it in the future.

Often people in conflict are unwilling to show that they understand how “it all is” for the other person because they fear that it will be interpreted as agreeing. This may lead to behaviours in the conversation like not letting the person finish speaking, repeating their point of view many times or a resistance to reflecting back what has been said.

You can ensure this confusion about the understanding and agreeing is clarified by:

  • reflecting back and then asking any of the following:

Did you hear that I understood you or agree with you?”

I’d like you to understand that I think I get the essence of what you are saying and there are some parts that while I get them, I don’t agree with them.”

  • stating, at the start of the conversation, that reflecting back is not agreeing

We are going to go back and forth here in building our understanding of each other, but we not saying we’re agreeing with each other.”

I’m going to really listen to you and make sure I hear what you are trying to say but let’s make sure neither of us is interpreting that as agreement because we may not agree – we are just in a discovery process at this stage.”

  • When they say something that you think indicates they think you are in agreement you can say something like:

“It sounds like you think I have agreed with you – is that accurate?”

“Are you willing to hear what I am not in agreement with at this stage, or would you like to hear that later?”

3 Responses to "A trap for the conflict unwary"


For me it is less a trap and more a continuing frustration with nvc. Almost always when I give empathy the other person hears it as agreement with their position. This is probably number 2 on my list of frustrations I encounter with NVC.

I’m happy that you mention this problem and give examples of how to address that issue ….. but to me the responses you give sound robotic and formulaic (Which by the way is my greatest frustration in trying to use NVC)


I fully agree that understanding and agreeing are quite different things. I don’t think mixing the two is a problem specific to NVC but is rather a common misconception.

I enjoy your suggestions for handling it – and I agree with Ken that it might sound robotic. That’s probably then just a case of finding my own words for it.

I’m wondering if in this situation you describe you were trying to understand what the other side was saying?

In my experience, when I’m trying to understand then I can’t be in empathic connection at the same time. And when I’m trying to guess (intellectually) what their feelings and needs are then I’m also not giving empathy. It’s often a subtle distinction .. but when I’m truly hearing empathically then I have no reaction myself whatever the other person says. Even if they express their relief that I agree with what they’re saying – even that I can hear with my energy with them and not with me.

And Ken … I fully agree that NVC sounds robotic when applied as a 4 step, formulaic approach. I’ve always understood that as part of learning a different kind of communication consciousness. I’ve been working with NVC for around 8 years and have almost got it sounding natural and ‘me’ when it comes out my mouth – but there are still times when it sounds like something I read in a text book!

When it ‘works’ the best is when I don’t think about it and trust the underlying shift in my awareness.

In thinking about everyone’s offerings on this subject, what feels right to me is Ian’s approach to it. When I am giving empathy to someone, and they mistake it for agreement, I would try to ignore that comment. If the person feels heard and complete, as in Leona’s example, then it is my turn to share my feelings and needs around the misunderstanding. It will probably become obvious at that time that I do not share the same views on the topic, and we continue on pursuing understanding of each other’s needs. I think it would be difficult to open my heart to someone who makes it clear up front that they disagree with me.

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