I learned about “Giraffe Ears” and “Jackal Ears” from Marshall Rosenberg’s work in Nonviolent Communication. I’d like to share a practical example of “putting on your Giraffe Ears” with you, which I hope both illustrates the concept and helps you make use of it.

The Situation

You’re having a conversation with someone in which you’re trying to help them solve a problem they’ve described in their working environment. Maybe you’re discussing how to adopt some Lightweight practice or how an idea from Theory of Constraints might help them understand better what’s going on. They listen to your pitch and seem reasonably open to it, but at some point, they interrupt you and start to reply like this:

That sounds great in theory, J. B., but here in the real world….

A Problem

Not long ago, I would have certainly stopped listening, and I might even have interjected with a sarcastic response such as this:

Wait… (looks around) This all looks pretty real to me!

I found this satisfying at times, but I didn’t notice it being particularly helpful. I could justify my response by telling myself that I was making them aware of their unstated assumptions and confronting them in a way that help them to get out of their own way, but mostly I was making them angry and pouring fuel onto the fire. A peer whom I respect a great deal saw me do this repeatedly, pulled me aside, and told me that they thought I used sarcasm too much, and that perhaps I wasn’t aware that that made people less likely to enjoy working with me. (I, of course, had assumed that everyone found it charming.)

That got my attention. After thinking about that for a while, I realized that I wanted a strategy that both worked better and felt better, not only to me but to everyone else. It also seemed literally financially valuable to change my approach. Even though I already had the ingredients I needed in order to change my behavior, the light went on when I read about Nonviolent Communication. From a few books and videos I learned a new way to approach this scenario: putting on some Giraffe Ears.

A Solution

When I put on my Giraffe Ears, I look for the unspoken emotional content behind this slight insult—implying I live in some fantasy world—and engage with that, ignoring the hurtful, literal worlds they’ve spoken. I know that they don’t mean specifically to insult me in particular, but that when they refer to “the real world”, they mean the environments they currently live in often combined with the dysfunctional environments they routinely encounter or the many dysfunctional environments they’ve experienced in the past. When I interpret their message that way, I find it easier to do two things:

  • To remember to have compassion for their situation, partly by remembering what it felt like to me to have a job in a similarly dysfunctional environment. Not everyone has the opportunity to escape that the way I did.
  • To inquire about the obstacles they experience that stop them from doing what I’m describing and specifically to do that with genuine curiosity.

In my mind, when I hear “But here in the real world” I understand something more like this:

That sounds great, J. B., but if you knew more about the immovable obstacles that I have to deal with here every day…

Great! I can work with this. It turns out that:

  • I’ve experienced some of those obstacles.
  • Even for the obstacles I haven’t exactly experienced, I can offer some helpful strategies for overcoming or bypassing them.
  • Even for the obstacles that seem less likely to be moved out of the way, I can offer some helpful strategies for coping with them in a generally “healthier” way.

In many cases, I can suggest strategies that do at least two things:

  • Make the obstacles more movable and sometimes even disappear.
  • Help the other person have new/renewed feelings of agency, influence, or control over the situation.

If I see their apparent insult as a tragic expression of unmet meeds, then I can offer them something that’s likely to be in short supply: hope. The resulting discussions go much more smoothly and feel so much better. And sometimes we can even solve a few problems!

Some Optional Commentary

I don’t consider myself an “adherent” to Nonviolent Communication, although I like very much the notion of both attending to unmet needs and communicating those to other people. I mostly use its ideas as a practical approach to compassion, much in the same way that Dale Emery described when he wrote about Resistance As a Resource. Instead of viewing the other person’s resistance as a roadblock, let’s use it as a source of information about what they’re not (yet) willing to say to us. Nonviolent Communication encourages us to interpret resistance, particularly strongly-worded or very emotional resistance, as a tragic expression of unmet needs. This goes beyond merely showing compassion for the person to looking for the unmet meeds that lie behind the outburst. I much prefer this way of interacting with people in the world.

I also recognize this Giraffe Ears concept as an alternative way of describing what Jerry Weinberg called “The Law of Generous Interpretations”, which he taught alongside Virginia Satir’s “Ingredients of an Interaction”, also known as “The Satir Interaction Model”. I became interested Nonviolent Communication partly because it seemed at the time quite compatible with what I’d already learned from Virginia Satir through Jerry Weinberg. Even so, not everyone uses these powers for good.

I have encountered some people who use the teaching of Nonviolent Communication as an excuse to loudly and unreservedly articulate their unmet needs, no matter the context or circumstances. These are the same folks who would use Radical Candor as a licence to be assholes. I don’t want to do that. I don’t express all my unmet needs and let the chips fall where they may, but I find it easier and more constructive now to absorb another person’s unexpected outburst. I have found it very helpful both in regulating my own emotions and in earning other people’s trust. Something magical happens when a very frustrated acquaintance can’t hold back their feelings any longer, vents them in my direction, and I manage not to return fire.

One day I might even become quite good at it. I will be practising in the meantime.