The Power of Not Knowing

by Inessa Love (published with permission, March 2010)

Inessa writes: While the context of the article is about a parent-child relationship, I believe the same idea will apply to all relationships. When we are expressing ourselves authentically and vulnerably, we open the door for the natural compassion to arise. It works beautifully with children and is worth trying with the adults – but only those that you really want to have a genuine relationship with.
Wendy McDonnell writes: We don’t have to have all the answers. I sure don’t. Openly and curiously ask for what you need and you may be surprised at what you get.

Inessa Love is a certified NVC trainer, the co-founder of Family HEART Camp – an intensive immersion in NVC and an unforgettable adventure for the whole family ( Inessa is also the author of CD with NVC-inspired meditations called “The Heart of Connection: Guided meditations for Inner Peace and Harmonious Relationships” available on

“I just don’t know what to do,” said Garry in exasperation.
There was only 20 minutes left before leaving for the airport, to go on a trip which they planned as a family for several months. He was really looking forward to it. But now, his 11 year old son, Roman, said he did not want to go!

Garry was fuming inside – what do you mean you don’t want to go! What about all the talking, planning, family waiting to see them, money spent on the tickets. He was frustrated and confused, while quickly considering his choices.

Should he cancel the trip? No, that would be a waste of their money and a lost opportunity for fun and connection he was sure they all would enjoy.

Should he force his son to go? This was tempting. He could promise a reward: If you go, I will buy you that cool robot you wanted at the store last week. Or he could make a threat: If you don’t agree to go, no TV for a week. He could pull out a guilt-trip: How could you say that! Don’t you know how much money the tickets cost us? Don’t you care about the family? And what about your cousins who are waiting for you to come – you cannot disappoint them, can you? Come one, be a good sport.

Garry was not happy with his options. Neither giving up on the trip, nor forcing his son to go was in line with Garry’s intentions – to parent with compassion, to create connection and to value and honor everyone’s needs. He was stuck.

And then he did the most genuine and authentic thing – he told his son: “I just don’t know what to do!” That caught Roman’s attention. He was surprised and wanted to hear more.

Garry continued: “I don’t want to cancel the trip that we’ve invested so much of our time and energy for, and I don’t want to force you to go.” This was the truth – a genuine expression from the heart.

Marshall Rosenberg, the creator of Nonviolent Communication, asserts that we all are born with an innate capacity for compassion – we just need the right conditions for the compassion seeds to sprout and grow. When our children see us struggle – not as a parental “know-it-all-always-right” figure, but as a human being in distress – their seeds of compassion begin to grow.

“I’ll go” Roman said. It was not a giving up or a submission to an authority. It was a genuine reaching out to his Dad. “I’ll do it because it is important to you,” the Dad could almost hear him say.

They went to the airport and had a wonderful trip.

On the one side, what Garry did was the simplest thing to do – just be authentic with his child and share his struggle with him. But it was also the most difficult thing to do – to step down from the “pedestal” of “the almighty parent” and into his own humanity, with its struggles and vulnerability.

And it gave Roman room to think for himself, rather than follow blindly his Dad’s direction.

Our days as parents are filled with the commands we bark out to our children: “Don’t throw sand…I said stop that… finish your dinner first …don’t hit your brother…brush your teeth… put that stick down, you could break a glass with it… don’t push… don’t play at the table… don’t yell.” This is just a short sample a child might hear on any given day. How often do they hear a parent say “I just don’t know what to do”?

This is not intended as blame: “Why don’t you ever learn, I just don’t know what to do with you.” It only really “works” if it is genuine. Just lay out the problem at hand and describe both sides of the situation. Then take a step back and let them solve it:

“You want to watch one more episode of Bob the Builder, and I’d like to get ready for bed because I am tired. I don’t want to stay up much longer and I don’t like forcing you to stop. I just don’t know what do to. Do you have an idea?”

“You don’t like the soup I made, and I don’t want to make anything else right now; plus I want to make sure you get a healthy meal. I don’t know what to do. Can you think of anything?”

“It seems that you want to play with the piano and your sister wants to do the same. I don’t know what do to. Can you figure it out?”

See what your child will come up with. You might be surprised at the creativity of the proposed solutions, and likely be amused at a glimpse of how your children see the world. Don’t forget to thank them for coming up with an idea, even if it is completely unrealistic.

With this approach, not only will they get an invaluable practice in solving everyday problems, they are more likely to feel more compassion for you as a parent and learn to appreciate all the juggling involved in making the family function. Plus, they are likely to have a head start to become independent thinkers, to gain confidence in their abilities and to grow into empowered and independent adults.

These are all the great benefits you could gain, at a small cost of some humility and vulnerability. Perhaps you might even feel more compassion for yourself and the challenging role you have as a parent. “I just don’t know” might possibly become one of the most powerful things you could say.

Consider: July 3-11, 2010Would you enjoy more Harmony, Ease, Authenticity, Respect and Trust in your family?
Then consider Family HEART Camp – an unforgettable one week immersion in Nonviolent Communication for families, held in an oasis of natural beauty near Washington DC.
Nonviolent Communication offers a powerful set of tools and inspiring perspectives that support people in living their values, and in speaking and acting in ways that say “You matter!” to everyone involved.

These are the reasons why we want to go:

Our family is mustering up the resources to do this. If you sign up, tell the camp coordinators that Wendy McDonnell sent you. It’ll help our family go and we’ll meet you there.

  • I want to coordinate a family camp in Ontario some time. I’m hope to gain some awareness about what’s involved and what support is needed to do that.
  • I’m banking on feeling completely rejuvenated, taken care of, and contribute to others’ enjoyment too.
  • We are looking forward to meeting other folks who practice and believe in the principles of NVC.
  • It gives us all a chance to learn from others outside our immediate family and communities.

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