Tuesday, September 12, 2006

What's Wrong with Doing Your Duty?

Duty and obligation. In NVC, those words hold negative connotation, because they imply someone is giving you (or you are giving yourself) a should.

I don't think there's anything "wrong" with duty. The problem I see with labeling things "duty" is that it becomes easy to disconnect from the values and needs beneath the label.

I saw a documentary recently about New York firefighters on 9/11. I was struck by how often they talked about their duty. There was no sense of should; rather, of privilege and contribution. I thought of the police officers who deserted their posts during Hurricane Katrina, and the health-care workers who left nursing home patients to drown in the rising water. They weren't paid enough to risk their lives in emergency conditions, some said. I remembered the words of a FDNY firefighter who said, "If I wanted to become rich, I would've been a lawyer."

The FDNY sense of duty and obligation seemed to signal values of loyalty, reliability, trust, appreciation, gratitude and mutuality; what NVC would call "life-serving energy," not the energy-sapping, discouraging, anti-choice meanings to which NVC commonly refers when it talks about duty.

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) suggests that when we do something out of duty or obligation, there is typically a should involved that takes all the joy out of an action. As soon as you start telling yourself you should do something, it's an indication you're using guilt, blame, punishment or reward to coerce yourself, or you're telling yourself you "have to," because you have no choice. (And God help you if you start telling someone else what they should be doing!)

If you should be doing something, you aren't doing it. Why not? What stops you? There's something in the way: a belief, attitude, internal or external message, or something else. So how do you get unstuck?

I often make a list of the reasons I'm giving myself for doing or not doing something. You can do this, too. Take a blank sheet of paper and draw a big T across it. On the left side of the vertical line, write SHOULDS. On the right side, write BARRIERS.

On the left side, make a list of all the shoulds or reasons to do whatever it is you're resisting.

On the right side, list all the barriers, objections, dislikes, judgments, and obstacles to doing it.

Once you've made your lists, you can translate each statement into needs. Item by item, ask:

What values does this express?
What needs would it meet?

Use the NVC Needs Inventory for this process. (If you don't have one handy, visit the needs inventory at the Center for Nonviolent Communication.) During this process, use your feelings like a compass. If you quiet your mind and attend to the physical and emotional cues that are stirred up by each item on the list, these sensations will lead you toward the needs and values unmet by duty and met by the barriers.

Once you have translated all the items into needs, you will probably notice some that are "core," central, or most deeply held for you. Once this happens, you can start brainstorming tactics that would satisfy all your core needs.

Does this sound way too simple? Yeah. It ain't rocket science. It never ceases to amaze me how something so simple can smooth out the roadblocks.

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