Minding the Gap

Sage Knight

In London, an underground train is called “the tube.” When the doors of the tube open, the loudspeaker spits out three words, “Mind the gap,” a safety warning to pay attention to the space between the train and the platform. With no control over either, the point of power for the passenger is how she traverses that space, so as not to fall into it.  

I am listening to this story as told by Newt Bailey, a Yorkshireman currently living in the Bay area. He uses the anecdote as a lead-in to a quote often attributed to Viktor Frankl, which illustrates this point of power on a wider spectrum: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.”

Newt has come to Los Angeles to facilitate a weekend of connection-based communication. There are about twenty of us in a spacious room at Antioch University; one wall is floor-to-ceiling windows, another is covered by a whiteboard. Along the walls is an unbroken string, and in the center of the room, a bag of clothespins (“clothes pegs” in England) and a pile of papers, each one stating a universal human need: “Acceptance,” “Play,” “Choice,” “Meaning.”

Newt asks us to pick up one page at a time and pin it to the string. He asks us to do this slowly, contemplating the level to which this need is met in our lives. By the time we are done the string is crowded and we’ve hung four more on the wall-mounted flat screen: Transparency,” “Movement,” “Coherence,” “Adventure.” A true Englishman, Newt has also included “Tea.”

Individual levels of importance, amount, timing and conditions vary, but every living being requires at least some of these needs, and some of them, we all need: “Air & Water,” “Safety,” “Shelter.” We feel different when a need is met than when it is not, so our feelings are a powerful clue about whether or not our needs are being met in any moment. Between stimulus and response, can we pause long enough to identify our feelings and needs, and instead of reacting, “mind the gap”?

And what about others? Is it possible to live a life where your needs are as fundamentally important to me as my own without making them more so? This inquiry is the basis for Non-Violent Communication, a modality Newt is trained in, which Marshall Rosenberg designed and named for the Sanskrit word “ahimsa,” meaning “without violence.” Marshall, a Jewish man born in 1934 and grew up in Detroit, was no stranger to violence. He became curious about what leads people toward it and what leads us toward connection and compassion and makes it easier for us to give to our families, communities and the world.

With our swirls of emotion, blame, criticism and judgment, answering is no easy feat. We live in a culture based on a myth of “good vs. evil,” where “heroes” are rewarded and “villains” are punished. Plus, our own needs can conflict with each other: “I need sleep vs. I need to earn.” Add to that self-damaging thoughts: “What is wrong with me?” and/or “I’m not good enough,” and you’ve got a challenging day. Of course, some folks say, “I don’t have a lot of conflict,” then add, “but I also don’t have a lot of deep connection. I tried it and it led to conflict….”

NVC is a vital tool for those who want to establish connection in the midst of all this and its techniques have proven extremely effective. Rosenberg has offered trainings in sixty countries including war-torn areas, working with families, clergy, police, prison and government officials. Like verbal Aikido, connection-based communication asks, “Can I respond to you when you appear to harm me, and can I respond in a way that does not allow you to harm me while not harming you?”

During the weekend I receive two especially precious jewels, one on Saturday within the first hour. As I look around the string of needs, I realize all of them are met in my life except for one, and that one is unmet by choice. I feel surprised, calm and deeply blessed.

I receive the second jewel on Sunday.

At lunch, Newt asks us to choose a partner and practice empathy. How? Listen. Just listen, with no intention. No sympathy. No advice. No, “Uh, huh.” Simply pay attention and, if you don’t understand their needs and feelings, ask a question.

I sit with “S” and share about my dog being attacked and bitten the night before by a neighbor’s Pit Bull. One of my toenails was torn off, and I lost my voice screaming. I feel torn, not wanting the animal and owner separated, yet scared that if I do nothing, I will be unable to protect Shiloh. “S” listens. Once in a while he asks a clarifying question. In minutes, I feel a deep sense of calm. I can still see his eyes. This is what was missing from the altercation with my neighbor. Also bitten, and likely dealing with her own terror and pain, she was unable to witness mine.

After lunch, I share a story I received in the 1980s during massage training. When I place my hand on someone, my touch is a nonverbal message of acceptance. My cells accept their cells, transmitting the message that they are acceptable. Empathy provides this same healing. Doing no thing but being. With another. With presence.

I am learning this language, practicing it, placing my attention on and becoming more curious about my own needs and another’s and how to meet them with mutual respect. Verbal Aikido. May we all be black belts…and soon.


For local NVC practice sessions, contact Aaron Tardos: Meetup.com/CompassionateCommunicationLA.

For more information on Newt Bailey: www.communicationdojo.com.


Sage Knight is a local ghostwriter and Literary Midwife. She and her Golden Retriever, Shiloh, live at Top O’ Topanga and welcome your visits to www.SageKnight.com. FYI: Shiloh is okay. :o)


Sage Knight

Sage is alive and well, living at Top o’Topanga with Shiloh, the Golden Retriever. Visit her at www.SageKnight.com.

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