Outline of how to play the exercise

The purpose of this evening is to exercise your perspective shifting as part of empathy guessing ‘an enemy’ for someone, and it is my favourite part of NVC.

(Person A is the speaker, Person B is the trigger all cause of pain in person A, and Person C is the person role playing person B in this exercise).

The idea is that for any given situation where person B is behaving or doing something which causes pain to person A, the exercise is to guess a cause of that behaviour, or needs (in person A) which are not being met. So person A selects an appropriate situation (which causes pain or judgement feeling in them), describes this situation for the other person C to role-play the cause.

The intention of both persons is to sense more of the enemy’s yes behind the no, more of what’s stopping understanding and connection. The intention of the person C (driven by jackal and reflecting as giraffe) is to explain the difficulty which person B is experiencing, and entice person A to more easily see, to reach out, to forgive and to feel beyond the trigger and story one tells oneself. Switching from convincing method acting (jackal triggering), to humorous caricatures overlaid with plausible origins (giraffe guesses), is a delicious recipe.

If participants are witnesses or passive in this situation, then the action is to guess explanations, such as the motivation for behaviour.

If the situation is real to a participant, then the exercise might also require role-playing by person B, for two purposes:

Firstly: for person C to be a realistic and painful trigger (and represent the ‘enemy image’ held by person A in person B), person C can use the safe space of the NVC practice space (and its distance from real life) to guess causes or unmet needs in the behaviour (of person B). The guess are also intended to help person A recognise their own judgement and judgement feelings causing their reaction and pain, and move through and beyond them to see and feel the humanness in person B.

Secondly: for person C to enter more fully into the jackal behaviour, and so guess more fully the unmet needs.

This role-playing is the core of this exercise.

The schedule is first have a demonstration, and then a shorter exercise and then a second longer exercise, all with discussions and reflections in between.

Each exercise is in a breakout room of two participants, who take turns being a receiver or speaker (person A) of the ‘problem’ situation, and a role player (person C) guessing needs and difficulties in the ‘problem’.

Although everything described so far so far emphasises the cognitive empathic nature of the exercise, the real goal is to bridge the space between two persons A & C connecting. So please have this goal in mind and heart, and be ready to follow your instincts towards this goal.

Person A (the speaker or receiver)

The receiver (Speaker) chooses a source of a situation to role-play, either from your own experience or from the list provided

Either: Think of someone with whom you relate (whether through family, work or friend), and who you find difficult, or on a different page from you, or causes you suffering from the actor jackaling (saying no, in conflict, etc).

Or: pick one from the list provided

As the speaker, and you describe the behaviour or interaction or your feelings of this person to Role Player.

Person C (Role-player acting jackal person B, then reflecting what person B is likely to be feeling, using giraffe headgear with ears pointing backwards)

The role player person C imagines and adopts the named persona/jackal. The role-player might describe feelings in being the jackal, or might act out the behaviour (trigger), or might goes straight to explaining with the giraffe headgear.

The role player C can rehearse and contribute to person A’s experience, especially as part of imagining being the jackal.

And then explain in giraffe language (to the person A) why they are difficult or in a different page, or why person B/C is unable to connect with the receiver, and express empathy-honesty (have a ‘giraffe dance’). What obstacle, ignorance of NVC, language problem, etc does the jackal person B have.

Role-playing is very like method acting, in which you totally enter the mindset of the person being acted. And it is like Carl Roger’s empathy (https://youtu.be/iMi7uY83z-U?t=748).


During the exercise, either participant can suggest ways and changes for person A to empathise with the needs behind the no in the jackal, and to bridge the space between person A & jackal B connecting.


J felt M was ugly in the continued male features after sex change surgery

J felt M was self centred in constantly interrupting A conversing with cousin H (she), and talking about self

J felt frustrated that her dearest pretty, vivacious and kind cousin H was accepting the ugly disgusting self-centred M almost as a partner in residence

J felt bewildered that her cousin found M beautiful, and how H expressed surprise, disappointment and confusion that A didn’t see M was beautiful.

Starting from where you feel now reading this from the perspective used, how would you feel if you were J?

Do this to get a real feeling of J and M.

Then imagine you were M, and were receiving J’s feelings … Receiving them as truthful and therefore probably real.

Then put on your giraffe ears backwards, and guess in giraffe language how your inner jackal is this way, and is behaving this way.

Do this with compassion for J’s judging jackal.

(Perhaps you will guess something in the person’s upbringing, or in their current adult make up, or you may guess a cognitive explanation not involving needs).

One empathy guess:

M returned to, and stayed with H, because H was the only person who accepted M as s/he was, and became.

And simultaneously, H felt that M was the only person who accepted her at a depth that the rest of her nearest circle (of her normal life) didn’t. A deep friendship each way.

Both M and H were seeing and experiencing each other in an acceptance and empathy that had no judgement of beauty, normality, good or bad.

And they each expressed this in the best way they could, and which was judged by her nearest circle as clumsy and beauty-and-the-beast.

Perhaps M judged him/herself as not deserving, gave no self empathy, and met the need in the only way s/he knew – seeking assurance and approval from others in every conversation.


As we are going into role play, I will spend 2 or 3 minutes setting the way I prefer role play is approached:

1. Anyone at any time can stop the role play if they feel uncomfortable – the idea is to learn through fun, not to persevere through pain

2. Changing names can help to avoid taking difficult messages directly

3. The people involved can agree to a level of intensity of the role play to ensure expectations are matched

4. Clearly marking the start and finish of the role play time to differentiate it from setting up and closing the practice

5. Allow time for a short check in out of the roles at the end to allow care for the other and yourself


It is the most difficult process in NVC

In mediation and conflict processes, this process is taken to an extreme that is beyond the capability of most participants.

Marshall explicitly says

“if somebody’s behaving in a way that I really don’t like, and I really want to express my value judgments to them, before I express my value judgment in giraffe I first need to show the other person that I love what they’re doing. [In other words, to love what I hate them doing.] Until the person feels that I totally empathize with what they’re doing, it’s going to be very hard for them to hear my values. Because when people feel there’s any criticism or lack of understanding of why they’re doing what they’re doing, then all of their energy goes into defending.”

Because such pain is often the reason for participants undertaking NVC, this shift to loving what you hate is often difficult sometimes unachievable.

But this gap between two such persons can often be reduced in the safe and accepting environment of NVC practice. In particular here, the role-playing by another person of the painful elements of the situation, using giraffe ears backwards, guessing needs not met, and guessing causes of their behaviour. Even better, when role-played with humour, caricature and empathy by the role-player. These all help bridge the gap between the original two protagonists, and facilitate Marshall’s words happening.

related NVC structured methods

1 The usual NVC OFNR (Observation, Feeling, Need, Request) process is for any transaction (relate, communication, etc) that occurs when two persons relate or communicate.

The intention behind that process is to always connect at the needs level. Where unnecessary, NVC says to drop steps that would make the process too formal and awkward, and to adopt ‘street giraffe’ language and communication.

3 This role-playing tries to guess the yes behind the no.

It first tries to connect at the needs level, and then works backwards to sense why connection isn’t happening, why needs aren’t being met. It looks through the OFNR telescope the other way.

NVC levels (increasing intuition, decreasing structure)

This is the most difficult level in navigating obstacles to connecting.

1 The simplest level of navigation is giraffe dance. Giraffe dance is alternating empathy and honesty between two conversationists. The process gravitates towards ever closer connection, sometimes using all four steps of OFNR, sometimes one or two.

2 The next level of difficulty is role-playing (by the actor) with the person (recipient) who wishes to progress something within themself (the recipient). The source of the impediment is right in front of the role-play actor, providing direct clues  of difficulty. And also the recipient is participating in progressing that impediment.

A tangible image for me (of such situations), is to see into the eyes of the other person, and ask what impediments, incomplete things, pain, distractions, etc they have which prevents them seeing into mine.

3 This role-playing (of caricaturing the jackal) of a third person, and then putting giraffe ears backwards, is the most difficult level. The actor doesn’t have access to the actual person having the language problem (and relies entirely on the description from the recipient) to guess the jackal nature of this third person. The extra difficulty is putting on giraffe ears backwards, and sense what impediment that third person has to completing connection with the recipient (and seeing their needs).

The what and the how of empathy

The skill Marshall uses is empathy.

The what of empathy is best described by his professor Carl Rogers (https://youtu.be/iMi7uY83z-U?t=748).

A how of empathy for Marshall is surfboarding:

“The best I can tell you about what empathy feels like to me is that it’s like riding a surfboard. You’re trying to get with the energy of the wave, trying to hear what’s alive right now. I’m trying to go with the rhythm of life that’s in this person. And sometimes just by looking at the floor I can get more with it than looking at the person and being distracted by things.” Rosenberg, Marshall. Living Nonviolent Communication (p. 69). Sounds True. Kindle Edition.

(I especially like that he sometimes looks at the floor, so that he can (with less distraction) recreate the person in his own mind and heart and imagine how to connect).

Yes, I love the signposts in the journey of empathy, which Carl listed and described.

And then I love Marshall’s sensory metaphor, of how much you place your attention in unconscious senses. And how much you might have to avoid the distraction of your actual conversationist, by looking at the floor or closing your eyes.

Until you sense things suddenly fall into place.

And what comes back from your unconscious is most likely to be a relate, and not an actual feeling. Because a feeling is the signpost to a relate, a symptom and not a cause or a thing in itself. Relates (between two things) is almost the only thing your unconscious does, and usually one of the things is something in yourself.

Can jackal really wear giraffe ears?

of course. That’s the point of the giraffe headgear, ears and mouth piece. It’s a prop to shift perspective from closed in the box (no self reflection), to open out-of-the-box self reflection. That self mirroring is what gives the insight into the stuckness of the owner’s jackal thinking.

It is limited by how much the owner can shift that perspective. If the person had the intention, and the ability to shift points of view/perspective (empathy), then it probably would have already done that perspective shift for itself and not needed to wear the headgear. I guess each person has a different limit on how far and fast they can do this recursive self-awareness process.

A much stronger prop is another witness, and the stronger its PIA (perspectival inhabited animation) the more empathic the witness is, the more the speaking jackal will attempt to pre-empt the witness in spotting its own blindness..

But in this exercise, it is another person B role-playing the jackal of person A, and then putting on giraffe headgear, and guessing things which might be causes of the stuckness, blindness and pain, etc of person A.