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Giraffe and Jackal Ears Exercise

Some time ago I did an exercise with a group of participants on a training in Stourbridge, UK, famous for its Rudolph Steiner connection and the Camphill Trust. The purpose of the exercise was to get clear about the choices I have when I hear a message. I asked the participants if they were fed up with hearing blame and criticism, and suggested (playfully!) that they need never hear blame and criticism again!

I gave the example of a situation from my life: I arrive for a regular appointment with a friend and he says, “You’re late again’”. Sometimes he doesn’t actually say the words, he just looks at me in a certain way and I interpret the look as, “You’re late again”.

A set of Giraffe and Jackal ears
Another set of Giraffe and Jackal ears

I pointed out that it was important for them to realise that lateness is hereditary in our family. I was born late, and with any luck, I’ll die late. Be that as it may, the message I’m hearing is, “You’re late again”. Through Nonviolent Communication I’ve come to understand that I have a choice how I hear this message.

There are four ways, two of them more life-serving than the others. (To maximise learning, I suggest you select a message from your own life to go through as I explore my example.)

I put on my “Jackal ears’ facing outwards (my habitual response) and replied to this message in terms of judging and blaming the other person. This sounded like:

“Who are you calling late? You should stop being so self-righteous. If you give me a hard time about this I’m going to stop coming.”

Then I put on my Jackal ears facing inwards and heard the message in terms of judging and blaming myself. This sounded like this:

“He’s right. I’m always late for our meetings. I just can’t get it right. I’m so inconsiderate — I just don’t care about my friends.”

So these are two ways of hearing messages with Jackal ears on:

  1. hearing them in terms of judging and blaming the other, and
  2. hearing them in terms of judging and blaming myself.

Then I asked the participants: would you like to live in a different kind of world? A world in which people relate compassionately to each other based on respect for needs? In this kind of world, again there are two ways I might hear a message like “You’re late again”. First I put on my “Giraffe ears’” facing inwards and hear the message in terms of what is alive in me – what feelings and needs are touched in me when I hear this message. Here’s how it sounded:

“When I hear you say ‘You’re late again’, I feel, well, disappointed, because I’d like acknowledgement of the effort I made to get here, and understanding that it’s important for me to honour agreements.”

And as I really got in touch with my feelings and needs in this way, I found that I had space to listen to what is alive for him when he said, “You’re late again.” Putting my ‘Giraffe ears’ on facing outwards, I said to him:

“Are you exasperated because you’d like respect for your time?”

Notice that in NVC I make a guess (ask a question) rather than make a statement. I’ve found that a question is easier for the other person to hear. I guess what he’s feeling and what basic human need isn’t being met in the situation. I’ve found that my guess doesn’t have to be “right” to make a connection. As Marshall Rosenberg says, “You can’t guess ‘wrong’, only human!” If my guess turns out to be inaccurate, I’ve found that the other person usually tells me what’s really going on. In this case, my friend said:

“No, it’s not that. We just don’t see each other as often as I’d like. When you’re late, we spend less time together.”

OK – so I guessed it was about respect, and it turns out that it’s about valuing our time together. So I didn’t need to guess “right” to get the understanding and connection I was looking for. And I’m confident that when we connect on this level, on the level of basic human needs, that it will take only a few minutes to find a solution that we’re both happy with. Here’s what I came up with:

“For the next month, would you like me to ring you, if I think I’m going to be more than fifteen minutes late, and discuss arranging another time to meet?”


Then it was the turn of the Stourbridge participants to practise with their own messages!