Center for Organizational Leadership

Empowering Effective Leaders

Adding to Your Toolbelt: A 'Training Wheels Sentence' for High Stakes Communication

By Alan Howell

Director of Church Relations at Mission Resource Network and May 2024 MAOL Grad

Being a part of the MAOL program has been such a gift. It has been a great opportunity to
deepen my understanding about leadership and how systems work, to process some of my
own half-baked ideas(!), and to pick up some tools that have been useful in all kinds of
ways. In my role as the Director of Church Relations with Mission Resource Network, for
example, the coaching training has been invaluable as I help churches move from good
intentions to actual implementation of best practices for service both locally and globally.
And the classes in HU’s MAOL program on leadership, negotiation, and innovation have
given me a chance to consider my experiences from living overseas (2003-2018) from a
different angle. Also, being part of a fully online program has allowed me to login to classes
as I’m traveling to work with churches all over the United States, and even let me stay on
top of my coursework last summer while I was teaching in Europe and Africa.

One resource that this program has added to my toolbelt, that I want to highlight in this
post, is a simple, practical communication process that is especially useful in high stakes,
complicated situations. Navigating conflict can be challenging in any setting, and as I work
with churches and missionaries, it is helpful to have a simple way to do that well. This tool
is one that I picked up from Dr. Bishop's class last summer and not only do I use it all the
time personally, I’ve passed it along to missionaries, missions committees, and church
leaders as a simple framework for slowing down and communicating well with one
another. I've even taught it to groups as a way for people to pray when they are having
trouble connecting with God. It is such a useful tool for helping people be intentional
about hearing, being heard, and asking for what they need.

Nonviolent Communication (NVC), developed by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, is a
communication framework that emphasizes empathy, understanding, and compassion.
NVC aims to create a deep connection between individuals, promote harmonious
relationships, and foster peaceful resolutions to conflicts. In my Organizational
Communication class we learned about the NVC training wheels sentence that goes like

  • When I hear (or see, remember, imagine, etc.) …
  • I feel...
  • Because I need (or want, etc.) …
  • Would you be willing to … ? (Lasater, 2019, p. 7).

I love these steps, but I found it hard for me to always remember each of the different
parts. So, I came up with some body motions to remember the training wheels sentence: 
Start with the ears (When I hear… ), then move down to the heart (I feel... ), then move
down to the gut (Because I need... ), and then move outward to open hands (by asking:
Would you be willing to…?). Those body motions have helped me teach it to churches and
individuals and even children in ways that can help them remember and practice it.

When I have taught it to groups, I encourage people to take a few minutes and write this
out to make sure they develop each step. I think this process lines up well with what Jesus
says in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:1-13 regarding “Asking, Seeking, and
Knocking” as the way of the Kingdom. But certainly it has been and could be used with
non-Christians as well. This tool aligns with four basic distinctions of nonviolent
communication: “observations versus judgments, feelings versus evaluations
masquerading as feelings, needs versus strategies, and requests versus demands” (Lasater,
2019, p. 7). Dr. Bishop's class introduced me to this approach and that launched me on my
own deep dive to understand it better. Here are some other insights for practicing NVC
(mostly from Rosenberg - here’s my favorite video on this topic: How to make requests |
Nonviolent Communication explained by Marshall Rosenberg):

  • Don’t ask others not to do something, instead ask them what you want them to do.
  • When we ask, we are asking people to do things willingly and with joy whenever possible.
  • Rosenberg uses puppets of giraffes and jackals to give examples of different types of communication and notes that trying to control by guilt, shame or fear is the “jackal” way. But, communication in the “giraffe” mode is where “people make requests not demands.”
  • We should be careful when attributing labels to people or actions because that can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.
  • “As long as people hear our requests as demands, they only have two choices submission or rebellion. And neither” path is “going to connect us with people in ways that are good for anybody. The main difference is not in how nicely we say it, but how we treat people who don’t do what we want.” That is how we tell the difference between a request or a demand.
  • Instead of focusing on my diagnosis of the situation and the other person, I should focus on what was actually said.
  • This process is not a way to convince people to do what we want (manipulate them), but instead it is a way to create a connection with the other.
  • “As NVC trainers quip, ‘Hold your requests lightly and your needs tightly.’” (Latini)

Recently, I was working with a missionary family who needed to address a problem with
their supporting church. As we connected on how to handle that, I shared the NVC
process with them and encouraged them to write out the training wheels sentence ahead
of time to guide their communication. This tool is just one of the useful ones I’ve gained in
this program and I’m so thankful for Dr. Bishop and the way the MAOL program has
blessed me personally and professionally along the way. It is encouraging to see the
impact it is having on me and on those I’m serving through Mission Resource Network.

About the author

Alan Howell and his family resided in Mozambique from 2003 to 2018 as part of a
team working among the Makua-Metto people. From 2019 to 2023 he was the Visiting
Professor of Missions at Harding University and an adjunct for Harding School of
Theology. He has an M.Div and will complete an M. A. in Organizational Leadership with a
concentration in Executive & Workplace Coaching in May. Alan is the Director of Church
Relations at Mission Resource Network (


Topics: Leadership