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nonviolent communication

Tended 1 year ago (1 time) Planted 2 years ago Mentioned 6 times

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A framework for communication and conflict resolution designed to build empathy with oneself and others, and in doing so discover the root causes of negative feelings.

Quotes are from the book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life unless otherwise noted.

[Nonviolent communication] guides us to reframe the way we express ourselves and listen to others by focusing our consciousness on four areas: what we are observing, feeling, and needing and what we are requesting to enrich our lives.

We start with observations: what happened, specifically, without blame or judgments. Start with what everyone who was there can agree on. Not “you were an asshole, again“, but “for the third time, you arrived late to our lunch date”.

Next, we express our feelings resulting from what happened. We should still be careful to avoid judgments (which can be disputed) or projecting the feelings of others (which they can deny). So not “I feel like you don’t care about me”, but rather “I feel disappointed and frustrated when I keep our agreements and you don’t.”

Watch out for the phrase “I feel like” or “I feel that” which often uses the language of feeling to hide a judgment.

In a culture that discourages talking about feelings, our vocabulary of feelings-words has become limited. The Center for Nonviolent Communication offers a Feelings Inventory (PDF) to help expand our vocabulary. Or find one of many “feelings wheels” for a visual representation to help narrow down how we’re feeling.

A key insight of NVC is that negative emotions arise from unmet needs. When we’re feeling bad about a situation, it can often help to ask “What need of mine isn’t being met?” so we can then ask for it to be met. Following the above example, “I feel disappointed and frustrated when I keep our agreements and you don’t because I need to be able to trust that you will do what you say you will.”

I find this works just as well internally as it does in my relationships with others. Lately I’ve felt discouraged and avoidant about working on because the feature I had been working on turned out to be more complicated than anticipated. It helped me to realize that with my two young children at home the past two weeks on winter break, I have only small chunks of time to work on personal projects, so I needed to work on smaller, simpler changes to fit within the time life was giving me.

As with feelings, we should avoid the temptation to couch judgments or projections in the language of needs. “I need you to stop being a jerk” or “I need you to care about me” are easily denied (“I’m not a jerk” and “I do care about you”) and turn into unproductive arguments. We’re on solid ground and should remain there when talking about our own experience, feelings, and inherent needs. We also can’t need the other person to change their behavior, though we can (and will next) ask. Feeling like we need someone or something to change risks making them responsible for our situation, leading to our own disempowerment and disappointment.

Once we identify what we are needing in a situation, we can request that the other person to meet our needs. There are, of course, better and worse ways to do so:

  • Remember that most people want to and benefit from meeting others’ needs. We’re wired this way.
  • We can make our requests as specific and clear as possible. Not “Can you start respecting my time?” but “Can you arrive on time or early when we agree to meet up in the future?”
  • Make requests, not demands.
  • Avoid threats: even if you are at a point where you are willing to end a relationship if the other person can’t meet your needs, saying so when asking them to is likely to make them defensive, which is counterproductive to your needs being met.

The argument for NVC isn’t that it’s a nice thing to do, or even the right thing to do, but frankly that it’s the most effective strategy for getting our needs met.

it is an ongoing reminder to keep our attention focused on a place where we are more likely to get what we are seeking

When others are demanding, threatening, or otherwise rude, we can remind ourselves “That person is in pain. That person has a need that isn’t getting met. And isn’t it sad that they don’t know how to ask for what they need. That they ask in such a way as to almost guarantee their need will continue unmet.”

I find it especially helpful to remember this with my children. When they act out, it’s not out of malice. They’re just inexperienced at (and have been given imperfect examples of) getting their needs met. And really, isn’t this true of us all at times?

Our attention is focused on classifying, analyzing, and determining levels of wrongness rather than on what we and others need and not getting. Thus if my partner wants more affection than I’m giving her, she is “needy and dependent.” But if I want more affection than she is giving me, then she is “aloof and insensitive.”

“determining levels of wrongness” sounds like judgment, which Buddhism reminds us is often the root of our suffering in life. Focusing on all the ways the world, we, and others fail to live up to our expectations is a recipe for constant disappointment.

Life-alienating communication also obscures our awareness that we are each responsible for our own thoughts, feelings, and actions.

This is different than saying our feelings are our own fault. If someone insults me and I feel small, Rosenberg isn’t suggesting this is my fault; however, I am responsible (because no one else is going to be) for what I do about it. I can express my feelings to the person who insulted me and ask them to stop, or take steps to remove them from my life if they refuse to.

We are dangerous when we are not conscious of our responsibility for how we behave, think, and feel.

Rosenberg highlights many ways we use language to deny our responsibility for our feelings and actions. We say “You made me feel X”, suggesting our feelings are the others’ responsibility. Or we pout or sigh or otherwise visibly perform our feelings in front of others with the hope that they’ll notice and modulate their behavior in order to improve our feelings. I remember this a lot as a teenager: so many conversations were about the way some other friend was acting, what it meant about their feelings, and what they might want us to do about it. Adolescence is hard for a lot of reasons, but how much harder was it because no one had taught us how to discover what we needed and ask for it?

“I have to” is another phrase we often use (perhaps without realizing it) to deny responsibility for our actions.

Life-alienating communication both stems from and supports hierarchical or domination societies. Where large populations are controlled by a small number of individuals for their own benefit, it would be to the interest of kings, czars, nobles, etc. that the masses be educated in a way that renders them slave-like in mentality. The language of wrongness, “should” and “have to” is perfectly suited for this purpose: the more people are trained to think in terms of moralistic judgments that imply wrongness and badness, the more they are being trained to look outside themselves—to outside authorities—for the definition of what constitutes right, wrong, good and bad. When we are in contact with our feelings and needs, we humans no longer make good slaves and underlings.

I’ve seen people criticize the title of the framework, question whether communication can really be violent, and even accuse the author of harming victims of physical violence by diluting the meaning of the term. Having read the book, I believe Rosenberg deploys the term intentionally: he wants to shock us into realizing just how much of our everyday communication patterns are, if not violent, at least threatening, aggressive, or coercive. Whether that’s raising our voice, making demands, insulting our interlocutor, or making subtle jabs to shame those we disagree with, the implication is this: we are attempting to scare or hurt the other person in some way so that they obey us or see things our way. Rosenberg also calls this “life-alienating communication”:

It is our nature to enjoy giving and receiving compassionately. We have, however, learned many forms of “life-alienating communication” that lead us to speak and behave in ways that injure others and ourselves.

It’s been uncomfortable for me to realize just how often the way I talk to my children (and was spoken to by my family as a child) has followed these patterns. When an older child cries over something we deem unworthy of tears, we say “Don’t be such a baby.” Is that not effectively saying “I am going to hurt your self-image until you change your behavior”? And even if it’s temporarily effective, what is a child to learn from that? This kind of “violent” communication is effectively punishment, which doesn’t work, at least not how we intend.

A weakness, or at least a gap in NVC is that it assumes all parties are negotiating freely, that they all have at least the power to walk away and remove themselves from a situation if their needs can’t be met. If someone is being restrained or kept in a situation through abuse or physical violence, then they certainly might need the other person—or more likely, an outside authority—to liberate them.

I first read Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life though a book club in 2015, with the killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice by police fresh in our minds. A frequent debate was whether NVC had anything to offer individuals or groups who were actively being targeted with violence. Of course, the nonviolent protests of the Civil Rights Movement provide one example. And Marshal Rosenberg shares examples of mediating talks between Israelis and Palestinians in which there has been violence (albeit in unequal measure) on both sides.

In the introduction, Rosenberg makes clear his belief that practicing NVC doesn’t require all parties to communicate nonviolently, at least at first:

The use of NVC does not require that the persons with whom we are communicating be literate in NVC or even motivated to relate to us compassionately. If we stay with the principles of NVC, stay motivated solely to give and receive compassionately, and do everything we can to let others know this is our only motive, they will join us in the process, and eventually we will be able to respond compassionately to one another. I’m not saying that this always happens quickly. I do maintain, however, that compassion inevitably blossoms when we stay true to the principles and process of NVC.

Still, I have only ever put NVC into practice navigating emotional conflicts with relatively low stakes.


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