Principles underlying Nonviolent Communication

Note: This is a follow up to primers I wrote here and here

A friend once told me that a 10 day meditation is preparation for the hardest day of our lives.

I see Nonviolent Communication (NVC) as preparation for the biggest conflict of our lives.

When shit hits the fan in a friendship or relationship, and we’re about to say the insult that ruins or stains the relationship forever…. That’s when our NVC training comes into play.

NVC is also for the many moments leading up to that critical conflict — indeed, NVC prevents the conflicts from happening in the first place by creating a foundation of mutual trust and respect in our day-to-day communication.

The magic of NVC is that even when our initial response is more akin to anger, NVC trains us instead to act in the most trusting and respectful way possible, without the clutter and passive aggressiveness that can lead to distrust and resentment.

What is NVC?

At the highest level, NVC is a communication framework that reduces friction in our conversations.

But it’s also bigger than that — it’s a completely different lens of seeing the world.

NVC involves the following:

1) how we express ourselves to other people,

2) how we empathize with them, and, most importantly,

3) how we communicate and connect with ourselves.

Although it may not seem that way at first, NVC is fundamentally a different language — radically different from the language we use today — and as such, it has a radically different implication for how we perceive the world and interact with others.

Why The Term, “Nonviolent Communication”?

Marshall Rosenberg, the author of Nonviolent Communication, chose the provocative title in order to show how insidious and violent our day-to-day communication is (and how we don’t even realize it).

Most people refer to violence as physically trying to hurt others. NVC also considers violence to be any use of coercion or power over others — including any use of punishment, reward, guilt, shame, duty or obligation.

This would also include most of our communication today and how our societal institutions (schools, church, prison, the judicial system) reaffirm this language and philosophy.

The term “Nonviolent Communication” has thrown some people off, partially because most people do not consider themselves violent, but also because it describes only what NVC isn’t, and not what it is. Some have suggested alternatives such as Compassionate Communication, Authentic Communication, Connected Communication.

This piece will explore some of the key implications and principles underlying NVC. Future pieces will explore the NVC practice more deeply.

1) Language is a lens by which we look at the world.

In Hannah Arendt’s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Eichmann was asked, “Was it difficult for you to send these tens of thousands of people to their death?” And Eichmann answered very candidly, “To tell you the truth, it was easy. Our language made it easy.”

His interviewer asked what that language was, and Eichmann said, “My fellow officers and I coined our own name for our language. We called it amtssprache — ‘office talk.’” When asked for examples, Eichmann said, “It’s basically a language in which you deny responsibility for your actions. So if anybody says, ‘Why did you do it?’ you say, ‘I had to.’ ‘Why did you have to?’ ‘Superiors’ orders. Company policy. It’s the law.’”

Language shapes perception. Literally, the words we use determines how we view the world. If we don’t use certain words, we will simply not see certain things.

Isn’t that nuts?

For example, if you say “my boss makes me crazy”, you will indeed think your boss is “making” you crazy. If you instead say “I am frustrated because I am wanting stability and consistency in this relationship” you may then think you can control your level of frustration and clearly address what it is you want. If someone else is making you crazy, there’s nothing you can do. If you control your feelings, you can take actions to change how you respond to causes.

Words can be windows or they can be walls — they can open doors for compassion or they can do the opposite. NVC uses words as windows. Our language today uses them as walls. More on this later.

2) There is a difference between stimulus and response.

This is subtle but powerful: The first step to get into our consciousness is realizing that what other people do is never the cause of how we feel.

What’s the cause of how we feel? NVC posits that how we feel is a result of how we interpret the behavior of others at any given moment.

If I ask you to meet me at 6:00 and you pick me up at 6:30, how do I feel? It depends. I could be frustrated that you are late because I want to spend my time productively, or scared that you may not know where to find me, or hurt because I need reassurance that you care about me — or, conversely, happy that I get more time to myself.

When I’m feeling frustrated or hurt or scared, I want to figure out why I’m feeling that way. It’s not enough to blame the feeling on the person whose actions triggered the feeling. That very same action might have inspired completely different feelings in someone else — or even in me, under different circumstances!

This wide range shows us that we control our feelings — others can’t elicit the entire range of feelings in us. There must have been something going on inside me at that moment that made me react the way I did. Framing that in terms of unmet needs makes a lot of sense to me, and aids my introspection. What did I need in that moment that I was not getting?

Incidents like the friend coming late may stimulate or set the stage for feelings, but they do not *cause* the feelings.

NVC is a language that reflects this agency.

There is a gap between stimulus and cause — and our power lies in how we use that gap.

If we truly understood this — the separation between stimulus and cause — and the idea that we are responsible for our own emotions, we would speak very differently.

We wouldn’t say things like “It bugs me when …” or “It makes me angry when”. These phrases imply or actually state that responsibility for your feelings lie outside of yourself. A better statement would be “When I saw you come late, I started to feel scared”. Here, one may at least be taking some responsibility for the feeling of anger, and not simply blaming the latecomer for causing such feelings.

Similarly, we also wouldn’t take responsibility for other people’s feelings. If we came late we wouldn’t find it sufficient to say: “I’m sorry I scared you”. A much better statement is “When I see how scared you are, I feel sad because I value your safety“.

This might seem merely semantic, but it’s quite significant — NVC shows that the semantic is significant — the more we use our language to cede responsibility to others, the less agency we have over our circumstances, and the more we victimize ourselves.

3) All judgments are tragic expressions of unmet needs.

According to NVC, all that people express are their feelings and needs.

Indeed: The only things that people are saying, no matter how they are expressing it, are how they are and what they would like to make life even better.

Judgments don’t acknowledge this reality. Instead of going to our heart to connect to what we need and are not getting, we direct our attention to judging what is wrong with other people for not meeting our needs.

But why are judgments tragic expressions of unmet needs?

Because when we do this, our needs are even less likely to get met, because when we verbally judge other people as being wrong in some way, these judgments usually create more defensiveness than learning or connection. In other words, we’re in a worse place than when we started.

NVC believes that, as human beings, there are only two things that we are basically saying: Please and Thank You. Judgments are distorted attempts to say “Please.”

4) NVC is a dynamic rather than static language, and as such doesn’t use the verb “to be”

NVC is a process language. When we say anything about ourselves like, “I am a _____,” it’s static thinking; it puts us in a box and leads to self-fulfilling prophecies.

Tragically, when we think that we (or somebody else) is something, we usually act in a way that makes it happen.

As such, NVC strays away from using the verb “to be”. In NVC; you don’t say, “This person is lazy,” “This person is normal,” “This person is right.” In NVC, there’s no such thing as normal, abnormal, right, wrong, good, or bad.

NVC believes that this is a product of language that traditionally has trained people to live under a king. If you want to train people to be docile to a higher authority or to fit into hierarchical structures in a subservient way, it is very important to get people thinking what is “right,” what is “normal,” what is “appropriate,” and to give that power to an authority at the top who defines what those are.

When people are raised in that culture, they have this tragic trick played on them. When they are hurting the most and needing the most, they don’t know how to express it except by calling other people names.

“With NVC, we want to break that cycle. We know that the basis of violence is when people are in pain and don’t know how to say that clearly. There is a book called Out of Weakness, by Andrew Schmookler. He writes that violence — whether we are talking about verbal, psychological, or physical violence between husband and wife, parents and children, or nations — at its base is people not knowing how to get in touch with what is inside.

Instead, they are taught a language that indicates that there are villains out there, bad guys out there, who are causing the problem. Then you have a country where even the leader will say of another country, “They’re the evil empire.” And then the leaders of the other country will say back, “These are imperialist oppressors,” instead of seeing and revealing the pain, fear, and unmet needs behind the other’s words.”

That’s why NVCers are committed to just hearing the pain and needs behind any name — not to take it in and not to respond in kind.

Similarly, we don’t label ourselves. As an NVCer, we don’t think of ourselves as a “worthwhile person.” If we do, we will spend a good amount of time questioning whether we are “worthless people.” NVCers don’t spend time thinking about what kind of person they are; they think moment by moment — not “What am I?” but “What is the life that is going on in me at this moment?”

Isn’t that weird, though? If a person is usually lazy, why not just say “He’s lazy”?

Because, as Marshall Rosenberg used to say, “when you label people you’re putting them in a box — and I’m talking about a coffin”. You’re treating them as unchangeable — not in the next hour nor the next year.

Also it’s too simplistic. Let me explain: Consider, for example, a couch. Every molecule in a couch was made inside a star, which exploded, shooting its guts across the universe. These molecules have lived on as different forms before this couch — forest, ground, etc., and will continue to do so after the couch is gone.

This is much more than the label “couch” suggests, but we call it a couch so we know we should sit on it. The identities we project onto others provide guide posts. This isn’t particularly harmful with couches, but it is with people.

Some people insist that, for example, Wall Street bankers are ignorant, arrogant, and doing it just for the money.

This frames us as being: knowledgeable, confident, and mission-driven. We judge/criticize in others that in which we most fear in ourselves.

Humans use concepts to help navigate the world. A couch is for sitting, so we will not try to plug our cell phones and expect it to charge. We project ‘concepts’ onto people so as to use them as well.

But concepts are static, and life is a process.

We’re missing what’s truly going on for people when we judge, and it leads us to act toward them in a certain way that usually provokes the very thing that we’re labeling.

5) Since judgments are tragic expressions of unmet needs, NVC doesn’t use the words “good” or “bad”, or “right” or “wrong”.

NVC isn’t saying these terms don’t exist or have substance, it’s just saying that those terms rarely get us what we want — long-term behavior change

That said, NVC isn’t some ethical relativism mumbo jumbo, or license to get away with anything. Indeed: NVC distinguishes between value judgments and moralistic judgments

Value judgments are beliefs about what meet your needs; moral judgments are static analyses of people.

All of us make value judgments as to the qualities we value in life. For example, we might value honesty, freedom, or peace. Value judgments reflect our beliefs of how life can best be served.

We make moralistic judgments of people and behaviors that fail to support our value judgments. For example, “Violence is bad. People who kill others are evil.”

NVC instead tries to articulate our needs and values directly, rather than to insinuate wrongness when they have not been met. For example, instead of “Violence is bad,” we might say instead, “I am fearful of the use of violence to resolve conflicts; I value the resolution of human conflicts through other means.”

Although NVC doesn’t use the terms good or bad, it does say that contrary to Hobbes’ state of nature, our natural inclination is to contribute to other’s well-beings.

This implies that our education is what causes violence, not our nature.

Indeed: Moralistic judgments are those built on a theology that implies the human beings are very lazy, evil and violent. Therefore the corrective process is penitence. Our legal and prison system is built on this. You have to make humans hate themselves for what they’ve done, to believe that they deserve to suffer for what they’ve done.

Again: NVC is a totally different kind of language.

NVC requires learning how to say what your needs are, what needs are alive in you at a given moment, which ones are getting fulfilled, and which ones are not.

And that’s very hard for people. They have been taught to identify connection to their own needs as selfish and weak. They’re taught to believe that being a strong man (or a caring woman) means you don’t have any needs. You sacrifice your needs to provide for and take care of your family. Needs are not important. What’s important is obedience to authority. That’s what’s important.

With that background and history we’ve been taught a language that doesn’t teach us how to say how we are. It teaches us to worry about what we are in the eyes of authority. What will they think of me? Will they think I’m stupid? Will they think I’m competent?

When our minds have been pre-occupied that way we have trouble answering what seems to be a simple question, which is asked in all cultures throughout the world, “How are you?” It is a way of asking what’s alive in you. It’s a critical question. Even though it’s asked in many cultures, people don’t know how to answer it because they haven’t been educated in a culture that cares about how you are.

The shift necessary requires being able to say, how do you feel at this moment, and what are the needs behind your feelings? And when we ask those question to highly educated people, they cannot answer it. Ask them how they feel, and they say “I feel that that’s wrong”. Wrong isn’t a feeling. Wrong is a thought.

So we ask them again, “How do you feel?” “Well, I feel that when somebody does something like that, it’s evidence of a personality disturbance.” That’s not a feeling. That’s a judgement. So we ask again: “But how do you feel?”

“Well I don’t have any feelings about it.”

And they’re not lying. When your mind has been shaped to worry about what people think about you, you lose connection with what’s alive in you.

We teach people to use the judgments they’ve been taught to have as a window to their soul, to their heart, and to look behind the judgments, to the needs that are behind the feelings. It’s a different language and lens.

6) NVC doesn’t use punishment or reward to incite behavior change

Because NVC believes humans are good, NVC also believes that punishment, guilt, shame, force, and all other punitive measures we use today to “keep people honest” are ineffective in the long-term.

Punishment assumes “badness” on the part of people who behave in certain ways, and it calls for punishment to make them repent and change their behavior.

NVC believes it is in everyone’s interest that people change, not in order to avoid punishment, but because they see the change as benefiting themselves.

You not only want behavior to change, you want their underlying motivations to change. Because you can control short term behavior, if they’re not doing it for the right reasons, then once the power is gone (power is rarely forever) then their behavior will be back to what it used to be.

As such, NVC prefers “power with” rather than “power over”, because “power with” is long-term, whereas “power over” is short-term.

But don’t you need to punish people who commit crimes, or use the threat punishment to deter people from doing so? Or don’t you need to reward and incentivize people in order for them to do what you want?

It’s interesting how deep rooted this belief is in our society. The underlying philosophy of punishment and reward is that if people are basically evil or selfish, then the correctional process if they are behaving in a way you don’t like is to make them hate themselves for what they have done.

If a parent, for example, doesn’t like what the child is doing, the parent says something like ”Say you’re sorry!! The child says, “I’m sorry.” The parent says “No! You’re not really sorry!” Then the child starts to cry “I’m sorry. . .” The parent says “Okay, I forgive you.”

You see, that approach is at the basis of our conflicts with children and with criminals — we’ve been educated to believe that you have to make a person suffer for what they have done, to hate themselves, to be penitent — we even call our prisons penitentiaries.

I think it works just the opposite — the more you get a person to hate themselves, the more they behave in the ways that we don’t like.

Data supports this: Prisons don’t work. They actually make things worse. 2/3 of prisoners go back to prison. They’re more likely to go back to prison than if they hadn’t been to prison in the first place.

NVC suggests that any time a person does what we want without their motive being to serve life (and in no way fearing punishment or feeling guilt, shame, duty or obligation) — we will pay for it. We may win the battle, but we’ll lose the war. If you see people as criminals, they’ll become criminals.

Unfortunately that’s how our judicial system is set up. It’s set up to punish people and make them suffer for what they’ve done.

That’s why NVC is very strongly supportive of restorative justice and is working with different groups around the world to transform our present system.

For those who want to go deeper, read Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication, and check out Newt Bailey’s Communication Dojo. Both Newt & Marshall inspired much of the above.



Co-founder & Partner, @Villageglobal, @ondeckdaily,

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