The Basics of Harmless Communication
Harmless communication, as opposed to dirty communication, is about boiling what you have to say down to the most “inarguable truth” level. Inarguable means describing things so neutrally and self-responsibly that there is nothing left to argue with.
What makes a truth debatable is when I use interpretations, judgements, labels, etc. Arguable truths tend to focus on what I interpret or project onto the other, such as saying “You attacked me in that meeting,” or “You clearly don’t care about this project at all.”
What makes truth inarguable is when I describe what I am directly able to observe inside myself (owning up to my own thoughts, feelings, interpretations and sensations), without excessive emotional charge.
It is obviously not necessary to speak like this all day — harmless communication is a tool to use during conflict and for any time you want to make sure that you speak in the most non-inflammatory way. It sounds therapisty of course, but with practice, can be integrated into your personal style. Like any template, it may look a bit better if you embed it or adapt to your personality and way of expressing yourself, but in a pinch will do the trick if you just follow it.
Template for Clean Communication
1. Neutral observation of just the facts
2. Statement of how it impacted me subjectively (use body sensations and feeling words to describe what only you can describe/be the authority on)
3. Relate it to a core need, what you want that you aren’t getting, and/or a boundary that you have
4. Formulate a Request (I’m wondering if you could do…next time, what do you think?)
5. Listen to their response and continue, as needed.
- When you came late to my presentation in front of the board last week, and they got distracted from my presentation for a while,
2. I felt a prickly sensation in my chest and my palms got sweaty. I felt upset about the interruption and embarrassed in front of the group.
3. I want the board’s attention when I am presenting my work, and when the board was distracted and their attention went to you, it got in the way of me getting recognition for my contributions and hard work.
4. I’m wondering if you would mind trying to be there on time or else, if it can’t be helped and you know you’re going to be late, waiting until my presentation is over to enter the room, next time I present to the board. What do you think? Is there anything about your experience of this that I’m not getting?
If you notice, what is left out is any inference into why the person was late, any assumption about how the late person feels or thinks about the speaker, and any angry accusation or reproach about it.
The point of identifying what I would rather have is not to demand it, but to make sure the other person isn’t left with the impression that my feelings are his fault and responsibility. I show that my feelings and needs for recognition, in this example, are something I take ownership for.
What matters most is getting transparent about what core needs and wants are at stake, since the spirit of win-win is the assumption that we can both be satisfied if we are patient about finding a way.
Harmless communication says: you have desires, I have desires, we are both valuable parts of the whole, and with some creativity, both of us can have our desires fulfilled. The best possible outcome for the whole that we both belong to is the outcome in which all points of view are given fulfillment. Since what we each want stems from a shared source, let’s see if we can work together to have both fulfilled, in recognition of our belonging, as parts, to a shared whole self.
Thanks for reading!
Credit where credit is due:
I have adapted this from a lot of open source material and work done by many people before me. If you’re interested, check out Non-Violent Communication. And/or make your own version!