The Key to Conflict Winning Observations
“I didn’t realize that you were so Indian!” my ex-roommate said after more than a year of us living together. This took place five years ago and I still remember and feel judged by that comment. We were on our way to a Garba event, a semi-formal traditional Indian dance party. All over the San Francisco Bay Area, 100s to 1000s of people from the Indian state of Gujarat and other parts of South Asian were coming together to have fun. Even though I was the only Indian of the four of us, we were all wearing saris and kurtas and blasting Bollywood jams in the car. And I was showing off my memory of a few Hindi songs. After his comment, I felt my face turn hot. Screw you! I’m very Indian! I thought. And then I thought again. I knew my roommate cared about me and rarely judged others negatively. He sensed that his words had a negative impact on me. And he quickly added, “I’ve just never heard you listen to this kind of music before today.” A retort quickly formed in my mind, Of course, not! The way people relate to Indian culture in the house makes me incredibly uncomfortable. Why would I subject myself to that? However, this time, he named an observation to me. I found myself baffled. I think he’s right! After a year of being in the house, I’ve never played Hindi songs! I was simultaneously surprised, mostly pacified, and now curious. This past-roommate loved playing country radio, which he grew up listening to in North Carolina. Even though people made fun of it, he wasn’t embarrassed. Why did I feel uncomfortable about playing Indian music and openly being Indian? Years later, I realized it was tied to how most of my life I’ve been judged for not “being Indian enough” and his words had struck that old wound. For him, he had been talking about two thoughts that logically tied together. So, why did one have a really negative impact, and the other helped me to be curious and introspective?
After studying nonviolent communication (NVC), I now see a big difference between his two comments. The first seemed to be a judgment: “Idris, you’re not that Indian.” The second felt like an observation to me. “I’ve never seen you play Hindi music at home.” And unsurprisingly, although I was still uncomfortable, his second comment cooled me down quite a bit. I’m certain that my roommate’s quick action to share a follow-up observation stopped us from ruining a night of fun and revelry. Although, we did not immediately address the underlying dynamic that makes me uncomfortable sharing my Indian heritage in communities of mostly white people. However, we did create an opportunity for on-going dialogue. Also, in this case, there was no tension prior to those comments, but imagine if we had already been in a tense moment.
Unfortunately, things have not been as smooth in most of the conversations I have had in my life. Most people have not realized how helpful it can be to name an observation instead of a judgment. That’s how a lot of fights begin: judgments such as “you never do this right” being used to address a tension instead of observations “we have different views on what works best.”
So, in the NVC framework, we recommend starting with an observation. When you’re addressing a conflict or even just a tension, sharing an observation is far more effective than sharing your judgment. An observation creates a common ground for the group to work from. That base of collaboration supports our hearing of different experiences and perspectives. Once we’ve been able to appreciate everyone’s situation, it becomes easy to make requests and proposals that work for everyone. Using observation may seem obvious, but I’ll explain how difficult it can be to share an appropriate observation.
When you’re addressing a conflict or even just a tension, sharing an observation is far more effective than sharing your judgment.
Surprisingly, even after 100’s of hours of NVC workshops, I still catch myself thinking judgemental thoughts. For example, “well it’s obvious that you’re just a condescending prick and that’s why I don’t play Hindi music in the house.” Out of anger, my mind wants to start addressing the tension with that small nuclear bomb. In those heated moments, labeling my roommates’ commentary on various cultures over the last two weeks as “condescending,” seems perfectly justifiable.
Thankfully something I have learned from my NVC training is a habit of checking if what I’m about to say is an observation or not. Of course, when I double-check, I can see that labeling a behavior or a person as “condescending” is a judgment on my part. Unfortunately, it’s not always that obvious. In fact, almost any statement can be considered a judgment, since language is ultimately just a set of labels applied to the world around us. Labels are ultimately just judgments. What we really care about is trying to build common ground, which means we’re looking to share something that both of us will see as an observation.
Taken separately, the two statements “the glass is half full” and “the glass is half empty” are both observations of the same situation. However, they’re also clearly judgments, since they communicate a slight difference in perspective of the same glass of water.
[A]lmost any “statement” can be considered a judgment.
So then, how do I know that I am actually saying an observation, especially when I’m angry? Well, it’s tricky. First of all, you might notice that we’ve set up a binary: two specific buckets of things. We’re saying that either a statement is an observation or a judgment. And we’re implying that a statement will be non-controversial if it’s an observation. However, not everything falls into those buckets so clearly. For example, our previous example of the “glass is half empty” is less likely to start a controversial debate than calling someone “condescending.” So, let’s start by considering even simpler statements that should clearly be an observation. For example, “the grass is green!”
If you did think of that, great job! AND sorry, it’s still not a perfect observation. Even color can get tricky. For example, the vast majority of computer applications have 100+ shades of gray. (Yes, this is disregard of the title of a book series that I am ashamed to admit, I have many judgments about, haha). Apps will even recognize multiple versions of black each with their own special hexcodes to specify them. “Black” (#000000), black chocolate (#1b1811), black coffee (#1d1817), and licorice (#0a0502) are just a few! Isn’t that fascinating? The same is true for white: “white” (#ffffff), swan white (#fcfcfc), whitewash (#fefffc), and whitest white (#f8f9f5). So, even when you claim something is literally “black” or “white”, you’re likely seeing one of these other “almost black” or “almost white” colors, as defined by the engineers designing colors for your screens. Very few things are black and white.
If I really want to make sure I’m always starting with observations, I could check the pixel value or even measure the lightwave with a spectrometer, but that’s very impractical. However, if you tell me you’re in a white car (rather than saying #fcfcfc), then we instantly have a common understanding. So, some judgments can be helpful. If the judgment is something we share or can both easily arrive at, then the other person is more likely to consider it to be an observation even if a more accurate description of the car color would be “swan white.” And so we can see how our spectrum works. I think this is where most people get confused when it comes to the difference between an observation and a judgment. What we really care about is how triggering or controversial is the statement. And we know that the more specific our description of a situation, the less likely it will be controversial. However, too descriptive and we’re now in “nonsense land.” So, for our purposes, an NVC observation is a statement that we can both agree on without any discussion (i.e. a non-controversial belief).
Your ability to share in a way that builds common ground will only improve with practice. There are many more nuances to learn on this topic, which you’ll learn as you go. So, take the time to think about these ideas before you speak. If you have questions or want to get some hands-on practice transforming judgments into observations, join us for the upcoming Authentic Connection Practice session: “How to understand the people who judge you without feeling judged”. And the next time you try to bring up a conflict or address a tension, first build common ground with a non-controversial statement.