The Best Bad Book Ever Written

An appreciation of the late, great Marshall Rosenberg


The most useful book I’ve ever read — the one I would hand to a newly landed alien, if he had room for only one book in his alien-pouch — happens also to be the most mortifying. It’s a self-help book called Nonviolent Communication, and it’s about how we can communicate better, whether at a bar or in bed or across a negotiating table. Its author, Marshall Rosenberg, died this month, and everyone who cares about the tricky business of getting along with people ought to (gently) raise a glass in his honor.

Despite describing Non-Violent Communication as mortifying, I’m not a snob about self-help books. There are books on my shelves about sleep, and worry, and decision-making, none of which particularly embarrass me. Non-Violent Communication is in another category. There’s recently been a movement, let by Alain Du Botton, Vincent Deary and others, to storm the dingy food court that is the self-help genre and class the place up with tablecloths and silverware. Non-Violent Communication is Taco Bell. Its generously spaced pages feature songs written by friends of the author, original poems, and, for moments when full paragraphs get to be too much, pull-quotes. Its cover (in the much-creased edition on my shelves, anyway) features a sunflower whose center has been replaced with an image of planet Earth. It is defiantly itself, beyond gussying.

The crux of the book is a method of communication — or, in a typically gooey phrase, a “language of compassion” — simple enough to be printed on an index card. This, Rosenberg tells us, is the recipe for resolving conflicts of just about any sort, and when I first encountered it, it seemed to me absurdly mechanical and unpromising.

Step one: Simply say, without judgment, what someone is doing that you like or dislike.

Step two: Say how you feel when you observe this action.

Step three: Say what needs of yours are connected to this feeling. (Rosenberg believes that all feelings derive from fairly basic needs being met or not).

Step four: Make a very specific request.

That’s it. That’s the body of work, the material to be mastered.

So let’s say, for instance, that you’re out to dinner — you’ve just gotten the check, and your friend, who has paid for the last three dinners, reaches to give the waiter his credit card.

Employing Rosenberg’s method, first you’d describe what you notice. (When you try to pay for dinner…) Then you’d say how you feel about what you’re noticing. ( I feel anxious…) Then you’d say what need of yours is leading to this feeling of anxiety. (…because of my need to feel that we’re on equal ground). And finally you’d make a very specific request (Could I please pick up the check this time?)

Nonviolent Communication is padded with elaborations and quizzes and testimonials, but the whole thing, Rosenberg more or less acknowledges, could without much loss be edited down from 220 pages to 1. Memorize these four steps and change your life.

But wait, I hear you saying, who actually talks like this? Why would an intelligent adult, with decades of practice at formulating thoughts, decide to start speaking like a balky new-age robot? Who has the time for all these needs and feelings when you could just as easily say It’s on me?

And to this I can only say: try it. Some advice for self-betterment is easy to understand but hard to follow: turn the other cheek. Some is hard to understand and hard to follow: cling to nothing. Rosenberg’s method falls into a third category: it is easy to understand and easy to follow — but impossible to believe.

I remember vividly the trepidation I felt the first time I put the four-point plan into action. This was four or five years ago, not in a restaurant but in my apartment. My wife and I had been having a long, tedious argument about something or other, and having gone through every page of my own personal conflict-management playbook (the patient explanation of my rightness, the slightly less patient explanation of my rightness) I decided, having heard vaguely of Nonviolent Communication, to go for a Hail Mary. When you say X, I feel Y, because my need for Z is not being met. Maybe next time you could do Q? I fumbled through my mental script and waited, as if I’d just tried casting a spell, and… suddenly it worked. Each of us, for the first time, heard the other saying something other than an expanded version of I’m right and you’re wrong. The sensation was almost physical; it was as if, after days of speaking to each other entirely through distorted, feedback-squealing microphones, we were speaking clearly. The fight, which had seemed destined to seep on eternally, was settled within twenty minutes. I could almost have laughed out loud.

And the surprising thing about Nonviolent Communication, the thing that actually makes it practicable, is that once you’ve got the four steps down, you can abandon the robot-speaking altogether. The method becomes, rather than a set procedure, more like learning to be conscious of the skeleton. There the four steps lie, like an invisible spinal column, at the center of nearly everything you say or hear. The bus driver shouts at someone to stand back behind the yellow stripe and you realize that she’s feeling fearful because of her need for safety. You feel an amorphous glumness after a phone call with a friend and realize that you’re disappointed because of your need for intimacy. The feeling is that you’d somehow slept through an introductory course called Functioning Emotionally as a Human, and here at last you’ve found the textbook.

And this is where the true mortification in reading Nonviolent Communication, the humbling that goes well beyond being seen with a book that could have been written by Ned Flanders, rears its head. Rosenberg’s book, which seems to demand no more of you than a suppressed gag reflex, in fact requires you to accept something quite devastating: that you — the being whose intelligence and wit and reason you’ve spent your whole life polishing — are in many aspects like a child. Worse than a child, in fact, because at least a child knows that he has much to learn. The obnoxious pedant within you, the one who believes that he can reason his way to the end of any argument — the one who may in fact carry your ID card — must, if Nonviolent Communication is going to have any effect, kneel before the wisdom of Rosenberg and his index card. You may have read half a dozen studies backing up your point, you may have marshaled evidence from years of observation, but unless you’ve thought through the needs and feelings of both you and the person you’re talking to, you’re engaged in a peculiarly hopeless sort of mental string-fiddling. When it comes to human conversation, most of us can tie butterfly knots and clove hitches and figure eights effortlessly; it’s tying our shoes that takes a lifetime to learn.

Marshall Rosenberg, champion shoelace-tier, deserves to be remembered as a great American. While he is incapable of producing a single paragraph that you wouldn’t cringe to read aloud in a room full of strangers, he can do more for your capacity to get along in that room full of strangers than all the authors enshrined in the Library of America. I humbly and simply request that you try out the method of Nonviolent Communication. It may require a moment of social discomfort, as you think through how to translate the tangle of your inner life into Rosenberg-ese, and then a more profound sort of discomfort once you realize how much better this works than your old, timeworn methods. But I feel hopeful that you won’t regret it. Your needs, whole wild and unexplored acres of them, will be met.