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Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life


All roads lead to Rome. Sometimes the books that I read are like that. There are so many other books that refer to another that it becomes imperative to read one simply because it’s referred to in so many other places. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life is that. It’s the mecca for folks who are trying to find ways to resolve disagreement peacefully. Marshall Rosenberg’s work on resolving conflict spanned decades and served many causes.

Stories and Conflict

The quote is “all stories lead to conflict.” It’s quite nearly the first highlight I have in the book, and it’s a point on which we’d disagree. It’s a statement by Deepak Chopra in the introduction but one that I feel exaggerates a point. Stories – the kinds of stories we tell ourselves – do inherently carry with them the capacity for conflict. However, I don’t know that every story that we could tell ourselves inherently leads to conflict.

The stories we tell ourselves are necessarily distorted versions of reality, and the gap between our story and reality creates a perception difference that can lead to conflict. However, it is possible to tell ourselves a story that we’re continuing on a journey and we are learning from others. Such a story wouldn’t generally create conflict. Conflict only remains conflict when we’re unwilling to learn others’ points of view and their values.

Behaviorism Redux

Behaviorism has largely fallen out of favor as a psychological approach, because we’ve discovered that there is much more to the human condition than just the behaviors we express outwardly. However, we don’t often take the contrary view to recognize that our behaviors are a result of our thinking. Rare is it that we focus on our approach to thinking to reach the goal of changing behaviors.

However, this is the kind of thing we need to do, as Change the Culture, Change the Game explains. Once you change the core values and beliefs – the way that people think – the results will follow. Rosenberg’s approach isn’t a set of simple techniques that can be applied to solve any problem. Instead of tricks, he taught principles and a way of thinking.

Four Components

The are four components of Nonviolent Communication:

  1. Observations
  2. Feelings
  3. Needs
  4. Requests

That is, we make observations that are informed by our feelings, which are driven by our needs, and these are most helpfully described as requests.

At its best, Nonviolent Communication is expressing honestly our observations, feelings, needs and requests and receiving empathetically the observations, feelings, needs and requests of others.

Not an Attack

In my review for Resilient, I shared the story of the two darts – and my love for a scene from The Matrix. Rosenberg expresses a similar sentiment when he explains how he learned to experience others’ words as gifts and not attacks. Instead of taking what might have been relatively direct affronts, he learned to listen to the other person’s pain and empathize with it.

One of the greatest gifts I’ve received is the training in how to do this feat. It requires a bit of work to get to reframing the stressors and the degree of harm. Richard Lazarus in Emotion and Adaptation explains that stressors – of any type – are assessed along with our capacity to mitigate, compensate, or avoid the result of the stressor. It’s only when the equation is unbalanced and there is perceived uncontained risk to us that we feel threatened or become angry.

Learning to view others’ perspectives as their own, with only some relationship to truth or us, can be a powerful tool to creating a kind of detachment that can save us a great deal of pain. (See The HeartMath Solution for more on detachment.)

Latent Fear

Much of the truly painful conflict that exists in the world is built on the back of fear. Even the cases of bravado, like those experienced between the USA and USSR during the height of the Cold War, hid the deep-seated fears that were in the hearts of both leaders. (See One Minute to Midnight for more.) Too often, we look no deeper than the words the other person is saying, and as a result, we’re unable to see the scared little child that exists in them – and in all of us.

The degree to which people are guided into good and bad behaviors by fear can’t be overstated. Everything from the brand of toothpaste we use (which is likely to be the same one that your parents used) to the religion we practice is influenced by our fears, including our need for acceptance.

Demands and Requests

One of the deep-seated challenges of parenting, leadership, and life is the need to address the difference between a demand and a request. Even when phrased as a request, there are often hidden, implicit threats that make a request feel like a demand. Ethical standards have been erected to prevent inappropriate relationships when the power gradients are too large. As a result, it’s difficult for one person to see a request as truly a request.

Consider for the moment the prohibition for guards to have sexual relations with inmates. The power gradient is clear. The inmate may feel as if they have no choice, that the advance is a demand and not a request. Similarly, the APA has a prohibition for supervisors to have relationships with their subordinates. (Experientially, I can tell you raising such a complaint isn’t always addressed.) Organizations have varying degrees of similar rules with most trying desperately not to get involved.

Even in less contentious situations, we often receive demands from others – which may or may not match their true needs.

Means vs. Ends

The key challenge is that we often ask for things we don’t really want or need because we expect that they will lead us to the thing we really want. Tragically, often the things that we ask for are harmful or contentious, though our ultimate goals are not. In today’s world, there is almost always more than one way to do things. As a result, we should always pursue alternatives to our requests, but too often we see this as the only way to move forward.

Consider, for a moment, a child who says they want a job. The truth is that they don’t want a job – who really wants a job? What they want is what they believe a job will get them. The expect it will mean money, which can mean getting a car, which means freedom. It’s a long chain that starts with a job and ends up with a concept of freedom. We often forget that what we really want is freedom, so we ask for a job that makes lots of money but ultimately traps us. (See Flow for a more detailed discussion of means vs. ends.)

Separating Observation from Evaluation

Another common challenge when it comes to arguments is that we confuse what we see, the judgements we make, and objective reality. It’s easy to do. We walk Chris Argyris’ Ladder of Inference and forget what was said and what we added. (See Choice Theory for more on the Ladder of Inference.) We believe they said something in the same way we believe that we see where we’ve got a blind spot in our eyes. Incognito has a wonderful exercise where there’s a random pattern of black and white. When you cover one eye and move the image to the right spot, the black spot on the image disappears and becomes a part of the pattern of black and white. What’s disturbing is not that you have a blind spot in your eye – everyone does. What’s disturbing is that, without an exercise, you aren’t aware the blind spot even exists.

The more we can actively try to pursue a non-judgmental mindset, the less prone we are to conflict. One way to do this is to use an ethnographic approach – as if you’re journaling your experience with the situation for later study. The process is one of constant questioning, observing, and attempting to make sense of what you’re seeing and hearing – but from outside your typical frame of reference. (See The Ethnographic Interview for more.)

Another approach is the approach of a therapist or counselor. Here, instead of an inherent curiosity, the perspective is one of genuine concern – or, as Carl Rogers said, “unconditional positive regard.” One toolbox for this way of thinking is found in Motivational Interviewing, which is focused on how to help people with addictions and other persistent negative habits – but the tools are good at helping someone react in a way that separates judgement or evaluation.

The problem with our evaluations is that they often become judgement – or what Willard Harvey calls “disrespectful judgement” in Love Busters. They’re disrespectful, because they presume that others do not have the right to live the way they want. We believe our perspectives and values are the only “right” ones, and everyone else should conform. In my review for Parent Effectiveness Training, I mentioned another view of this need to separate the observation from the judgement. It’s one of the barriers that Gordon felt got in the way of parenting children.

Perhaps more importantly, our perspective isn’t reality. There is always more than one way to see things – and sometimes that way of seeing things is better than ours, though still not complete. We have something of the picture to offer others even if their perspective is more complete than ours.

I Feel That

One of the many challenges with the English language is that words can – and do – mean different things. We often use common words – like “feel” – that have many connotations. It may be a literal sensory input that we’re describing, an emotion, or even a belief. The problem is that when we’re taught to communicate from the heart or emotions, we often use the word “feel” in a way that isn’t the intent.

John Gottman’s research into which couples would divorce and which would stay together is legendary. In 3 minutes of argument, Gottman could predict with over 90% accuracy which couples would make it. He encourages us to share our feelings and to “own” our words by using statements that are focused on “I” instead of “you”. The problem is that we often cloak our feelings inside of words that sound like feeling words but are not. (See The Science of Trust for more on Gottman’s work.)

A quick rule of thumb that Rosenberg shares is that when the word “feel” is followed by the word “that,” it’s not a feeling at all. It’s often a judgement or at least a cognition rather than emotion. He recommends a structure that includes “I feel…” followed by some emotion, then “because I need…” While this doesn’t always work, it does disrupt the idea that you can say the word “feel” and get away without revealing your feelings.

He Made Me Mad

It’s important for us to own our feelings as ours. No matter what someone else does, we’re responsible for our emotions. The statement “he made me mad” is incorrect. What we should be saying is that “I chose to be mad because of someone else’s actions.” This is the truth that’s shared by Choice Theory, Emotion and Adaptation, as well as How Emotions are Made. We often fail to take responsibility for our feelings and recognize that they’re our assessment of the situation because we’re unable to separate the observation from the evaluation – even in ourselves.

The Need to be Heard

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt explains how we became powerful as a species through our theory of mind – our ability to read others’ minds. The book Mindreading expands upon our ability to read into another person’s mind. This – and many other works – implies the importance of understanding, but Nick Morgan in Trust Me says it the most directly: we have a fundamental need to be understood. This need echoes across the work of many authors who stress the importance of communication and understanding but don’t draw the line quite as directly or neatly as Morgan.

When this fundamental need is not met, we find that people will continue to repeat themselves until either they give up or they feel that they’ve been understood. (Willard Harvey makes the same point about spouses repeating their needs until heard or they give up in His Needs, Her Needs.)

The Pain That Keeps Us from Hearing

Sometimes our own need to be heard or understood blocks our ability to hear or understand others. In couples it shows up as one making what Gottman would call a bid for connection and the other turning away because they don’t feel as if the other person is hearing, and acknowledging their needs.

One of the most dysfunctional situations that exists in our society is when one person expects that the other person just “knows” their needs. While this is often expressed as a wife who says that her husband should have “just known.” It’s been inflicted by husbands who expected their wives to understand things, including needs, that they have never verbalized. This is a self-binding knot. When the spouse asks them first to tell them or explain to them what is wrong, they’ll often retort something like, “This is exactly what I mean,” before turning away.

Presuming that the other person is communicating, it can be that our needs are so deeply held and we’ve tried so persistently to communicate them that they’ve become a deafening roar in our ears that prevents us from hearing the other person express their needs – including their own need for understanding.

Protective and Punitive Force

Most people say that it’s wrong to grab another human and forcibly move them. Then they’re presented with the situation where they must pull a child from the road to prevent them from being run over. The use of force is summarily condemned before the specifics of the situation are understood.

Some people make decisions and then feel as if they’ve being punished because of their decisions rather than seeing the outcomes as a natural part of their decisions. Instead of seeing the natural consequences as an opportunity to learn, they feel as if they’ve been made the victim. (See Hostage at the Table for more on victimhood.) The truth is that force is sometimes appropriate. Even a Buddhist can kill if it is in service of protecting others. (See Emotional Awareness for a full story or my review of Moral Disengagement where I recount a classic example.)

The key is to use force as a protective measure rather than a punitive one. When we use our force to appropriately protect others rather than to punish them, we’re working in our best way. Nonviolent Communication would seem to imply no use of force; however, it is about the appropriate use of force. No one can force you to read Nonviolent Communication – but it might just be right for you.