An encounter with Non-Violent Communication

Like my rambling encounter with Theater of the Oppressed from a few weeks ago, this post is mostly for my own edification — I’m trying to write out stuff that I learned recently before I forget it all!


The Ideology of Nonviolent Communication

    states the following:

  • All humans have energy that sustains life
  • This energy expresses itself in our dreams and our needs
  • If you are human, you have this spirit. If you have this spirit, you have needs. Hence, everyone has needs
  • Wants and desires are strategies to meet your needs

What is the point? Well, these are premises for developing strategies for communication that satisfies human needs. The performative quality of words implies that language itself can be a violent act (thanks Judith Butler) even when it’s only meant to be expressive. Think about the last time you asked your roommate to pick up the slack and wash his share of dirty dishes — it always comes off as a criticism, and makes you sound like an asshole. But really you feel frustrated with the kitchen and you need your roommate to help you out. So why should that be grounds for you being the asshole? It shouldn’t.

Phrasing, tone, and style are important — if you say, for example, “Hey man I really feel like you’re not doing your share of the dishes” then you are implicitly imposing a judgment upon your roommate. The emphasis placed upon the really implies disappointment, and quasi-paternal shame at your dirty roommate. Also the “you’re not doing your share of the dishes” is not actually a feeling, it’s a quite specific thought and statement about your view of the situation masked within an “I feel like…” sentence.

This is, incidentally, a favorite Wesleyan kid tactic for avoiding responsibility; you know that kid who raises his hand to proclaim “I feel like Shakespeare wrote King Lear as a metaphor for political power in general.” Damn it, you don’t “feel like” that! You think that!

But I digress. The point is that there is a judgment inadvertently entangled in that sentence about dishes — if you utter it, your roommate will be more likely to counter-attack or go on the defensive than to communicate openly. To judge a person before you’ve walked a mile in their proverbial shoes is an act of linguistic violence and it will most likely lead to a battle, roiled with sarcasm, eye-rolling, and sighs (at best).

The way to avoid this is to express your feelings and your needs clearly and simply, without casting aspersions upon the other person. NVC theory says that you should deal with others compassionately, observe what’s going on around you, and pay attention to your own feelings in particular (because they help you figure out what your needs are.) This way you can more effectively seek positive changes that work for all parties involved. Strive for no labeling, no judgment, and no violence.

A personal note to all this: Once upon a time I was experiencing serious, soul-crushing, Bell Jar-esque depression. Then I began to realize (thanks to the support of friends, family, and extraordinarily uplifting albeit un-bloggable circumstances) that this suffering was self-imposed. I had been shouldering a burden of my own narrow judgments, ignoring my own needs as well as those of loved ones, and thus actually causing my distress that had spiraled into despair.

For me, the most interesting thing about NVC theory is that it jibes with what I was thinking at that time — it is essentially the same theory that I conceptualized during the incredibly euphoric phase of my life that took shape after I climbed out of the mire. I thought: If people could know their needs and speak them to others, then individuals could act together to solve collective problems. I was thereupon *completely* convinced that I should become a counselor or therapist — the profession of helping people understand their own feelings and act upon them by making positive change in their lives.

Now I know that this isn’t necessarily the case; rather, I can work to affect positive change through communication in all sorts of other, broader ways too. Even though I stumbled upon NVC by myself and in my own original way, others have been working on developing its applications for years. And I hope to be part of generating this discourse.


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