Avoiding the Judgment Trap

Recently, someone said to me, “I hear that when people really get into NVC they become judgmental about other people’s language.” Unfortunately, this concern reflects a trap that students of NVC do often fall into. When we realize how satisfying conversations can be when both people are using NVC, it’s easy to start thinking that anyone who doesn’t use NVC (as we understand it) is “doing it wrong.” However, the second we start believing such thoughts, we’re no longer doing NVC ourselves.

NVC is about prioritizing connection, and focusing on needs rather than on our ideas of right and wrong. When we believe our judgments of other people’s language, we’re out of alignment with both these principles. We’ve erected a barrier to connecting with whoever we’re judging. This is the opposite of creating connection, which is one of NVC’s primary intentions. We connect most easily to people if we meet them where they are, without any spoken or unspoken demands that they change.

NVC was designed to be useful when we are with other people who don’t know anything about NVC. If we fall into the trap of thinking we can only use it when the other person also uses NVC (and “does NVC right”), that’s very limiting. Yes, we can become closer to those who also use NVC (in the way we do), but we risk becoming distanced from the rest of the world — unless we learn to deepen our practice of NVC so that we can become closer to most everyone.

So, how do we avoid falling into this trap, or what do we do if we notice we have? One key is to remember that NVC is a tool we can use to empower ourselves. It’s not something anyone “should” do. So, when I notice myself judging someone else and believing those judgments, that’s a signal that I’m not living up to my own intention to live in alignment with the spirit of NVC. It’s time to focus attention on what I can do differently, rather than worrying about what the other person is doing.

I might do a little inventory. Am I believing that the other person is doing something wrong? Do I have an intention to connect (rather than correct or educate)? Am I connected to what is important to me in the moment, what needs I’m trying to meet? Am I feeling my way towards a sense of what matters to the other person, what they are valuing?

When I notice that I’m judging, disconnected from an intention to connect, and out of touch with my needs or the other person’s, I find that humbling. Occasionally, once I have awareness, I can shift into a state of mind and heart more aligned with my intention to live in alignment with NVC. More often, it’s hard to shift quickly. I find myself getting quieter, trying to simply notice what is happening inside me and in the conversation. I try to at least “do no harm.” I acknowledge my judgments and see if I can loosen the the belief that they are the Truth. I may use them as a way-station to connecting with my needs. I see if I can hear what the other person is saying without pre-conceptions. Can I feel what it might be like to be them? What might their heart be longing for right now?

And if I notice I’m judging myself for judging, I see if I can hold that loosely, and try to sense what beautiful thing that judging part of me is wanting for me.

Some people find Byron Katie’s “The Work” helpful in transforming their judgments. (This is not NVC, but is in some ways complementary.) You might check out whether that could support your practice of NVC.

As in all things, it helps to be patient with ourselves. Beginning to notice when we are judging others for not using NVC, or not doing it “right,” is a valuable first step towards a deeper practice of NVC. I invite you to take steps towards being able to connect with anybody.

(I welcome your feedback on this essay.)