A while ago, a colleague brought to my attention a essay comparing a communication practice called “Clean Talk” with Nonviolent Communication (NVC) in quite some detail. I was delighted to encounter this, because I think there is a lot to be learned from reflecting on ideas dear to us (as we understand them and as others perceive them), and considering what arises from different orientations to the problem of communication. Here, I offer a detailed (and long) response to that essay.
Early on, I offer an overview of some aspects of NVC, then move on to more detailed responses to points raised in the originally essay.
[This is originally began as an email message to the author of the comparison, Alyce Barry, and so is written as if to her.]
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I’d like to offer some responses to your essay A Comparison of Clean Talk and Nonviolent Communication (NVC) which a colleague (Miki Kashtan) recently brought to my attention.
I am an NVC trainer. I view learning how to communicate in more satisfying ways as an ongoing exploration, and I’m continually trying to identify gaps in what I share with others about this topic, and in my own understanding. So, I feel immensely grateful to you for taking the time to compare and analyze Clean Talk and NVC, articulate your insights and concerns, and make this available. It contributes in an enlivening way to my own explorations of communication.
I’d like to share some of what comes up for me, in reading your essay. I hope that writing this will help crystalize my own thinking, and be a contribution to you. Please feel free to discard whatever is not useful to you. I’m open to feedback on the content of anything that I say, or on the way I express myself, and I’ll be curious about how any of this is for you to receive.
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My take on your comparison is that the issues you point to, variously:
- highlight potential weaknesses or limitations in NVC that I also have concerns about and/or where I find your perspective clarifying or intriguing;
- don’t reflect NVC as I understand it, but rather reflect deficiencies in the way that NVC was presented to you (which does reflect ways others might also misunderstand/misapply NVC);
- offer things to think about and reflect on further;
- miss awareness of what NVC uniquely offers that is likely absent from Clean Talk.
It all seems valuable to me to engage with.
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To address some of the issues you’ve raised, I think it will be helpful to offer a little more background on NVC as I understand it.
Needs and NVC
“Needs” reflect the most distinctive and profound aspect of the NVC model. “Need” is also the component that is most easily misunderstood. I think there is lots of room for more nuanced presentation of this idea, and more nuanced advice about how to apply it in communication.
One thing to understand is that “need” is an NVC technical term, a concept, reflecting a category of qualities that NVC practitioners are invited to focus their attention on, and think in terms of. The technical meaning is different (associated with different connotations) than the way the word is commonly used in English. So, in my judgment, using the word “need” when talking to someone who isn’t an NVC practitioner is likely to create misunderstandings. I personally advise my students NOT to use the word “need” when speaking using NVC, to minimize the likelihood of such misunderstandings.
NVC, as a model, has evolved over a period of 40-50 years. In its earlier phases, it looked more like Clean Talk than it does now, and potentially included judgments, so long as they were fully “owned.” In 1973, apparently Marshall Rosenberg specifically cautioned against talking about “needing” something, out of a concern that this would convey an unhelpful sense of “It’s an emergency — I have to have this thing I say I’m ‘needing’.” Over the years, Marshall wrestled with how to address certain problems that he wanted NVC to be able to address, and this eventually led to Marshall including something he chose to call “needs” as a central feature of the model. But, I’m confident there was never any desire to have a sense of urgency or “I’ll die if I don’t have this” or “you have to do this because it’s a ‘need’” be associated with what was being talked about.
What is important about something NVC calls a “need” is that it:
- points to something fundamental that we value;
- draws attention to something that people have in common (at least insofar as most people could understand why someone would value it, and feel sympathetic to that);
- is abstract, so that it is compatible with many different potential concrete strategies for realizing it.
Focusing on “needs” ideally tends to support:
- being connected to what is important to us, conceptually and energetically;
- seeing the humanity in one another, and relating to one another with an open heart;
- increasing flexibility, suggesting the possibility of a variety of concrete ways of addressing what matters to us;
- thinking and talking about what matters to us in a way that, unlike the use of “moralistic language,” need not trigger painful associations with a sense of danger of social disapproval or punishment.
Ultimately, I think some core goals of NVC are to offer a way of thinking and speaking that supports:
- loving relating, such that we can compassionately see and honor people’s beauty and humanity, while also fully honoring what matters to one another;
- transcending ways of thinking that limit our ability to see a way forward that could work for all;
- living in alignment with intrinsic motivations, and experiencing more aliveness and joy.
NVC is intended to support a paradigm shift in how we relate to self and others, and how we invite others to relate to us. In the mainstream paradigm, sometimes referred to as the domination paradigm:
- It is presumed that it is necessary to motivate people extrinsically, and that it makes sense to coerce people to do things that they don’t intrinsically want to do.
- “Moralistic” language and judgments are used to talk about things that matter to people interpersonally. These are portrayed as objective standards divorced from subjective experience, and are deeply associated with extrinsic reward and punishment, social approval and disapproval. This pseudo-objectivity and deep association with extrinsic motivators render such language and judgments as instruments of social and interpersonal control in ways that make conversations involving moral disagreements unsafe and fraught with challenge.
- It is the norm for some people to get their way (superficially) and for others to submit, or for overt or covert rebellion to happen. Some people win, some people lose; and often, if you look closely, everyone loses.
In the partnership paradigm that NVC tries to support:
- There is trust and experience that positive things can happen with way less coercion than is conventionally thought necessary. People are understood as having powerful intrinsic motivation to contribute to life and to one another’s well-being, which can blossom when these impulses are not being dampened by a coercive milieu.
- Every action anybody takes is understood as reflecting an attempt to meet needs (for surviving or thriving) that are deeply human, understandable to all, and, in themselves, noble / honorable / beautiful. (Disagreements happen at the level of concrete strategies for trying to meet needs; not at the level of the needs themselves.) This framework offers a reliable basis for seeing beauty and nobility in all people and in every part of our psyche — an intellectual framework that, when it is exercised fully, inevitably leads people to experience love and compassion.
- Talking about “needs” which are understandable to and valued by all serves as the basis for talking about what matters to people, including what matters interpersonally (which traditionally was thought to require moralistic language to address it). This framework is less tied to coercive associations with there being one “right”/objective perspective, and with searching for who to give social approval to and who to punish with disapproval. It’s easier to associate with our own inner wisdom about what works for us.
- It’s assumed that it makes sense to look for ways to honor everyone’s needs, so that (to a very real extent) there are no winners and losers — everyone gets to win.
Judgments and Interpretations
Let me define a few terms, from an NVC-inspired perspective. (These are my own definitions, but they likely roughly correspond to what other NVC trainers would think of when they hear these terms.)
- Interpretation – A story about what happened or what is true. This goes beyond mere data or observation, and for any given data / set of observations, there are usually many interpretations that could be equally consistent with that data. While people can often agree on an observation, disagreement about interpretations is extremely common. (Sometimes interpretations are labeled as evaluations.)
- Value Judgment – An interpretation concerning what is preferable, without the features that are special to Moralistic Judgments, i.e., it is owned as an being what an individual values, and is not associated with positive or negative consequences that should be inflicted on those who agree or disagree with the judgment.
- Moralistic Judgment – An interpretation concerning what is preferable, in which it is implied that there is an objective truth separate from any individual, and that in relation to this issue, some people deserve social disapproval and exclusion while others deserve approval and inclusion.
All of these concepts involve discernment, or determination of what it makes sense to believe. Discernment is valued among NVC practitioners. (In your essay, it seems like you might prefer to use “judgment” as a synonym for “discernment.” )
I think NVC discourages the use of moralistic judgments because they are entrenched tools of coercion and battling for domination, and NVC is about shifting out of a paradigm where one engages in those sort of activities. Moving away from moralistic judgments is central to NVC’s agenda of paradigm change.
While the encouragement to avoid interpretations is helpful when there is a risk of conflict, I see some room for discernment about when interpretations might be expressed without undue harm. The logic for steering away from interpretations seems to me less universally relevant than does the logic for avoiding moralistic judgments. I think the logic is basically that sharing interpretations is viewed as likely to stimulate arguments about whose interpretation is true, in a way that diverts attention away from matters that would be less divisive and more important to talk about — namely, what needs are at issue, and what could be done to address those needs? Given this understanding, I’ve treated the advice to avoid interpretations as context dependent, something one does when one wants to focus attention on needs in order to transform a conflict.
In some ways, I don’t think value judgments are discouraged, but it may be that perhaps NVC might not make it easy to express value judgments overtly, as opposed to implicitly, and perhaps that’s a limitation…
Note to self: Maybe there would be value in articulating when speaking about discernment would have value.
Issues raised in essay about Clean Talk and NVC
This, at last, brings us to a point where there may be enough shared background for me to address certain of the issues you raised in your essay.
Readers will likely need to reference the essay, A Comparison of Clean Talk and Nonviolent Communication (NVC), to make sense out of my responses.
A. WHEN TO USE THE MODEL
You suggest that Clean Talk recommends using Clean Talk only in specific situations, while Dr. Rosenberg seems to recommend using NVC “all the time.” This doesn’t match my reading of what Rosenberg says… he says (p. 8) it’s applicable in a wide variety of contexts, which is not the same as saying one should use it “all the time.”
That said, I would typically advise students to be selective about where they use the verbal forms of NVC, but to practice the mental part — seeing situations through a different lens — much more often, i.e., whenever issues of values and conflict arise. There is a profound mental shift that needs to be practiced in order to achieve an inner paradigm shift. NVC isn’t a narrow tool that is just about communication; in some way, it’s more like developing a meditation practice.
Note to self: There could be value in articulating more explicitly “when to use the model.” (See also item V-C(1) below.)
B. PERMISSION TO PROCEED
You offer “There’s something I’d like to talk to you about. Is this a time you could hear me?” as an example of Clean Talk. This could equally well be an example of NVC. There is a topic in NVC called “connection requests,” which unfortunately isn’t addressed in the book you read.
C. PROCEEDING IN ROUNDS
You say “NVC permits each speaker to talk for an unlimited length of time before allowing the other person to respond.” Actually, Dr. Rosenberg is famous for advising people to try to say whatever they want to say “in 40 words or less” (which is often unduly restrictive in practice). What is skillful around duration of speaking or listening depends on context. Again, this isn’t addressed in the book you read. Rosenberg also gives strong advice on the importance of being able to interrupt someone if they speak for longer than you enjoy.
D. EXCLUSION OF JUDGMENTS
You say “Dr. Rosenberg dislikes what he calls ‘moralistic judgments’ and so has not built into the NVC model a way to consistently and nonviolently communicate them, yet he occasionally adds them to his examples without explaining why he is doing so or how we might safely do so as well (examples on pp. 30, 33, 72, 86, 122, etc.).”
I appreciate the page numbers — and, looking at these pages (in Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life), I’m not entirely sure what you’re talking about… I see moralistic judgments occasionally spontaneously entering the conversation, then Rosenberg refocusing the conversations to something that’s not about moralistic judgment… To me, it looks like acknowledgement that people will bring moralistic judgments into conversations, but that we can keep returning to a non-moralistic frame. Are you seeing something different than this?
D-1. Labeling the tiger
I agree that if one is going to bring what you call judgments (and what I might call interpretations) into a conversation, then it is helpful to label them and subjectively own them, and that this is even more true if one is sharing a moralistic judgment.
Note to self: If one were to invite people to name judgments rather than allowing them to hide in the shadow, this might be the way to do it. And, I’m wondering what additional measures might support safety/nonviolence?
D-2. Reclaiming the word judgment
Any model is likely to need to adopt particular definitions for the words it uses. I can understand why Dr. Rosenberg might want to focus primarily on moralistic judgments, and use “judgment” as a convenient shorthand for that, while you might prefer to use “judgment” in a broader sense. I don’t see any problem with the systems focusing on different usages.
You write “Dr. Rosenberg appears to consider only the most negative of these definitions as the meaning of a judgment — essentially, to equate judgment with condemnation. In an example that I find surprising, Dr. Rosenberg won’t say that in his opinion violence is harmful, as this would be a ‘moralistic judgment’ (p.17). Instead, he offers to say, ‘I am fearful of the use of violence to resolve conflicts; I value the resolution of human conflicts through other means.’ “ I think Rosenberg is trying to disrupt the well-worn mental grooves that eventually lead to condemnation. If one combines the assertions “Joe did something violent” and “Violence is harmful” and the implicit “Harming is bad and wrong,” then it is a slippery slope to condemning Joe and thinking that this is right and natural. This pattern ends in thinking Joe is wrong and deserves to be punished — without ever considering other aspects of the situation, such as Joe making a tragic choice in order to address something that we could probably all agree was important to address, and our collectively modeling the use of violence as the way we address conflict, and… so on. Rosenberg refuses to say the conventional things about violence to try to disrupt the static thinking about this topic that ultimately leads to nowhere near as good an outcome as he believes would otherwise be possible.
You say “Clean Talk’s inclusion of judgments in its basic recipe (data, feeling, judgment, want) is based on a belief that human beings judge all the time, and that we must do so in order to survive.” In my language, I’d say “human beings use discernment all the time, and must do so in order to survive”; I think we agree on this. The open question isn’t about whether discernment happens and is valuable, but about how it is likely to be useful to express this.
You write “I believe judgment makes it possible for us to grow emotionally and spiritually by allowing us to distinguish how we act from how we wish to act.” In NVC, this process is supported through the naming of “needs,” which are essentially values that we want to live into.
You talk about people being “uncomfortable using the word judgment” and offer contexts in which it might be comfortable to use the word… I am a little puzzled by why this subsection is there — do you think that Rosenberg’s position has something to do with being “uncomfortable using the word judgment”? Personally, I don’t think that has anything to do with why he offers the advice he does.
D-3. The baby and the bathwater
Regarding using “giraffe” to label someone speaking NVC and “jackal” to label someone speaking more “violently,” I agree that this is a risky strategy for trying to support conceptual clarity. It can easily encourage precisely the sort of good/bad dichotomous thinking NVC means to transform. I seldom use this sort of labeling anymore, and I think this is true of many NVC trainers. Dr. Rosenberg used these terms in a humorous, affectionate way, and that context often mitigated some of the risks for those who got the energy from which he was speaking.
You quote Chapman Flack saying, “[Dr. Rosenberg’s] advice never to hear thoughts . . . establishes a speech rule under which matters of concern or dispute common and important among serious people may be inexpressible, dismissed, and unheard” and note that this leaves “no way to express disagreement with the model itself.”
Dr. Rosenberg had a habit of sometimes saying things that were shockingly extreme, I think as a way of trying to jar people out of well-established mental ruts. I believe it’s a mistake to take such expressions of his too literally. I think his talk of never hearing thoughts was meant as a wake-up-call to people “lost in their heads” who might believe they can rely purely on reason to navigate through conflict, without opening themselves to feelings, compassion, and empathic understanding. I think he was trying to express his sense that a certain stance of the heart was the true key to navigating human relationships in a way that would align with our deepest aspirations.
I think it would be unfortunate if anyone understood this as a “speech rule” saying that one can’t ever express or process interpretations. I converse at the level of interpretations much of the time. And, in conflict situations, I’ve experienced talking in this way as having had a rather limited capacity to transform conflicts. I take Dr. Rosenberg’s admonitions about “thoughts” as an invitation to notice when conversing at the level of interpretations isn’t getting me where I’d like to go, and when that happens, to be willing to drop down to a deeper level of awareness where I feel into what is happening, notice the barriers to open-heartedness, imagine the human aspirations in play, and remember my intention to find a way forward that works for everyone, or at the least, honors my deepest values.
To me, NVC is best thought of, not as a set of rules, but as a collection of insights, to be applied in a context-sensitive way, with discernment.
Some people may interpret NVC as saying people shouldn’t express interpretations, and if so, I agree that this is unduly limiting. However, my hope is that NVC practitioners will express interpretations in contexts where it is useful to do so, and be willing to listen to interpretation, and treat them as invitations to carry the conversation somewhere deeper.
There is a way in which I agree with you, in thinking that NVC misses some opportunities for supporting people in relating to and talking about interpretations more explicitly and skillfully. Dr. Rosenberg dealt with some of the problematic aspects of our interpretations, the stories we tell ourselves, by encouraging people to shift their focus, to attend more to other components of experience that he felt were ultimately more important. To some extend this can and does work… and sometimes it doesn’t.
People often get caught up in believing that their interpretations are “true” to an extent that leaves them caught in an unhelpful trap. NVC has some practices, related to connecting to “needs” that can sometimes release people from these traps. But, practices like “The Work” of Byron Katie engage more directly in helping people to break free of the traps their beliefs set for them.
One concern I might have about Clean Talk would be that it might miss an opportunity to support people in moving beyond the limiting traps created by their beliefs. Yes, making beliefs explicit and expressing them, can help with this… but I wonder if there is support for realizing the tendency towards beliefs to be unduly limiting in the experiences they allow us to access?
Interpersonal conflicts seem to often be deeply rooted in differing interpretations. NVC seems to often be able to transform conflicts without wading too far into the interpretations. And, in the ways many individuals practice NVC, it doesn’t always successfully do that. I’m not clear on to what extent this is a limit of NVC vs. being a limit of our practices of it.
I am curious about ways in which we might explicitly talk about interpretations as a part of conversations intended to transform conflicts. I gather that Clean Talk offers some ideas about this, and those may be useful. I am also intrigued by the ideas of “Powerful Non-Defensive Communication” (PNDC), as developed by Sharon Strand Ellison. PNDC offers forms for sharing interpretations in ways that are likely to support connection. Also particularly striking in that work is the use of questions which can surface assumptions in ways that sometimes powerfully transform conflicts.
Note to self: Think more about what practices related to sharing interpretations I think would complement NVC, and how these might relate to the core practice.
D-4. The case for including judgments
D-4(a) They don’t always hurt
I agree that sharing interpretations doesn’t always hurt, and I don’t advocate never sharing them. I think NVC encourages us simply to be aware of the ways that they can hurt, especially at times and in certain contexts.
D-4(b) They add clarity and power
You write “Without expressing judgments, for example, how do I share my most precious beliefs with my children or those I teach or mentor? How do I say without the use of judgments, ‘I believe that there is a God,’ or, ‘I’ve learned that violence only begets more violence’ or ‘I think what I did was wrong’?”
I don’t think there is anything in NVC that prevents sharing our most precious beliefs.
NVC does, I think, invite us to examine more closely certain beliefs, especially beliefs that we think we can only express in moralistic terms.
Considering the three beliefs you named, the one that stimulates a little concern in me is “I think what I did was wrong.” It all depends on what associations you have with an action being “wrong.” If you associate being wrong with “I deserve to be punished and to suffer,” then I would be concerned that this belief may amount to a type of violence towards self that may ultimately contribute to there being more violence in the world. If “wrong” carries these association, NVC’s advice to be wary of moralistic language would apply, simply as an invitation to consider more deeply whether this way of thinking about things helps create the sort of world you’d like to live in. And, if “what I did was wrong” means, “knowing what I know now, I wish I had made a different choice — I feel sad and long for the wisdom to make different choices going forward”… then I wouldn’t regard that as “moralistic” and would be happy to have it be expressed.
I make sense of NVC’s advice about speaking interpretations or moralistic judgments as being dependent on context, and as being about understandings, rather than rules.
- I have an understanding that moralistic language is part of a larger pattern of trying to control people through punishment and reward in ways that tend to disconnect people from their own beneficial intrinsic motivations and inner wisdom, and that moralistic language tends to increase separation between people when some of those involved are cast as being at risk of being seen as morally wrong. Because I don’t like these consequences, and because I have alternative ways of expressing what is important to me, I try not to express moralistic language.
- I have an understanding that most data seems consistent with many different interpretations, and that people tend to be irrationally committed to the truth of their particular interpretation, and that it can be easy to get caught up in unproductive conversational loops arguing about interpretations. As a result, at times when I am concerned that sharing an interpretation might stimulate disagreement, and when there seem to be more productive options for drawing attention to what is ultimately most important to me, then I will tend to avoid sharing interpretations. Under other circumstances, I willingly share interpretations.
That’s how I apply NVC, with regard to interpretations and moralistic judgments.
I and other NVC practitioners sometimes check for another’s willingness to hear our (moralistic) judgments related to them, or express our willingness to hear another’s judgments of us, and with this agreement, and with clear acknowledging of the judgments being what they are, exchanging judgments can be very helpful and clarifying. This matches what Clean Talk advocates for, albeit with an extra stage of “checking first” before offering judgments.
Note to self: I’ve seldom seen this taught formally. Consider whether it would be helpful to name this as a useful option.
Speaking about a workshop demonstration of NVC, you say, “I saw no way for the mother to state without the use of judgments that her daughter had broken the law and endangered the safety of herself and others.” It would have been perfectly in line with NVC for the mother to express her wish for safety (as a need), and the legal aspect could have been named as an observation — though the form of an NVC expression would have invited the mother to go further into how concerns about legality impacted her at the emotional and needs levels. It’s true that NVC makes it harder to shame someone, if that is one’s intention — but, I’m not sure that shaming produces the effects a parent would really want to produce if they thought about all aspects of their child’s situation. The desire to escape shame seems to be a driving factor in substance abuse and many other unwanted behaviors, and so shaming would potentially be tragically counterproductive.
D-4(c) They aid in exposing inaccurate judgments
You say “Expressing our judgments may be the only way we can detect the judgments we hold that are inaccurate.” Well, it’s one way of detecting inaccuracies. But, if we’re conscious of the risks of making up stories about things, we can also check our beliefs in other ways, by naming observations, or by being curious about the good reasons another person might have had for their choices (i.e., the needs behind their actions).
In the example you offered, the inaccuracy could also have been exposed by sharing an observation such as “You didn’t call me” without layering on judgment (pejorative speculation about others reasons) by saying “You couldn’t be bothered to call me.”
Note to self: Would it be useful to include anything in my NVC teaching about checking out our beliefs about what we think is going on?
D-4(d) We can’t stop making judgments, so they leak out anyway
I don’t know that you can understand NVC’s stance on judgments if you only use the word “judgment” in the Clean Talk way, and fail to differentiate between “moralistic judgments” and other types of judgments.
You write “Imagine having a conversation with someone without making any judgments. How would you know to whom you were talking, or when the conversation started and ended, or when the other person had finished talking and it was your turn to speak?” Again, NVC is totally in favor of people exercising discernment (what you call judgment), so this concern seems rooted in a premise that doesn’t match my understanding of NVC.
As far as moralistic judgments go… I don’t entirely agree with the premise that “we can’t stop making [moralistic] judgments.” It’s true that most people will probably never get to a point of never having moralistic judgments. But, these can be reduced, over time, with practice.
You write, “It’s my belief that when we attempt to hide our judgments, they emerge anyway. They leak out and stalk the conversation until they find a way to intrude…” I largely agree with this — as the consequence of “attempt[ing] to hide our judgments.” But, it’s important to say that hiding judgments is not what NVC advises.
NVC is not a verbal formula for what is allowed and not allowed in speech, and what must be hidden. It’s a practice, for shifting our mental habits and re-orienting the way we relate to life.
I think there are two main strategies for shifting our habit around (moralistic) judgment:
- Actively transforming our judgments. As an NVC practitioner, I engage my moralistic judgments and transform them into a more holistic and humane way of thinking about situations. This is a matter of sensing what is important to us in a judgment, and finding a new, more satisfying way of thinking about the issue which fully honors what is important to us, and which also honors the humanity of everyone involved. After a true transformation, the (moralistic) judgment is gone, replaced by a new way of experiencing the situation.
- Acknowledging our judgments, without “feeding” them, and attending to what they point to in a different way. As an NVC practitioner, I don’t try to block judgments from happening and I notice and acknowledge them as they arise, but I also don’t dwell on them or believe that they are “true.” I take them as a signal that something needs attending to, and I look at the situation through the lens of (NVC-style) needs, and attend to the needs in play (mine and others). In this case, the judgment may still be present, but the driving energy that created, strengthened and sustained the judgment is likely to be gone or greatly weakened — because I’m not identified with believing the judgment or focusing on it, neither am I resisting it, and I’m attending to the underlying concern that the judgment arose to call attention to.
The first practice requires setting aside time to do this work, over and over again. It’s seldom something that can be done in “real time” in the middle of a conversation. But, over time, we build up trust that there are alternatives to moralistic judgments, and we more naturally are able to go straight to a new way of relating to things. The second practice is more do-able in conversations as they happen. Over time, our energy may more naturally go the a way of relating that is not so driven by judgments. I suspect that shifting our habits in regard to judgments is likely to be most effective if both practices are used regularly.
Regrettably, I imagine that many NVC practitioners do, some of the time, simply push away or suppress their moralistic judgments in ways that lead them to ultimately leak out in harmful ways. I think this can happen even with people who are quite practiced in the form of NVC. What matters is whether they have practiced sufficiently — with transforming their judgments and/or acknowledging and attending to judgments without feeding them — so that using the verbal forms of NVC is actually congruent with their inner experience.
I feel grateful to have this issue be named, because I think that it is a factor that often gets in the way of the intended fruits of NVC being fully realized, often even among those who think themselves proficient at NVC.
Note to self: Think about how to raise awareness around this issue, and support practicing NVC in ways that are truly transformative.
At the same time, as real as this danger is, I want to also honor that NVC aspires to support people in transforming the way they relate to life at a deep level, not just the way they speak, and that at times NVC can be movingly effective in producing this result.
One could argue that a relative weakness of Clean Talk is that it apparently doesn’t aspire to support some of the types of challenging-but-valuable deep change that NVC at its best can contribute to.
D-5. How judgments leak out
You offer some example of how (moralistic) judgments can leak out. My experience in experienced NVC circles has been that what I interpret as “leakage” shows up in ways that seem much more subtle than what you present in your examples.
It seems to me that sometimes the words are impeccable, but there is an energetic quality that leads to conversations not being fully “alive,” not flowing and evolving in a way that leads to shifts in individuals and warm connection growing between people. I suspect this may be a consequence of unspoken moralistic judgments being present, underneath the words.
E. “NEEDS” AS HIDDEN JUDGMENTS
It may be helpful to review what I said above about what the technical term “need” refers to in NVC. It’s not about whether or not something is needed for survival, but whether it’s recognizable to most people as something that tends to support human beings in thriving; it’s not about conveying a sense of urgency; and saying the word “need” when using NVC is not required by the model and is often likely to be counter-productive.
You write, “It seems to me that when a person using NVC refers to a need, he/she is making a judgment as if that judgment is an uncontested fact.” Not at all — there is no assertion that “This is a need.” Ideally, nothing is overtly labeled a “need,” any more than a musician, when playing a note, would say out loud “this is a C-sharp.” It’s simply a concept to guide the practitioner in choosing what to do. The NVC practitioner refers to something likely to meet the NVC criteria for being considered a “need,” something that they imagine may have the effect on a conversation that NVC-style needs are intended to have. Something acts as an NVC-style “need” if it draws attention to something that is wanted in a way that people are likely to have sympathy for and find understandable, and at a level of abstraction that supports flexibility in thinking about possible ways of addressing it.
You also write, “In my opinion, every time Dr. Rosenberg says ‘I need,’ he’s really saying ‘I believe that I require this.’ “ Again, no. If Dr. Rosenberg says “I need” this is primarily for pedagogical purposes, to draw the attention of his students to what he is doing, much like a dance instructor calling out the steps they are doing. In actual NVC conversations with people who don’t know NVC, saying “I need” in a way that is likely to trigger a sense of obligation in the listener would be the total antithesis of NVC — it would amount to making a demand (and NVC is specifically designed to be about not making demands) in the guise of what superficially appears to be NVC. I recommend to my NVC students that they not use the word “need” when attempting to speak using NVC, to help avoid this pitfall. It’s tragic that a disturbing number of people get introduced to NVC in a way that leads them to imagine that referring to what we “need” as a tactic for trying to get one’s way has something to do with, or could be in integrity with, the practice of NVC.
F. NEED VS. WANT
My take on this is that using the word “want” (then following it with an NVC-style need) is generally a safer way of practicing NVC, and that Dr. Rosenberg used the word “need” sometimes primarily for pedagogical purposes. Neither usage is intended to imply the sort of connotations conventionally associated with distinctions between “wants” and “needs.” Avoiding the word “need” when using NVC helps reduce the chances of people making these (understandable) associations with these words that are spurious to the actual intention.
G. TREATMENT OF ANGER
You say “Clean Talk allows for the expression of anger in the same manner as other emotions” and contrast this with NVC’s encouragement to transform anger and then express what was at the heart of our anger. For the record, I think that one can in NVC express anger as one would any other emotion (and doing so might sound fairly similar to your Clean Talk examples). However, NVC notes some risks in expressing things in this way, and offers guidance as to how one might reduce those risks.
The main risk is that, when anger is expressed, the listener is likely to infer the presence of blame and moralistic judgment, and this typically stimulates defensiveness in ways that are likely to interfere with optimal communication. Your Clean Talk examples provides a context that can soften this response — but one can go further towards communicating in a way that is even less likely to stimulate defensiveness.
The idea is to find a way to let go of blame and moralistic judgment while retaining the full importance of the underlying concerns that that blame and judgment was pointing towards. This is likely to take some processing. Consider your first example, in which “I ask you to buy milk on your way home, and I hear you say you will, and you arrive home without it.” Checking in with yourself about your own needs, you realize that your upset is linked to how much it would support ease and comfort in your relationship to have dependability, and trust that each of us will do what we say we’ll do. Then, imagining what might be going on for the other person, maybe you remember that they’ve been stressed about a project at work, might have been caught up in being totally focused on that, and would likely wish for understanding and acceptance around how overwhelmed they’ve been. Realizing that you want this for them as well, you may feel some tenderness towards them, and find that much of the energy of blame and judgment towards them drains away — even as you continue to really want dependability and trust. Having gone through this process, you now express what’s up for you:
- “I remember hearing you say you would buy milk on your way home, and then you arriving home without it. I’m feeling sad and worried. I’m guessing you just didn’t manage to do it, and I want it to be totally okay for you to be human. And, at the same time, I get stressed when what I expected to have happen doesn’t. I’d love to have trust and practical ease in what happens between us. Would you be wiling to tell me what you’re hearing me say?”
There isn’t anger expressed in this, but only because after the processing, anger is no longer the dominant emotion being felt.
There is an intermediate step, if one hasn’t gone through this sort of processing: One can remind oneself that our anger isn’t the full truth of the situation, and that the blame component of what we feel is only there because we haven’t done the work to understand the situation more deeply. We might then name “I feel angry” — but in a way that energetically does not dump our anger onto the other person, because we trust that the anger doesn’t represent our deepest truth. We take responsibility for the anger as ours, and not as being “about them” in the way that it might superficially appear to be.
You talk about the NVC trainer in a workshop holding up a scarf to signify expressing anger only inwardly, not to the other. You say “What strikes me most about this practice is that it attempts to hide what we’re really feeling from the other person, which seems to me a form of deception.” I respectfully disagree. I perceive the demonstration as being about refraining from interacting until we can interact in a way that we trust is more likely to be productive. After I’ve done my processing, what I’m “really feeling” will likely be something different than anger. What I say then would be an honest expression of what I’m really feeling at that point. I might or might not share that I was initially angry, as a way of helping the other person understand my full experience, but I wouldn’t be dumping my angry energy on them, and I’d ideally be speaking from a deeper, more loving place, holding both them and myself with care.
By way of evidence that NVC’s approach to anger can lead to profound transformations, I’d like to mention a domestic violence intervention program that is based on Nonviolent Communication achieved a zero-percent recidivism rate (after 5 years) among convicted batterers, where the best conventional intervention program for this demographic is said to lead to around 40 percent recidivism.
There is, of course, a danger that someone may not transform their anger, yet misinterpret NVC to mean they should pretend they’re not angry, and this may lead to some of the sort of negative consequences you’re concerned about.
Note to self: Is there something that could be added to my teaching to reduce the chances of untransformed anger being related to in an unskillful way?
H. JUDGMENTS MASQUERADING AS FEELINGS
You write ‘the book’s list of words describing actual feelings contains quite a few words that Clean Talk would consider to be judgments masquerading as feelings, including quite a few words ending in “ed”: “aggravated,” “alarmed,” “annoyed,” “brokenhearted,” “disappointed,” “disgusted,” “exasperated”, “shocked,” and “tired,” among others. / Clean Talk suggests that a word ending in “ed” is subtly suggesting that something outside of us is doing something to us, and that therefore we are not taking full ownership of what we feel and perhaps even accusing someone of something harmful.’
You also express concern that the word “hurt” can be taken to imply that someone has done the hurting to us.
I am grateful for the food for thought supplied by your naming these concerns.
I agree that some of the words you might find on some NVC feelings lists might include the potential to contribute to the speaker or the listener perceiving responsibility being outside the speaker, and that this is a concern.
Some of the feelings words you express concern about point to experiences that point to particular physiological responses which I would feel regretful if it became “forbidden” to name them. Some such words have alternate forms, e.g., “disappointment” or “disgust” or “shock”; perhaps using these forms without -ed would be more congruent with self-responsibility? I notice that “tired” doesn’t have clear non “-ed” alternatives — there is “exhausted” but that has an “-ed”, and “sleepy” doesn’t mean the same thing. Maybe “fatigue,” though that’s not as comfortable a word for some to use? “Tired” and “exhausted” seem pretty innocent to me, with comparatively little implication that others have caused them.
Regarding “hurt” and “injured”… I agree that these are risky in that they can be held as implying an agent who caused these. They also point to distinctive experiences that aren’t named as accurately by something like “sad.”
“Angry” is similarly a word that tends to hold an implication that someone did something to us, and also points to a distinctive experience that isn’t easy to accurately name in another way. (I notice that sometimes an anger-related emotion might get “toned down” in the way it is named, e.g., someone feeling “furious” might say they’re “angry” and someone feeling “angry” might say they’re feeling “irritated” (or “irritation”?) as a way of alluding to what’s there without unduly triggering the listener.)
This is a case where the difference in the models likely explains the differences in the lists of what are considered “feelings.” Clean Talk includes the option of expressing judgments when they are clearly labeled as such. Informally, NVC practitioners sometimes do this as well, speak judgments, label and owning them as such — but this is not a formal part of the model. So, I suppose it is naturally that there are words that are in a “grey zone” — slightly but not extremely charged, and naming important experiences that are hard to point to otherwise — so that they get included on NVC feelings lists, and it is hoped that the practitioner will use discernment about whether it is likely to be helpful or unhelpful to use that word in the context of a particular conversation. Clean Talk can afford to be more restrictive in how it defines feelings since saying “that’s not a pure feeling” simply changes how the idea gets expressed, not whether it gets expressed.
Note to self: Consider whether I would want to recommend using different forms of certain feeling words, or been more careful about certain words, and whether I would want to suggest owning the interpretive quality of certain “feeling” words (as Clean Talk does with regard to expressing judgments).
I. OWNING WHAT YOU WANT FOR YOU
You write “Clean Talk requires that the speaker state how they would benefit as a way of fully owning what they want.” In principle, I generally like this idea.
You also write, in regard to NVC, “In not requiring the speaker to reveal how they would benefit, in my opinion, there is a lack of clarity and also a denial of ownership.”
First, I want to name the the idea of “requiring” or “not requiring” or “forbidding,” etc., are all antithetical to NVC. The whole system is about supporting people in making more life-serving choices that fit the circumstances. For NVC to offer rigid rules would not be congruent with the type of attitudes NVC hopes to foster in its practitioners.
So, I would translate the issue you raise to something like, would it be beneficial if NVC encourage people to try to reveal how they would benefit from what they say they want?
To a large extent, the NVC invitation to name our “need” is meant to address this issue. The examples you site are arguably examples where the need was not named as clearly as it might have been, or were named in ways that left you wanting to know more.
I’m curious about the apparent intensity of wanting to know more (you say, “I have questions”), with regard to some of these examples. I can’t tell if I would personally prefer to have things more spelled out or not. Maybe I would need to see some examples of what you would enjoy better, to sense into the advantages.
Note to self: Consider seeking more understanding around this point, to support assessing whether this is something I feel would add useful clarity.
J. “I WANT YOU TO KNOW”
Saying “I want you to know” is not a phrase that I associate with NVC. I suspect it was a habit unique to the person you were listening to. I agree that under many circumstances it could be off-putting to hear this. It’s not a form that it seems like NVC would encourage — it’s not naming an NVC-style need, as I understand these.
K. PRAISE AND COMPLIMENTS
You express a concern that, “NVC loses a precious opportunity here, particularly for parents, mentors, teachers, and others who wish to acknowledge work well done or to offer blessing or support.” I’m not sure what you think NVC is advocating for that that would prevent this from happening?
As I understand it, what Dr. Rosenberg says amounts to expressing concern about some nuances of how we appreciate and encourage one another, not something that goes against the basic idea. My sense is that NVC offers both means and encouragement to “acknowledge work well done or to offer blessing or support,” and that doing these things is strongly encouraged in the NVC community.
One way of expressing the concern behind NVC’s advice on this is that it can be harmful to praise or offer compliments that imply that there is an objective standard of goodness and that the speaker is entitled to pronounce judgments on behalf of that objective standard. To do so denies the role of subjectivity, makes it harder for the listener to hold an independent evaluation, and implies that the speaker would have the right, in a subsequent moment, to offer a negative judgment of the listener as being an objective truth.
What NVC recommends is that the speaker express how the other person’s actions have contributed to them personally. (This seems somewhat similar to Clear Talk’s position that people would do well to “own what you want for you.”)
Imagine that you approach a performer after a performance and say, “You were great!” That may land well, but if the performer was painfully aware of some mistakes, they may dismiss what you say as being uninformed and untrue. Or, if the performer believes it when they hear “You were great!” it means buying into a frame where others get to determine how they feel about what they’ve done, and they’ll subsequently be more vulnerable to believing it when someone criticizes them, however unfairly.
On the other hand, suppose you approach the performer and say, “When I listened to you sing, my cares fell away and I felt joy and awe — it filled me with a sense of beauty.” In this case, even if the performer perceived mistakes in their performance, there is nothing to argue with in your report of your own subjective experience; regardless of how the performer enjoyed their own performance, they can take in the way that their performance contributed to you. They’ll also have a much clearer sense of how their performance contributed to you than they would if all they heard was “You were great!” And, this sort of expression makes it less likely that the listener will be conditioned to be excessively vulnerable to someone criticizing them.
I am surprised by your conclusion that, “Dr. Rosenberg doesn’t believe that appreciation is good for the recipient.” If that were the case, why would the book contain a whole chapter on offering appreciation? I think the section you referenced to come to this conclusion might be better summarized as “Dr. Rosenberg believes that many people experiences challenges that get in the way of their benefiting from receiving appreciation — and offers some thoughts about how to help with those challenges.”
L. “PARAPHRASING” WHEN A REQUEST IS REJECTED
This topic is about the suggestion that, if you hear a “no” to a request, you empathize with the need behind (or guess the good reasons for) the “no.”
(In your examples labeled “NVC” you mix text that seems to be of your own construction with text quoted from Rosenberg’s book (NVC, p. 96). The composite examples do not, for me, fit together (a) in ways that make sense, and (b) offer examples of what Rosenberg is recommending. I’m guessing that in the first example, you’ve omitted a “No” response between the two blocks of text, and in the second example, a “No” response should replace the second block of text [“Sure, you can come along…”] — though this still leaves both examples reading a bit strangely, in terms of how well the final guess seems to match, or fails to match, the logic of the conversation.)
You say, “On one hand, this paraphrasing or guessing seems to be trying to compensate for the incapacity of the original exchange to express reasons, which are a type of judgment…” It’s not about any “incapacity to express reasons” in the model, insofar as the other person is presumed, more often than not, to not know or care about the model. We are simply talking about the case where all we really know is that they said “no” to our request.
You also say “it seems to be inviting a discussion of reasons with no clear guidelines for how reasons might be expressed safely using NVC.” Actually, one of the main reasons for suggesting guessing the reason, as opposing to simply asking for a reason, is to model the type of reasons one is looking to hear. If I were to ask someone “Why did you say ‘no’’?” there is a high risk that the listener will think I am looking for ammunition to use to do battle with them, and they’re liable to respond defensively. When I guess the reason behind the “no”, it’s essential that we guess a reason that we express something that is perfectly human and understandable and which contains no hint of blame. This clarifies that we interested in understanding, not in blaming and doing battle. The other person is then free to express their reasons in whatever way is natural for them.
You also say, “the practice of ‘paraphrasing’ seems to be based on an assumption that the other person isn’t capable of expressing feelings for themselves, and is therefore somewhat condescending.” It’s not about assuming the other can’t express feelings for themselves. It’s more about (1) modeling that sort of expression we might be interested in (i.e., one supportive of mutual compassion), (2) signaling that we we are interested in what is going on for the other in a non-blaming way, and (3) making ourselves vulnerable (by offering a guess that could be wrong) rather than asking them to vulnerably reveal themselves without offering any vulnerability of our own. With those who don’t know NVC, it’s a way of inviting them into our non-blaming conversational frame. With those who do know NVC, it’s a way of being willing to do more of the work ourselves, and put less of a burden on the other. It’s a bit of an odd practice, and requires some practice to do skillfully, but it can be effective.
The idea of making empathy guesses in the case where the other person says “no” is also an example of suggesting something for teaching purposes that wouldn’t necessarily always be done that way in practice. NVC leads to a realization that it is really valuable to orient oneself to assuming there is some positive reason behind a “no”, and being curious about that reason. But, I may or may not really express my guesses about the person’s reasons out loud to them.
As to the risk of making empathy guesses (guesses about another’s observations, feelings, needs, etc.) seeming “condescending”… the tonality one uses can affect how this is received. And, when in doubt, we can offer something to defuse this risk. For, example, if we’re paraphrasing in response to something someone has expressed (usually something more substantial than just ‘no’), we might say, “Could I check to see if I’m getting what you’re saying? Is it that…?”
Note to self: Is there something I’d like to tell students to give them more guidance about how to navigate potential reactions to empathy guesses by people not used to NVC?
M. WANTS VS. REQUESTS
The example you give of a request seems too vague to serve as a useful NVC request. Instead of saying, “”Would you be willing to connect with me?” I would be more inclined to say something like, “Would you be willing to talk about this now, for about 5 minutes?”
If you approached me with the Clean Talk expression, “I want to connect with you” and then stopped talking, I might feel frustrated with you for beating around the bush, and putting the burden on me to figure out what you meant by that and to propose a way of addressing it.
You write that a direct request seems less effective, in part because “it assumes that the other person can supply the request.” I’m surprised by this assertion. The only way I can make sense of it is if you are objecting to the wording “would you be willing…?” which is one common way of phrasing a request. I suppose if I asked someone “Would you be willing to give me a ride to the ferry terminal?” they might say, “I’d be willing, but I don’t have a car.” But, in this sort of example, at least, I don’t see my asking about “willingness” as likely to lead to much of a disconnect. On the other hand, if I asked “Are you able to give me a ride…?” this wouldn’t seem to risk any assumptions about ability, but there would be a risk that the person would think I’m implying that they should say “yes” if they are physically able to comply, even if they don’t actually want to. To be rigorous, one could ask “Would you be able and willing to…?” or “Would it work for you to…?” Anyway, this point seems to me to be about nuances of wording rather than assumptions that are inherently present in a request.
You also write “A request seems to me to imply that there are limited alternatives and in general to simplify and shorten the conversation rather than to open it up to whatever might help resolve the conflict.” I find this point interesting. Most often, I don’t find that requests lead to these sort of problems. And, I have occasionally had experiences of people making concrete requests in ways that did seem to narrow the conversation to a limited set of options in a way I didn’t enjoy. There is probably something to be learned about skillful use of requests so as to not fall into this trap.
Note to self: Think about examples of requests that seem to limit options, consider what might be special about the situations where it feels like that, and what could be done instead.
N. SECOND-LEVEL WANT
You talk about how Clean Talk invites the expression of a “second-level want” that “helps to bring into the open the real reason for the conversation”, and say that it “often helps to resolve the conflict more effectively than any other component of the conversation.” For example, “I want to be close to you, because I love you.”
I have a sense that your “second-level want” is philosophically close to NVC’s “need” — both are about going to the deeper meaning that is at the heart of the conversation.
That said, I see some advantages to the way Clean Talk seems to frame this. Many NVC practitioners express a need as a single word, in a way that isn’t always as expressive an clear as it could be. Calling it a “second-level want” may make this excessive conciseness less likely. Also, expressing two different levels of “wants” may help “connect the dots” regarding the meaning one is making out of a situation, in a way that expressing only one level (even if it is at a deep “need” level) might not.
Note to self: Explore how it might look to express two different levels of meaning in NVC.
The inclusion of a “second-level want” in Clean Talk likely offers some, but not all, of the benefits of NVC’s focus on needs. I see it offering connection to some aspects of deeper meaning. However, NVC’s needs focus is offers a way to transcend the disadvantages (unnecessary alienation) of moralistic language, and I don’t see Clean Talk offering that, even with “second-level wants.”
V. THE SHADOWS OF CLEAN TALK AND NVC
V-A. WHAT IS A SHADOW?
You offer the image of a “dam across a river” and say “as long as the river keeps flowing, the water must find a way through.” You also say “Dr. Rosenberg isn’t a Jungian, so perhaps he believes that it’s possible to stop our inner river of judgments from flowing if we try hard enough.”
To the contrary, Rosenberg was fond of encouraging people to “enjoy the jackal show,” i.e., to accept and watch the stream of judgments that flow through our consciousness. It certainly wasn’t about blocking the flow of judgments for him. I think it was more about establishing a certain detachment with regard to our judgments, not taking them too seriously, and developing a habit of using our judgments as doorways to deeper, more loving, experiences. After practicing NVC for decades, he still carried around a notebook where he would record his judgments, so that he could work on transforming them when he had a chance.
V-B. THE SHADOWS OF CLEAN TALK
Regarding the differences in popularity, aside from any differences in the merits of the practices, I’ll note that Rosenberg spent decades living out of a suitcase, traveling the world, sharing NVC with anyone who would listen. A few years ago, I facilitated a process to gather input from people around the world who cared about NVC, and people from 42 countries participated, in 4 languages (which was as much as we could logistically manage).
V-C. THE SHADOWS OF NVC
V-C(1). NVC’s Magician shadows
You say that the Magician is the “head” or “mind” part of us, and share some quotes in which Marshall says “. . . I’ve learned that I enjoy human beings more if I don’t hear what they think.” (NVC, p.151) and “. . . I believe we are connected more deeply when we receive the feelings and needs being expressed rather than the thought.” (NVC, p.110). You then quote Chapman Flack saying of watching Rosenberg “The effect is a curious picture of a man adroitly doing very fine, attentive thinking while insisting that it’s not the thing to do.”
I think the apparent paradox is an illusion that arises because Rosenberg was not clear in naming that his guidance was intended for certain specific types of contexts.
As I interpret it, the recipes of NVC are largely oriented towards advising how to skillfully address what I might term Relationship Talk — having conversations which, at some level, have to do with the relationship between me and you, and where there is a risk of a sense of separation creeping in between us if we’re not attentive. In this type of talk, I think Rosenberg had a sense that most people tend towards far more focus on head than on heart, to the detriment of their connection with others. So, he made extreme statements intended to shock people out of overly head-oriented habits. Even in this context, I don’t believe those statements were meant to be taken literally, except as guidance for when you’ve been ignoring your heart and things haven’t been going well.
On the other hand, when Rosenberg or anyone else teaches, they are engaged in a type of different activity, using what I might term Concept Mapping Talk — transmitting concepts and how they relate to one another — and the guidance that is relevant to teaching (once we’ve addressed the relational issue of whether there is consent to be together in a teaching context) is different than the guidance that relevant to addressing the relationship between us. One example of this is that excess focus on thinking can be risky at times, in the relational realm, but abstract thought is essential to teaching.
I’m not aware that Rosenberg talked about this distinction, about different contexts, different types of Talk, but it’s something he seemed to intuitively know. That implicit distinction is what allowed him to talk about the dangers of focusing on thought (in Relationship Talk), while demonstrating adroit thinking (in Concept Mapping Talk), without there being any actual contradiction.
* * *
You say “On Dr. Rosenberg’s stated preference not to hear what people think, Flack comments, ‘I am not sure that is a recipe for nonviolence, when what so many desperately need is that their fully human minds be fairly heard.’ ”
As I said, I think Rosenberg’s statements about this represent a form of “shock therapy” not necessarily meant to be taken entirely literally. That said, I have (only infrequently) had an experience of an NVC practitioner (who I assess as not very skilled) being so focused on reflecting feelings and needs that they couldn’t “get” the meaning I was wanting to share with them. I don’t have a sense that this is a problem that commonly arises in the ways that people try to put NVC into practice, but I would be interested to learn if it occurs more commonly than I’m currently aware of.
I’ve addressed above the subject of feelings that may have tinges of something else, and the misconception that NVC encourages people to claim the clout of “I need.”
* * *
You say “Despite his expressed dislike for thinking in general and for judgments in particular, I see Dr. Rosenberg suggesting that an NVC user make an extraordinary number of judgments, to divine the needs of ourselves and others, to respond to the “deeper meanings” beneath another person’s words (p.9), to sense the other person’s reality (p.97), and, when a request is refused, to guess what the other person is feeling or needing.”
I feel frustrated reading this, in the way that it seems to misinterpret what NVC is advising us to do or not do. There is no guidance in NVC that says we should not think, or should not discern, assess, make value judgements, try to sense, etc.
All that NVC says is that, when trying to connect with another human being, there are often more fruitful things to focus on, in our speaking, and in our listening, than on the sort of thinking that many people habitually focus on.
You further say, “Yet, in making these judgments, we never say that we’re doing so. In my judgment, hiding what you’re doing is a form of deception, and deception is a form of violence.” One might equally say “making sweeping generalizations is a form of violence.”
(I notice that last statement seemed to be sort of a “dig”, rather than a straightforward communication, so I want to pause to check on what’s going on in me. I’m feeling irritated, wanting logic that I can make sense of, especially when I hear that logic coupled to words I interpret as suggesting the violation of values I hold dear. I notice that I seem triggered, and I interpret this to mean this interaction is reminding me of some unhealed pain from the past. Recognizing that, I realize that most of what anger I feel doesn’t have much to do with you, or with this interaction. Most of the energy comes from somewhere else, though the words I read were the stimulus. I feel a little embarrassed, relieved to be clearer about what is happening, and hopeful that this act of transparency might in some way be useful.)
As I understand it, it is not physically possible to voice everything that happens inside our minds. Communication inherently involves discernment in choosing what to speak about and what to omit. I don’t know how to make sense of a standard that would imply we have to (impossibly) say everything we are doing, or be judged as being violent. I’m guessing that, implicitly, you have some criteria about what type of things that we do in our minds rise to a level of importance that not sharing them would be a concern for you. I notice that you seem concerned about NVC practitioners not sharing certain things, yet I have no idea why not sharing these would be of concern. So, I feel scared, wanting to be safe from moralistic judgments based on standards that I don’t understand and wouldn’t necessarily agree with. Would you be willing to let me know, if, now that you possible understand more about NVC, you are still concerned about the things you alluded to above not being shared? And if so, could you be more specific about what you would like to have shared, and what it would do for you if that happened?
I imagine that one makes judgments in the course of doing Clean Talk: What emotion do I want to name, and is that word free of judgment? What judgment (of the 5 that are lurking in the background) is it important to name? Which want might it be helpful to express? Is there a second-level want that it would be beneficial to express? Yet, the fact that these judgments are being made is presumably not explicitly shared in the Clean Talk statement that is expressed. These seem analogous to the sort of judgments that you are concerned about an NVC practitioner not expressing. They are the judgments that go into formulating what will be expressed. I imagine trying to express all such judgments as leading to an infinite regress, and I can’t imagine how it could be viable to assert that it would be necessary or beneficial to express these.
* * *
You say, “If we’re not willing to say we believe that violence is bad in any way, why are we devoting time and effort to nonviolent communication?” Well, given how reactive I was to a seemingly inescapable charge of violence, clearly some part of my psyche holds violence as “bad.” Yet, I still feel cautious and curious about what you’re advocating for.
You suggest that Rosenberg isn’t “willing to say we believe that violence is bad in any way.” In an earlier section, you quoted Rosenberg as being willing to say “‘I am fearful of the use of violence to resolve conflicts; I value the resolution of human conflicts through other means.” Functionally, one might think this is equivalent to saying that “violence is bad in some ways.” Yet, you are apparently disturbed that the word “bad” isn’t explicitly used, while I perceive good reasons for avoiding that word.
Are you wanting the moral authority that would come with associating concerns about violence with something more weighty than personal fears and values?
If so, I too want those concerns to be given weight. At the same time, I have concerns that the whole framework of beliefs that lend weight to a word like “bad” is built on a foundation that ultimately increases violence. So, paradoxically, because of my belief that the world would be better if there were less violence, I feel worried about endorsing conventional patterns of condemning of violence. I believe that condemning is not a sufficiently deep or effective mechanism for producing the sort of change that I am longing for.
V-C(2). NVC’s Warrior shadows
You say “Dr. Rosenberg equates anger with the desire to find fault; he writes that anger ‘indicates that we have moved up to our head to analyze and judge somebody’ (p.143). His experience of anger is apparently quite different from mine; I find when I’m angry that I don’t think very clearly, which tells me that I’m anywhere but in my head.”
There are some things that Rosenberg spoke about with less precision than I would like, and anger is one of them.
My sense is that anger seems to involve a belief that someone has made a choice that has had a significant adverse impact on us, and that they could have made a different choice. The physiological response suggests that on some level we’ve made a judgment that fighting might be an appropriate response. That orientation towards fighting tends to be associated with a belief that a moral contract has been violated. This is the “blame” that Rosenberg talks about. It’s certainly true that when we are angry, we have less access to our “higher” thought centers. However, anger would typically be a fast, transient emotion, if it weren’t for periodic injections of thought that re-stimulate our anger. So, while there’s a lot in the subjective experience of anger that doesn’t seem to be about thought, thought plays a critical role in the phenomenon of anger. It’s that role that Rosenberg tries to draw people’s attention to.
You say, “It’s my belief that anger and other emotions are signals to let us know what’s happening around us.” Yes and… they are also signals concerning what is going on inside us, about how we have processed the information about what is going on around us. NVC cautions that it’s essential to empowerment and personal freedom to recognize that emotions don’t only reflect what happens outside us, but also reflect the stories we have made up about what we’ve observed, associations we have with unhealed pain from the past, and our assessments of how what is happening is likely to meet or not meet our needs.
You continue, “Anger is a signal that a boundary has been crossed. Without anger, I wouldn’t know that someone had crossed my boundaries, invaded my privacy without my permission, blamed me for something that wasn’t my fault, taken advantage of me, ‘put one over on’ me, or ‘crossed a line.’ ”
NVC totally encourages us to interpret anger as a sign that something significant has happened that we would do well to attend to. However, NVC also questions whether the stories that go along with anger are likely to be trustworthy guides to optimal action, whether it’s likely to be optimal to continue in a physiological state that is designed for fighting, and whether it’s optimal to express ourselves from that state.
NVC has an implicit premise that our culture overly encourages us to use strategies that have an adversarial nature, and that we would often be more likely to enjoy what happens if we act from a state of mind informed by empathic insight and compassion—while still fully honoring what is important to us. Anger, and the stories we tell ourselves in association with anger, tend to lead to adversarial reactions. I think this is why NVC encourages practitioners to transform their anger.
Might there be valuable ways of using the energy of anger, beyond using it as a wake-up call? Likely, and I agree that most NVC teaching doesn’t fully explore this.
Note to self: Explore uses of the energy of anger that would be compatible with nonviolent aims.
You say, “In an exercise during the NVC workshop I attended, one person asked, ‘Am I myself or the other person?’ I thought to myself, That’s a telling question that reveals a confusion of boundaries.” I notice that when I read this, I don’t share or like the judgment of a “confusion of boundaries.” I can easily imagine a context in which the words you quote might have been said. Based on the story I made up, I judge that your conclusion sounds like a stretch, an example of using free association to try to force data to confirm your hypothesis of a problem. In the story I made up, there was a role play happening, and the person just wanted to know whether they were being asked to be themselves, or put themselves in another’s shoes. I imagine it as a practical question, that need not have any deeper meaning. And, I don’t know the real context of the quote.
I do think it’s true that practicing NVC can lead to a sense of there being disadvantages to some of the ways that people conventionally think about “boundaries.” I believe something can be gained by such questioning of conventional thinking. Perhaps something could be lost as well, if one isn’t careful. But, this is somewhat outside the realm of mainstream NVC teaching.
V-C(3). NVC’s Sovereign shadows
As alluded to above, I think you are severely misinterpreting NVC’s stance on “praise and compliments.” What NVC is concerned about, in part, is the dynamic of sabotaging self-trust that can get set up when we assume that there is an objective truth about what is good and bad and that we are able to deliver authoritative judgments about this goodness/badness. NVC invites us to move out of the frame in which good/bad is the only means of expressing our enjoyment of others actions, and to provide more useful information to support others in understanding what we mean.
You mention Rosenberg’s “suggestion that we guess what the other person is feeling and needing, which seems to assume the other person isn’t capable of describing it, and therefore rather condescending.” There are a multiplicity of reasons for this suggestion that have nothing to do with condescension.
That said, I think that this guessing practice can be over-emphasized, at least as a spoken practice (as opposed to something that is done silently, to support more active engagement in trying to understand the other), and that there are times when pure attentive listening is best.
You comment on “need” vs. “want” repeats what I think is a fundamental misunderstanding about the role of “needs” in NVC.
V-C(4). NVC’s Lover shadows
You say “in some situations [Rosenberg] seems to suggest that connection is all that matters and that it is better to drop boundaries rather than risk losing connection… [He] tells a story about a school principal who comes upon a dejected student while hurrying to join an important meeting for which she is quite late. It doesn’t seem to occur to either the principal or Dr. Rosenberg that the goal of attending the meeting need not be summarily dropped in favor of spending an unspecified length of time with the student, that the situation might be a both/and rather than an either/or.” (I find the story you cite on p. 113 in NVC: A Language of Life.) And, you offer an example of how the principal might have attended to both.
I don’t know enough about the particulars of the principal’s situation to know for sure what I choice I would have made in her situation. And, it’s likely this story was offered as an antidote to those who chronically under-prioritize connection.
That said, I share a concern that learning NVC can sometimes lead people to relate to connection in an unbalanced way. I have seen this particularly in the context of meetings. In some groups of NVC practitioners, when any emotional intensity arises, this can lead to a shift in attention to attend to it which may last long enough to subvert the purpose of the meeting. Other NVC practitioners have had enough experiences like this that they didn’t enjoy, that they have gotten to a point where they overcompensate in the other direction, and avoid using their connection skills in settings where people are trying to get things done. Some NVC practitioners are able to integrate their use of connection skills with keeping a focus on the purpose they are attending to, and this can result in a high degree of effectiveness. (You might download a study of how NVC has been demonstrated to increase effectiveness in an organizational setting.) However, standard NVC training doesn’t always lead to people knowing how to apply NVC effectively and in a balanced way in the context of getting things done.
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You say “Dr. Rosenberg seems to rely almost entirely on emotion at times to resolve a conflict, and… I think that is both unnecessary and unwise.” I think that this overstates the role of emotion, by neglecting the centrality that Dr. Rosenberg gives to focusing on needs, i.e., on connection to the deepest values that motivate ourselves and others.
With regard to perceptions that he minimizes the role of thought, again, I think that Dr. Rosenberg sometimes expressed things strongly to try to overcome the inertia of habits that undervalue emotion and values. And, if taken too literally, or applied at times where that guidance isn’t as relevant, it could lead one astray. I haven’t often seen people getting into this sort of trouble. But, it could happen, so I value the possibility being named.
Exploring these topics has been rich for me. I hope you’ve gotten something out of this as well. I invite you to let me know.