Nonviolent Communication

The book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg is divided into four “sessions”, roughly an hour each (whether you’re reading or listening – though I highly recommend the audiobook version). These sessions are highly practical and have usable insights into how to better communicate with others, get in touch with our needs, empathize with the needs of others, improve our relationship with ourselves, reduce anger, and so on.

Fundamentally it’s about compassion – of expressing what’s alive in us, and seeing what’s alive in others. It’s not about criticizing or judging, as we’re so apt to do.

“All violence is the result of people tricking themselves into believing that their pain derives from other people and that consequently those people deserve to be punished.”

Someone doesn’t make us angry. If we get angry, there is anger within us already. Rosenberg uses the example of working with teens, and how on two successive days he was injured while breaking up a fight. The second day saw a worse injury, but the first day saw anger where the second day saw none. Why? Because Rosenberg judged the first day’s offender as spoiled and privileged. His opinion of the second kid was of a more pitiful character in need of help. So despite the worse injury, he didn’t react in anger. Not true with the first kid. But it was the same situation. Break up the fight, get hurt. Shouldn’t he react the same way? The reality is that anger comes from our perceptions about other people, not the action itself.

And, “at the core of all anger is a need that is not being fulfilled.” If you’re angry, what are you lacking? If I get angry because no one cleaned up the kitchen, it’s infringing on my need for time, since time is precious to me and I don’t have very much of it. I also have a need for respect, which feels violated if, as the woman, I feel like I’m doing more than my fair share. And that underlines another need – for fairness and equality.

I can then communicate my need for time, respect and fairness. Instead of saying, “You didn’t do the dishes again…” I can express my need. This builds a bridge of empathy with the other person, where blame would’ve only created defensiveness.

A quote that’s relevant to this point, and explains itself:

“Two questions help us see why we are unlikely to get what we want by using punishment to change people’s behavior.

“The first question is: What do I want this person to do that’s different from what he or she is currently doing?

“If we ask only this first question, punishment may seem effective, because the threat or exercise of punitive force may well influence someone’s behavior. However, with the second question, it becomes evident that punishment isn’t likely to work: What do I want this person’s reasons to be for doing what I’m asking?”

I like his advice about accepting responsibility for our feelings, and allowing others to be responsible for theirs as well:

“In this stage, which I refer to as emotional slavery, we believe ourselves responsible for the feelings of others. We think we must constantly strive to keep everyone happy. If they don’t appear happy, we feel responsible and compelled to do something about it. This can easily lead us to see the very people who are closest to us as burdens.”

Instead, when we perceive ourselves and others as free agents, we delight in making life more wonderful for others.

Equally fascinating was his discussion on compliments, which he believes to be just as alienating as insults – they both show that you sit in judgment, be it positive or negative. “Jon is so smart,” “Alison is late all the time,” it doesn’t matter the charge – the judging is the behavior that needs to change. Instead, when you offer a compliment, be specific (“Jon, the math lesson we had on Thursday really helped me understand integers more clearly”), and explain how it made you feel and the need in you they fulfilled (“it made me feel confident and capable, which helped me pass my exam”). Since reading this, I have noticed how often I sit in judgment of others, be it positive or negative.

At the start of the book, Rosenberg discusses separating observations from judgments, and detaching from our predilection to constantly judge. Instead of saying “He has such a big mouth”, which can’t be observed or measured (not metaphorically speaking, anyway), it would be more accurate to say, “I’ve noticed during the last few meetings, he’s gone on at length about some wartime anecdote that isn’t relevant to our work”. If you approach someone with an observation, not a judgment, they’ll be a) actually able to change the behavior (how do you change having a “big mouth”?), and b) they’ll be unlikely to react defensively.

I intend to listen to this book every now and then to re-engage with the concepts. I’ve noticed a difference even in the last week or so in how I’ve interacted with others.