Book: Nonviolent Communication (2003)

Teal Deer

TL;DR

For people wondering about how to engage in difficult, high-stakes conversations about politics without losing their cool, deeply empathize with others, and maybe change someone’s mind, I think this book, Nonviolent Communication, is a good place to start. This book explains an empathetic way of communicating (both speaking and listening) that make difficult conversations easier and more productive.

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Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg (2nd ed. – 2003)

My sister lent me this book a while ago. I finished it shortly after the election, and I think it’s really relevant to two sort of related things that people are thinking about a lot in the wake of the election: persuasion and empathy.

As far as persuasion goes, there’s findings on how “deep canvassing” can change people’s minds. There’s a lot of hand-wringing over how people do not respond to facts, especially relevant in the debate over climate change, where disagreement is largely over the factual state of the world (as opposed to fuzzier areas like values, morals, priorities, etc.).

As far as empathy goes, people also generally believe that empathy is a prerequisite to persuasion. Calls for increased empathy toward the winning side seemed to hinge on the belief that a demonstrated lack of empathy made persuasion (i.e. to vote for a different candidate) impossible. In addition, part of changing someone’s mind also means understanding their mind as it is currently — hence, people instinctively reach out for the tool of empathy. As such, I want to recommend this book to anyone thinking about persuasion and/or empathy. This book actually is 100% about how to avoid language that blocks compassion and how to listen empathetically, and does not directly touch on the issue of persuasion at all, but I think the vulnerability required by the nonviolent communication technique is quite similar to deep canvassing and so I think it is potentially useful for the purpose of persuasion as well.

Speech to avoid

In nonviolent communication (NVC), there are two major classes of things to avoid / refrain from doing:

(1) Removing choice, or implying people’s actions inevitably caused your actions or feelings (reactions). Examples of this include saying, “___ made me do/feel ___” (e.g. “When you said that, you made me feel so unappreciated”), “had to”, “forced to” (e.g. “I had to do the dishes because you never do them in a timely way”; “I have to go to a party tonight”), etc. They also include similar sentiments expressed in a different way, e.g. “You infuriate me”/”You’re infuriating”, “I did the dishes because you didn’t do them,” “I did/felt X because you did Y.”

(2) Using morally laden / judgmental words. Judgmental words are the result of evaluating someone. They can be positive or negative — both are equally undesirable within the framework of NVC.

Examples of judgmental words:

Negative judgment

Bad, awful, wrong, mean, stupid, selfish, bitter, harsh, lazy, narcissistic, gross, disgusting, racist, sexist (etc.), horrible, failure, ugly, liar, untrustworthy, foolish, loser, inappropriate, unreasonable, weird, irresponsible, sloppy, clingy

Positive judgment

Good, great, right, amazing, thoughtful, kind, loving, hard-working, talented, smart, supportive, not racist, not sexist (etc.), funny, beautiful, honest, wise, appropriate, reasonable, normal, responsible

Comparisons

Better, worse, more [adjective], less [adjective], too [adjective]

Moral imperatives

Should, deserve, ought

Evaluations (not statements) of frequency1

Always, never, seldom, frequently

As you can tell, it’s actually really hard to avoid making judgments in daily life. I’m sure the author advocates toward working to not use these kinds of words ever, but I personally think the amount of effort you should put into avoiding these words should be proportional to how high-stakes the conversation is.

Anyway, at this point, you might be wondering, but how can I avoid saying those things??? Well, that’s where the rest of the technique comes in. The book lays out how you can communicate the same information intended in those sentences, but in a more specific and gentler way.

Speech to use instead

NVC involves highlighting, expressing, seeking out four pieces of information:

(1) People’s actions2
(2) The emotion felt by Actor A in the wake of that action(s)
(3) The values Actor A holds, or basic needs Actor A has, that created that emotion
(4) A request for concrete actions from other people

As you can see, most of the information is focused on a single person. Constructions like, “A did X because B did Y” are not acceptable in NVC. Instead, it has to be “A did X because A values/needs Y.”

This method applies to many different types of communication:

Scenario A: Expressing oneself

When expressing oneself in a difficult conversation, replace sentences that imply your actions are inevitable or uncontrollable with ones that make your values clear. For example:

Instead of: “When you said that you made me feel so unappreciated.”
Say: “When you said that [action], I felt sad [emotion] because this group is important to me and so I put in a lot of work for it [values/need]. I am needing assurance that I contribute to this group [need/request].”

Instead of: “I had to do the dishes because you never do them in a timely way.”
Say: “When I came home and saw you hadn’t done the dishes [action], I felt angry [emotion] because I value fairness in our relationship [value] and am needing you to do the dishes more often [need]. Can you do them every other day from now on? [request]”

Instead of: “I had to go to the party”
Say: “I wanted to and eventually chose to go to the party because it’s important to me to show people I’m invested in our friendship [value]. But I also didn’t want to go to the party because I needed alone time [need]. I felt stressed and uneasy [emotion] trying to balance these two desires.”

Scenario B: Understanding others

When emotions are running high, breaking the deadlock sometimes means listening and understanding for these four things hiding under the other person’s language. How do you do this? It’s actually surprisingly simple — you pick one thing to focus on and just guess / attempt to restate what they’re saying in NVC language.

For example:

Trying to understand actions: “Are you reacting to how I ___?” “Is this about ___?”

Trying to understand emotions: “It sounds like you’re frustrated [because…] Is that right?” “Are you feeling angry right now?” “What are you feeling right now?”

Trying to understand needs: “It sounds like you’re upset because you are needing to be heard.” “Are you feeling guilty because you wanted to be more understanding than you were?”

Trying to understand requests: “Are you asking me to do […]?” “It sounds like you want me to do […]. Is that correct?”

What’s kind of weird is that your guess/paraphrase can be completely wrong and this will still work, because people instinctively will try to restate their sentiment when they feel like other people are on the wrong track or are just not getting it. So there is actually pretty much no cost to repeatedly probing people for this kind of information and repeating back what you have so far for confirmation (other than time).

Scenario C: Understanding oneself

The author also mentions that you’re not always going to be in a mindset when you can practice this kind of active empathy/listening (Scenario B). Sometimes, the indignation at not being heard, or being misunderstood, or being too frustrated to continue with conversation means that extending empathy to someone else is just off the table. In this case, the author recommends taking a timeout from the conversation to do this kind of active listening, but to oneself.

“What am I feeling?” “Why am I feeling this way? Is it because I want […]?” etc.

The idea of extending empathy to oneself also has a lot of applications to mental health. NVC reminds me a bit of CBT, which has as a focus the ways that seemingly innocuous thoughts can have an emotional meaning embedded within them (e.g. “I didn’t finish the work I needed to do… I’m such a failure”). Both CBT and NVC work to change the thoughts. NVC in particular would probably change that statement (which contains an evaluation — “I’m a failure”) to something like, “I need this job to provide for my children, which is important to me [value]. When I don’t finish my work [action], I feel afraid [emotion] of losing my job. Right now, I need…”

The author also recommends using (and demonstrates how to use) these same four components to replace praise, thanks, and apologies. For example, rather than saying, “You’re amazing!” or “I’m sorry”, if you’re able to express how someone helped meet your needs or understand how someone’s needs weren’t met, that means a lot more than the compliment or the apology.

The tricky parts

The trickiest parts of NVC, in my opinion, are…

(1) Identifying actual emotions. This is tricky because English has a lot of ways in which someone can say “I feel” without having to actually reveal an emotion. For example:

• “I feel that…”: “I feel that you don’t understand what I’m saying” is a statement of your current state of mind, but devoid of emotion. By contrast, “I feel frustrated because I want to be understood and I don’t feel understood” actually reveals the emotion: frustration (the emotion is not “understood”).
• “I feel [verbed]”: “I’m feeling attacked right now” — while this sentence does certainly contain implied emotional content (not many people ENJOY being attacked), “attacked” is not an emotional state. By contrast, “I’m feeling sad because I’m needing someone on my side” would be an alternative. Of course, there is some grey area here because some actual emotions/states of mind (e.g. upset, frustrated, annoyed, disappointed) are formed by verbs. But note that those words are closer to expressing an emotional state than e.g. attacked, intimidated, unappreciated, deceived, etc.

In my experience, revealing one’s emotions is often very, well, emotional (for me, it usually involves a lot of crying regardless of what the emotion is), and so I think there’s frequently a temptation to avoid having to experience the pang of an emotion, or the embarrassment of a public display of emotion, by not naming it. However, you have to be willing to drill down into what the emotion/mood is to truly understand what’s going on.

(2) Not switching the subject halfway through the sentence. It’s so easy to switch halfway through. For example, when I was writing the NVC version of “I’m feeling attacked right now” for the example above, I actually at first wrote “I’m feeling sad because no one is on my side.” Of course this sentence makes perfect sense, contains emotional content, and is something I might say when I’m not actively practicing NVC, but this isn’t sufficient for NVC.

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From Inception (2010)

Notice how I switched from talking about my feelings (“I”) to talking about the behavior of everyone else (“no one”). In NVC, you’d move other people’s behavior to the “actions” section (“When I see that no one is on my side…”), and then the rest of the sentence is entirely focused on me and my values (“I feel sad because I…”).

Sometimes people might let slip their emotional state (sometimes it’s already very obvious), but tapping into the deep reason why they feel that way (without deflecting to someone or something else) can be even more painful because it raises a lot of high-emotion issues. As a result, acknowledging the underlying value can feel like opening a Pandora’s Box of emotions — you just have no idea what will come out. For example, I notice that some of the deepest fountains of emotion for me are insecurities (e.g. worries that I am untalented, worries that I am weird or “broken” in some way, worries that I am disappointing or hurting people). These insecurities arise from deeply-held values — wanting to be talented, capable of achieving certain things, helpful, kind, etc. The possibility of there being mismatch between what I want to be and who I actually am is insecurity. Depending on the context, this can unleash a variety of feelings: sadness, worry, disappointment, frustration, helplessness, etc. Because people are actually really good at connecting between stimulus and emotional reaction, it’s often much easier to shortcut the values part and say “I feel X because someone did Y” than to spell out the whole chain of Stimulus -> conflict with Value -> Emotion. But spelling that out is important for truly understanding someone.

When empathetically listening, we should extend the same courtesy. It’s not enough to say “Ah, you feel X because someone did Y” — you also need to understand the deeply-held value or need creating that reaction. “Ah, you feel X because you value Y.”

Putting NVC into practice

Since I finished reading this book, I have tried to use NVC for important conversations. (Not all conversations because NVC is very time-consuming and hard to do (see insights below).) But here are some of my takeaways:

Insight #1: I do not yet think I have been able to use NVC to change someone’s mind (more on this in Insight #2). However, it has so far been very successful in making people less defensive. I certainly notice a difference in how stubborn and enraged/ranty people are when I use NVC vs. when I don’t. When they are less defensive, people will often agree to points I make, although I don’t think this is a substantial change (i.e. I don’t think there was ever disagreement on the points I’m making, but just that other things were more important and it takes me actively empathizing with them for them to calm down enough to take their focus from the other things and admit the point I’m making).

Insight #2: NVC seems to be too time-consuming and one-sided to be used online. When I’ve used it, asking a clarification question (as in Scenario B) will often prompt three paragraphs of ranting. Repeating this even a few times is extremely time-consuming. Not only that, but I think the bigger issue with NVC used online is the ability of the other person to disengage at any point in the conversation — after asking clarifying questions, another thing I’d experience is the other person just dropping out of the conversation once they’ve said their piece and before I’ve had a chance to say mine. I’m not saying it’s completely ineffective, because, as I mentioned before, I do think I’m able to get people less defensive and show where I’m coming from, much more so than usual internet debating style, but it’s not great at making change. In short, I think NVC is much better done in quick, in-person, back-and-forth dialogue.

Insight #3: NVC involves more listening than talking. This is not surprising because it’s a very unilateral technique — the person practicing is very intentionally choosing to communicate in a particular style, and they cannot change how the other person acts or chooses to communicate. So you end up doing a lot of listening and summarizing and very little expressing (although expressing is also an important part of NVC).

Insight #4: Most political debate takes the form of logical or factual arguments. While such statements have a part in NVC (factual: the actions part; logical: how stimulus and value logically create emotion), its main focus is on emotions and values. I think it’s important to keep this in mind. Emotions are scary to talk about, but trying to argue based on logic and facts alone frequently goes nowhere and is thus not a good use of time. By contrast, I think it’s important to realize how powerful people’s instinct to try to meet needs is, and how important a human component is to an argument. Telling someone, “This is the pain I’m experiencing right now” inspires them to want to do something about it, not because they have to, but because they want to.

Other notes

Some other points about this book I want to highlight:

I very much recommend reading Rosenberg’s prose. I summarized the technique of NVC in enough detail that you can go out and practice it yourself, but reading the full book is worth it for the author’s philosophical musings and the way he frames the technique as being about human connection and tapping into universal humanity. I think that’s an important aspect that I don’t really have the ability to replicate here. There’s also a lot of smaller details and tips I left out of this summary, so I definitely think this book is worth a full read.

I have the second edition of this book (2003) (1st ed: 1999; 3rd ed: 2015). One thing that’s striking to me is that by the number and tone of stories featuring Israel/Palestine conflict, you get the feeling that the author was very optimistic about the possibility of peace and reconciliation between the two / possibility of a two-state solution. I’m sad that this is so jarring to me, because it makes me realize we live in a much more pessimistic/hopeless time.

Conclusion

If you care about empathy, read this book. I highly recommend it, even just for the interesting views of the author.

Buy on Amazon
Nonviolent communication on Wikipedia


1 Interestingly, whenever I fully use NVC, the need to use qualifiers in general (so, very, extremely, a lot, etc.) just… goes away. I’m guessing this is a testament to the author’s claims that when you’re able to express yourself deeply, the need for pressuring tactics like exaggeration and strong language go away.

2 The book actually calls these (non-judgmental) observations, not actions. However, I find using the word “actions” helps me remove judgment more than thinking about “observations.”

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