I feel urged to expand on my previous blog, which was seen by some as slamming Nonviolent Communication (NVC). This was not my intention; not by a long shot.
I love NVC. I’ve trained in it for three years with some very good people. I also tried to introduce it into my old workplace, where it could deal with at least 90% of the conflicts we were involved in. For the remaining, relatively small proportion of our conflicts, it would have been less than helpful. In fact, it could have been downright dangerous. That’s not because it is a poor tool: it’s because it’s not the right tool for that job.
For social conflicts, NVC is great, because:
- It makes people think before they react. No, seriously. If it did nothing but this, I’d still class it as a winning strategy.
- It can stop brain freezes. People can end up “frozen”, not knowing what to say, do, or even think, when someone does or say something completely surprising, or too awful to process. By giving people a structured thinking process, NVC can help them break that “freeze”.
- It can pull people out of emotional flashbacks. People can end up “frozen” by something minor or entirely devoid of ill intent that reminds them of something painful in their past. By making people work out the roots of their feelings, the fact that their reaction is to the past, not to the present, is made clear. This can help them identify their own triggers for future work, as well as relate better to the people around them who are inadvertently triggering them.
- It respects Peyton Quinn’s ‘Five Rules’ for dealing with social violence:
- Do not insult them.
- Do not challenge them.
- Do not threaten them.
- Do not deny it’s happening.
- Give them a face saving exit.
These rules do not guarantee that a conflict will be de-escalated. However, breaking them, unless it’s as part of some kind of “shock and awe” tactic, can almost guarantee escalation.
- By making people describe what they observe objectively, without their interpretations or biases, it forces them to assess their own perceptions. People may discover that a situation or event was blown up completely out of proportion by how they interpreted it. Conversely, they may discover that they were underplaying an issue.
- It forces people to own their own emotional processes. Everything is framed in terms of “how I feel”, not “how you are making me feel”. Although the feeling may be a relatively direct result of your actions, the feeling is mine and mine alone. “What others do may be a stimulus of our feelings, but not the cause.”- Marshall B. Rosenberg.
- It forces people to work out and admit their needs. Even if this remains purely an internal process, never vocalised, this is invaluable. People who do not know what they really need and people whose needs are unrealistic can end up hurting themselves and other trying to get those needs met.
- It forces people to think about what changes need to be implemented in order to have their needs met. People may come to realise that the changes they require are unreasonable, or not practical. It is then up to them to work out a new strategy for handling the emotional impact of the situation.
In order to meet these criteria, NVC needs to be used as intended. Mangling the process can cause it to fail; that’s no reflection on the process per se.
NVC is not designed to deal with asocial conflict, as described by Rory Miller in this blog. One of the premises is of NVC that people have common needs, and our conflicts arise from the strategies we use in meeting those needs. Sharing our feelings and our needs can lead us to understand how much we have in common, and help us find a mutually agreeable solution to our conflict.
Asocial conflict and violence come from three levels on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:
- Survival – for instance, a drowning person fighting for air. They are operating out of fear.
- Security – resource predators. They engage in conflict in order to get stuff.
- Self-actualisation – process predators. They engage in conflict for their own pleasure.
We could argue that these asocial problems still fit into the NVC model. However, we’d have to perform some serious mental gymnastics.
Drowning people do not care about whether you understand their feelings and needs; they just want air. If you’re talking to them about how you empathise with their plight as you’re throwing them a buoyancy aid, that’s all good; but it’s the buoyancy aid that’s resolving their problem. If you decide to physically engage with them, no amount of empathising is going to prevent them using you as a tool to get just another breath of air. They’re not in a head space where your interpersonal connection matters. People with certain mental illnesses, or having bad reactions to certain drugs, can be in a very similar head space.
Resource predators do not care about whether you understand their inner struggle; they just want your stuff. Following the NVC pattern may or may not work at keeping the situation relatively calm, depending on a variety of factors. Although it is certainly preferable to many other responses, particularly those that break Peyton Quinn’s rules by accident (such as Nicole duFresne’s ill-fated “What are you going to do now, shoot us?”), it is risky. Ultimately, the conflict will not be resolved by how good a personal connection you manage to forge. Yes, there is a chance, however slim, that by humanising yourself you may change the nature of the situation… or you might get grievously injured, or killed, because you’re nothing more than a sandwich wrapper that’s stubbornly refusing to give up the sandwich.
Process predators may or may not care about your feelings and needs; if they do, that’s not a good thing. Dealing with someone who actively enjoys your pain is hardly preferable to dealing with someone who just doesn’t care about it. In this kind of situation, using the NVC model can make things infinitely worse. By admitting to your injured feelings, you are telling the predators that what they are doing is working. By stating your needs, you can make damn sure that they are never met. You’re giving them helpful clues as to how to best hurt you.
This can sound patently absurd if we think about people causing us physical harm: “When I see you sticking the screwdriver into my eyeball, I feel upset…” However, process predators don’t operate only in these extreme settings. Physically torturing someone is a high-risk, often short-term game. Other forms of torture can be carried on indefinitely and without retribution. There are plenty of people out there who enjoy causing people emotional or psychological pain, knowing full well that they’re likely to get away with it.
The flipside of it is that we can use NVC to help us identify these people. If someone takes delight in the suffering they are causing us, or consistently does not give a damn, then regardless of what they are doing, how they are doing it, what their role is in our life, etc., they are not safe people for us to be around. They don’t have to be mad or bad; the fact that they’re dangerous to know is enough to go by.
This was rather my main point in the previous blog: if we’ve expressed reasonable observations, feelings, needs, and requests, and the response is far from positive, we can use that response as a data point to clear up a level of bullshit. For instance, the person we’re in conflict can’t claim or pretend that they are “just socially awkward”; NVC leaves no room for the type of confusion that could lead to a socially awkward person inadvertently, repeatedly causing us distress. They may well be socially awkward, but they’ve lost their “just”. It’s up to each of us to decide whether we want to put time and energy into working out their “and”.
I also have some anecdotal evidence that NVC can play merry hell with people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It’s nowhere near enough evidence to base a theory on, but I find it interesting nonetheless. It seems that true narcissists, both overt and covert, are temperamentally unsuited to using NVC as it is intended. It may be that they cannot attain the objectivity required, or cannot dissociate their emotions from the actions of others, because to them the world revolves around them. It could be something else entirely. Attempts of using NVC may, for instance, come out as “When you do that thing, you hurt me, so you must stop doing that thing now and do what I want instead,” followed by a tantrum. It all comes out as you-you-you because it’s coming from a place of me-me-me.
Narcissists also tend to respond incredibly badly to people using the NVC script. Sometimes they refuse to accept that they have done anything wrong, and resort to weasel tactics that a ten-year-old would be proud of in order to make everything anyone else’s fault. Sometimes being told straight up that they are causing someone distress causes them great offence. Sometimes they just can’t parse the fact that they are asked to make changes to their behaviour.
The most egregious example I’ve seen thus far was a very large, strong man who was prone to violent displays of anger aimed not literally at his girlfriend, but close enough to her to cause her fear. First he became insulted by the mere suggestion that his behaviour could be so wilfully misunderstood, which caused him to fly into yet another violent display of anger. How dare she say such an awful, offensive thing to him and about him? Then, when she suggested couple’s therapy, he agreed readily… to the fact that she needed it. She clearly needed to be told by an unbiased specialist that her expectations around relationships were completely out of kilter.
Well, this is all I’ve got. If you’re not sold yet, it’s no skin off my nose. I’m not on commission. Onwards and upwards.