Thursday, December 3, 2009

Non-Violence is Overrated

I think I'm getting off the non-violent communication bandwagon. I've been using it for years to no avail. For those of you who are not familiar, NVC is a whole movement with a website, books, and seminars based on this method of communicating with others. Essentially it's a way of telling someone you're upset with them without attacking them. I'm going to boil it down to the basic steps here; my apologies to the originators.

In step 1, you describe the other person's factual behavior without assigning any interpretation to their reasoning or motivation. "You ordered me a steak." In step 2, you describe how that behavior made you feel using "I" statements, again not interpreting what the other person was feeling or attempting to communicate. "I feel hurt and ignored when you order for me. I feel like my choices are not important." In step 3, you ask for the behavior you want in the future. "I would be grateful if you would not order for me in the future." Again, I'm really oversimplifying, but you get the idea. It's about describing the impact of someone's behavior instead of attacking the why behind their behavior, and then clearly asking for what behavior you would like in the future.

I was first "trained" in this concept 10 years ago at a seminar. Later, in my Montessori training, it was reinforced that NVC is a powerful tool in peace education. I've used it, although I admit, not consistently. Here's my question? Does it ever actually work? Has anyone out there actually experienced success with NVC? It does not work for me! Nobody actually does what I plainly request for them to do and they get defensive anyway. I used to think that was because I was surrounded by un-enlightened people. Then for a while I was convinced that I'm too much of a hot head to do it correctly. Now I'm starting to believe the whole thing is a crock. It doesn't actually improve relationships or bring about the behavior that you need from other people. I think it might just be a way for educated liberals to feel superior to others. "Oh, well, he's a boorish neanderthal. I am an enlightened being who speaks non-violently."

Thoughts? Tell me your thoughts, assholes! ;)


  1. Hi Jen,

    I've been practicing NVC for almost 20 years and I can tell you it's taken quite a commitment to integrate it into my life. It seemed so simple, but it difficult to actually live it, but am grateful I made/make the effort.

    Your example demonstrates the subtle difference between NVC and our more culturally learned approach.

    1. step one is your observation
    2. step 2 You wrote "I feel hurt and ignored when you orered for me. I feel like my choices are unimportant." The trouble with feeling "ignored" is that it is an interpretation mixed with a feeling, that's where we often run off the rails because our English language is filled with feeling words that are judgements mixed with feelings. For instance, I might feel relief or elation when I am "ignored" if I don't want to talk to that person, or I might feel hurt if it's someone I care about, or frustration if I was wanting to be acknowledged in that moment. So "ignored" isn't by itself a feeling. I also learned that when I say things like "I feel like my choices are not important", I am really making a judgment about what I thing the other person did to me rather than expressing a feeling, which sounds like it might be in this case a lot of pain becasue I'd like my autonomy recognized and valued. Or maybe my pain might also be around my recognition I'm terrified of opening my mouth and saying "wait, I'd like to order for myself". Finally, the request has to be do-able. If I say "I'd be grateful if you would not order for me in the future", I haven't actually asked him to do anything. I'm just making a wish and hoping he'll fulfill it. I'd rather say "Would you stop ordering on my behalf from today onward?' And if he says he might not be able to remember that, then I might say "I'd like you to know that I will interrupt you when you do that, because I'd like to make my own food choices, How does that land for you?"

    Anyway, I appreciate your frustration, it took me years of persistent effort to integrate the tools, which included some awkward stages of using NVC in a way that sounded mechanical. I didn't realize what I was really working toward was a conscious awareness and clarity of my own feelings and needs, and trust they would guide me where I need to go. The more I develop that, the less I need any linguistic structure to express myself effectively... and peacefully.

    I know many people who seem to have gotten NVC quickly, but I definitely wasn't one of them. I wish you well.

  2. Ok. Good. I'm glad you added some more clarification, Mark. I see what you're saying about the judgement inherent in the "feelings" I came up with in the example. But it leads me to more questions... what feelings are truly neutral. If I'm afraid or hurt it's because I'm projecting motivation onto whoever made me feel hurt or afraid, right?

  3. so often, my feeling is a response to the story I tell myself about what's happening, and I tend to confuse that with the observation of what somebody did or said. So if someone walks by me at a party, and I tell myself he ignored me, my emotion is related to the thought he ignored me. I can't really know what's happening for him unless I check it out. what's so wild, is I found out I was living an "imaginary" life. I was reacting to what I thought was happening, and even if I might be accurate, I couldn't really know until I connected with the other person to learn their experience. And even at that I was still initially reacting to my own thought.

    If I understand your question about the which emotions are neutral, I think I'd frame it in terms of needs. So when that person walks by me without acknowledging me, I notice my reaction to the thought he ignored me. Then I can ask myself what need is unmet, maybe it's "being seen" or belonging. And when I focus on that I often experience my feeling differently, I might feel sad or disappointed or something. So That sadness or disappointment is what I'm guessing you are getting at about the neutrality of a feeling. It's not bound to the other person, it's about me and what makes my life important to me. make any sense?