Book Review: Nonviolent Communication

Some of you might be like me, and learned as a kid from a cartoon rabbit that “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Maybe a rule like this could help discourage your kid from making a judgmental comment, but for adults the rule needs an overhaul. Because the people who determine what’s “nice” (aka the groups in power), shouldn’t have permission to just silence everyone else because they’d prefer if those people didn’t exist.

Protests and disruption are totally necessary especially because they aren’t “nice,” and it would be super helpful to have some communication tips that helped all those polite kids find voices as adults. Bonus points if they also helped people on the other side listen and find common ground that reaffirms everyone’s needs.

book cover

In a nutshell, the Nonviolent Communication (NVC) framework in this book accomplishes this in these 4 steps:

1. Start by observing concrete actions, without judging.

Especially if something has been eating at me a while, and I’ve finally built up the nerve to say something, it’s tempting to start a discussion about everything all at once. Maybe that approach can be appropriate– there’s no statute of limitations on emotional effects– but the main goal of this “observe, not judge” step is to keep things specific.

So instead of saying “you’re always mean to me,” “you shouldn’t talk that way,” or some other blanket statement, it’s more productive for the discussion to mention exactly the words and situation you want to discuss, like “you told me this morning that you don’t approve of my driving.”

At first that may sound like a scaling-down of what the conversation could be about, but from the listener’s perspective, there is nothing less inviting than a “conversation” that starts with a judgement being forced on them.

2. Express how you feel in relation to your observation.

This can be just a simple sentence saying “I feel ___” after your observation, like “when you tell my friend she should be grateful, I feel angry.” It helps advance the conversation by asserting your experience without making judgments on another person.

This step takes a fair bit of vulnerability in some situations, which can be really intimidating. Saying that something you heard made you feel nervous or uncomfortable could potentially leave you open to attack from someone who thinks those emotions are a sign of weakness. I’ve found this to be one of the most difficult yet fulfilling areas to develop courage– the courage to voice my feelings instead of silencing them.

Note that just because comments like “I feel like it’s always my responsibility” or “I feel stupid” begin with the words “I feel,” they aren’t actually expressing feelings– they are just expressing thoughts and judgments. So those wouldn’t fulfill this step.

Here is a good starter list of options to fill in the blank, and the book lists more. Just from reading this list, I am always struck by how “unnatural” speaking aloud any of these emotions feels to me at first. Maybe they’ll sound unnatural for others to hear you say them at first too. But just think how satisfying it would be to get to the point where using them is natural. Can’t ever get there without trying.

3. Identify the needs that create your feelings.

Feelings don’t just come up out of nowhere, of course. And while someone else’s actions can summon a feeling inside you, the idea here is that the raw material in the Feeling Factory is all sourced from inside yourself, specifically in some need you have that is being met or unmet.

For example, when someone congratulates me I could feel proud because I have a met need for self-worth. Or I could have an unmet need for autonomy that makes me feel uncomfortable when someone tells me how they think I should do something. Notice the difference between source (my need) and stimulus (what someone else said).

That might seem like a pretty tiny difference, and maybe even meaningless. But when you think about it, removing the direct link between what someone else does or says and how you feel, you’re freeing yourself from their control, and conversely letting go of the direct responsibility for how someone else might feel because of what you do.

In fact, the book goes as far as to label three stages of this “emotional liberation:”
1 – Emotional Slavery. You are responsible for other people’s feelings. (aka if the listener won’t think what you’re saying is nice, don’t say it).
2 – Obnoxiousness. You realize you are free from the responsibility for other’s feelings, but go so far as to be uninterested in them altogether.
3 – Emotional Liberation. You take responsibility for your intentions and actions, but not for the feelings of others.

Here is a good starter list of needs that might be the engines behind some feelings that are bubbling up.

4. Describe the concrete actions you request, not demand.

Talking about your own feelings and needs is all well and good, but even if you are in a calm situation the other person may not really know what it is that you want. The book goes through a few tips for making requests:

1 – Be specific. As anyone who has ever been a manager can attest, it is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a request is understood or obvious, when in fact the other person is confused about what you meant to ask them to do. It really helps to be precise so everyone is on the same page.

2 – Keep things positive. Asking people NOT TO DO something, but not suggesting what they can do instead, may just cause confusion too. Not only that, but they are more likely to feel defensive. When you ask someone TO DO something, it creates a partnership of sorts where they can actively do something to make your life better. So instead of “please don’t put books on that table,” try “please put books on the bookshelf.” A small change that makes it much more clear what the other person can do.

3 – Demands aren’t requests. Demands signal to the listener that they will be blamed, guilt-tripped, or punished if they don’t comply, and only invites two responses: submission or rebellion. Submission might get you what you want in the moment, but can’t be the basis for a good relationship. In contrast, true requests require a level of empathy that allows the space for the listener to not have to comply but still continue the conversation.

A Brief Note on NVC and Activism

A key concern I had when starting to read this book is if this whole NVC thing was just a nicely-packaged form of tone policing, aka claiming to express support for the goal of equality while criticizing every tactic used to gain it.

I think it is super important, then, to not judge people if they aren’t happening to use these tips. It is not the job of a Black Lives Matter activist to stick to NVC, for example; nor is it appropriate for allies to “correct” them on it. The framework truly stands on its own as a choice for you to use or not.

Summary

NVC has already helped me both speak up about how I feel in different circumstances at home, at work, and even online. Occasionally I’ll encounter someone directing aggressive language or tone at me or at someone I love (or enabling such behavior with a dose of “everyone’s to blame”). Now, I have a third option other than quiet, keep-the-status-quo-at-all-costs compliance (aka “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”) or unproductive, judgmental reaction.

I’m still developing the courage to stand up more often, and there are definitely some growing pains as people you care about hear that you have feelings they’d prefer you not to have. But even with my shaky NVC liftoff, I feel hopeful that a few ongoing conflicts can be resolved, and I feel more secure being myself no matter what others might do or say. I found this book so helpful and empowering that I plan to re-read it in a year or so, as a refresher. Maybe it could help you too :]

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