Nonviolent Communication

The cover story in a recent issue of The Christian Century is called “Beyond Anger and Blame.”  That sounds good to me.  The “beyond,” especially, sounds good to me.  I have no complaint at all about getting “beyond” anger and blame.

Here are the four steps that Allan Rohlfs, the author of the article, has in mind.

The four steps of NVC [Non-violent Communications] offer a way to change that physical reaction and the speech that flows from it. They offer a way to regard the other person as other than an enemy, and they give one the freedom to respond with care.

The four steps are: 1) naming the behavior that is a problem; 2) naming the emotion you feel when the behavior takes place; 3) naming the need you have that is not being met because of the other person’s behavior; 4) stating in very concrete terms what would you would like the other person to do.

I have nine responses to this approach.  Truthfully, I have limited myself to just nine observations.  Everything I say about this approach to conflict resolution from here on is going to be negative, so let me say at the beginning that I am sure there are people for whom it works very well and it is a great deal better than the approach Rohlfs presents as “the alternative.”  (But why would there be just one alternative?) The following collection of “what ifs” and “yes buts” is my response not so much to NVC as to every kind of communication that takes this approach.  There are many of them and they are very popular.


1.  I am troubled by a package of communications proposals that is named by what it is not.  It is good that it does not require violence, but what, exactly does it do?  Does it bring peace?  Does it bring justice?  Does it nourish the small society where it takes place?  Are other approaches notably more violent?

2.  “Naming the behavior” that is the problem is fairly straightforward unless it is your behavior.  My guess is that happens roughly 50% of the time.  One of the things you might consider in such a situation is to stop doing the things that cause the other person to behave that way.

3.  “Naming the emotion you feel” is a rat’s nest of difficulties.  First of all, it imagines that you feel only one emotion.  I have been in situations where I felt I was on two or three trampolines at once.  I feel a lot of emotions and then I feel emotions about why I feel so chaotically emotional.  Naming “the” emotion at such a time is just not going to happen.  And even if I could isolate just one, can I give it a name?  Is there a name that fits it pretty well?  Is there a name that fits the combination of the two principal emotions you are feeling pretty well?  Three?

4.  With the best will in the world, “naming the emotion” is difficult and I don’t always have the best will in the world and that is true, also, of a lot of people who are my very good friends.  And if you don’t have a relentlessly charitable and honest character, there are other things that could happen when you get to naming the emotion.  You might, for instance, be drawn to the name of an emotion that will do your antagonist the most damage.  “I feel really angry when you…” might just roll of his back, but there is always the choice of “I feel so hurt when you…” if that will hit him harder.  Choosing an emotion name for strategic reasons is not fair, of course, but naming an emotion is difficult and when you are irritated anyway, it will be hard to find the “correct” emotion name and to continue to walk past the name that will do the most good or the most harm.

5.  A related difficulty—logically, it comes earlier in the sequence, but I postponed it so I could make a little context for it—is how sharply or how vividly you feel something.  If “irked” doesn’t do the job, would “devastated” be better?  I think it must be better, at least in some ways, because there is a great deal of training going on—both by precept and by example—about how to be more “hurt” by insensitivities than you once were, or how to be hurt by “insensitivities” that you would previously have passed by without noticing. It is also true and perhaps not incidental that by being hurt by some particular behavior gives you an instant peer group: people who were also hurt by that behavior.  A magically appearing group of fellow sufferers feels really good.

6.  I notice that we began, immediately, to talk about emotions—right after the behavior that produced the emotions.  Why are we talking about emotions?  Could we talk about intentions?  “What was it you had in mind when you did that, Charlie?  I don’t think I really understand it.”  Could we talk about prior agreements?  “As I remember it, we agreed that we would stay away from that topic on Friday afternoons.  Remember what used to happen before that agreement?”

7.  Talking about emotions usually means talking about MY emotions.  Talking about my emotions is not always the best thing to do, but it is a reliable way to keep the conversation about ME  Not everyone likes talking about the emotions he or she is feeling, but some people like it a lot.  The danger in talking about ideas is that it may turn into a cooperative endeavor, with one perspective feeding another. The danger in talking about achievements or failures is that they cue up an assessment of doing something well or a critique of doing something poorly.  There are ways that conversations about ideas and achievements can turn toxic as well, of course.  It is not the unique property of emotional transactions that they alone can be highjacked by other people’s needs.  “We’re Only Human After All,” says my wife from time to time.[1]

8.  This article describes a system of communication that “works well for people.”  What kind of people, I wonder, does it work well for?  Are there people for whom it does not work very well, no matter how well it is done?  I suspect there are.  At a grieving time of my life, I ran across the work of Terry Martin and Kenneth Doka, who maintain that there are “instrumental” ways of dealing with grief and “intuitive” ways.  They are not at all alike, but they both work if they fit the style of the person using them.  What doesn’t work is for a person whose natural style is instrumental to be told that he or she really ought to be handling grief intuitively.  I think NVC runs precisely this risk.  It’s not a good style for everyone.

9.  Finally, there is the curiously isolated feeling of these conversations.  It is as if the behaviors in question and the emotions in question did not take a good deal of their meaning from what other people do and feel.  When you complain about a behavior that hurt your feelings, it would be good if it were not a behavior that is widely accepted in that social setting.  I know from my extensive reading of undistinguished books that there are gatherings where the men and women refer to each other as “bitch” and “bastard,” meaning nothing by it except a gratifying crudeness and camaraderie.  I would move off to a different group, myself, but another response a woman might take would be to approach the next man who referred to her as a bitch and say that when he did that, she felt sad and small.

The behavior you are referring to, when you say you felt some particular emotion, really ought to be extraordinary.  If it is “how we do things here,” the person whose feelings are hurt will have to find another way to proceed.[2]  And raising the question of “how we do things here” introduces social norms and social agreements.  One of the things that might be said about a behavior that has, as one effect, hurting someone’s feelings, is that it makes the workplace or the classroom or the living room a poorer or more unstable place.  It may well have, in other words, bad social effects and it might be opposed just because it has those effects.  If it does have those effects, you may not be the only person who sees them or the only person who wants them stopped.

I think I’ll stop here.  I’m a political psychologist by training, but before that—long before that—I was interested in the way people use power.  There has been, it seems to me, a breathtaking rise in the number of people whose feelings are hurt and who want to tell you what you can do differently so that they will not continue to be hurt.  This response is so popular that it is crowding out a lot of other responses to ill-advised behavior, some of which work better.



[1] We don’t even say that anymore.  We just say WOHAA.
[2] And that is, by the way, the process by which the manager of an office wound up with the responsibility to maintain a “climate” that was not notably racist or sexist or ageist.  The people who found the office climate offensive made it the job of someone in particular to have a plan to do something about it.  That change of strategies was not achieved by hurt feelings.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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6 Responses to Nonviolent Communication

  1. Telling someone that you have hurt feelings when the intent was to wound so much more completely than that is just a silly reaction. I liked this analysis. KH

    • hessd says:

      I think we adopt an ideology about how important emotions are, how central they are, and the ideology blinds us to what else we are doing. I see what you call “the intent to wound” frequently and the perpetrator feels entirely guiltless.

  2. Roger barett says:

    this should be sent to Christian Century

  3. Actually, according to the principles of NonViolent Communication, one is not supposed to use the terms “hurt” or “devastated”, because those are usually (often) accusations disguised as emotions. (Sad and scared are the emotions that are usually chosen instead of hurt and devastated.) One is allowed to say what one is thinking in response to the behavior: “When you did that I thought I was the ‘bad child’ and was going to be punished.”

    • hessd says:

      Absolutely right. Thanks for the clarification. I have thought recently that phrasings like “When you did that, I thought…”are entirely different for the speaker. They are not like, “I was so hurt when you did that.” I am not yet sure they are all that different for the hearer. Maybe they are. Or possibly we learn to interpret “when you did that I thought….” as “when you did that I was hurt…” and to believe that both of them are forms of official disapproval. It’s a dilemma, I’ll grant you. Thanks for a thoughtful response.

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