Thoughts on Nonviolent Communication 1

I had the great opportunity to attend a workshop on NVC this weekend. The workshop was led by Marianne Göthlin a 20+ years NVC practitioner. Marianne has worked closely with Marshall Rosenberg and was one of the practitioners who introduced NVC in Sweden. 

I was first introduced to NVC several years ago when I studied the literature list for the still-way-ahead-of-their-time  Kaos Piloter program. There I found, among other jewels, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Rosenberg. Upon reading it, it dawned on me how well this resonated with my previous studies of buddhism and positive psychology.

Lately, the NVC “concept” (if we may call it that) has had a bit of a revival in our community, which I believe can be explained partly by the writings of Bob Marshall. It’s not surprising that our community – which is on what I rather pompously like to call  “a journey towards the future of work” – explores NVC in the quest of finding better ways of working together.

First: yes, the giraffe and jackal hand dolls both made an appearance, together with the stylish head gear. All presented with the kind of apologetic tone one would expect, as it is all rather corny. Yet they did turn out to be surprisingly useful symbols during the day, as they could be refered to when explaining core concepts. Our instructor also shared some fun anecdotes from the early days of NVC, and it became clear to me that Mr. Rosenberg was a bit of a character back in the day. Sadly, I think that the puppets and Rosenbergs general “strangeness” can be off-putting for some people.

As I have previously studied the concepts of NVC, my interest in this introduction workshop was primarily academic. I was curios to find out how NVC is explained, taught and practiced by the people who has made this concept their speciality, and sometimes even their lifestyle.

There are a few aspects of NVC that has caused reactions in our “community”. I try to adress them below, in light of what I experienced during the day. Everyone can certainly form their own opinions on these matters, yet I thought it helpful to add a senior practitioner’s perspective.

Praise is violent – but not that violent

One of the more difficult NVC ideas for people to comprehend is the idea that well meant praise is also labeled “violent” communication. One concern here is the use of the word “violent”. The NVC community is frequently asked why they chose that name, when something like “Peaceful Communication” could also do the trick. I’m mentioning this because I feel people would react less strongly towards hearing that praise is “not quite peaceful”, rather than the starker “it’s violent”.

Now, the reason why praise is deemed violent is that there’s judgment involved. Unsurprising, the workshop group also struggled with this concept. In response, I found our veteran NVC workshop leader to be more concerned that praise can be unspecific at times, and as such not that useful in creating a true connection between people. Yet, if the praise comes from a good place and the intention of the offered praise is to build up rather than to tear down, then worrying about praise being violent is really high class problems to have. So all I heard was that from our instructors perspective, specific praise is better than non specific. Fitting your praise into the NVC syntax and thus connecting them with your feelings and needs, would be even better. No surprises there, I think.

No one can make you feel anything – it just feels like they can

The other aspect that has proven to be difficult for people to understand at first glance is the statement that no one can make you feel sad, angry, happy and so forth. This must be understood in relation to what feelings are in the eyes of NVC: feelings are signals that your needs are, or are not, met. As such, feelings can be neither good nor bad. They’re just information. The implication is that you are responsible for your own reaction (i.e your feelings) when your needs are, or are not met. This can be a bit of a mind opener for some folks, as this forces them to look inwards and reflect on what these signals (feelings) means in relation to their needs. Doing this would allow people to understand, and explain in a clearer way what change they would like to see in order for their needs to be met.

Who talks like that?

There was also discussion about the difficulties with the syntax of the NVC communication model. The impression I got was that the instructor argued that the NVC model of Observation, Feeling, Need, Request, is best placed in the back of the head (or heart) and not used as a template. As I listened to our workshop leader demonstrate NVC in practice together with a workshop participant, her approach was more to “jump” between the “stages” of the model in a rather natural way and she worked her way towards having all the stages “covered”, as it were. In some sense the exchange I witnessed more resembled coaching – but then again, not quite. I noticed that our instructor used “observations” more freely than I would as a coach. She was rather shooting out guesses regarding the persons feelings and needs, until she struck a chord. The coaching approach leans more towards making use of the silence and giving the coachee time to discover things by herself, by way of powerful questions and global listening. Only when the coachee is stuck does the coach offer observations, and only after asking permission.

At the core of all this though is the Rosenberg vision that a better, more empathic world is possible, and that we can get there by way of NVC. It became very clear to me that our teacher was a true “believer” in the vision, and I very much admired her passion as she spoke of this.

For me NVC remains an excellent and important complementary approach to other ideas touching the same topics.

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