Nonviolent Communication Is Not Emotionally Violent

A friend of mine and I have a running joke that everyone who starts a hackerspace should get a free copy of Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Rosenberg was a psychologist who started his career as a mediator, for example, helping resolve conflicts in recently-integrated schools in the U.S. South after the end of racial segregation. Nonviolent Communication, or NVC, was his attempt to codify the strategies he found most successful during his years as a mediator. Since I came across NVC a few years ago, it’s been incredibly helpful in all aspects of my life, including running a hackerspace, which another friend of mine describes as “making sure 200 roommates all get along with each other.” If you look around online, you can read stories from many people who have been helped by NVC, but you can also find some very harsh criticism. Although NVC isn’t the perfect tool for every situation, most of the criticism I’ve seen stems from a misunderstanding of what NVC actually is. So I’d like to clear that up and respond to some common criticisms.

In short, NVC is a framework for identifying the things you need to know about yourself, and the things you need to know about the person you’re talking to, in order to make your conversation a collaboration rather than a competition. It’s often summarized with a four-part template: “(1.) When you [observation], (2.) I feel [emotion], because (3.) I need [need]. (4.) Would you [request]?” This script is a tool to learn which things are most helpful to communicate (observations, emotions, needs, and requests). In practice, NVC doesn’t take the form of reading from a rigid script, but it does communicate the same content. And this is where most criticism gets it wrong. Almost all criticism I’ve seen of NVC describes it as being about how you say something, when it’s really about what you say, and even more importantly, about the self-awareness and empathy you need to exercise in order to put those things into words. So with that out of the way, I’ll address some specific criticisms.

"You have to put the needs of others before your own."

It’s easy to see how someone might think this about NVC. Practicing NVC involves accepting the observations, emotions, and needs of others as valid. If you are thinking of a conversation as a competition, then obviously this means putting someone else ahead of yourself, but not so in NVC. Observations in NVC are meant to be free of judgement, meaning they are statements everyone can agree on. If there are disagreements, you focus on finding the things you do agree on first. There’s no win or lose, just a better mutual understanding of the situation. Next, you have to acknowledge the validity of emotions. But that doesn’t mean giving someone a free pass to act out on those emotions or agreeing with the thinking that led to the emotion. If someone is scared of kittens, I can acknowledge and validate their fear without agreeing that kittens are dangerous and need to be exterminated. Likewise, acknowledging someone’s needs does not mean you need to satisfy that need. And that’s why the last stage is “request” and not “demand.” It comes down to this: you don’t have to put someone else before yourself, but you can’t ask them to put you before themselves either.

But what if listening to someone’s emotions and needs is harmful? Should a victim of violence have to listen to the emotions and needs of the perpetrator? No, not at all. NVC is a tool for communicating, but only if you want to communicate! Also, NVC begins with self-awareness. If you need to avoid talking with a particular person or about a particular subject, NVC encourages you to realize that and act accordingly.

"NVC doesn’t allow you to identify abusive emotions."

This one is true, but it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Emotions aren’t abusive, actions are. When someone makes this criticism, they’re failing to realize that there’s a difference between how you feel and how you act. Of course not all emotional responses are healthy, but it’s up to each individual to take responsibility for their emotional health. Trying to control someone else’s feelings is emotional violence, which is why it has no place in NVC. But NVC does allow you to respond to someone’s actions. Focusing on actions is beneficial because they’re what actually affect other people and they’re easier to change than emotional responses. Also, abusive behavior often happens because someone experiences a strong emotion, which they see as something that happens to them and therefore not their responsibility, and then believe they’re entitled to act instinctively on that emotion. NVC helps identify harmful behaviors, which can be changed, and helps disentangle them from the emotions that motivated them. For example, if someone cuts you off in traffic you’re likely to experience anger, and that’s a valid emotion, but it doesn’t justify chasing them down and beating them up, even if that’s what you want to do when you’re angry.

"Using NVC is engaging in non-consensual emotional intimacy."

NVC is based on empathy, and this criticism says that empathizing requires consent. The key here is that NVC is meant to be used when emotions are already on the table, meaning someone has already consented. If the clerk at the DMV asks for two pieces of ID, I’m not going to ask them about the deep emotional roots of that need. NVC is more useful when someone is using their emotions to justify a harmful action. But even then, it’s not necessary to discuss their emotions. Yes, part of NVC is identifying your own emotions, but you don’t always need to discuss them, the important part is being conscious of them. In NVC, any (or all) stages (observation, emotion, need, request) can be used internally rather than externally. In a less emotionally intimate context, it’s perfectly acceptable to just make observations and requests. What NVC does is help you remove judgement from observations and figure out what you actually want to ask for.

"NVC can be used to legitimize emotional violence."

The argument here is that harmful statements can be disguised to look like NVC. For example, “When you ruin everything, I feel like you’re an asshole because I need you to do everything I say. Would you stop being horrible?” To anyone familiar with NVC, this is very obviously not NVC. But it is true that people sometimes try to pass emotional violence off as NVC in this way. But the problem isn’t with NVC. Those people would still be committing emotional violence without NVC, they’d just phrase it differently. It is a problem if the victim of emotional violence is tricked into accepting it. And NVC provides precisely the tools necessary to identify emotional violence, even when it’s disguised as NVC or anything else. So yes, bad stuff can be called NVC, but the problem is entirely the bad stuff, not the NVC.

So those are my responses to the most common criticisms I’ve heard. There are some valid limitations of NVC, but the above are not them, and they’re much less severe. One of the main limitations I’ve come across is that, because it relies on cognitive empathy, it doesn’t work very well for anyone on the autistic spectrum or people with certain personality disorders. Another limitation is that when you’re on the receiving end of emotional violence, it can be incredibly tempting to try to teach NVC to whoever is inflicting it, because you can see that there’s a win-win outcome if they could only see it too. But trying to teach someone to dance is not going to make them stop punching you. So word to the wise: if you find yourself trying to teach someone NVC, cut your losses, tell them you need to be left alone and GTFO.

Learning NVC has helped me realize how poorly we understand our own emotions. How often do we say “you made me feel…”? But NVC teaches us that our feelings are the results of our needs and our beliefs, which coincidentally, is the basis of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, one of the most successful evidence-based psychotherapy techniques. And how often do we describe our feelings as “disrespected” or “lied to” or “manipulated”? Which, of course, are not emotions at all, but interpretations of other people’s actions that (while possibly accurate) are only weakly correlated with our emotional responses to those actions. What leads to one person feeling angry, may lead to another feeling sad, or even happy (see, for example, compersion). So based on my experiences, NVC is not the problem. The problem is that we live in an emotionally illiterate and emotionally violent culture. If someone complains that NVC makes it difficult to fight fire with fire, they’re really missing the point.

That emoji. I do not think it means what you think it means.

When my database threw an unexpected error, I looked up the cryptic code in the message, and fell down a bizarre click-hole about a surprisingly controversial cultural symbol: the "woman with bunny ears" emoji. That's the official title at least, but it has variously been interpreted as "ballerinas" or "Playboy bunnies" or "Kemonomimi" (a human character with animal features, common in Japanese media). Different visual representations have leaned towards evoking different interpretations. These interpretations are left up to implementors and not part of the Unicode standard. There can even be differences between implementation versions from the same vendors. For instance, in iOS 8.3, Apple increased the size of the bunny ears, which had previously looked more like barrettes. For many people, this shifted the meaning of the symbol from "dancers/dancing" to "porn stars," and undoubtedly led to some rather awkward miscommunications. It goes to show that we're still figuring out how to use emoji. And perhaps it's worth looking up your favorite emoji to make sure you're not sending mixed signals to your friends.

Abuse Is Not a Choice, Empathy Is

When we label someone an "abuser," we let them off too easily and invite future abuse into our communities.

Willow Brugh recently wrote a thoughtful post about how communities respond to abusive behavior. She writes, "If we simply kick out anyone who messes up, we end up with empty communities, and that’s not a new future." She calls for alternatives. The post sparked a lively twitter debate, with many arguing that abusers are aware of what they're doing and that placing the onus of "reforming" them on a community is overly burdensome. But, the rare sociopath aside, the very idea of an "abuser" is an anti-bogeyman that prevents us from dealing with the realities of abusive behavior in our communities, and importantly, in ourselves.

At this point, I should note that I'm no stranger to abuse. As a hackerspace director for many years, I was often in the position of responding when someone posed a threat to the safety and comfort of other members, and proudly, often the first person those members turned to for help. I've seen friends and family affected by abuse from strangers, relatives, police, lovers, and spouses. And, I've experienced abuse myself. I know the sting of betrayal, and the long-lingering doubt that comes from being mistreated by someone you trusted. I also know how difficult it is to recognize when your actions are hurting someone you care about, and how much work, dedication, and time it takes to change the thinking and habits behind those behaviors.

Discussions of abuse often insist it's a conscious choice. When asked about dealing with mean people, the terrific advice columnist Captain Awkward wrote:

I vote that you believe hard in the Mean Guy and view the rest of his personality through that lens. Because Sexy Guy is mean. And Sad Guy is mean. And I get it, because when you hate yourself and feel terrible, it makes it more likely that terrible things will escape your mouth. But at the end of the day, being depressed does not excuse being mean. Mean is a choice.

Yes, abuse is inexcusable, but the belief that it's a choice is both incorrect and harmful.

Consider the way a typical two-year-old treats others. They hit, lie, steal, threaten, scream, and any number of other behaviors that, if committed by an adult, would be undeniably abusive. But those children are not evil, they have not made a calculated decision to harm others. Their behavior stems from the inability to look past their own needs and consider the needs of others: in short, an underdeveloped sense of empathy. When I've worked to resolve conflicts in the hackerspace community, the abusive behavior I've seen has always stemmed from the exact same thing. If the offenders had been able to look past their own needs and emotions, they would have had to be either stupid or evil to act as they did (apologies to the Daily Show) but they couldn't.

Crucially, if someone believes abusive behavior is the result of a conscious choice, and they never made such a choice, they conclude that there is nothing wrong with their behavior. They then believe the problem must lie entirely with someone else. In other words, abuse is not a conscious choice, it is a lack of the conscious choice to empathize. Similarly, the false binary of "abuser" and "non-abuser" allows victims of abuse to assume that they could never become abusers themselves, when in fact, victims of abuse are the ones most likely become abusive (see Breaking the Cycle of Abuse: How to Move Beyond Your Past to Create an Abuse-Free Future). This is absolutely not an excuse for abusive behavior, but it suggests a completely different approach to understanding and responding to it. Have you ever looked critically at your own behavior towards others and considered that it might be abusive? If not, there's a good chance that, at times, it has been.

So how should we respond to abusive behavior within a community? I think Willow is right that we need something better than vilification and ostracization. When we say "we're kicking that person out because they're bad" we lose a crucial opportunity for the community to have a dialog about which behaviors are appropriate, and why. Also, no one sees themselves as "bad," so in such a system, they have no incentive to reflect on their own actions. In a wonderful video about how to tell someone they sound racist, Jay Smooth favors the "what you did" conversation over the "who you are" conversation, saying:

That conversation takes us away from the facts of what they did, into speculation about their motives and intention. And those are things you can only guess at, you can't ever prove, and that makes it way to easy for them to derail your whole argument.

What's more, when we label someone an "abuser" we fail to see them as people, modeling the very lack of empathy that causes abuse in the first place, furthering a vicious cycle. Should the recipient of abuse be forced to empathize with their abuser? No, of course not. But the response of the community, if it is to remain healthy, must be based in empathy. In practice, this means first and foremost, supporting and protecting the safety of anyone who was abused, and if at all possible, providing clear expectations to the perpetrator, along with an opportunity to meet them, and the consequences for not doing so. Some people will choose to continue harmful behaviors, and in doing so, choose to remove themselves from the community, but those who remain learn not to place blame, but rather to empathize and take responsibility for their own actions. People aren't problems. Problems are problems and people are people.

Communication for Geeks

Here's an outline from my Penguicon 2013 panel "Communication for Geeks."