September 29, 2022

Thoughts after Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication

I avoid outright self-help books because of their tendency to simplify the jungle of human experience into discrete problems with standard solutions. Two wise friends recommended Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication to me so I made an exception.

The book argues that people who communicate with violence because they struggle to describe their feelings and identify the needs that generate those feelings. Violent communication attempts to change others’ or our own behavior by mobilizing feelings like guilt, fear, and embarrassment. Even positive statements can conceal violence. You are a great listener,” for instance, conditions the validity of the complement on a label that the subject may or may not live up to in the future. You have to be a great listener to warrant my appreciation,’ gets smuggled in as subtext. A more compassionate complement would shift focus to feelings and actions; The care with which you listened to my story affirmed my interpretation of the situation and made me feel supported.”

Rosenberg prescribes describing your needs, the feelings you are experiencing when they are unmet, and requesting whatever you think might help. The formula is straightforward but challenging in practice. Even the good listener sentence above took me three minutes to word while sitting in a chair thinking by myself. Put someone in front of me and add any emotional charge to the interaction and the difficulty cranks up even further. Trying to pick the right phrasing feels like evading my private thought police.

A simple explanation for that challenge is that I have not practiced enough nonviolent communication and my masculine American socialization has provided me plenty of practice with violent communication–discouraged much feeling, encouraged labeling, and equating needs with weakness. Given this background, I appreciated Rosenberg exhorting me to feel and describe my feelings. Over a couple pages he enumerates hundreds of feeling words. Since reading it, I have been practicing noticing and precisely describing my emotions. This has helped me communicate more authentically and my communication is more interesting because it feels more intimate.

But I am still conflicted about the book’s advice on identifying needs”. The book treats needs as elemental components of a person’s identity. You can’t communicate nonviolently without first identifying the needs you are trying to represent. This specifically is the most difficult step of Rosenberg’s method. My needs are slippery. I had not appreciated how slippery until trying to pin them down mid conversation. Rosenberg’s examples feature people who can identify their needs with at most a conversational pause. My need identification speed is closer to my uncle Bob who is famous for nonchalantly elaborating on a conversation you thought ended five minutes ago. That is not a ridiculous cost to pay for liberating communication–if the pitch convinces you.

The rigidity of needs contrasts with Rosenberg’s emphasis on the subjectivity of feelings which he emphasizes are our personal responsibility. One maneuver people use to obscure their feelings is to scapegoat others as the root cause. For example, You made me sad,’ instead of of, I felt sad because I wanted to talk to someone.’ Once again, in practice I struggle to construct utterances that take full individual responsibility. But even example sentences from the book seem to implicate others albeit subtly. Doesn’t my sadness about having no one to talk to implicate anyone who could have made themselves available? Is there that clear a line between how I feel and what people around me do? That said, one of my favorite ideas from the book is a thought experiment on the situational nature of a person’s reactions to someone showing up late for a lunch date. If I had been seeking intimacy, I might feel spurned. If I was in a rush I might instead feel angry. If I had been socially overstimulated, I might feel relief.

Despite all the good ideas at the individual level, Nonviolent Communication is missing an overarching, macro-level philosophy1. Rosenberg shares a conversation he had with a man in prison who blamed the administration and indifferent guards for ignoring his requests for books and basic supplies. Rosenberg asked this prisoner to empathize with the guards and to notice that his anger was stemming from a fear of not getting his needs met. Rosenberg’s method dilutes the righteous indignation over injustice by convincing the man that his feelings from his personal vulnerabilities and fears of neglect. Rosenberg quashes an opportunity to expand someone’s critical consciousness. Violent, no?

This criticism is not to ward you away from the book if it sounds otherwise interesting. My appreciation for the rest of the book is what motivated me to dissect the one part (of one chapter) that most dissatisfied me. I think the book would be extra useful for people already wanting to speak more compassionately or who feel alienated from or clumsy with their emotions. If the idea of nonviolence is the most appealing aspect of the book, I recommend first reading Kazu Haga’s Healing Resistance which awed me with the power and hopefulness of the contemporary Nonviolence movement.

  1. Kazu Haga’s discussion of nonviolent relationships in Healing Resistance provides that bigger vision .↩︎

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