College Confession #45

I was sitting in the lounge in the student center when all of a sudden, a guy came out of one of the club rooms running while screaming “BECAUSE I’M JOHN CENA!” and proceeded to jump over a set of small walls that separate the lounge from the main hallway. Instead of sticking the landing, he fell and hit the tile floor. 

I haven’t seen him since he broke his shoulder and I had to send him off to the hospital. Now there’s a sign on the walls saying “No Stunts Allowed”.

- Naugatuck Valley College

Nonviolent Communication can hurt people

People who struggle interpersonally, who seem unhappy, or who get into a lot of conflicts are often advised to adopt the approach of Nonviolent Communication. 

This is often not a good idea. Nonviolent Communication is an approach based on refraining from seeming to judge others, and instead expressing everything in terms of your own feelings. For instance, instead of “Don’t be such an inconsiderate jerk about leaving your clothes around”, you’d say “When you leave your clothing around, I feel disrespected.”. That approach is useful in situations in which people basically want to treat each other well but have trouble doing so because they don’t understand one another’s needs and feelings. In every other type of situation, the ideology and methodology of Nonviolent Communication can make things much worse.

Nonviolent Communication can be particularly harmful to marginalized people or abuse survivors. It can also teach powerful people to abuse their power more than they had previously, and to feel good about doing so. Non-Violent Communication has strategies that can be helpful in some situations, but it also teaches a lot of anti-skills that can undermine the ability to survive and fight injustice and abuse.

For marginalized or abused people, being judgmental is a necessary survival skill. Sometimes it’s not enough to say “when you call me slurs, I feel humiliated” - particularly if the other person doesn’t care about hurting you or actually wants to hurt you. Sometimes you have to say “The word you called me is a slur. It’s not ok to call me slurs. Stop.” Or “If you call me that again, I’m leaving.” Sometimes you have to say to yourself “I’m ok, they’re mean.” All of those things are judgments, and it’s important to be judgmental in those ways.

You can’t protect yourself from people who mean you harm without judging them. Nonviolent Communication works when people are hurting each other by accident; it only works when everyone means well. It doesn’t have responses that work when people are hurting others on purpose or without caring about damage they do. Which, if you’re marginalized or abused, happens several times a day. NVC does not have a framework for acknowledging this or responding to it.

In order to protect yourself from people who mean you harm, you have to see yourself as having the right to judge that someone is hurting you. You also have to be able to unilaterally set boundaries, even when your boundaries are upsetting to other people. Nonviolent Communication culture can teach you that whenever others are upset with you, you’re doing something wrong and should change what you do in order to meet the needs of others better. That’s a major anti-skill. People need to be able to decide things for themselves even when others are upset.

Further, NVC places a dangerous degree of emphasis on using a very specific kind of language and tone. NVC culture often judges people less on the content of what they’re saying than how they are saying it. Abusers and cluelessly powerful people are usually much better at using NVC language than people who are actively being hurt. When you’re just messing with someone’s head or protecting your own right to mess with their head, it’s easy to phrase things correctly. When someone is abusing you and you’re trying to explain what’s wrong, and you’re actively terrified, it’s much, much harder to phrase things in I-statements that take an acceptable tone.

Further, there is *always* a way to take issue with the way someone phrased something. It’s really easy to make something that’s really about shutting someone up look like a concern about the way they’re using language, or advice on how to communicate better. Every group I’ve seen that valued this type of language highly ended up nitpicking the language of the least popular person in the group as a way of shutting them up. 

tl;dr Be careful with Nonviolent Communication. It has some merits, but it is not the complete solution to conflict or communication that it presents itself as. If you have certain common problems, NVC is dangerous.

If you are unfamiliar with “giraffe + jackal ears” check out some of Marshall Rosenberg’s NVC (Non-Violent Communication) stuff:  https://www.cnvc.org/%5Bogname%5D/giraffe-and-jackal-ears-exercise

Hey I’m presenting at this year’s Endless Poly Summer Conference! If you are able to get to West Virginia this August, come see me:

Support Kimchi + get original artwork! https://www.patreon.com/kimchicuddles

Nonviolent Communication can be emotionally violent

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) culture facilitates abuse in part because NVC culture has very little regard for consent. (I said a little bit about this in my other post on ways NVC hurts people.) They call it nonviolent, but it is often a coercive and emotional violent kind of interaction. 

NVC has very different boundaries than are typical in mainstream interactions. Things that would normally be considered boundary violations are an expected and routine part of NVC dialoging.

That can be a good thing, in some contexts. There are settings where it can be very important to have different emotional boundaries than the default. To have intense engagement with people’s emotions. To hear out their emotions and state yours and try to refrain from judgement and just hear each other, and then talk together about what would meet your mutual needs.

In a NVC interaction, you have to regard your needs and the other person’s needs as equally important, no matter what they are. You have to regard their feelings and emotional reactions as equally valid and worth hearing as yours, no matter what they are. That is a good thing in some contexts, but it’s dangerous and deeply destructive in others.

That kind of interaction can be a good thing. I understand the value. But here’s the problem:

One way NVC can be abusive is that it supports coerced emotional intimacy, and coerced consideration of someone’s feelings even when their expressed feelings are abusive. This isn’t actually a good thing even when someone’s feelings are not problematic in and of themselves. Coerced emotional intimacy is a violation in and of itself, and it’s a violation that leaves people very vulnerable to greater violations.

I recently challenged an NVC advocate to answer this question:

Consider this situation: An abuser has an emotional need for respect. He experiences it as deeply hurtful when his partner has conversations with other men. When she talks to other men anyway, he feels betrayed. He says “When you talk to other men, I feel hurt because I need mutual respect.” Using NVC principles, how do you say that what he is doing is wrong?

This was their answer:

“You’ve described him as "an abuser”. Abusing people is wrong because a person with abusive behaviour doesn’t or can’t hold with equal care the needs of others.   Is he doing something wrong? Or is he being honest that he feels hurt when his partners talks to other men? His partner can become his ex-partner if she doesn’t agree to what he’s asking for.“

That, in a nutshell, is the problem with NVC philosophy. This abusive partner’s honest expression of his feelings is actually part of how he is abusing his partner. NVC has no way of recognizing the ways in which expression of genuinely felt emotions can be abusive. It also has no recognized way for someone to legitimately say "no, this is not a conversation I want to engage in” or “no, I don’t consider that feeling something I need to respond to or take into consideration.”

Part of what it would take for NVC to stop being an abusive culture it to recognize that NVC-style dialogue and emotional intimacy require consent every single time people interact that way.  Like sexual intercourse, this kind of emotional intercourse requires consent, every single time. Having a close relationship is not consent to NVC. Having a conflict is not consent. Anger is not consent. Having found NVC helpful in the past is not consent, either. Consent means that both parties agree to have this kind of interaction *in this specific instance*.

NVC can’t be the only kind of interaction allowed, even between people who are very close to one another. And it’s not ok to coerce people into it.

And yet, NVC culture is not careful about consent at all. NVC tactics are routinely used on people whether or not they agree to have that kind of interaction. (Some NVC advocates may say otherwise, particularly in response to criticism. But actions speak louder than words, and NVC proponents do not act in practice as though consent is important. They are case in point for When Your Right to Say No is Entirely Hypothetical) This is wrong. Emotional intimacy requires consent.

NVC practitioners express deeply felt emotions and needs to non-consenting others. They do this with the implied expectation that the other person experience their expressed feelings as very very important. They also expect that person to respond by expressing their feelings and needs in the same pattern. They also expect that person to refrain from judging the NVC proponent’s expressed feelings and needs. It is not ok to force this pattern on someone. Doing so is an act of emotional violence.

It’s not ok to force someone to be emotionally intimate with you. It is not ok to dump your deep feelings on someone with the expectation that they reciprocate. Other people get to decide what they want to share with you.

An example: White NVC proponents sometimes express feelings about their racist attitudes towards people of color, to people of color who have not consented to listening to this. They do so with the expectation that the person of color will listen non-judgmentally, appreciate the honesty, and share their intimate feelings about their experiences with racism as a person of color. This is a horrible thing to do to someone. It is an act of racist emotional violence.

NVC people also use empathy to violate boundaries. They imagine what someone must be feeling, name that feeling, and express empathy with it. Then they either insert a loaded pause in the conversation, or ask you to confirm or deny the feeling and discuss your actual reactions in detail. These are not really questions. They are demands. They do not take “I don’t want to discuss that” as an ok answer. They keep pushing, and imply that you lack emotional insight and are uninterested in honest communication if you don’t want to share intimate information about your feelings. That is coerced intimacy, and it’s not ok.

For instance, an NVC advocate with power over someone might say in response to a conflict with that person: I can see that this interaction is very difficult for you. I’m sensing a lot of anger. I’m saddened that your experiences with authority figures have been so negative. (Expectant pause). I think you are experiencing a lot of anger right now, is that right?

That is not ok. When you have power over someone, it is abusive to pressure them to discuss their intimate feelings rather than the thing they object to in your behavior towards them. Emotional intimacy requires consent; it is not ok to force it on someone as a way of deflecting conflict. And when you have a lot of power over someone and they aren’t in a position to assert a boundary unilaterally, you have a much greater obligation to be careful about consent.

NVC advocates may tell you that they are just trying to have an honest conversation, with the implication that if you want ordinary emotional boundaries, you are being dishonest and refusing to communicate. They are not right about this.

You do not have to be emotionally intimate with someone to listen to them, or to have an honest conversation. It is ok to have boundaries. It is ok to have boundaries that the person you’re talking with doesn’t want you to have. Not all interactions have to or should involve the level of intimacy that NVC demands. It is never ok for anyone to coerce you into emotional intimacy. Using NVC-style dialogue tactics on someone who does not consent is an act of emotional violence. 

Most people refer to violence as physically trying to hurt another.
[In Nonviolent Communication, we] also consider violence any use of power over people, trying to coerce people into doing things. That would include any use of punishment and reward, any use of guilt, shame, duty and obligation. Violence in this larger sense is any use of force to coerce people to do things.
Violence is also any system that discriminates against people and prevents equal access to resources and justice to all people.

Marshall Rosenberg

NVC series: Overview

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Short version of the problem with Nonviolent Communication (NVC)

This is the short version of this post and this post:

  • In a conflict, sometimes one person is right and the other person is wrong
  • In such cases, it is important to judge the situation and figure out who is in the right
  • Emotional abuse exists
  • Working to meet an abuser’s emotional needs will not stop them from abusing others
  • Genuinely felt emotions can come from an abuser’s abusive values and mentality. Expressing those feelings can be a form of abuse in itself.
  • It is possible to say horrible things about and to other people under the guise of talking about your own feelings and needs
  • It’s important to be able to judge abuse as abuse. Calling it “behavior that does not meet my needs” is not always sufficient.
  • People need emotional boundaries. Your feelings are not always anyone’s business, and you are not always obligated to care about or listen to the feelings of others.

All of these things are vitally important to understand. People who don’t understand these things abuse their power over others. People who don’t understand these things are incredibly vulnerable to being abused by others. 

NVC culture denies all of these things. That does tremendous harm to vulnerable people.

Those who object to maintaining order and resolving conflicts [without using punishment, guilt or blame] often sound like this: “Well, these kids have got to learn respect for authority! That’s what we’ve got to do, to get these kids to respect authority!” And I usually respond, “Do you want to teach kids to respect authority, or to fear what you can do to them when you’re in a position of authority?” Many of us, educated in a Domination System, are not aware of the distinction between the two.
I would define respect for authority in this way: in a classroom, if the teacher knows something that the students value, and she offers to teach it to them in a noncoercive way, they will learn to have respect for her authority. But she has earned that respect, not demanded it. The student is the final authority about whether or not the teacher has authority, a truth which students clearly demonstrate every day. Fear of authority masking as respect for authority is easy to get; just give the people with titles the legal power to mete out punishments and rewards.
—  Life-Enriching Education Nonviolent Communication Helps Schools Improve Performance, Reduce Conflict, and Enhance Relationships.
By: Rosenberg, Marshall B..
PuddleDancer Press

One woman came to a training I did – it was a three-day-training, fortunately ‘cause I didn’t make it too clear to her after the first day.
She came in the second day and said, “Marshall, I went home and tried it and it didn’t work!”
“Well,” I said, “let’s learn from it. Let’s hear what you actually said.”
And she did a very good job with the mechanics. She made a clear observation to her son. She noticed that he didn’t do three things that he said he was gonna do. And she expressed her feelings clearly, she expressed her needs clearly and she made a clear request.
So I said, “Well, you’ve got the mechanics right, that sounds very much like Nonviolent Communication. What’s the problem?”
She said, “He didn’t do it!”
I said, “Then, what did you do?”
“I told him he couldn’t go through life being lazy and irresponsible.”
I said, “I’m glad we’ve got two more days of this workshop because I can see that I have made the mechanics clear to you but I haven’t made clear what the purpose is. It sounds like you thought the purpose is to get what you want!”
“Well yeah!”
“That’s not the purpose of Nonviolent Communication, to 'get what you want’. It’s to create a connection that allows everybody’s needs to get met. That’s quite different. Where everybody does whatever they do willingly. That’s the purpose. Not just to get what you want.”

- Marshall Rosenberg, Beyond Good and Evil. Workshop in Würzburg, 2006.

The purpose of NVC
Information: Giraffe and jackal
NVC series: Overview