Coercion – Does It Work? Yes, but…

[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]

Co-er-cion (noun)

  1. forcing of somebody to do something, the use of force or threats to make somebody do something against his or her will
  2. force used to compel somebody, force or threats used to make somebody do something against his or her will

— Encarta Dictionary

When you want someone to do something, ask yourself these two questions:

  1. What do you want them to do?
  2. Why do you want them to do it? –from fear of loss or punishment? –from a desire to contribute?

— Marshall Rosenberg


A student from my recent Empowered Communication 1 series commented that she would have liked me to make some parts of the home study invitations mandatory instead of optional, that this would have helped her take action. I took this as a longing for support, structure, clarity and encouragement, though I felt concerned about the strategy which looked like coercion to me. This request got me thinking about external and inner coercion, about internal and external referencing.

Using force to get what we want certainly can work in the short run. However, the cost in lost trust, good will, future cooperation and possible direct retribution (such as whining, resentment, or gossip) or indirect obstruction [label: passive aggression] raises questions about the wisdom of such a strategy for long term relationships and effective community and social action.

When we use coercion, including public shaming, in our social change work, the other side might be ‘beaten,’ but then the pendulum swings widely to the opposite polarity (for example, Carter, Reagan-Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump, Biden). The battle can be won, but for how long and at what energetic and emotional cost, or even at the cost of lives literally lost?

Alternately, revealing what we want with a simple invitation to help out, while also discovering and advocating for the other person’s needs along with our own, promotes cooperation, co-ownership of the outcome of decisions and a general sense that everyone matters. This can build our social animal support base and contributes to the health and strength of the whole community, the whole species. A lovely example of this is the work Miki Kashtan did on the Minnesota Child Custody Legislation a few years ago.

The Carrot and the Stick

I grew up with the folk wisdom that we can get the behavior we want using the carrot and the stick. The story went that a farmer wanted his stubborn donkey to carry his produce to market, but the animal wouldn’t budge. So the farmer tied a carrot to the end of a long stick to bribe the animal to move forward toward the carrot that always dangled just out of the donkey’s reach. That worked sometimes, but not all the time. So the farmer also brought along a stout stick to beat the donkey when he wouldn’t move, thus getting the donkey to do what the farmer wanted. Now I can see this story is a model of and map for using coercion.

Inner coercion

It’s pretty clear the cost when people use coercion on each other. And let’s examine the costs of using coercion on ourselves.

I imagine I am not the only person with a highly developed skill at using inner coercion:

It will be good for me if… I really should… Any responsible adult would… Just do it! What’s wrong with you that you don’t/that you still… OK, let’s get on this now… Don’t be an idiot! You should/shouldn’t… When are you ever going to learn? I have to/must… Other people don’t have trouble with… Oh, come on, really?! If you do this, you can reward yourself with… You’ll be sorry if don’t… Add your own inner messages of coercion to this list.

Guilt, duty, obligation, shaming, prodding, pushing, threatening, comparing, bribes. These constitute our inner arsenal of carrots and sticks.

Let’s face it, operant conditioning (employing rewards and punishments to mold behavior) works. That’s why it’s so widespread in our schools, on the job and even in our homes. One cost is that thinking in these ways solidifies our commitment to using force to get what we want. When we use force against ourselves as a form of motivation, I suspect we are more likely to turn to force in our dealings with others. It works, but is it in alignment with how we want to treat the people in our biosphere? Or how we want to be treated by others? Or how we want to treat ourselves, the unique and precious expression of life each of us is?

Further, there is an underpinning of belief that people are naturally bad and have to be managed in order to do what they should, so the use of force only makes sense.

Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD, developer of Nonviolent Communication, strongly encouraged people to read Alfie Kohn’s book, Punished by Rewards, to introduce the high costs of orienting our behaviors to other people’s opinions of us, what can be called external referencing. He also often asserted that people who internally reference (how do I like what I did) instead of externally reference (what do other people think of what I did) make terrible slaves. Since they care about how their words and actions align with their own values, it’s not as easy to manipulate them or their behaviors.

In addition to philosophical positioning, there are practical considerations as well. When our choices and actions seem like a chore, a burden, we brace for the task and this ambient environment of stress and tension taxes our immune and circulo-cardiac systems. Makes it quicker and easier to pop off through heart disease. When Marshall said letting go of judgments will help us be happier and to live longer, I think he meant that literally. At the same time, when we are chronically stressed, it can be more difficult to access our newer learned, choiceful behaviors, leading us to fall back into habitual, reactive behaviors.

Alternatives to Inner Coercion

I’ve learned to transition from following my initial impulse to use coercion into entering self-connection, choice and power. For those engaged with NVC, this is not a new path. However, outcomes can be radical.

If I hear a whisper (or sometimes even a shout) of some coercive thought in my mind, I now use that as a signal to shift my attention to what needs are alive behind my dissatisfaction. The moment I identify the energy of needs, I can experience softening, relaxing, opening in my body. When I open further to those living energies, how I perceive a situation can soften and expand. I can lean into my inner resources of learnings, gifts, strengths and talents and see many possible ways to address the needs I find.

Example from my life

I have had a life-long aversion to daily practice, be it meditation, exercise, journaling, yoga, tai chi. You name it, I repeatedly came up against inner rebellion, a sense of failure if I missed one day, and ultimately turning away from practices I knew were ‘doing me good.’ Of course I would benefit from consistent practice. Who wouldn’t?

About 18 months ago, I decided to shift from ‘shoulding myself’ to asking what I really wanted from regular exercise. I realized weight loss is such a charged issue that it was not even possible to use it as a motivator. I felt indifferent to a long life.

What I really wanted was to feel strong and healthy. Then I took note after my exercise classes of how my body felt. The first few months were tough, since all I felt was exhausted and sore. Then I joined the tai chi classes at the gym. First I came to one class a week, then two. When COVID Shelter in Place orders came, our tai chi group moved outside to the park. I started attending 3 practice sessions a week. I noticed I was feeling stronger right after the class and occasionally for the whole day. When my Osteopath suggested I might think about practicing even more often, I checked with classmates to see who might join me to practice on off-class days.

Knowing my long aversion to daily practice, I contracted with my friend to practice for 30 minutes 3 days a week for 2 weeks and then we’d check to see if we wanted to continue. After the second 2-week contract, we are pretty steadily meeting, and I’m thinking of my contract in terms of this season. That makes 6 days a week for practice. A few collateral benefits of the increased practice are that my widow’s hump is disappearing (and not only when I think of my posture), my balance is noticeably better, I have fun shifting and twisting around my little kitchen, my stamina when out running errands is better, and my moods are upbeat much more often. Each of these benefits feeds back into my agreement with myself to practice regularly for a period of time.

You might have noticed I’m not practicing every day. That’s intentional, a sop to the part of myself that hates daily practice. Or an honoring, a way of including that part of myself that chooses to resist. Since choice is often at the root of my resistance, and I’m now meeting my need for choice by keeping short-term contracts, my old strategy of digging in my heels because I want choice is no longer in charge. I wonder if choice balances force/violence/coercion?

I experience two further unexpected benefits. I sense that the tai chi movements are an expression of natural order, that I am weaving order with each practice cycle into a world currently tending toward chaos and dissolution. To me it feels similar to the sand paintings of the Tibetan Buddhists or the Navajo Beauty Way night ceremony of pollen painting the original order of life to restore order where it has been lost. The other benefit is that I feel a renewed interest in studying and learning about tai chi from the great thinkers like Cheng Man-Ch’ing, and the tao from Chuang Tzu. It feels almost like I’m a sponge re-reading these works I first discovered in the 60s. Thus spiritual growth, communion and immanence, mental challenge and learning follow along from my original goals of feeling healthier and stronger.

So here are some of the steps I employed: visioning, strategizing based on movement toward needs, yolking*, working with support & accountability buddies, frequent assessment of effectiveness, and making agreements for manageable lengths of time. In past situations I even created a collage of needs and strategies to make them more visible since thought creates reality (i.e., what we can imagine or see, we can create).

If there is something in this message you find useful or inspiring, I’d love to hear from you for fellowship, to deepen my understanding, and for fun.

*yolking is a psychological strategy of behavior/habit change (like paired oxen who can pull huge wagonloads using a strong wooden yolk) with another person who shares some goal or intention. We can strengthen commitment to self by supporting (contributing to) another person.


Meganwind Eoyang came to the study of Nonviolent Communication from a very different world. She grew up street fighting on the south side of Chicago. She studied and taught martial arts, and took full-force fighting training. She was excited to discover that Nonviolent Communication offers clear steps for practicing the compassion, self-love, and love for others which most spiritual traditions invite us to live. Meganwind has been a trainer with Bay Area Nonviolent Communication since 2001. She also managed BayNVC’s Safer Communities Project for 14 years, with 13 volunteers bringing NVC classes to people incarcerated in San Quentin state prison and Bay Area Sheriff’s Department county jails. She loves sharing NVC skills and principles with individuals, couples, classes and organizations. Click here to read more about her Empowered Communication 1 study series.

 You may enjoy watching:

  • A 10-minute video interview of Meganwind speaking about empathy.
  • A 4-minute video interview of Meganwind speaking about examples of empathy with inmates at San Quentin and in her coaching sessions with couples.