Has NVC given you any new enemies?
[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.]
In his book entitled Speak Peace in a World of Conflict, Marshall Rosenberg writes: “we need to liberate ourselves from enemy images – the thinking that says there is something wrong with the people whose actions or values we don’t agree with.”
In a similar vein, he also states that: “…people – instead of knowing how to say clearly what their needs and requests are – are quite eloquent in diagnosing other people’s pathology: what’s wrong with them for behaving as they do.”
This seems clear to me: people very often judge one another as wrong when they disagree with each other. This way of thinking and speaking is so prevalent, we can be convinced it’s the only way to look at things: “I’m just telling it like it is, I’m just being authentic, and the authentic truth is that you’re wrong and I’m right.”
NVC can show up in our lives with a great gift to offer. It invites us into the “field outside of wrongdoing and rightdoing,” to reference the poem “A Great Wagon” by Rumi. Rather than simply believing our judgments of one another, there’s an invitation to look at each other’s humanity, to find our commonality, to look for strategies to meet needs on both sides.
I’ve seen how profoundly life can be transformed, my own life as well as the lives of others, when this radical invitation is accepted and explored. Witnessing this transformation is why I love to share NVC. But there can be some pitfalls along the way! One of the recurring pitfalls is that learning NVC sometimes provides people with new enemies…or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, with new enemy images.
The new enemies I want to talk about are not other people, not initially anyway. I’m talking about holding an enemy image of certain words or ideas or behaviors.
Students of NVC can start to think of NVC as the “right” way to communicate. The ideas of right and wrong are so profoundly ingrained in much of our thinking that they manage to slide under the door into philosophies – like NVC – that are not based on right and wrong.
From there, it’s a small step to “People who are not willing to try NVC, or who don’t support my attempts to use NVC, are WRONG.”
A student of NVC might learn NVC distinctions like:
“Speak your Observations rather than evaluations
Feelings rather than thoughts
Needs rather than strategies
Requests rather than demands.”
This collection of foundational NVC distinctions can then secretly and often unconsciously get turned into: “Observations, Feelings, Needs and Requests are RIGHT. Evaluations and Thoughts, Strategies and Demands are WRONG.”
In this way, Evaluations and Thoughts, Strategies and Demands have become a new enemy: something bad to be avoided, or vanquished – and this enemy image easily extends to anyone who speaks with evaluations and thoughts, strategies and demands.
Another example of a right/wrong pitfall could be seen in a student who learns tools/skills/pillars of NVC like:
Listening with Empathy
Self-Expression, which combines compassion (even when it’s hard to show compassion) and honesty (even when it’s scary to be honest).
These practices have huge potential to help people to connect and heal the rifts between them. Sprinkle on a little wrong/right thinking though and they become:
“Listening with empathy is RIGHT. And that means if you do something else, like giving me unrequested advice, you’re in the WRONG.”
“Speaking with compassion and honesty is RIGHT. So if you speak with only compassion or only honesty, or with neither, that’s WRONG.”
Instead of acquiring potentially powerful tools, the addition of right/wrong thinking turns them into new enemy images – new ways to judge others as wrong.
If we do this, people around us are likely to say “If that’s NVC, I want nothing to do with it!” But right/wrong thinking is not part of the NVC philosophy. Right/wrong thinking distorts NVC distinctions and practices and turns them into, well, into itself – into right/wrong thinking.
Imagine hiking through the woods for the first time, but getting rocks in your shoes, because there are little rocks all over the place, especially in the woods, and sometimes they make it into shoes. No one tells you that you can stop walking and remove the rocks, so you start to think of hiking as “That thing people do where they walk in the woods but can’t appreciate the natural beauty because of the painful rocks in their shoes.”
I’m hoping you’re thinking, “But that would not happen. I would stop and take the rocks out of my shoes. I would not wait for someone else to tell me I could!”
Now imagine learning NVC for the first time, but getting lots of bits of wrong/right thinking wedged into the NVC ideas, because there’s right/wrong thinking all over the place, and, you know, it gets into our minds like little rocks into hiking shoes. No one tells you that you can pause and remove the wrong/right thinking, so you start to think of NVC as ”That thing people do where they learn ways to connect with each other, even when there are differences and conflicts, but they don’t actually get to appreciate the power and beauty of NVC because of all the right/wrong thinking they’re doing.”
I’m recommending pausing to remove the rocks that have fallen into your hiking shoes, and I’m recommending pausing to remove the right/wrong thinking, the enemy images, that have fallen into your use of NVC distinctions, principles and skills.
Rocks in the shoes tend to make themselves known very quickly. Right/wrong thinking hidden amongst the NVC principles can be a little more tricky to find. The word “should” can be a useful one to look for. Have you concluded from your study of NVC that people “should” be speaking in observations, feelings, needs and requests, listening with empathy, speaking with compassion and honesty? Those are external overlays on the philosophy of NVC, which itself does not make use of shoulds. All of these “shoulds” can be translated into NVC thinking and speech – your shoulds about others are trying to tell you about what’s important to you, about your needs.
The word “okay” can be useful to notice too. Asking yourself or someone else “Is it okay in NVC to …” could well mean that you’re looking for the “right” way to do NVC, and to avoid the “wrong” way.
I see the practical tips and techniques of NVC as being a collection of suggestions or invitations that rest upon a certain philosophical basis that everyone’s needs matter. Since there’s no one way to connect with everyone, and no one way to convey to another person that their needs matter, there’s no one way, or “right way,” to pursue the goals of NVC. We get to try things out and see what brings us connection with a particular other person.
Asking an NVC trainer: “Is it okay to not want to empathize with the other person” could be changed to “Sometimes I don’t want to empathize with the other person, and I tell myself that this is somehow not okay, or not NVC, or not right. Could you share what you would do in that situation?” This is acknowledging that I’m thinking in terms of okay/not okay or right/wrong, but not looking for someone else to join me in that way of thinking and to tell me what is okay or not okay.
Meanwhile, we can all look around from time to time and notice whether we’re using the ancient habit of creating enemies – either human enemies or enemies in the form of certain words or communication choices.
What might be beneath the habit of creating enemies?
Do we create enemies to make our games and sports, and even our lives, more emotionally intense and engaging?
Do we create enemies whose existence seems to provide us with someone to beat, and hence helps us succeed in our goals?
Do we create enemies who give us a more defined sense of identity? Someone to whom we can say “I know who I am, I am the one who stands against you!”
Perhaps, as NVC would suggest, the creation of enemies, or of enemy images, is itself simply another strategy to meet needs. And, like so many strategies, perhaps we can find a different strategy that meets our needs, and the needs of those around us, more effectively.
Newt Bailey is the founder of the Communication Dojo workshops. His passion is sharing nonviolent communication, through workshops, videos, and other materials, in a way that is quick to integrate and put to use.
In his private practice, Newt brings his services as a trainer, coach, and mediator in corporate settings, with a focus on executive and “office hours” coaching. Newt also works privately with individuals and couples as a coach and mediator.