Nonviolent Communication: When to Use, When to Jettison

At the Exponent II retreat, one session focused on nonviolent communication. Not only did I enjoy every second of Victoria’s dynamic stage presence, but I also was very attracted to these new ideas of how to interact nonviolently with others, particularly those in positions of power.

The basic rules (what I gleaned at least) for non-violent communication are these:
-Don’t use judgmental language (e.g. stay away from words like ‘offensive’ ‘unkind’ ‘ridiculous’ etc.)
-Figure out what needs are not being met. Both your own needs, and the needs of the person you are talking to. (e.g. “It’s very important for me to be involved in my baby’s blessing. This is my need. But I understand that you as bishop need to feel like there’s order in the ward. Is there a way that we can meet both of our needs?)
-Validate the other person’s need, and truly try to connect and sympathize with the other person.
-Make a request, not a demand.
-If the person does not meet your need, don’t punish them with anger or passive aggressive action. Don’t punish in any way. Victoria also mentioned that despair work was an important part of this equation. Interacting nonviolently with those who disagree with us is one thing, but we also need a community of sympathetic like-minded people with whom to vent our pain and share our stories openly and unreservedly.

I loved this presentation. As I reflected on my own interactions with people (most notably my husband) I realized how violent my language could be. How I often used judgmental language and punished when disagreed with. Hearing this presentation made me resolve to be less violent in my speech.

But…. I was left with a burning question after the presentation. When do you use nonviolent communication, and when do you lay it on the table and tell it like it is? Because it just doesn’t seem feasible to never use the strong, evaluative (ok, judgmental) language when in disagreement. It seems to me like there could be a place – a good, true, righteous place – for truly speaking your mind, no holds barred. Quakers sometimes refer to this type of speech – particularly when it’s directed at political leaders – as “Speaking truth to power.” I love that phrase.

As a feminist Mormon woman, trying to carve out a personal space in the church where I can act authentically, I know that there will be times in my life when I will interact with Church leaders. When I will have needs that lie outside the General Handbook. Should I always use this nonviolent communication? What are its limitations? When should I instead “speak truth to power”? And should I be worried that nonviolent communication may ultimately be promoting passivity among the less powerful to some extent?

What do you think?

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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10 Responses

  1. Dora says:

    Caroline, Victoria’s presentation resonated very powerfully with me as well, and I’m glad that you’ve posted on it for further discussion here. However, as I was on the plane ot my next destination, I kept wondering what to do when only one side is trying to play by the nonviolent communication rules?

    I think it helps, when negotiating one’s needs with someone in power, to not be overly invested in having that particular need met by that person. Of course, this sounds like just another way of saying that our needs don’t matter, but let me illustrate with a concrete example.

    I posted a while ago on talking with my stake presidency about creating a mid-singles magnet ward within one of the struggling family wards in my stake. It’s just a good idea, and one that’s taken off in five other southern California stakes. However, the response I got was that the stake presidency just wasn’t interested. And I was really disappointed, because my need, to have a church community where I felt welcome, understood and needed, was not being met. And I might have seethed a little bit.

    However, in the past year, I’ve been more proactive about forming my own community of like-minded saints, in my own geographic area. And it’s been really satisfying to reach out to others who have that same need for community. Small gatherings where we can enjoy one another’s company, strengthen our faith, and share our stories. And it’s been really rewarding. And I’ve ceased to need the stake to fill that particular need.

    Then, the stake presidency had a bit of a turnaround, and asked me to organize a meeting with mid-singles in the stake to discuss …? I have no idea where they stand on the activity of mid-singles, or what they are prepared to do. And frankly, I’ve put myself beyond needing the stake presidency to do anything. However, it’s still a good idea, and I think would be beneficial to those who will continue to transition out of the YSA ward due to age. Yes, I still want it, but I no longer need the stake to take this action. and I think that’s given me the dispassionate ability to speak without judging.

    And so, for me, one of the best advantages of non-violent communication is the preparation … understanding what my needs are, and recognizing that there are many ways to satisfy them.

  2. Stephen says:

    I would suggest that you pick up a copy of Suzette Haden Elgin’s How to Turn the Other Cheek and Still Survive in Today’s World (if you are really strapped for cash, drop me an e-mail and I’ll buy a copy for you) and Terry Warner’s The Bonds That Make Us Free.

  3. Deborah says:

    This type of warm communication comes naturally to me in a work setting — and it’s highly satisfying, this ability to “see” others’ needs and defenses and build consensus (and truces) accordingly.

    But I find it MUCH harder to apply to family relationships. And I therefore listened to her presentation almost exclusively from that angle — especially the part about “not punishing.” I think I have passive-aggressive, “guilting” dynamics wired into my DNA from generations of women trying to find power in their relationships. I don’t pull these out at school. But during a fight with my dh? I’m startled by the impulse to use guilt-tripping as a weapon or defense. And look at that word — weapon. The violence of words is a much more tempting — and socially acceptable dynamic — than than violence of fists.

    I’d *really* like to root that out of me before I have kids. Advice, anyone . . . maybe that’s it’s own post.

  4. Caroline says:

    Dora, I too wondered that – can nonviolent communication accomplish anything when the other person won’t employ it? Perhaps it can give the person peace of mind that they are being so considerate in their speech, but could progess actually be made?

    I like your example of not being too invested and of instead looking to yourself to provide for your needs, rather than the church. I think I’ve spent the last few years becoming less invested in certain churchy things. It was a way to save my sanity since I think it’s not healthy to remain in a state of perpetual pain and angst.

    Stephen, I’ll have to check those out.

    Deborah, I think you’re in good company when it comes to guilt tripping your husband. I need to work on that as well.

  5. Caroline says:

    Here’s one attempt at answering my own question of when should we use nonviolent language and when should we speak our truth.

    This actually came from Jana. She suggested that it’s good to use nonviolent communication when negotiation is possible. When it is within the other person’s grasp to concede something. When negotiation is impossible, that may be the time to speak our truth openly.

    Here’s an example of a situation where it would be good to use nonviolent communication. Like I mentioned above, take the baby blessing situation. The obvious compromise would be for me to hold the blessing in my own home and do it my way. The bishop’s need for order in the ward is met since this does not take place within the ward, and my need to be involved is also met.

    But what about this situation? A woman thinks women should have the priesthood. She wants the priesthood. But it’s not within her bishop’s power to grant that one. So nonviolent communication about this will get her nowhere. This may be a situation where a person would feel strongly enough to speak truth to power. To use the strong language when she writes or talks about the issue.

    • I think the power of nonviolent communication is that it helps people reach a place of shared values and empathy for the other. A lot of disagreements and associated drama are fueled by each person getting hurt, angry, and not feeling understood. So nonviolent communication tries to address those specific issues that get in the way. It doesn’t guarantee a good resolution, but it tries to remove those initial stumbling blocks or barriers. This is extremely important!

      Overall non-violence, however, can be much more confrontational. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote eloquently about how nonviolence actually increases confrontation and conflict in the short run because it shines light on moral issues and also removes the convenient dehumanizing excuse that allows so many to ignore the moral issues. For example, if the Civil Rights movement were violent, that violence would – for many people – justify the hatred, fear, and stigmas that racists feel toward blacks. So MLK Jr was being a “trouble maker” by bringing attention to racism and oppression, but by being nonviolent, he and the movement could not so easily be dismissed. It become clear to the public that they were working for good – were on the side of good – because they generally refused to return hatred for hatred and violence for violence.

      In his letter from the Birmingham Jail, all sorts of leaders – both white and black – asked him, pleaded with him to stop his work and his nonviolent protest because it was inflaming the controversy – making it more intense and pressing. I think it inflames it because it makes hatred and racism all the more transparent, and people can hide behind their excuses for being racist and hating less, and so that makes them more angry and feel more attacked.

      So I think Jana is exactly right. NVC works well when there is a common ground to find, when the root of the conflict is not an extreme injustice. But when there is an extreme injustice, NVC might not work.

      I’m an Anabaptist Christian, a small Christian denomination that places a high value on making sure we implement Jesus’ teaching and example in our religion (otherwise it’s not really Christian, right? But people pretend to be Christian while not following Christ all the time, for example. There are lots of parables about this.) So in my denomination, we are having huge controversies over LGBT inclusion and also aspects of women’s equality. I think NVC can contribute and help in interacting with leaders who are potentially open to LGBT inclusion and full recognition of the value and equality of women – people who are open spiritually but have been led astray by our dominant history of oppressing women, etc. But, it’s also clear that many leaders have entrenched views. A nonviolent but pro-active response to this for change would upset the status quo and create all sorts of drama.

      An example could be how the original Anabaptists chose to re-baptize their members in defiance of the state church. There are some good arguments against infant baptism generally (i.e. isn’t baptism an actual choice to follow a path once a person is old enough to understand the path well?) but back during the Reformation the church and infant baptism were used as support for the state. Once baptized, the state knew it would get tax and money from you through the church, basically. So people rejected the first baptism and re-baptized each other (the meaning of Anabaptist: Ana = “again”). It may be hard to imagine today, but this re-baptism was an all-out sign of defection from the traditional church, its institutions, and its faults. People saw the way of Jesus as being non-violent, as not being tied to the state (princes and power, etc.) and not enforcing uniform religious belief based on states (princes would require everyone to be protestant, for example. A neighboring prince would require everyone to be Catholic.).

      So today, in my denomination, a nonviolent but extremely confrontational approach could be to again bring back this re-baptism. If people in my denomination basically said their first baptism is meaningless because the Church judges and treats LGBT and women as inferiors, and created a new baptism explicitly recognizing that following Jesus means recognizing the full spiritual depth of LGBT people and women, you could see that this would be revolutionary in a sense.

      It all comes down to how strongly you believe that something your church is doing is wrong, and what you are willing to risk to address it. It’s such a tough call because in my view, Jesus says that we will be persecuted the most by people within our *own* group for actually following him/God, and he always is most upset at the people who are hypocritical in claiming God as their justification for their actions, while he is supportive of people who are branded “sinners” and outcasts. Jesus says to take up our cross and follow him, and that people who are committed to righteousness will be persecuted.

      It’s so hard to know whether to work for small, incremental change within our church systems or whether we are being called to take bigger risks. Both can be seen as taking up our cross…

      Anyway, this was long but I got all passionate about this topic so I hope you don’t mind!

  6. Sarah Taber says:

    Once upon a time, ie right now, I found myself in a really tough situation at work. This is a situation still in progress so there’s no happy ending per se, but an improved middle will do for now. : )

    It’s at a hospital diagnostics lab, so there’s a little bit of pressure to get results out accurately and quickly. (Read: “If you screw up we’ll get our butts sued off! And HURRY!!”) The way hiring worked I had two weeks with my trainer to learn everything before she left- nobody else in the lab knew how to do her stuff. Bless her heart, she spent the two weeks stressing and berating rather than teaching, with a little bit of telling everyone else in the lab that I’m lazy and stupid so that when I screwed up nobody would think it might have anything to do with training.

    Perhaps one of the keys to deciding when to speak forcefully is… let’s be honest… whether or not you’re going to have to live with the relationship results. I have to work with these girls for at least a year, and I figured that since their reasons for disliking me were mostly made-up, there was a real chance for improvement if I didn’t screw up and give them real reasons to do so (like getting attitudinal back at them).

    Therefore, this is not a situation where you want to be obnoxious back. Oh wait! I did want to. And did a couple times, and it only made things worse. It’s making for a tremendous challenge because I’m a really blunt person and am usually more than happy to let the chips fall where they may, only I can just tell that that won’t work this time. I’ve been getting a lot of blessings from my husband and talking over it with him as well. I really need to keep having God tell me that yes, it really is important not to swear right back. : )

    One day, a Revelation hit. Things are softening up mostly, and one day a coworker calmly corrected something I’d done in a nice, normal “Oh, do it this way” fashion. And at the same time it still came out kind of mean, even though you could tell she was trying not to be mean. “Oh the poor thing!” I realized, “She just doesn’t know how to not be a jerk.” One of the blessings said “Your job is not to change this by revolution, but by evolution,” and it finally made sense. I thought it just meant slow change, which I didn’t want to deal with.

    I would get all worked up and think “No! You just can’t treat people like that,” which is true. But realistically, how is that change going to happen? First they have to know that you don’t *have* to treat people like that- they had to see that there *was* another way to do things before they could choose it, and they honestly didn’t know. And I guess that’s where I’m supposed to step up to the bat and be civil. Call it kooky but I honestly believe that I ended up there so everybody could learn some healthy conflict resolution skills, myself included.

    So, there you have it. The Holy Ghost can give you more insight into how to react to a situation than you can have with your own emotions. And get a blessing if you want one (even more than one blessing for the same thing! Sometimes you will need the reassurance that you’re on the right track). Ask yourself “Will I have to live with this person getting angry?” Because if you sass ’em, they probably will. And maybe that’s another reason the Quakers saved it for politicians. : )

  7. Caroline says:

    Sarah, thanks for sharing your story!

  8. Eric Russell says:

    Caroline, there are some really great ideas here, but it is slightly off the mark. The key is not in our communication, but in our being. If, in our hearts, we are angry and desire to somehow “punish” others for what we perceive as injustices, our language is going to “violent” no matter our tone and no matter word choice. People will see through false cordiality. On the flip side, if our hearts are broken and our spirits contrite, we can speak boldly and truthfully without it being “violent communication.” Thus, in reality, there is no contradiction between “nonviolent communication” and speaking “truth to power.” Jesus did both, simultaneously even, all the time.

    “If the person does not meet your need, don’t punish them with anger or passive aggressive action. Don’t punish in any way.”

    Of all the good descriptions, this one is particularly good because it is unconditionally true. There is no way to act as such when our hearts are in the right place. If we ever act this way, it is an immediate red flag – and what that flag should tell us is not that we need to change our language, but that we need to change our hearts.

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