There is a subtle layer of violence tucked away in everyday conversations. Here’s some advice on how to communicate non-violently.
One Saturday evening my 14-year-old daughter had promised up and down she’d be home by midnight. At 1.30 a.m. she still wasn’t home. An unreasonably composed policeman told me over the phone that I should calmly wait. I didn’t hear the front door open until 2 o’clock.
I like to see myself as a reasonable person. But I must acknowledge there is a blood-thirsty, sharp-tongued monster living inside me that suddenly came alive that night. “Bitch! You won’t set foot out the door for the rest of the month!” I spat out at my daughter. And that was one of the least painful of the accusations I threw at her. She felt insulted and began defending herself (despite the fact that she had no defense!) when all she really had to say, very softly, was, “Sorry, Mom.” But she didn’t.
In my better moments I think how much I hate violence. But that growling monster inside me surfaces more often than I’d like. It doesn’t always emerge with such drama and emotion; it is often disguised and pops up in everyday discussions with my partner, children, colleagues and friends. It’s in the little, casual things I say:
“What, you haven’t done the shopping yet?”
“You should have known better.”
Indeed, even when emotions don’t run amok, we—you too, I suspect—communicate with violence. We don’t do it on purpose, and we have an arsenal of excuses for it: you shouldn’t let people walk all over you; sometimes you have to stick up for yourself; you don’t have to take it anymore. Right?
Things can be different. We can practice using “non-violent communication,” a technique to avoid verbal violence developed by the American psychotherapist Marshall Rosenberg. “When I hear what people say to each other, it often couldn’t be clearer that violence will come out of it,” Rosenberg says. In his practice he works amongst others with murderers and rapists and with victims of sexual violence and attacks, armed only with the simple principles of non-violent communication.
If his technique works under such extreme circumstances with violent offenders and their victims, it will surely work in our own lives: at work, in the neighbourhood meetings, in intimate relationships.
“Violence starts with the premise that there is such a thing as ‘justice,’” says Rosenberg, who has taught his technique to over 200 trainers in 30 countries on five continents. “We live in a culture in which the myth of the good guys against the bad guys is key. If there are good guys, we apparently have the right to punish the bad guys. If you believe in a concept of justice—based on good and evil, whereby people deserve to suffer for what they’ve done—then violence feels very satisfying.”
Which is not to say you should never judge. Rosenberg advises, “Judge matters that support life—which foods are good for you, what you need to fulfill your desires and needs—but don’t judge based on an idea about good and evil. Try to connect with the fundamental motivation of you and your discussion partner.”
You may not be able to relate to the extreme cases Marshall Rosenberg works with, but in our everyday language there are countless signs of “violent” communication. In every meeting and during every family gathering we dance around a number of those pitfalls: the diagnosis (“It won’t work if you do it that way”), the denial of responsibility (“Those are the rules”) or the justified thoughts (“That’s what you get”). All these principles keep us from connecting with our discussion partner and from empathic listening. They keep us from communicating in a non-violent way.
Using Rosenberg’s four-step plan you can avoid a lot of fights, misunderstandings and hurt feelings. You can apply it in a variety of situations, from the choice of a vacation destination to the question of who will do the dishes. These four steps make it possible to listen empathically and make a connection:
Step 1. Observe
What is really going on? Observe the situation and don’t judge it. My daughter came home two hours later than we had agreed. If I am stubbornly focused on her being “late,” I’m already passing judgment, which interferes with a clear observation.
Step 2. Feel
Emotions present themselves, often in combination: anger over my daughter’s lack of understanding for her mother, who was so worried, along with relief that she is finally home and a stirring of residual fear that something really did happen to her. Saying all you feel may be uncomfortable and it might make you vulnerable. And yet that feeling is the most personal one we have, and hence the most universal and recognizable. Remember that a thought (like “She’s doing it to defy me!”) is not a feeling.
Step 3. Need
Make contact with your true need. I needed to know that my daughter was safe, or at least to know where she was. Before you can discover such a need, it will help to know that your strong emotions are recognized and heard by the other person. I needed my daughter to see how incredibly worried I was before I could listen to her explanation. But if I asked her why, in fact, she didn’t come home earlier, I must be prepared to hear and understand her answer. “It was so much fun! We kissed and he said I have beautiful eyes!” Aha, that explains why she came home later than we’d agreed.
Step 4. Request
If during the first two steps, you already say “sorry”—“I’m sorry, I won’t do it again”—you’re in danger of glossing over your feelings. It will then be difficult to discover your true need, which is hidden behind those feelings. Rosenberg warns against well-meaning social workers who advise forgiving the offender. Saying you’re sorry too fast—as well as quickly accepting excuses and forgiving—is easier and more superficial than connecting with the impact you’ve had on the other person and truly feeling your own emotions at a deeper level. Only when there is empathy on both sides can there be spontaneous mutual concern for one another. At that point, the injured party’s request for help in healing his or her wounds may be met. Then, without demanding, both parties can explore strategies that can lead to healing.
Once I’ve gone through these four steps I will in future be able to say to my daughter: “Will you please call me between kisses and let me know that you’re still very much alive and safe, but that you’ll be home a little later?”