What is NVC for?
Although I’ve studied, practiced, and taught NVC for years, lately I’ve been revisiting a basic question: What is NVC for?
One possible answer is that NVC is for more effectively inspiring people to do what we want them to. Before you object (and I hope you do), please note that I said “inspiring”, not “coercing”. Our prevalent domination-oriented culture teaches us to coerce others into doing what we want by holding up standards of behavior and morality, sometimes revealed in words like “should”, “responsibility”, “right”, and “rights”. In contrast, NVC teaches us to inspire others by revealing our feelings and needs and then enable others to help us by expressing objective observations and making positive, specific and doable requests. To use a popular example, you might be tempted to say “You lazy slob; pick up your own socks; what do you think I am – your slave?” With OFNR under your belt, if you’re focused on getting people to do what you want, you might craft something like the following:
- When I see your socks on the floor at 2pm for the 97th time this year (according to my detailed records),
- I feel irritated, disgusted, and stressed out,
- because my needs for order, consideration, and cooperation are not met.
- Would you be willing to put your socks in the laundry within the next 30 seconds and swear to me on your grandmother’s grave that you will never leave your socks on the floor again?
And maybe you’d be wondering why people who hear this sort of NVC-speak still aren’t (joyfully) inspired to help you.
Or maybe you’ve gone deeper with NVC and are in the process of voluntarily surrendering the goal of getting people to do what you want – I hope without giving up on your well-being. I prefer this second game to the first one, as I like the spiritual depth and empowerment of this shift rather than improving my skill at getting others to do what I want. (I’m glad I’m not alone in this preference. “To practice NVC, we must completely abandon the goal of getting other people to do what we want.” – Marshall Rosenberg) When I’m trying to win the first game, I’m still a sucker for the whims and chosen focus of other people. Ultimately, they get to decide what they do, and I want to be okay with whatever they decide. I want to live in a wide-open space of possibilities for surviving and thriving in my life. I also want to genuinely enjoy another person’s “no”, as an invitation for me to widen my awareness of and deepen my connection to that person’s perspective and well-being. It’s not that I’m willing to compromise my own well-being in the process. Rather, I intend to keep broadening my own options for self-care. I also intend to keep expanding my notion of my “self” from the cultural norm of an individual person separate from other people and separate from the organic world from which this individual self has temporarily emerged.
So, what is NVC for? In this post, I want to suggest to you an odd idea: NVC is for getting beyond NVC.
A linguistic antidote
Marshall Rosenberg shaped (and evolved!) NVC based on his realizations about how the language patterns of our culture lead us away from self-knowledge and compassion for each other. Through many generations (across perhaps 8,000 years) of pervasive influence, the language we grew up hearing and then speaking has shaped not only the beliefs we hold, but even the questions we ask and the pool of answers from which we choose. (“The answers you get depend upon the questions you ask.” – Thomas Kuhn)
The classic NVC language (a fill-in-the-blanks “OFNR” formula of observations, feelings, needs, and requests, as above) sounds artificial to many people, and indeed it is artificial, in the sense that it’s a deliberately constructed form. What’s harder to see–unless you’ve practiced alternatives–is that the mainstream form of communication we hear around us is also built on formulas and is also a construction. For instance, there are the formulas/patterns for reinforcing externalized standards of behavior, which we haul out in order to pressure others to behave as we want them to. (“It’s the least you could do after all I’ve given you.” “It’s your responsibility.” “That was impolite.”) Learning a second language enables us to see the one we previously took for granted. Since the first language acts to oppress us and leads us to disconnection from ourselves and others, it’s vitally important that we become aware of that language, so that we can make conscious choices.
As I understand it, Marshall Rosenberg’s intention for NVC was that it serve as an antidote to the domination-oriented language of our culture. When it’s working well, NVC can help us notice our subtle and pervasive cultural programming–a sort of counter-brainwashing–and make choices more in keeping with our personal values. This intention raises a few questions in my mind:
- How can I tell when this particular antidote is working well and when poorly in myself, and how can I help my students make this evaluation for themselves? Several of the posts in this blog are about how to get unfooled in one’s NVC practice.
- How can we shift our practice to make it more effective?
- How can we evolve NVC so that it is more effective for all or some of its practitioners?
- What practices besides NVC work for the same purposes?
These four questions all relate to the goal of deprogramming, i.e., neutralizing the effects of cultural conditioning. Many of the posts in this blog relate to these questions.
A bigger question, however, remains: do we want to stop at undoing our linguistic programming? For me, the answer is “No”. I want to go further. Moreover, as I described earlier, I had the great fortune of having parents who clued me into conscious relationships and use of language.
Which brings me back to my answer to the question of what NVC is for.
NVC is for getting beyond NVC.
Although most of Marshall’s teachings are about how to practice NVC, he sometimes discusses NVC’s “spiritual” foundations and motivations. Below is a passage in which Marshall describes what NVC is for:
It’s very easy to think that Nonviolent Communication is the goal.
I’ve altered a Buddhist parable that relates to this question. Imagine a beautiful, whole, and sacred place. And imagine that you could really know God when you are in that place. But let’s say that there is a river between you and that place and you’d like to get to that place but you’ve got to get over this river to do it. So you get a raft, and this raft is a real handy tool to get you over the river. Once you’re across the river you can walk the rest of the several miles to this beautiful place. But the Buddhist parable ends by saying that, “One is a fool who continues on to the sacred place carrying the raft on their back.”
Nonviolent Communication is a tool to get me over my cultural training so I can get to the place. It’s not the place. If we get addicted to the raft, attached to the raft, it makes it harder to get to the place. People just learning the process of Nonviolent Communication can forget all about the place. If they get too locked into the raft, the process becomes mechanical.
Nonviolent Communication is one of the most powerful tools that I’ve found for connecting with people in a way that helps me get to the place where we are connected to the Divine, where what we do toward one another comes out of Divine Energy. That’s the place I want to get to.
As I understand this passage, Marshall is saying that (a) NVC is merely a means to an end, and (b) at some point in our development, NVC becomes an obstacle, hindering the continued development that NVC was meant to begin. (“Nonviolent Communication is a tool to get me over my cultural training so I can get to the place. It’s not the place. If we get addicted to the raft, attached to the raft, it makes it harder to get to the place.”) Consider that when you attended third grade, your goal was to learn and progress out of third grade. You did not spend year after year getting better at the third grade curriculum. In the same way, the NVC language has a limited purpose: it is just a language-focused stepping stone–useful to some–for counteracting some of the harmful language-infused effects of our culture. Once the purpose is accomplished, we’re ready to leave it behind. As in the parable, hanging onto the raft (including OFNR) retards our further progress.
What is beyond NVC?
If NVC is a collection of techniques for language and communication, what is beyond NVC? Or, in the framework of the Buddhist story above, what is the sacred place (as opposed to the raft)? I see many hints within Marshall’s teachings, but confusingly, these hints are sprinkled among a raft of communication techniques, and so are easily missed or ignored.
Others have written more directly about this sacred place that is beyond NVC, especially spiritual/mystical writers. My favorites include Eckhart Tolle, Alan Watts, and Joel Goldsmith, as well as the Sufi poets Rumi and Hafiz. Eckhart Tolle uses the term “Presence”, which I like very much.
Describing this sacred place in a blog post raises difficulty for me. I know the experience of Presence, and I love dialog with others who’ve experienced it. When I try to define it via written monologue, words elude me.