October 30th, 2012

Presentation vs transformation

Although I see some value in communication techniques such as NVC’s four steps, I also have serious concerns about hazards of teaching and studying such techniques, including the loss of accurate feedback crucial to achieving the transformation that NVC was intended to support. In this blog post, I’ll try to shine light on these hazards and suggest directions for NVC’s evolution. I’ll also share some of my own background, to give you some sense of how I came to see NVC as a beautiful work-in-progress and what motivates me to want to encourage it in the directions described in this blog.

Early inspirations

In late 2002, I encountered Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC), and since early 2005, I’ve led NVC workshops and practice groups and have coached individuals and couples. When I found NVC, I was thrilled, because it fit so well with the way I looked at life and relationships. For instance, I already recognized that most “feeling” words used in popular communication are not feelings at all, but fantasy projections.

I primarily thank my parents for my perspective on and interest in intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships. When I was 11 years old, the second youngest of six children, my parents began a long series of family meetings, once per week after dinner. Together, we read aloud from one book after another about what goes on inside of relationships, and applied the principles we learned in order to work through our own challenges with each other–especially the chronic strife between me and my two older sisters. (The books I remember reading together are “The Mark of Cain: an Anatomy of Jealousy”, “TA (Transactional Analysis) for Families”, “I’m Okay, You’re Okay”, “Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am?”, “Games People Play”, “Hope for the Flowers”, and “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”.)

I did not appreciate until much later how unusual it was to be brought up to look deeply within myself and within relationships. As an adult, I rarely found others who shared my outlook, though I found indifference and opposition. Finding NVC, first in Kelly Bryson’s “Don’t Be Nice, Be Real” and then Marshall’s “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life”, was a tremendously exciting discovery for me. Here was someone else who knew what I knew and had researched, articulated, and applied the insights in very challenging situations! I noticed Marshall’s communication suggestions (OFNR, etc) of course, but what really grabbed me was the underlying philosophy and inner path–a sort of detox program to counteract culturally inherited thought patterns that disempower us and create separation. How great it would be to connect with a community of others on this path!

Doubts and disappointments

After a couple of years, however, I had become disenchanted with much of what I witnessed in the teaching and practice of NVC. What I increasingly noticed from teachers other than Marshall was a focus on NVC as a set of communication techniques and tools, e.g., the OFNR formula (observations, feelings, needs, requests) and advice to study and use feelings and “needs” lists. I’ve always seen those external “process” details as inessential and dispensible, and my sense has been that Marshall offered them only as training wheels to help people shift out of some cultural habits, to then be cut loose as people begin to recognize and then release habits of coercive thinking and relating. See the Marshall quote in Missions, cats and rafts. (I also became discouraged with the focus I saw on perpetuating a particular stage of development of Marshall’s principles and practice of NVC, expressed for instance as the goal to “Ensure that the next generation and succeeding generations are taught NVC in a way that preserves and protects the integrity of the NVC process.” I saw the potency of NVC as having come from a long evolution of Marshall’s understanding, and so of course I want to participate in its continued evolution, not to preserve and protect something static.)

I’ve wondered for quite a while now whether it’s a good idea to offer these training wheels even to NVC beginners. These days, I lean toward seeing these training wheels as an unfortunate choice. I still love NVC as an inner path, but I don’t ever recommend teaching or practicing NVC as communication method, i.e., as way to talk with other people. In this blog post, I’ll suggest how the popular “outside in” (communication-focused) approach to NVC interferes with what I understand to be the goals of NVC, and I suggest instead that NVC be practiced only “from the inside out”.

Suppressing symptoms

I usually see NVC taught as a way to communicate, with a subtext of personal transformation. I’m sympathetic with the idea of communication techniques, as much of the communication I hear inspires my hair to stand on end! I wonder, however: are the fundamental problems here really communication problems, and so can they really be solved by addressing communication? Maybe instead communication is a symptom. As with physical health issues, addressing symptoms can bring some welcome temporary relief but are unlikely to resolve the underlying issues. For sustainable well-being, I have to go deeper to the internal sources of the external symptoms.

As with physical health, I worry that the standard approach to teaching NVC (focusing on the symptoms of external communication habits) sometimes does considerable harm exactly because it suppresses symptoms. Those symptoms serve a valuable purpose of alerting me to my internal state, directing my attention inward. If I suppress outward symptoms, I’ve lost information that is vitally important to my well-being. (Imagine taking a cough suppressant for tuberculosis.) I get an illusion of health, which is comforting but makes it more difficult for me to navigate toward genuine health. (I squirm when I hear the NVC-ers say “that meets my need for reassurance”. While reassurance is comforting, I prefer reality.)

Confusing cause and effect?

Like other outer forms, NVC’s forms are more concrete and measurable than the inner development they were intended to support, and so provide more immediate gratification.

I wonder whether there is a tempting fallacy of cause-and-effect at work here. Suppose you watch and listen to someone who appears to have found inner peace and whose interactions with others appear to be more intimate and less wrought with pain and confusion than yours. Imagine that this person can connect with others who are hurting and angry, while keeping an open heart to those people’s pain and confusion without getting dragged in, i.e., while maintaining a deep inner anchor. Suppose also that you notice some odd aspects of the way this peaceful person communicates. It’s easy to assume that these outer differences are responsible for the inner peace, and if only you could imitate and master these new outward forms of acting and relating, then you could develop the same inner peace and strength. Not only is it easy to assume; it’s also appealing. We’ve been through schooling and other learning experiences, and we know that we can memorize new information and master new skills if we apply ourselves.

There is, however, another possibility: instead of the outer skills and techniques bringing about peace & strength, they might instead be just one person’s outward symptoms of an internal transformation. They’re not at peace because they talk oddly. Rather, they talk oddly because they’re at peace.

Thought streams

From another angle, I want to suggest that peace and turmoil flow from how we engage the thought-streams within ourselves. Those thought-streams include what we think about ourselves and about others, including the reactive thoughts that arise when hearing and seeing others. For instance, if someone calls me “inconsiderate”, I might notice a proliferation of thoughts within in me, such as “I’m a selfish jerk”, “She has no business judging me”, “Maybe I am too self-absorbed”, and “She thinks she’s the center of the universe”. As long as I’m grappling with such thoughts and their emotional impact on me, there’s not much I can do in an outward communication that is both connecting and authentic. I can admit that I’m too distracted with these thoughts to engage with the other person. (In contrast, I could easily engage with their thoughts or with my thoughts about their thoughts.) I can also investigate my thoughts and the tender places they touch, either on my own or with a supportive and centered friend. On rare occasions, I might even ask help from the person whose (real or imagined) thoughts I’m reacting to, but this choice relies on ninja-level skills in one or both of us.

Losing valuable information

Focusing on the outer forms is not only insufficient and unnecessary, it can also be harmful. First, it’s a distraction: it’s easy to get distracted by this outer form and allow it to siphon energy away from internal transformation. When practicing NVC “from the outside in” (focusing on communication), we can also lose access to valuable information about our inner states and cultivate distrust from others.

As I mentioned above, working on changing outside behavior–especially in our use of language–destroys a very useful benefit of speaking in a less deliberately sculpted way. When we are not struggling to filter and shape our outward behavior, that behavior can accurately reveal our inner state. Such transparency leads to well-founded trust from others. Moreover, it is vital feedback about how we’re progressing internally. Worse, we rob ourselves of a formerly dependable means of seeing where we are and whether we’re getting closer or further from the inner peace and strength that we seek.

Cultivating distrust

When we force our outer behavior out of sync with our inner state, others will pick up on the incongruity, either consciously or unconsciously. Sometimes people get annoyed at hearing NVC-Speak, and I suspect that this annoyance often has a large component of distrust. Maybe also discouragement at the prospect of having an additional layer of presentation to work through before finding a genuine connection.

In 2004, I attended a nine-day, residential “international intensive training” (IIT) in NVC. In an opening session, Marshall Rosenberg asked the roughly 70 attendees what they wanted to get out of the time together. More than half of them answer some variation of “fluency in the language of NVC”. Given my experiences with many teachers and students of NVC, that memory has troubled me ever since. Without a dependable foundation for sorting through our own thoughts and distinguishing truer from less true ones, I worry that fluency leads to misdirected confidence, removing motivation to look deeper. I worry that communication technique proficiency addresses presentation more than transformation.

What about communication?

While I love the principles underlying NVC, I don’t recommend it as a way to talk with others. You might be wondering then what I do recommend. Simply don’t talk with each other? Or go on talking the ways we used to?

Once our inner landscape is sorted out, and we’ve come to more clarity and expansiveness about what’s true and what matters inside ourselves, we will naturally (not artifically) speak differently. Why? Because when we drop formulas, our words tend to reveal the truth of what we’re thinking.

There are some general communication skills that help in most situations whether we’re after on heart connection or less personal goals. For instance, try to find out what the other person heard what you intended to convey. Ambiguity and unconscious assumptions can be difficult to notice without checking. Similarly, check whether what you understood was what the other person intended to convey. (As George Bernard Shaw quipped, “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred.”) How often to make these inquiries? It depends on how accurately you and the other person tend to understand each other. You may have to perform some experiments to get a sense of this accuracy level. It also depends on how important the understanding is to you.

Another suggestion: since NVC does have its own jargon, practice not using it. Jargon can help make our expressions more efficient, but it can also make us think we understand something that we don’t. If you cannot find a way to say what you want without using NVC jargon, then you may not get it as well as you believe you do.


4 Responses to “Presentation vs transformation”

  1. Jon Kent Says:

    This is very helpful to me. It mirrors my own thinking and helps clarify why I’ve pulled back substantially on my NVC teaching. It has also clarified my conflict resolution work.

  2. Hagit Lifshitz Says:

    I enjoyed reading this! Like what I consider to be courageous and inspiring. Thank you.

  3. Joe Mitchell Says:

    Dear Conal,

    I read your piece when it came out on th 30th of October and I thought it was brilliant. I appreciate it so much but I didn’t have time to reply. So I just want to say right now that I appreciate your clarity around “NVC from the inside”.

    Has there been only one reply – Jon Kent? I can’t believe he’s the only one who has responded.
    Is that right? Please let me know.

    I have much more to say in appreciation, but I need to go to bed – my body is saying: “sleep”.

    Lots of love to you,


  4. Chris Says:

    Yes. So eloquently worded. I mean. It meets my need for… BLA ;)
    Thank you.

    I was surfing the net to find if others had thought about this.
    NVC is very popular right now and I see it often being (ab)used to ‘cover up’ toxic behavior.
    So I love reading your clear analysis.

    I too am familiar with communication from a young age but in a different way. I’m also a psychologist, familiar with TA and NVC.

    I am so impressed of what your parents did, reading books together on communication. I’ll implement that in my family too.

    Thank you for sharing!

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