‘Non Violent Communication’ has its merits, but be wary of the ‘right way’ to verbally communicate.

 In Conflict management training

A large part of the trainings I offer in conflict prevention, management and resolution focus on improving communication skills, so that we can minimize escalation, and strengthen trust and understanding in our relationships for the long term. This doesn’t just mean focusing on verbal communication but looking at non verbal communication and self awareness, as well.

This is because being good or even really good at verbal communication is not enough. Most of the cues people receive from us when we speak are physical (and energetic, in my opinion). If we are people who can see, then we are constantly looking for and receiving cues from a person’s physical expressions and body language. People who are emotionally hypersensitive will pick up on physical energy and cues even more so. If we’re someone who is hard of hearing or Deaf, then physical and energetic cues become even more important.

We can’t really become better at ‘speaking’ with our physical selves if we don’t have critical self  and emotional awareness skills. This means being able to read the room or notice how our behaviour may be coming off to others. It also means being aware of what’s happening for us emotionally, as well as what may be going on for someone else (even if we can’t exactly name what it is, that’s not always the point). This is partially ‘intuition’ but it’s also very much a skill that people can and should learn. And it’s not surprising that the people who are used to doing a lot of emotional and invisible labour (women, feminine, and feminized people) are pretty good at these skills considering they are expected to take care of the emotional and physical well-being of those around them.

So what type of verbal communication do I focus on in my trainings? I talk about expanding our emotional vocabularies, learning to notice our own judgements, being aware of cultural differences in expression, speaking our stories without shaming, setting clear boundaries and detailed agreements, and this is just a few of the Escalation Minimizing Language skills my groups learn and practice.

At my trainings, I often get asked about my opinion on Non Violent Communication (NVC), the communication process developed by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960’s. I have a strong critique of NVC but I do list it as a resource in my toolkit on my website because I  think it can be a useful tool in certain relationships and instances. I think NVC can be used but never solely on its own without non verbal communication and self/emotional awareness. This is because focusing only on language and syntax puts many at a direct disadvantage. Can you think of who those folks might be off the top of your head?

I live in Montreal, Quebec where the official language is French. My French skills are beginner at best, as someone who moved from Ontario where the official language is English. There is no way I’d be able to use NVC in French because I literally do not have the vocabulary and grammatical knowledge that would allow me to express my feelings, needs and wants like how I could in English. Anyone without a certain level of language competency would have a hard time using NVC. What about people who are non-verbal? NVC wasn’t made with those folks in mind. Additionally, language changes depending on the communities and cultures you are a part of. That means you need to adapt your language expectations depending who you’re speaking to and prepare for miscommunications. If verbal communication is the only tool you have in your toolkit, I can assure you, you will find yourself in a bind from time to time!

Escalation Minimizing Language and Behaviour takes into account that we all have different stories and come from different backgrounds, which means we express things a number of different ways and that we’re not all starting from the same place educationally, economically, cognitively, etc, and we need to respect that. If we only want to communicate OUR way, we will end up in either a lot of unresolved conflicts or in a lot of relationships with unhealthy power dynamics.

All this to say, people with patterns of problematic or unhelpful communication shouldn’t forever receive a free pass nor should you put up with behaviours that harm you, or be the only one to ever adapt. It’s all contextual and depends on the commitment to the relationship and the power dynamics involved. NVC doesn’t really focus on this. Again, having NVC communication tools, but neither a self awareness or just a general awareness of how an individual’s background, environment and positionality create the context for how they might behave is creating grounds for harmful and uneven dynamics of power. In the article “Nonviolent Communication is for the Privileged”, Raffi Marhaba writes “It gives the oppressor the tools to appear more loving, kind, and thus morally superior, while not having to do any work on the actions that precedes language.” Language without action is not enough. Our de-escalation and resolution skills need to be able to look at what causes harmful actions and behaviours in the first place, and find ways to address them and break them down. This is where things like action plans, agreements, boundary setting and goal setting come in. Escalation Minimizing Language and Behaviour teaches the importance of a commitment to follow through using the above mentioned tools, but is by far not the first or only approach that does this.

While I think that NVC has some very useful examples on how to build our emotional vocabulary and do some looking inward emotional assessments,  I think my biggest issue is simply that it puts too much emphasis and pressure on the individual to say the right thing. And that if you say the wrong thing, well then you pretty much are getting the reaction you deserve. There are so many instances and reasons why someone who is upset might not be able to muster up the perfect explanation or be able to tell the difference between a feeling and not a feeling. Looking for what people are not saying is just as important. Sensing and feeling for what’s in the silence is just as important.

As someone with PTSD and chronic depression and anxiety, often, if I’m triggered or having an intense shameover (intense feelings of shame after a vulnerable experience), I lose my ability to speak completely. My partner and I have had to learn to communicate non verbally when that happens. We’ve come up with hand signals and looks to give one another in order to communicate needs. We write and pass notes to one another. Non verbal communication in that sense has become really important for us. Additionally, my partner is also neurodivergent; her disability causes her to process things slower than me. So I’ve had to learn to be patient and she’s had to learn that she can’t control my feelings when and if she upsets me, intentionally or not. If either of us expected perfect communication from each other all the time, we’d have never made it this far. There’s a good article by Ferrett Steinmetz that talks about the dangers of requiring ‘perfect’ communication in moments of stress, hurt, grief or conflict that I’ve added to the bottom of this article for reference.

So all in all, I think if you want to read Marshall Rosenberg’s NVC then go for it. I don’t think it’s a waste of time. Just know that you need to apply a critical lens to it and don’t think that everything he says will work for everyone or every situation (like it claims) because I don’t think that’s true. I’ve also attached the article on ‘NVC is for the Privileged’ if you want to get another perspective on the matter. I’d maybe read those articles first before opening up Non Violent Communication.

Thanks for reading!

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