Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication
dungeon keys & chicken-fights
“‘You’d probably love to have a second grandchild…’”
You are, unfortunately, trapped in a dungeon. But at least you’re in good company. Hundreds of prisoners are milling around the dank space, and many of them, you’re pleased and surprised to discover, are brilliant.
One woman (she gives lectures each night in an echoey corner) thinks you should study the dungeon’s architecture, which she, as a historian, can tell you dates back to 13th century Wales. And this man thinks that what you really need to understand is the psychology of the jailers, the humiliation they’re seeking to erase. And this new woman wants you to join her in studying the moss on the southern walls, how it has adapted to such low light, how it anchors to to the stone. These experts explain themselves beautifully; they give each other certificates, they hold conferences on the nights when the food is flung in.
And so you stumble about for years, becoming a haphazard sort of dungeon polymath. You can’t quite hold all your learning in your head at once — you aren’t firing on all mental cylinders, you feel— and you occasionally have the impression, late at night, that there’s some much more basic thing about the dungeon that you were once hoping to learn. But you can no longer remember what it was, and anyway you’re so very tired, and there’s a lecture on dungeon-stone geology tomorrow.
But the next morning, as you’re tidying up your dirt-patch, you notice a prisoner humming to himself. He has gray hair, a hemp bracelet, and he looks unaccountably — almost idiotically — happy. He’s scraping the walls with something (is he carving a peace sign?), mumbling something about a rainbow, and you are, all of a sudden, furious.
Do you not realize what geniuses you’re among? Do you not understand the seriousness of our predicament? Where do you get off, making these juvenile doodles, when —
He turns to listen and you catch sight of the object in his hand. It’s a key. He smiles kindly, ignoring your vituperation, and gestures for you to follow him over to the great iron door. He inserts the key, eases the door open, and there it is: the world.
Why haven’t you released everyone?, you stammer.
Oh, I’ve tried!, he says. They’re too busy with their studies.
But you should make an announcement! You need to tell them!
Well, he says. Now that you mention it, I have been working on a little ditty that I was hoping might get their attention. It’s ninety minutes long, and it’s on the pan-flute. Would you like to hear it?
Um, you say.
This is the dilemma of Marshall Rosenberg. He offers, with Nonviolent Communication — his book, his program, his system — life-altering relief. And yet his presentation is so off-putting, so artless, so embarrassing (his book isn’t printed in Comic Sans, but it might as well be), that most intelligent people would rather muddle along with their shelf of unread college philosophy textbooks.
Let me be your excuse — this book will take you a couple of hours to read, and it will improve the rest of your life. You can shelve it with its spine (which bears a sunflower whose center is the planet Earth, naturally) facing in.
But first, a word about what it is: Nonviolent Communication is a self-help book from the 90’s, born out of a handful of techniques developed by a Midwestern psychologist named Marshall Rosenberg. Despite the weird word nonviolent, its subject is, simply, communication: how to do it better.
What Rosenberg believes — and it’s hard, looking around, to disagree with him — is that most communication is doomed from the start. You set out to convince me of something; I react defensively. I tell you I’m sick of cooking and we should order in; you tell me that I don’t care about your health. We look like we’re communicating, but really we’re engaged in something like a chicken-fight — pseudo-sensible statements flailing at each other up above; lumbering, aching emotions staggering around below.
Nonviolent Communication proposes a better way. What if, rather than continue to flail away, we let our emotions climb out of the pool and get to know each other? What if everything I said were run through a filter that stripped it of all the distracting bits of self-justification and provocation, and left only the bare and unobjectionable feeling?
So a statement like this — I can’t believe you didn’t clean up the kitchen, what the hell were you doing all day? This is so typical of how you operate. — might, run through the Nonviolent Communication machinery, become something like this — When I see the dishes piled up in the sink I feel frustrated, because my need to come home to a clean house isn’t being met. Would you be willing to put your breakfast dishes in the dishwasher?
Can’t you feel your blood pressure plummeting?
What Rosenberg does — the essence of the NVC method — is to reformulate all speech into four components: an observation, a feeling, a need, and a request. I observe the dishes (neutrally, as a camera might); I feel frustrated (the feeling is mine — no one makes me feel it); I realize that the feeling is born of my own unmet need for tidiness; and I request that you put the dishes in the dishwasher (a concrete, doable action).
This is, essentially, the whole of the book — if you wrote Observation, Feeling, Need, Request on an index card, you could just about save the $19.95. But the reason to persevere through the book — the epigraph from Rosenberg himself, the poems submitted by workshop participants, the inset boxes summarizing paragraphs that read like summaries in the first place — is for the dialogues. Again and again Rosenberg shows us his method being put to the test (a man trying to convince his friend to quit smoking; a Palestinian trying to convince Rosenberg of America’s wickedness), and again and again, like one of those weighted punchable clowns, the method bobs upright, smiling in tranquil triumph.
My favorite dialog in the book is between a student volunteering at a food bank and her crotchety coworker — it demonstrates both the method’s flexibility (you can apply it to what other people say, even if they have no interest in NVC), and it’s almost miraculous capacity to disarm. The crotchety coworker begins the dialogue by saying, apropos of something she read in the newspaper: “What we need to do in this country is bring back the stigma of illegitimacy!” (Rosenberg is, to put it mildly, no Elmore Leonard.)
The shocked student gathers herself.
Student: (first checking out her guess as to what the coworker was observing) Are you reading something about teenage pregnancies in the paper?
Coworker: Yes, it’s unbelievable how many of them are doing it!
Student: (now listening for the co-worker’s feeling, and what unmet need might be giving rise to this feeling) Are you feeling alarmed because you’d like kids to have stable families?
Coworker: Of course! Do you know, my father would have killed me if I had done anything like that!
Student: So you’re remembering how it was for the girls in your generation who got pregnant?
The student and coworker go on like this, non-judgmentally plumbing the older woman’s fears and frustrations with what society is coming to, until they arrive at what turns out to be the point.
Student: Sounds like you’re exasperated because you’d like your tax money to be used for other purposes. Is that so?
Coworker: Certainly is! Do you know that my son and his wife want a second child and they can’t have one — even though they have two jobs — because it costs so much?
Student: I guess you’re sad about that? You’d probably love to have a second grandchild…
Yes, the coworker says. She just wants her beloved granddaughter to have a sibling. That, you feel the older woman realizing with some mystification, was the splinter around which this entire festering boil of resentment developed.
When the older woman first spoke up about the stigma of illegitimacy, the student — had she not studied NVC — would have righteously engaged in a tug of war. Via reason and peer reviewed social science studies, she would have attempted to pull the older woman onto the side of enlightenment. And the older woman would, just by social physics, have pulled back.
But armed with Rosenberg’s maddeningly simple method, the student did something much bolder: she set down the rope, and joined her would-be antagonist on the other side. She joined her coworker so thoroughly that she came actually to understand her. You’d probably love to have a second grandchild… — this is a moment of pure comprehension, an unguarded venture into another person’s reality. And it lays the groundwork for the coworker’s finally being able to hear the student’s (careful, NVC-approved) problem with what she’d said in the first place.
Yes, yes, you might be thinking — but who’s actually going to say this stuff? If I started talking about my neutral observations and my unmet needs, my partner would think I’d been possessed by Mr. Rogers.
But the strange and crucial thing about Rosenberg’s method is that — for all its prescriptive specificity — it need not be spoken at all. The structure of observations, feelings, needs, and requests can, once you’ve got a little practice with it, act as a skeleton underneath the body of communication — giving shape to what you say and hear without ever obtruding into visibility. It isn’t elegant, it isn’t impressive, it won’t be on the cover of Sunday Styles or all the rage at Burning Man. But it will set you free.