When a friend in Brighton sent me this book I was more than a little dubious. You know what they’re like down there – protesting equal rights for quinoa and the like.
So on first impressions Non-violent communication: A language of Life attracted a decent helping of my usual wry skepticism.
The front cover doesn’t help – it looks like a hymn compilation. Which is a shame because there’s a very pertinent message contained in this book. It’s this: if you ignore this advice we will all be annihilated by robots.
Seriously. If everyone read this book we’d have far fewer arguments and a much more peaceful planet. I’ve read it twice now, I’m a complete convert to its way of thinking.
Let me explain
So much of what goes wrong in humanity happens because we don’t really understand one another. The cause? We’re utterly useless at expressing ourselves properly – saying what we feel and asking for what we need (if you even know what that is).
On the other hand, what humans are really really good at is labelling people as ‘us’ and ‘them’, blaming others and getting into scraps. Remember the last time you had a row with someone – chances are the phrases “you’re an xxxx” or “you make me feel yyyy” came into it. That’s labelling and deflecting responsibility.
Non-violent communication (NVC) is about re-thinking the way we speak and listen, and taking responsibility for the emotions behind that. NVC teaches us how to empathise and get to the bones of what really matters when we communicate.
It’s based on the premise that if people feel understood (regardless of resolution), they relax – so they’re less likely to flip out and kill each other.
NVC goes something like this
Here’s a typical dialogue between two totally anonymous people.
“I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab them by the XXXXX. You can do anything.”
“Donald. When you gloat about taking advantage of people I’m scared that you don’t see them as human beings.”
“Look. I’m a very stable genius.”
“It sounds like you feel very assured in your beliefs. How would you feel if it was your loved one being groped by a petulant orange imbecile?”
“I’d build a wall round them. Bad dudes.”
“So you’d be angry, right? Next time you think about grabbing someone, would you be willing to see that person as someone with feelings, perhaps someone’s daughter, and maybe think twice about touching them?”
“OK. I’m gonna tweet about this.”
That was NVC in action, handling the potential conflict:
- Observe the specific behaviour
- Express the feelings in response
- Identify the underlying need
- Make a polite, direct request
I’ve chosen to write about this book because it paved the way for me realising how crucial language is as a reflection of what’s really going on inside our hearts and minds.
Let me illustrate the implications of this with another example, this time from high-brow New Philosopher magazine which I read all the time because I’m worldly and clever. It’s about jargon in the workplace:
“The effect (and one might surmise, purpose) of business jargon is to dehumanise workers (asking if they have bandwidth for a task, to euphemise poor treatment of them (sacking workers is downsizing…), and to cast the ruling class as heroic action heroes with military metaphors such as air cover, radar and strategy. To dismiss all such language as ‘jargon’ and ‘gibberish’ is to let it get away with what it’s trying to achieve.”
You see language; the way we speak to and about each other is all tied in with cultural norms and behaviour – it influences the future. I realise we’re verging on thought-police territory here, so let’s leave freedom of speech for another time. Speaking of the secret police, here’s another quote, this time from the NVC book itself:
“Eichmann… and his fellow officers had their own name for the responsibility-denying language they used. They called it Amtssprache, loosely translated into English as “office talk” or “bureaucratese”. For example, if asked why they took a certain action, the response would be “I had to”. If asked why they “had to,” the answer would be, “Superiors’ orders.” “Company policy.” “It was the law.”
No doubt you can guess which historic ideological movement Eichmann was part of. Let’s just say Marshall N. Rosenberg, author of NVC, has every right to feel a little wary of language like this.
Back to my point
If we fail to take responsibility for the feelings and needs behind what we’re saying and doing, generally things never end well. NVC isn’t about saying what is and isn’t OK to say. It’s not about right and wrong. It’s about helping people express what they really feel and need – bringing that all out into the open (for scrutiny) so everyone understands where they’re coming from. If someone comes at you with anger and frustration, NVC helps you help them.
Can you see where I’m going with this?
In this, the post-truth, fake news era of accelerating division, echo chambers and impending automation (yes, there’s the robot connection) – do we risk forgetting how to engage with each other, face-to-face and hear each other patiently and properly?
We’ll always have differences of opinion but just cracking our skulls together endlessly won’t solve the problem. The only way to do that is with dialogue and compromise.
OK, no more Nazis, I promise
Let’s bring this back to the safer topic of business.
The reason I really like this book is because I’m on this self-appointed mission to do away with bullshit and help people say what they really mean to, with honesty and clarity in copywriting. NVC is a philosophy to help achieve that.
I also think the best route to enduring contentment is seeking harmony with other people and nature – being selfless rather than selfish (I’m beginning to sound like the book now). Like most people, I don’t always do this. I can be a right grouchy sod. But I often return to this book to help put me back on the right track again.
The lessons in Non-violent communication: A Language of Life by Marshall N. Rosenberg are timeless. This is not a how to book. It is a manual, with resonant stories and insightful philosophy.
For: learn NVC = world peace.
Against: book gets a bit bible-y at times and he does quote his own poems; but dialogue and compromise, right? That’s the spirit.
If you enjoyed that, you’ll like the talk I’ll be giving about this book at Everyday People’s book-swap event in York on 15th February.