Non-Violent Communication

Speaking – and understanding-  from a place of values is the key to practicing political framing. Once you can identify the authentic values from which you are speaking from (or being spoken to), the intellectual cat and mouse game stops and an actual connection starts to build between two humans, regardless of political viewpoint. We start to empathize with one another which makes dehumanizing put downs much more difficult.

When we speak from our values, it becomes more important to be understood than it does to elicit dramatic emotions in our favor. When we don’t speak in this manner, the words we tend to use become loaded and our discussion partner will likely grow more and more defensive, digging in even deeper to their original position. Another way of thinking about this style of communication is called “non-violent communication” or NVC. I only recently learned that NVC is a specific trained technique developed by a psychologist; the training can be extensive and much practice is encouraged  (and I am in no way an expert). The essentials of communicating in this way also gets at the heart of political framing, so I thought I’d share.

Whether you’re talking to yourself or with a partner and you have a conflict, there are basically four questions to ask of yourself/others. They center around these concepts:

1. What did I observe (that stimulated problem/joy)? “When I see/hear ___________”

2. What do I feel (around this observation)? “I feel _________”

3. What am I needing (around this observation that I am not getting/ am getting)?

4. What is my request of this other person?

Let’s give some examples. Question #1 asks for a recount of the actual event, not an evaluation of the event. So saying “When you tricked us into working extra…” isn’t what we’re looking for, we want the specific action that caused the response – “When you offered extra money for extra work, but later didn’t include those hours on our timesheets… “.

This is the time to point out that a lot of words have inferences built into them. The verb “tricked”, infers that someone intends to mislead with words, since we can’t live in other people’s minds, it is incorrect to assume that another person did intend to mislead. We can only really be sure of what they actually said or did.

One of the bigger concepts of NVC is to stop the assumptions that we constantly make in natural conversation. We offhandedly blame, deflect, infer, and assume throughout the course of daily speech. In many of these cases, we are not only making value judgements, (ex. promises from my supervisor are not iron clad) but we are making moral judgements (my supervisor lies all the time). Now, the difference may not seem important, especially if the results – poor credibility – are the same whether the supervisor intends to “lie” or not, but coming from the supervisor’s perspective, the difference is huge. To “lie” implies that you fully know that you are telling an untruth the moment it leaves your lips; to not follow through on a promise may mean a range of things has made a previous statement un-doable, even if you really thought it could be done when you first made the promise.  The problem exists either way, but in getting cooperation and possibly a change of behavior on the part of the supervisor, you may need to truly empathize with their situation for a moment.

Question #2 – How do I feel? This question also is not as straightforward as you might imagine. Even in expressing feelings, we are still often stuck in blame mode. “I feel betrayed” says a little bit about how you’re feeling, but it says even more about someone else – they wronged you. So when you think of your feelings, think of the ones that truly come from you like sad, angry, frustrated, overjoyed.

Question #3 – What do I need? This one is straightforward, but is more like searching yourself for your value system. In the case of our disappointing supervisor, I might say, “I need to know I can trust you” or “I need some security around our time keeping system” or ” I need to be sure I can pay my bills.” This is the authentic part where, like in political framing, it pays to be a little risky. When we open up, let our needs be known, and show a little vulnerability, it goes a very long way to connecting to this other person. We are humans that can recognize humanity when we see it. We do have the ability to empathize with nearly everyone. Just as we can imagine their tough situation, they can recognize ours.

Often this is where the conversation “gets real”. Once you let your guard down and the other person knows that you are not playing cat and mouse, not insulting, and taking a risk at authentic communication, an amazing thing can happen. That person can let their guard down and it is like a brand new day. The two of you can find yourself relating to each other in a humane way you never thought possible. NVC people call it speaking from your heart. In political framing, I would call it speaking from your values.

Once you see this other person as a fellow human with an actual set of values that they are living by, it is much harder to dismiss them as an asshole.

The last step is making a request of the person. “Would you be willing to…”. This step is not like the others in that there may or may not be an immediate action item on the agenda. Sometimes the more important piece is to just get the authentic conversation flowing with steps 1-3. You can also draw steps 1-3  out of someone by asking them the questions instead of yourself.

So here is our processing:

1. When I didn’t see my overtime hours accounted for on my timesheet,

2. I felt angry that my extra work time was going to be paid,

3. I need to know that when you ask us to work extra, the time is being compensated,

4. Would you be willing to compare our records of time worked?

Practicing framing and NVC can feel awkward and stilted. It’s less about not knowing the right words, more about breaking out of old thinking patterns. We can empower ourselves to positively and sanely influence the world around us. Sometimes we add to the clutter and chaos by wrapping more drama into a situation than it calls for. Realizing where we tend to do this for ourselves is the practice that can elicit the kind of responses we want from those around us.  Speak for yourself, speak from the heart, and empathize with the rest of us schlubs, we all make mistakes and get carried away.


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