The Reef's library: Marshall Rosenberg's "Non-Violent Communication"

As part of my preparation for the process of building The Reef, I read Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication. Here’s a summary and a few comments.

Non-Violent Communication (NVC) is mostly a technique for expressing the speaker’s emotional states and making requests to others. It does so in ways that reduce the likelihood that the listener interprets the communication as an attack, and as a result gets upset, pushes back, and in general ignores the requests.

It’s meant to be used to improve relationships where the parties can not simply walk away, like those between parents and children, teachers and students, romantic partners, neighnboring nations in confilict. This makes it a good fit for building a co-housing, where, once the choice has been made, members are going to be around each other for a long time.

Three assumptions

NVC rests on three key assumptions on human nature.

The first one is that other people’s behavior is never a cause for our feelings. What causes feelings are one’s own needs. For example, if Alice fails to do the dishes after lunch and Bob gets irritated, his irritation does not stem from Alice’s behavior, but his unmet need for living in a tidy space. If, say, Charles had walked into the messy kitchen before’s Bob arrival and tidied it up, Bob would not have been irritated. This is the key move, because it enables Bob to shift from blame of Alice’s irresponsible behavior to looking for a solution that will leave the kitchen tidy.

The second one is that people tend to interpret criticism as attack, and mount a defense instead of learning from the criticism. This is not always true (think of university seminars, where researcher present work in progress for others to poke holes in it), but it is true often enough.

The third one is that humans are naturally propense to empathy. If you can, at a low cost to yourself, help a fellow human meet her need, you will. Again, this is true often enough, but not always – NVC does not work on sociopaths.

A technique in four steps

The best thing about the book is, for me, its technical nature. Even if you do not fully share the author’s world vision and his key assumptions, you can still do NVC. It is best treated as a language, whose statement have to follow a certain syntax. A well-formed communication in NVC has four steps.

  1. Observe some facts. “On this Monday, Wednesday and Thursday there were piles of unwashed dishes in the sink”, “you arrived late to our last three appointments”. No blaming: these are just facts.
  2. Observe one’s own feelings that these facts induce. “The unwashed dishes make me feel irritated”. Again, the feelings are not caused directly by other people, but but how the speaker herself reacts to the facts on the ground.
  3. Identify the unmet need that is causing the negative feeling. “I have a need for a clean, tidy space to live in”. Notice how the speaker takes responsibility for the distress she is feeling.
  4. Make a concrete request that would solve the problem. “Would you be willing to commit to do the dishes immediately after eating?” The interesting part about this process is that set things up so that agreeing to the request is not so important, any action, as long at is meets the speaker’s need will do the job. Maybe the listener is unwilling to do the dishes, but could counter-propose to buy a dishwasher, where the dirty dishes can be stashed for being washed later, while preserving the tidiness of the kitchen.

Other goodies in the book and final considerations

The above is what you will find in the first seven chapters of Non-Violent Communication. The rest of the book extends the model: how to play the role of the listener? How to mediate between two parties using NVC? How to give compliments and acknowledgement in NVC? And so on. It also contains many examples (“NVC in action”), with verbatim dialogues between people looking for solutions to their unmet needs. The writing style is in the tradition of American popularization, very clear and even entertaining.

Overall, my impression is very positive. In the concrete situation of building The Reef, we will find ourselves in many situations with hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and plain divergent preferences. NVC might help in two ways. One is the prevention of conflict. If we all teach ourselves to refrain from finger-pointing, and focus instead on observable facts and our own needs, we are likely to avoid many avoidable conflicts. The other is the added flexibility. Focusing on needs means looking for ways to meet the need in question that is not necessarily the repression of the offending behavior. Bob can have his need for a clean kitchen met without Alice having to compromise on her own need to run to her piano class immediately after lunch, as long as the two agree to install a dishwasher. This is much more productive than a zero-sum interaction! The more of this we can do, the better The Reef will be. So, for me it’s a “hell yeah”.

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