Words That Work – Part I

Many years ago, a friend introduced me to a method of communication called "non-violent communication."  I initially assumed that it had to do with hostage negotiations or reducing the threat of violence in the home and in the workplace.  So, while I thought it had some value, I did look further.  After that, I started seeing an increasing number of references to NVC and its application to a much wider range of situations.  I decided to take a closer look.

What I found was a communications methodology that:
1. Was poorly named (“non-violent communication?”  “Really?”).

2. Was explained in a couple of obscure books that were difficult to find.

3. Was being taught by some boring facilitators; and yet, in spite of all this

4. Has the potential to massively improve your life and even change the world.

Numbers 1-3 are why 99 percent of you haven't heard of it.  NVC is not well promoted.  Its success is attributable almost entirely to word of mouth.  Books have been written describing it and how to use it in considerable detail, but because of other unfortunate ways in which it has been marketed, most people don't give it a second thought.

And no, Non-Violent Communication (or NVC) is not (just) for violent criminals, people who need anger management, politicians, lawyers (?) or pro wrestlers.
The central idea is that, there is a great deal of violence in the way we communicate with others and ourselves and that most of this happens without our conscious awareness.  You could say that it's built into the very fabric of our systems of education and socialization.  And violence triggers more violence. So when we speak to others in certain ways, not only do we not get heard, but we end up alienating each other.

NVC is not a technique for manipulating someone or getting your way, but a way for everyone to win, a way to make your life and the lives of those around you easier, better, and more positive.

In fact, it's more powerful than persuasion.  Though I haven't seen it much used or applied in business situations, its potential in those contexts is enormous.

When you use NVC, you will find that it works like magic. It has an incredible way of instantly defusing and ending a potential conflict with a partner, an ex, a friend, or someone at work. It attracts others to you instead of driving them away.

(Those of you who still in the hunt for a significant other will more quickly see its other potential applications).

One of its premises, which took me a while to come to understand and which I will explain in a bit more detail in a future post, is that no two people's needs are ever in conflict.

Yes, you read that correctly.

No two people’s needs are ever in conflict.

More on that later.  I’m getting ahead of myself.

To begin, let's consider what underlies most of our communications, especially the ones we dread or regret having or wish we had handled differently.

What underlies most of our communications is a set of assumptions -- assumptions that together form a sort of "paradigm," context or map that tells us how to interpret everything that happens. In this case, the paradigm is cultural -- that is, it is shared by much of Western society.   It is so ubiquitous as to be invisible to us.  It is consistent with current research in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology.

This universal map looks like this:


  • There is a way things “should” be.
  • When they are that way, things are right.
  • And when they are not that way, there is something wrong with me, with other people, or with the world in general.

Applied to most of our relationships and communications, the map can be restated as follows:


  • According to portions of the human brain that have more primitive origin, the resources "necessary to survive" are scarce; they must be allocated by competition; those who win get to survive; those who don't, well....
  • If we are experiencing differences of opinion, there is obviously a right” and a “wrong” answer.
  • Those who have the right answer get to win.
  • Those who have the wrong answer lose.
  • Being right means continuing to survive.
  • Therefore, being right is a matter of life and death.
  • From my perspective in any disagreement, it is obvious that I am right.
  • Given that we cannot both be right, then you are obviously wrong.
  • It is my job to convince you that I win and you lose -- that I am right and you are wrong.

Within this paradigm, the intention of communication is primarily blaming, judging, criticizing, insulting, demanding, comparing, labeling, or punishing someone else. Because this language is experienced by its recipients as a threat to their survival, it triggers feelings of fear, guilt, shame, or anger. And those who are on the receiving end of these communications tend to respond in kind, often with defensiveness, resentment, or a counter-attack of judgments, complaints, etc. about you.  In this respect, therefore, we tend to be "violent" in our communications by sorting individuals into semi-permanent categories that are laden with meaning and significance that our nervous systems associate with physical survival.

Any time you are telling someone what is wrong with them or judging them, you are speaking violently according to NVC.

Examples: "That was a stupid thing to do," "you're so lazy," "that's your own fault."

Or how about these:  "you can't do that (or "it's just not done, what will other people think, no one in our family has been good at that"),"   "I can only give so many 'As' to this class (in other words, "we have to grade on a curve to make it easier for employers, colleges,etc. to sort out the winners from the losers")."

Similarly, any time you are telling yourself what's wrong with you, you are also speaking violently.

Examples: "I'm so stupid," "no one understands me," "I feel so awkward right now,"  "what if he/she laughs at me in front of all my friends?"

In fact, often, we even translate perfectly ordinary things other people say into a violent interpretation.  How many times, for example, has someone said something completely neutral, yet you've perceived it as insulting, condescending, or passive aggressive behavior?  Or you've permanently labeled the other person as a "jerk," "immature" or "stupid."  Labeling is convenient because it absolves us of responsibility and it permanently fixes the other person with permanent traits that make him or her "impossible to deal with."

Linguists call this tendency an "already, always listening."  What you actually hear is filtered through a sea of opinions and judgments formed from past experiences.  These filters are already and always present. Child development specialists believe that when we were around ages to 2 to 5, we began to learn the language and associated beliefs, values, and opinions of the culture into which we were born.   This already, always listening manifests as an internal little voice that does not shut up.  It provides a continuing narration of everything that happens (or doesn’t happen).  If you are now thinking to yourself, "what little voice?" that's what I'm referring to.

Notice, too, that your interpretations – the meaning and significance you give to what happens – often become “what happened” when we describe it later.  This is difficult to notice at first because it is so habitual.  After a while, it gets easier.  One useful exercise is to first describe a person, event or circumstance.  Then, take a look at your written description and separate it out into two parts.  The first is a description of what actually happened.  Keep this description to facts that can be independently verified by an objective third person.  If it’s a judgment, opinion or interpretation, leave it off.  What’s left are the interpretations.  Notice the difference.

Start to catch yourself in the act of mixing facts with interpretations.  Start to notice that little voice in your head that judges you and everyone and everything around you.

So your homework for now is to start recognizing your own judgmental words and thoughts, and how often you classify, interpret, criticize, label, or categorize other people and how often you collapse what happens with your interpretation (your judgment or opinion of its meaning and significance).  Becoming aware of our already, always listening filters without attempting to reduce them (and without judging yourself for having them) is the first step. And your homework includes to really start thinking about what it would mean to live a judgment-free life.

In the next post, we'll explore the implications of the statement I made earlier in which I said that no two people's needs are ever really in conflict and begin to outline a simple (though not easy) process for implementing NVC in your personal and business communications and relationships.


Article written by John R. Bedosky, partner at Hinman, Howard & Kattell, LLP.  To contact Mr. Bedosky directly email him at jbedosky@hhk.com or call (607) 723-5341.

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