Rosenberg, Marshall B., Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life

Reviewed by George F. Simons at   Amazon review

Toward the end of the 1970's, while studying at the Gestalt Institute San Diego, I was treated by a colleague to an intriguing list of tips about the use of language from a group in Southern California calling itself the Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC). I found the list both intriguing and helpful, and I sought to practice what I could understand of it, but somehow never discovered the source. About 25 years later the work of Marshall Rosenberg surfaced for me and I was both delighted to reconnect with the NVC movement and also curious as to how the passage of so much time might have affected its development as well as my understanding and acceptance of the technology of communication that it forwards.

In the passing years, I had changed substantially in my outlook toward humanistic as well as traditional psychology, shifting my thinking in the direction of linguistics and cognitive science. I immersed myself in intercultural studies and gained experiences working abroad that distanced me to some degree from my US ethnocentricity and provided cultural perspective on ideas and movements that I had formerly swallowed whole.

Treated to a review copy of Nonviolent Communication, I feasted on it with an appetite whetted by years of waiting. At the same time I attempted to critique the cuisine with the palate I had developed since I had last tasted it. What did I discover?

First, then as now, I was reminded that NVC remains an act of courage, courage to confront self and others with both honesty and empathy. This has not become easier in a culture that, from kindergarten to White House, seems to value shooting from the hip followed up by cover-your-ass strategies.

Other important insights emerged. For years I had been uncomfortable with assertiveness training where a constantly whining, "You make me feel..." subtext is camouflaged under the rubric of "When you do/say X, I feel Y." People were learning assertive scripts but practicing them punitively, that is, without the intentionality that would allow them to become constructive. It is this intentionality that is at the core of NVC. Life is frequently made up of competition and acquisitiveness, and trying to look good when clawing our way to the top tempts us to put on appearances of trendy communications practice in order look good and be liked.

Being positive is the sine-qua-non of today's US culture. Put another way, the quickest route to becoming a pariah in both work and social contexts is to fail to show the obligatory positive attitude. Negative judgments, failure to look on the bright side, criticism, mourning failures and losses head a list of US capital sins. The result sounds good on the surface-positive feedback, lots of encouragement, and a steady diet of "atta' boy/atta' girl" language. Negativity is bad, violent, and destructive, while "Blessed are the positive!" is beatitude in US civil religion.

Plenty of non-USians had been telling me that they felt attacked and aggressed upon by US "positivity." My initial temptation was to dismiss their complaint as negativity or pessimism. However, listening to what they felt, I learned that having a positive attitude was not itself the problem. They felt that they were being judged, that their US interlocutor was taking a one-up or arrogant stance toward them. I had overlooked the fact that both positive and negative evaluations can be violent communication forms. Both play into the our addiction to judgment and dichotomous thinking. We fail to observe that the messages, "Great job," and "You screwed up," are identical acts of violence, the subtext being, "I judge you," whether the judgment be positive or negative.

Also often missed is that the injunction to be positive can be a power play used to neutralize opposition to one's ideas and plans. Criticize me, or look on the negative side of what I am doing or saying, and you are no longer my friend. We experience this on a daily basis, and recently saw it writ large, in US policy toward those countries that refused to support the US invasion of Iraq. While Rosenberg's book does not address the cultural phenomenon of US "positivity" directly, reading it that gave me the impetus to look for the feelings and the needs in people's reaction to the aggressive use of the "be positive" principle.

It is not surprising that there is a national crisis of self-esteem when empowerment based on judgment is a norm of communication. As some critics of the drive for self-esteem in the California school system pointed out, self-esteem comes from acknowledged accomplishment and a growing sense of one's own competence, something that no number of feel-good strokes can replace. Particularly since USians believe they are defined by what they do rather than who they are and where they come from, there is an insatiable thirst for identity via accomplishment. Respect, not being dissed, is the yearning; positivity is the palliative. In this light, NVC can be without question an important tool for healing in the USA, as it teaches the attitudes as well as the practices that help us genuinely respect others as well as ourselves.

In the past 50 or so years we have discovered or become conscious of language is the tool by which we create things in the first instance. Tangibles flow from intangibles. We construct and deconstruct with words. We can use them to create powerful visions and dreams. But the words create chimeras unless the intentionality and commitment to what we say is furthered by what we do and how we relate to each other. Power leads to the illusion that when we say, "Let there be light," there will be light. However, being mortal, our sound bytes and adverts, propaganda and spin require closer examination, something they rarely receive in the general fog of okayness we strive to maintain. When some years ago, Richard Nixon uttered his famous denial of dishonesty by saying, "What I said then is now inoperative," many of us got our first clue as to the possibility that big lies could happen here as well as elsewhere in the world. NVC is a call to use the creative power of words compassionately and ethically. Much still needs to be done to see how it can be more broadly applied in public life.

The need to decide who is good and who is evil, to judge, and then to act, drives our national ethos to a stark "good guys vs. bad guys" paradigm of reality, personal, economic and political. Rosenberg astutely notes how we, "having learned that the bad guys deserve to be punished, take pleasure in watching this violence." It is this addiction that we are struggling with daily as USians, particularly now that geopolitical and economic stress have become a constant. Self-righteousness arouses a latent Schadenfreude that relishes misfortune almost anywhere and anytime. We live in a time of small and great religious wars. Mastering NVC can keep us from turning observations and desires into non-negotiable absolutes, to keep the brush fires of disagreement from becoming deadly firefights.

A few words from the interculturalist side... Separating observation from evaluation has long been recognized as essential to working across cultures. For people in my profession, NVC can contribute substantially to success at expatriation and global teamwork. There are only occasional notes in Nonviolent Communication about how local values affect how NVC is practiced in other cultural contexts. The international distribution of NVC practitioners and programs offers a very rich field for international understanding that deserves exploitation on a larger scale. Capturing NVC challenges, solutions, best practices and learnings as its core technology is applied around the world would be an exciting undertaking and a rich contribution to how we generate cultural competence. The next doctoral candidate I lay my influence on will get steered in this direction.

As to the book itself, it is highly readable, definitely value for the money. Each chapter gives the reader the opportunity to grasp the principles explored by asking them to assess a list of statements in terms of their non-violent quality. Linear flow is relieved with occasional poetry or metaphor to remind us that there is beauty in what we are learning to practice. Key insights are visually highlighted so that you can flip through the book for a refresher course in a few minutes.

It will be good for the world's trouble spots to know that Nonviolent Communication and not just tear gas canisters and weapons bear the cachet "Made in the USA."

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