Whose Work Is It? Thoughts on Non-Violent Communication, Dominant Culture, and Power Dynamics
There’s been an ongoing conversation over the past few years among UU religious professionals about Nonviolent Communication (NVC).
Nonviolent Communication, also known as Compassionate Communication, is a practice designed by the late Marshall Rosenberg to address conflict and promote peacemaking.
There are those among us who have felt that NVC has been used as a weapon, that it doesn’t adequately take into account issues of marginalization, privilege, and power dynamics. When I was trained in NVC a few years ago as part of a staff development workshop, I hated it. And at the same time, there are a few folks I know and respect who teach and use it. It was through conversation and practice with those folks that I was able to extract some useful strategies.
Nonetheless, I don’t use the structure as written. For me, it’s the unbelievably rigid process of NVC that feels so white, so bossy, and so unbearable. NVC, in my experience, can feel like bullying. At the same time, I have found some of the core principles of the practice to be nothing less than transformative in my personal practice of communication.
A note on language: When I say it feels “white,” I am referring to the white, upper middle class, educated, vaguely Protestant (but not in a religious sense), socially and politically liberal culture in which I was raised and socialized—some of which came from my family of origin, some came from media, school, and (UU) church. I received and internalized the messages of this cultural context in a particular way because I am a queer cisgender female. In this constellation of descriptors, for me, lies a set of values, largely unspoken, but nonetheless presented with sharp clarity.
These values included things like politeness, self-control, a responsibility to help others who are less fortunate, “colorblindness” toward race, decorum and compliance at all times, and tacit use of shame/blame/guilt.
In this context, for me, NVC felt rigid and unbearable. I didn’t realize it until just now that it felt very much like moments in my childhood when I was trying to express myself while experiencing intense emotions and was told to compose myself and speak calmly and appropriately or not speak at all. It is my assertion that an absolute insistence on comportment and calm over messy expression of emotional experience lies at the core of the harm caused by this cultural context.
At the same time, employing the four principles of NVC has helped me to enter into difficult conversations in a non-reactive, self-aware, curious frame of mind and heart. And that has transformed my ability to do my work. The instructor I learned from told us that we could use the principles even if the other person in the conversation wasn’t trained in NVC or willing to participate in the NVC process. He didn’t go into depth about how to do this, but I have seen it done two different ways, one of which works, and one doesn’t. And the difference lies in whether I employ NVC AT the other person/people as a tool to control them or as a personal practice to prepare myself and moderate my own expectations and behaviors. Twelve step programs, systems theory, and others remind us that we can’t control other people; we can only control ourselves and our responses.
When I am using NVC as a personal practice, I take the time before a difficult conversation (or during, if I’m super grounded and present!) to observe and identify how I’m feeling, what baggage or past experience might be impacting my responses, and what are my needs as I enter the conversation. If I can be clear about my needs and expectations, then I can more easily stay focused, listen to the other person’s experiences, and invite them to express their needs. Identifying feelings and needs for myself before I go into a conversation and being aware of what they are as it is in process is part of emotional literacy. As a personal/internal process that informs my communication rather than a forced model for policing yours, it is eminently useful.
In practice, NVC should not be used as a weapon. And no tool, NVC or otherwise, should override the human experience and personal connection at the center of our relationships. The dominant culture in this country (and, if we’re honest, within UUism) has relied on external and hierarchical structures as a substitute for authentic emotional relationship for far too long. Our work is to create containers in which people can be in relationship and work together to accomplish their goals. And our containers need to be flexible enough to hold the complexity of all of our experiences and cultures. Because the culture in which I was raised may be the dominant one, but it isn’t the only one, and its dominance does not actually mean that it is objectively correct.
Again and again, I have witnessed and heard POCI, trans and non-binary folx, and other marginalized people describe an experience nearly identical to mine as a child. They are repeatedly asked, when expressing their experience or feelings, to compose themselves and speak calmly and appropriately (by the standards of the dominant culture) or not speak at all.
If NVC can be a tool that helps me, as a white, educated, cisgender, employed person, understand and take responsibility for my own feelings and needs, then I’m all for it. If it can be one of the tools UUs of any/all identities use together to create flexible, brave spaces where we can put aside process or curriculum to listen to the needs and experiences of the marginalized among us, then rock on. But if it’s being used as a rigid and forced means of control, then forget it.
If I need to put a nail in the wall, I’ll use a hammer, but I’m not going to use that hammer to do brain surgery. Any tool can be dangerous if it is used as a weapon, so let’s use the best tool for the job – and let’s use it in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone, including ourselves.