Speaking the truth with non-violent communication
The following is a collection of phrases that I regularly think, say myself or hear other people saying. Some seem positive and some seem negative. But none of them are true.
Understanding this and practicing the habit of speaking the truth results from my learning about non-violent communication. Sometimes non-violent communication is about respect towards others and sometimes it is about self-respect. It seems helpful to me because I can more easily share opinions with others, being more open-minded and leaving room for dialogue in place of conflict. When I practice non-violent communication with myself, I feel more self-aware and more confident.
I say: I have to write that report this evening
How many times have I thought and said such a phrase? The problem here is that such obligations don’t exist. No-one has a gun to my head and I am free to choose the consequences of not meeting the deadline. When I hold myself to such obligations, I am denying my own ability to choose what seems right to me. And when I use this as an excuse to stay home instead of having dinner with friends, I am being dishonest about my preferences.
I prefer to say: A deadline was set for the end of the day and I would prefer to write this report to achieve that deadline
I say: I’m no good at playing the piano
Sticking labels on myself and my incompetence doesn’t make me feel good about myself. If I can’t play the piano at all today, it might seem fair enough to say I have a limited ability to play the piano. But when I judge that limited ability as “bad” I am holding myself to a standard which I value and then labelling myself as sub-standard. In my head, I create a self-image of someone hopeless.
I prefer to say: At the moment, I can’t play the piano to the standard I would like
Or: I can currently make sounds with a piano that do not correspond to the first graded level of piano playing
I say: That’s ridiculous!
..and I wish I could stop saying this! Sometimes it goes so quickly: Someone shares their ideas on things and in a flash before I can even stop myself, I pronounce these words, as if I was the holder of all the answers, the one who knows everything about everything. This kind of language is oppressive and impolite at the worst. At the very least, it translates as “What you say is stupid” and therefore doesn’t seem a nice thing to say.
I prefer to say: I don’t agree with your idea. It doesn’t fit with my way of seeing things.
Or: Given the information we have and my own vision and knowledge of the topic, I don’t see how that can work.
I say: She made me really angry
No she didn’t. She did something and I was angry. Anger is not something someone else can cause in me. To make such a statement is to deny the boundaries of responsibility when it comes to feelings. My anger is mine. Her (in)actions or words are hers. Changing this phrase to the preferred statement (below) helps me to take more responsibility for my anger and also to question which values and goals I have that are not in-line with the actions of the other person.
I prefer to say: She did XYZ and I feel angry
I say: It’s a beautiful day
Seems fair, right? But the truth is only that there are no clouds in the sky and the sun is shining with more heat than it was yesterday. It is also true that I like that kind of weather. But when I name things as “beautiful” I am imposing my vision of the world onto reality. Does this make it true? If I can imagine anyone having a different opinion (agricultural industry? not enough rain?) this should be enough for me to recognise that my words are no more than personal opinion.
I prefer to say: I like the weather today
All of the preferred statements above are attempts to use non-violent communication. For the purpose of this blog, I would define “violent communication” as any speech that mixes up (my) perception with (the) factual reality and imposes the former onto other people. When I push my vision of things on other people, it is not respectful to our differences or potential difference of opinions. It is a form of verbal aggression which can lead to confusion, conflict, loss of dialogue and even sadness and bitterness.
For example, telling my children they are being “bad girls” or that they “can’t do that” are simple everyday examples of violent communication that seek to impose my values onto them and to bend them to my will. As a parent, I might find it best that I decide for my children what they can and cannot do and I might even want to impose that on them. But when I present my ideas to them as the truth about “good” and “bad”, “allowed” and “not allowed”, my communication is violent: It imposes my vision of reality onto them in a non-respectful way. This particularly worries me since I know that my kids are like little sponges soaking up everything Daddy says for the future. If I can learn to instead say that “I don’t like what you are doing” or “In my house, I want you to follow my rules” this is much closer to the truth. It will open the dialogue with my children towards mutual understanding of what we all (don’t) like and or (don’t) want. And I leave them free to form their own opinion.
Outside of family life, the same idea is valid in many environments. I might argue that something is “not fair” when I really mean to say that “I don’t feel comfortable with it” or “I’d like to find other solutions where I get more of what I want”. I might say “You’re performance is unacceptable” when a non-violent version would say “I expected you to achieve XYZ and you haven’t so I am not satisfied”. I might say “You’re disturbing me” when the truth is that “I’m working on something now and I don’t want to talk’.
When we use non-violent communication, we respect the rights of other people to think differently and (importantly) we give them an open-door to reply with their own vision of things. We state things as they truly are and not only as we see them.
If you are in the business of oppression and control, stay violent. But if you want respectful communication and the possibility of dialogue that leads to sharing and deeper mutual understanding , go non-violent.
- Marshall B Rosenburg’s book “Non Violent Communication: A Language of Life”
- Own blog post: The Man Who Made Up Stories
- Own blog post: Obligations Don’t Exist
Thanks for reading