The other day I mentioned the phrase “nonviolent communication” to my spouse. She asked what that meant – to her it sounded like something used to stop domestic violence between parties. In fact, “violent communication” does not refer to physical violence, but rather refers to something most of us are quite familiar with: attacking with words. Even that description might make us think of the most severe cases, the blue streak of language and invective aimed at insulting and humiliating another person. But there are actually many milder but insidious forms of verbal attack that we don’t think twice about. The real issue here is anything that tends to cause a person to become defensive, which happens when someone FEELS attacked in some way. When someone becomes defensive, it becomes more difficult rather than less to reach agreements or accomplish our goals.
If we communicate messages in ways that lead to the other person becoming defensive, chances are we are being counterproductive to what we hoped to achieve through the communication, i.e. we are working against our own best interests. Attacking language is often accusatory – it casts the other person as being or having a problem. I may start with “you…” as in, “you never buy me flowers”, “you are always late” or “you left the door open again.” When you say something like that to a person, you are hoping to change their behavior, but the effect of the statement is generally to cause the person to feel personally attacked, to which they normally respond by defending themselves rather than changing. They might say, “I bought you flowers a year ago and you didn’t even thank me” or “I couldn’t help being late, traffic was bad” or “I forgot this time, but I usually shut the door.” Even getting a person to say “I’m sorry” may not be very helpful if it is just meant to end the discussion/attack.
If we hope to produce a more positive effect from our communication, we are better off addressing the issue in a way that does not lead to defensiveness. One way to do that is to make the problem our problem, and invite the other person to help us solve it. People tend to like to be helpful, as long as they don’t feel attacked. Make the statement about yourself rather than the other person. Simply saying “I love to get flowers, they make me feel so special” is more likely to elicit a positive response than “you never buy me flowers” (of course, be aware that if you say it too many times it may still be perceived as an implied attack!) “I get anxious when I am not able to start on time, and then I don’t have as much fun” is more likely to help a person to want to be on time than accusing them of always being late.
Another aspect of nonviolent communication is learning to respond to something that feels like an attack in a way that diffuses it rather than escalates it. Marshall Rosenber refers to this as “receiving empathically”. Basically this means putting our own defensiveness aside in order to really hear what the other person is saying, and even more importantly what the feelings and deeper meanings are behind the words, and then responding in a way that shows we get what is being said. Sometimes that means that rather than jumping to offering solutions, it may be best to simply seek to clarify – “If I understand correctly…”, or asking a follow up question requesting more information.
Learning to communicate this way, and doing it consistently, it NOT easy. But because it is such a powerful tool for communicating more effectively, it is worth practicing every time we can remember to do so.
This hardly scratches the surface of this topic. If you would like to know more about communicating more effectively, several books that we have in our office lending library are Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD, and Taking the War Out of Our Words by Sharon Strand Ellison.