Sunday, April 23, 2017

My Life in NVC

As salaam alaikum,

Before my husband and I married, we initiated a book club--a book club of two. We haven't resumed for a while because we both got busy. Malcolm X is next on our list.

One of the books we read last year was Nonviolent Communication by the late Marshall Rosenberg. I had learned about nonviolent communication, or NVC, from my residency program during our behavioral science block. We were taught the communication paradigm as not only a way to communicate to patients, but a way to communicate with partners, family and friends.

Violent communication, on the other hand, is communication with oneself or others that is laden with judgment and evaluation. It may seem harsh to call this communication violent, but once you call it what it is, you realize the impact it may have on you.

For example, once I was busily cooking a meal for my mother and multitasking in the kitchen. I am very happy to cook for my mother, but I also want things to be just so. So when my mother suddenly said, "Are you burning your food?" I startled and ran to the pan on the flame. The food was fine.

"Why did you say that? Did you think it was burning?" I asked her.

"No, I just asked," she said, shrugging it off.

If she didn't think it was burning, why did she say that? I think she just wanted me to check on my food and didn't realize that what she said was a little bit hurtful, like she assumed I would be burning my food.

I mean, accidents happen. I burn food all of the time while doing too much in the kitchen. But if she didn't think I was burning my food, there was no reason to make that judgment. Especially as I had been carefully and lovingly making meals for her and the family all week.


The premise of  is simple, but it's challenging to execute. There are four elements to NVC: (1) make an observation, (2) state one's feelings (3) express ones needs and (4) make a request. Observation, feelings, needs, request. Each element of this formula has it's own chapter in the book which helps students of NVC use it without injecting the violent language of judgment into the formula.

For example, one makes observations free of evaluation and requests that are specific and life-enriching.

So in the example given above with my mother, if I used NVC, I may have told her, "When you asked me if I was burning my food, I felt hurt and discouraged. I want to be trusted as an accomplished and careful cook in your kitchen. Can you instead ask or suggest that I check on the food when you are afraid I may be distracted? Thank you."

The observation was her asking me if I burned my food, my feelings were of hurt and discouragement. My need was to feel trusted (and respected). And my request was for her to instead ask if I check the food if she thinks I may be distracted.

This was hard for me to write. One could write this, which would not be NVC: "Mom, when you think I'm burning my food, I feel like you expect me to burn the food, like you're judging my skills. I need you to trust me. Don't say things like that to me."

Check it. There is an observation, an attempt at statement of feelings, an expression of needs and a request, but they are laden with judgments and otherwise not quite fitting with NVC.

The observation is not a pure observation, but an evaluation. My mother asked if I was burning my food--she told me she didn't believe I was burning the food, and even if she hadn't, I know what she said and not what she believed. The statement of actually not a statement of feelings. Feeling like she expects me to burn the food is not a feeling, and telling her she's judging me is, again, an evaluation of her. To say that I felt judged, ignored, scrutinized or any such verb is relating it to the other person. The NVC statement of feelings should be independent of the other person. That's why my original example included hurt and discouraged.

Finally, the request should be in positive terms and should be specific. "Don't say things like that to me," is a negative request and it is not at all specific.

When our communications are judgmental or evaluative, people are likely to get defensive. The second example I gave would probably not have gone over well. ...and honestly, the first one wouldn't have gone off without a hitch, either. I didn't feel strongly enough about my feelings after my mother asked me if my food was burning to launch into NVC, but just giving an example of how it works.

My husband would sometimes roll his eyes in the early days after we read this book when I would launch into NVC after an argument. Sometimes, he just wants to argue because it feels cathartic to him.

I, on the other hand, do not find arguments cathartic. On the contrary, I find it distressing to have a raise-your-voice argument. Him having grown up with parents who eventually divorced and maybe argued like that, he thinks it's normal. I do not want to deny him catharsis, but I will counter such arguments with NVC every time.

One way to do that within the paradigm is to try to identify, in reverse, one's feelings and needs.

So if he were to say, "I'm the only one doing work around here," I would go backward and try to figure out what observation he made to jump to this conclusion.

"Are you reacting to the floor not being swept?" or, "Are you reacting to the dishes in the sink?" I would continue this without making evaluations until either I or he arrive at the specific observation.

Then I would say, "So, the fact that I haven't swept the floor in two weeks makes you feel angry, yeah?"

And if I misidentified the feeling, perhaps he would tell me. Then, I'd try to identify his need, if he hadn't told me.

"You need to feel as if I care about the house you're working hard to maintain for us, yeah? Do you want me to sweep at least once a week?"

And that would seriously be the root of such vague declarations. We don't argue over each other's household tasks anymore because now I understand that it wasn't so much about him wanting me, as his wife, to do "womanly" housework as much as he wanted to see me do my own tasks (a chore list we agreed upon) as a sign that I cared about the house as much as he did.

I also understand that his main pet peeve is dust. Dirty floor and dusty counter tops to much are just pitfalls of being an active cook in my kitchen. I've watched him cook and pick up every individual rice grain he drops with the pads of his fingers and curse if he gets a drop of sauce on the counter.

When I cook, on the other hand, the kitchen tends towards entropy until the final touches are made and the creation is simmering on the stove.

Don't get me wrong--I don't think in NVC most of the time or talk that way to my husband on a daily basis. But when a communication is important or I sense a miscommunication coming on, going back to that paradigm is helpful for sorting out what we're actually reacting to, what our true feelings are in response, what we actually need and a life-enriching way to request it.

I'm especially interested in the paradigm's take on depression. I'll talk about that later.

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