An integral review of Nonviolent Communication

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So, I bought the book “Nonviolent Communication” recently, and since it’s only 200 pages, with about 50 pages of it being introductions and quizzes and stories, it was a fairly quick read.  Integral philosophy has again proven to be a superb lens with which to understand and analyze things like this.

Here is what I think:

Nonviolent communication is a thoroughly postmodern communication style, and thus it shares both the good and bad aspects of postmodernism.

A good chunk of it is just mindfulness, where it emphasizes the importance of learning to listen to one’s needs and motivations and realize that people are responsible for their own feelings, not others.

It gets out of the perpetual obsession with “reason” and “logic” that the modernists are so concerned with and also “right and wrong” that the premodernists are so concerned with. It places people’s feelings and needs above value judgments, and therefore it’s an excellent way of communicating with someone where there is no ultimate right answer and all we have is a negotiation of sorts, in theory.

This stuff is right out of Foucault, where he concludes that truth is simply a function of one’s perspective, that there is no trancendental truth, and therefore a conversation is just a struggle for power between different parties.  Therefore, an important thrust of the method is curtailing the use of “violence” that individuals use in order to gain power over another.  It even goes so far as to say, among its primary values, that the important thing about a conversation is to listen, and to empathize without judgment, to tell the other party how you feel, and to ask for your needs to be met.

This is all well and good, but as I mentioned earlier, it leaves out two legs of the three legged stool of philosophy:  the good, the true, and the beautiful.  By declaring the good (morality, right and wrong) and the true (truth) irrelevant, it focuses only on the beautiful, and therefore it only has a limited ability to deal with the problems that we run into on a daily basis.  Or rather, it makes the specious claim that by searching for the beautiful, one will get to “the good” and “the true”.  I find this unconvincing.  Not only do I think it’s practically impossible, but theoretically it’s also impossible to find “the good and the true” using language based on a philosophy that declares there is no good and true.

It is also often an insulting communication tactic to use with people who are intelligent and self-aware and well-adjusted.  In effect, it says: I realize that this person I am talking to is incapable of understanding their own feelings and expressing their wants and needs, so I’m going to use a framework to try to manipulate the conversation to work around their shortcomings.

Further, I question whether nonviolent communication is useful for actually communicating with people at different levels of consciousness instead of just useful for disarming angry people.  Those who are operating under premodern consciousness tend to speak in terms of values or right and wrong (abortion is wrong, gay marriage is wrong).  Those who are operating under modern consciousness tend to speak in terms of reason and logic.  So while it may be a useful tactic for disarming situations, it is not a useful tactic for communicating anything substantive in a way that both parties can understand… unless both parties are postmodernists.

In practice, I now recognize that people I know have used nonviolent communication on me, and frankly it was annoying at best.  There is an example in the book where the author talks about visiting the Palestinian territories and having a man stand up and berate him because he’s an American. The conversation goes on for several pages, in which the author simply restates and reflects back what the person has just said to him.  To someone who prefers direct communication, the conversation comes across as patronizing and perhaps even mocking.  Take this exchange:

MBR:  Are you angry because you would like my government to use its resources differently?
Man: Damn right I’m angry! We need to have our own country!
MBR: So you’re furious and would appreciate some support in improving your living conditions and gaining political independence?
Man: Do you know what it’s like to live here for 27 years the way I have with my family? Have you got the faintest idea what that’s been like for us?
MBR: Sounds like you’re feeling very desperate and you’re wondering whether I or anyone else can really understand what it’s like to be living under these conditions. Am I hearing you right?

And this conversation goes on and on, with the author doing nothing but slightly rewording what the man just said.

This brings me to another criticism of nonviolent communication: when used properly it can help to get people to express themselves and reduce tensions during everyday negotiations, but when used improperly or when the algorithm is applied robotically it is very easy to come across as insincere.  It sounds like you are listening, and you should be, but often people are simply absorbed in the method and don’t actually listen to the other person.  When people use the line “Sounds like you’re feeling” on me, it’s infuriating, not calming.

As integral philosophy teaches, we need to be open-minded and take the best aspects of pre-modernism, modernism, and postmodernism and “integrate” those aspects into something greater. To that degree, I recognize that nonviolent communication has some useful things to say.  But it is important to understand that it is a tool, and like all tools it is appropriate only in a limited number of circumstances and only to a limited degree. Nonviolent communication is not a replacement for all other communication styles.

Find out more about integral theory here:  https://jeremytunnell.com/2018/09/23/resources-for-learning-about-integral-theory-spiral-dynamics/ 

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Jeremy Tunnell

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By Jeremy Tunnell

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I am a startup founder, investor, mentor, and zouk dancer.
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