If you spent any time around people over the course of 2020, you likely found yourself in the midst of several tense conversations. How you respond is typically ingrained in you over time as you have gained more and more experience in communicating. The unfortunate part is that these conversations have the potential to turn, “violent,” meaning they result in emotional and mental harm to yourself and whoever you are talking with. Hopefully, I can provide some tools to help you shift your response to a “non-violent” one and point you in the right direction for further studying on your own.
Example of a Tense Conversation
Let’s say you live with a roommate, perhaps someone you’ve been close friends with since college. Your roommate typically only washes his dishes once a week, on Fridays, if you’re lucky. For the most part, they gather in the sink and you have to wash your own dishes around them. One day, you’ve had enough of this and tell him he needs to stop being lazy and clean his dishes after he uses them. This statement includes evaluation and judgment, which are the components of violent communication. But, how do we communicate our wants and needs in a nonviolent way?
The book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg provides clear direction on how to develop your abilities to show others respect and compassion in these types of tense interactions. In the book, Rosenberg lays out a process with four elements – observations, feelings, needs, and requests.
This step involves simply observing what the other person is doing that is negatively impacting your life with the added caveat that you can’t critique the other person. People seem naturally bent toward evaluating and then classifying others. We are either smart or ignorant, dependable or irresponsible, inconsiderate or thoughtful. Rosenberg shares that these classifications are based on personal values and needs. People believe they have determined the best way to think and behave and have an innate desire for everyone to think and behave in that way. Whether they do or do not results in which category they are classified into. The trick, according to Rosenberg, is to keep observation separate from evaluation, since evaluation puts people on the defensive. In simpler terms, I believe this just involves stating the plain facts. Therefore, the phrase “Nick is a terrible football player” can be turned into “Nick has fumbled the ball 6 times in 3 games.”
Step two involves saying how we feel about what the other person is doing. Accurately stating our identifying feelings is something that can be difficult for many people. This is an area that many people who come to Optimum Joy for help require advancement in their skills. This seems like the obvious outcome of our living in this society. People are rarely asked, “how do you feel?” From a young age, the emphasis is placed on increasing our “head knowledge” and not our “heart knowledge.” If you struggle in this area, then I encourage you to work on advancing these skills of identifying and expressing your feelings in a healthy way. It will greatly improve your own mental health, your relationships, and even your career.
This third step is another area in which many need help: voicing what needs they have that are connected to the feelings shared in the previous step. The issue is when a person jumps from stating their feelings, to critiquing the other person. Instead, they should be sharing their specific needs and working toward finding a way to satisfy both their needs and the needs of the other person. And sharing your needs can be scary as doing so can leave us open to judgment, especially if you are part of a societal group that has been historically told their needs do not matter. Sharing your needs can lead to a feeling of empowerment and respect for yourself, and often respect from others.
The last step is to provide a request that is specific and identifies what the other person can do to meet our needs. Going back to our scenario about you and your roommate and his dirty dishes, what would be the nonviolent way for you to communicate? You could say something to the effect of, “Joe, when I see dirty dishes in the sink for multiple days, I feel frustrated because I am needing more cleanliness in our shared space. Would you be willing to clean whatever dishes you use before you go to bed every night?” In a phrase such as this, there is no evaluation or judgment, and you get to clearly voice your feelings and needs. It is important to remember that no matter how your roommate responds, you continue to communicate in a nonviolent way.
Hopefully, you can see how this can extend to all types of conversations that could turn tense. Conversations about politics, relationship difficulties, etc. This is only a glimpse of what Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life shares.
If you think you could use some help in communicating respectfully and with compassion, reach out to a counselor here at Optimum Joy today!
Written by therapist Pete Marlow
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