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How can there be NVC if there isn’t VC?

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By Grace Rachmany

June 18, 2024

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Why NVC (Non-Violent Communication) drives me mad

People communicating

As someone who has suffered from foot-in-mouth syndrome, I have taken hundreds of hours of communications training, including Landmark’s Communication Curriculum, Anthony Robbins Leadership Academy, Mark Murphy’s Four Communication Styles, Microsolidarity, Dale Carnegie, Authentic Revolution (Sara Ness), Authentic Relating, and multiple others. But the one that I can’t handle is Non-Violent Communication (NVC). Although NVC is the least effective of all the methodologies I know of, it’s the most popular, which probably speaks more to the culture than the methodology.

In fact, my first experience with NVC was not only gruelingly drawn-out, but the results were unsatisfactory. In this blog post, I’ll go through my observations and reasons why NVC is inferior to other communications training.

Grace Rachmany consulting for DAO projects

Caveat: I’m not saying NVC is worse than the default communication in society today. The implementation can be done well, and it’s definitely better than no training at all. With NVC is better than without, but generally speaking, there are much better methodologies out there (and I’ve named several). 

The problems with NVC:

  • The name implies that there can be “violent” communication. In reality, being yelled at doesn’t compare with being stabbed, punched, or shot.
  • NVC requires both parties to have some level of facility in using the technique. Most of the time, most people need to speak to humans who don’t have NVC training.
  • The methodology doesn’t provide access to the full power, creativity, and agency that is available through communication.
  • By banning certain emotions that are perceived as aggressive, NVC can cause passive-aggressive behavior. “You aren’t using NVC” is often used as a passive-aggressive way of saying that the listener doesn’t have to acknowledge anything that doesn’t fit into the proper syntax.
  • NVC is less effective than other communications methodologies in terms of the time it takes to get results. 
  • There is no objective way to determine what communication is “aggressive” or “violent” and each person is triggered by different words and phrases. There’s a danger of censorship or slipping into such careful communication that certain topics and emotions are completely avoided. 
  • NVC is biased towards certain cultures and generations. Some cultures just speak more bluntly or loudly and people of those cultures will have more trouble adopting it. 

A man being silenced


I’ll break down each of these items below. But first, a story (which you can feel free to skip).

My NVC story

My distaste for Non-Violent Communication was cemented during a visit to a community in which someone was not just aggressive, but intolerant of my cultural background. After a 3-hour discussion (from which I was excluded), the facilitators seemed somewhat surprised that I asked for a simple apology and assurance that I would not be threatened because of my religion or ethnicity. 

My request was countered with a 1-hour NVC session. In this session, when I asked the person to apologize, he was not allowed to apologize. He had to say “I hear you saying that you would like me to apologize.” He did apologize by the end of the hour, but the community was unable to provide any assurance that I would not experience prejudice or aggression because of my background, apparently because they would have had to discuss that for another 3 hours and the day was drawing to an end. What’s the point of “non-violent” communication if you can’t assure me that I won’t experience physical violence? 

So here are the details of how and why NVC falls short.

Where NVC falls short

Sticks and stones

Violence involves intentional harm to someone’s physical body. Words evoke emotion, and some of those emotions are painful. But words cannot make you bleed. 

If there is such a thing as non-violent communication, that implies that there is violent communication. Does it mean that everything that isn’t NVC is violent communication? Where do we draw the line? Is there a particular decibel level where we know it’s violent?  What words are allowed and not allowed? How do we identify intention to harm?

The idea that speech could be violent assumes that the person being spoken to is fragile, or that they can’t just leave the room. It assumes that the listener doesn’t have the skills to handle other people’s emotional outbursts. Most people are a lot less fragile than we pretend. Just about everyone has survived many emotional outbursts from others, and just about everyone has been forgiven for their own emotional outbursts. There’s a lot to be said for acting like an adult when someone is upset instead of creating a formula that will supposedly prevent anyone from having an outburst.

2 People yelling at a person that isn't responding

My training in communication has put me in a place where, no matter what someone says, and no matter how they say it, I know I can handle it. I know I can’t handle it if they punch me or stab me with a knife. But there is nothing anyone can say to me that I can’t handle. If they are upset, I want the skill to calm them down or to wait it out. To me, that’s more valuable than trying to correct their communication. 

Does that mean I’m never hurt or upset by someone’s words? Of course not. But I can handle it. Maybe I have a lesson to learn. Maybe there is some unfinished trauma I need to heal. Maybe I need to apologize for how I acted towards them. 

NVC teaches you that there are some kinds of communication that you never have to listen to. Other disciplines teach you things like “Every communication is a cry for help or a declaration of love” (Tony Robbins) or that “You can be with any communication” (Landmark Worldwide). 

People have the power

As one of my communications teachers once said “If someone says f* you too, it means that you must first have said f* you.” In other words, the communication to you is a function of the communication from you. 

As unlikely as this may sound, you have the power to influence your communication to others, others’ communication to you, and the communication from others-to-others in your environment. This is a function of being able to accept any type of communication. I can’t explain it well, but I can give an example.

A boss yelling at his employees

While I was doing the advanced communications training with Landmark, I worked for a CEO who regularly shouted in management meetings. Every two weeks he would pick on a different manager and loudly criticize them. One day, it was my turn and I froze up and couldn’t respond. Later that day, I went to his office, and I said “You spoke loudly in the meeting, and because of my upbringing with a mother who raised her voice, I automatically turned off my brain when you did that, so I didn’t pay attention to what you said. Could you please repeat what it is that I messed up so that I can make sure to handle it?” Not only did he apologize profusely, he never did it again. To anyone. He just stopped raising his voice in the office (and reported that his Board of Directors meetings started going unexpectedly well). 

When you have that power, you transform your entire communications environment, and unleash a level of power and creativity that is simply inaccessible if people are too fragile to hear certain words. You can have the ability to work harmoniously with people who others find difficult. You can create loving relationships with your most irritating relatives, bureaucrats, building contractors, and even teenagers. All of that without “fixing” the people around you. 

There are disciplines that teach you that level of power in communications, but NVC is not one of them.

Everybody must get stoned

Based on my observations, NVC is designed to work when all the parties involved have the training. It’s a little like jargon or an interoperability protocol. If not everyone uses the protocol, it can be too indirect or too weird (“I hear you saying that you would like me to apologize.”). People with other types of communications training can fake it well enough, but let’s face it. Most people don’t have any communications training whatsoever.

If your communication method only works for the 1% of humanity who also have the training, it’s of limited use. Almost all of the other methodologies assume the other people don’t have the skills you do. (Some are even designed to put you in a superior position to persuade others.)

Let’s get loud

People have all kinds of emotions. Anger, for example, is a functional emotion that often indicates a violation of boundaries or an injustice. When you put a bunch of rules around how you are allowed to express your emotions, you start to repress some of those emotions. And when you repress aggressive behavior, you get passive-aggressive behavior. 

A friend recently showed me a text exchange with her supervisor in which each of them accused the other of “not using NVC” in their text exchange. First of all, it would be wise not to use text for emotional exchanges, but since we live in the real world…

Every time someone declares that the other person isn’t using NVC, the implication is that the listener doesn’t have to deal with the concern being expressed until it is expressed in the proper manner. The exchange my friend showed me was extremely passive-aggressive, but neither of them could see it because the protocol was masking the underlying aggression instead of allowing for its open expression.

What happens when you really are emotional about something? You aren’t helped out of the situation; you are rejected and told to express yourself differently. That emotion is going to appear somewhere else, whether you like it or not. That rejection is going to have a cost. 

Unfortunately, not even I am bold enough to say to an NVC practitioner that they are being passive-aggressive. 

Slow hand

NVC is slow. As I said in the introduction, NVC is an improvement on the too-short, asynchronous, and overly-emotional communications that we’ve become accustomed to because of social media. 

At the same time, it’s very slow. NVC emphasizes making sure each side understands the  nuances of the other person instead of just getting to the point. I can see benefits of that approach, particularly in communities where people live together and they are more concerned with relationships than velocity. But I think there are faster ways to get to the same places, including faster ways to get to intimacy. 

Slip sliding away

Everyone feels differently about what constitutes communication that is too loud or words that are offensive. Different people will stick to the NVC protocol in different ways. If the criterion for “non-violent” is that nobody feels upset or hurt, it’s a slippery slope. 

We’re already quite far down the slippery slope, in fact. I was once informed that by using a hyphen in describing a particular subculture, I am indicating that I am a hater against that group. I apologized profusely and thanked them for this important cultural distinction, and promptly corrected my text message. 

Used properly and responsibly, NVC can dramatically improve group communications. Used improperly, it can lead to a culture in which there are too many taboos to communicate effectively. 

Short people 

Finally, NVC is biased towards certain cultures and generations. Some cultures just speak more bluntly or loudly. Often people of older generations tend to have a more abrasive way of speaking. When you are injured or ill, you have less capacity to manage your ways of expression.

A polite street vendor

If you come from a “louder” culture, people may think you are raising your voice when you think you are speaking at a normal volume. If your culture is more direct, learning NVC might be a lot more difficult than if you come from a culture with more politeness protocols. Or it might be the opposite. In cultures where there are already a lot of extras you need to throw in for politeness, NVC might make it close to impossible to communicate. (Obviously, I wouldn’t know.)

In short, NVC does come with cultural biases which may make it impractical for some groups.

Try this at home

Whether you’re an NVC practitioner or not, let me leave you with simple practices you can try with friends, colleagues, and family to get a sense of how to be more powerful in your communication:

  1. When you want to communicate something that’s bothering you about someone, before giving them feedback say “There’s something that’s been bothering me that I want to discuss with you. Would you prefer for me to be direct or to speak in a more sensitive way?” Observe how often people request you to just be direct.
  2. Think of someone in your life who you avoid talking to, or who you avoid saying certain things to.
  3. Get specific about what bothers you. Are you concerned they will get angry? That they won’t listen? Be as specific as possible. (You can write it down if it helps.)
  4. Notice that you are capable of handling it if they do that thing, and that you don’t have to get upset when they do it. After all, they are going to do that thing, so you might as well accept it.
  5. Note the things you do to “prepare” yourself. Do you tighten your muscles? Speak hesitantly? Notice ways in which the preparation actually could trigger the behavior you don’t want.
  6. Next time you speak to them, prepare yourself the way you would prepare yourself for a good outcome. Use the body language and type of speech you would use if you were expecting them to be awesome. See how it goes.
  7. If you perceive someone to be aggressive, angry, or over emotional, ask yourself what it is that you may have done to trigger that response. If it’s not you who triggered it, ask yourself “Is this an expression of love or a cry for help?” 

 

Let me know how it goes! I love to get responses on social media (X (Twitter) and LinkedIn) and by email about how these exercises work for you. Also, feel free to check out videos of live workshops I’ve hosted.

Grace Rachmany, leading crypto whitepaper write

About me

Grace Rachmany is the founder of DAO Leadership and leads workshops and educational programs for people who want to create their own DAOs and Web3 projects. Grace has over 20 years of experience in causing multidisciplinary and multicultural teams to reach specific outcomes and results and is now one of the top DAO token experts and Web3 business models. Having consulted for hundreds of blockchain businesses, she is a sought-after speaker and mentor in the space.