The good, the bad and the nonviolent – NVC for active listening

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Non Violent Communication technique cards

This is just a quick post about Non Violent Communication (NVC). It’s one of a number of structured request systems for making conversations more focused and able to deliver results that satisfy both sides. It is a well established technique and has been used in many hard conversations (in diplomacy for example).

I use it in Learning To Listen workshops as a way of helping people see the structures of their business conversations and to feel the edges of their problems with both clearly requesting and offering help.

I am in two minds about NVC. I’ll give a few reasons why here (this is not a full list).

The Good

I have used NVC at home and at work. It offers some clarity about how to reflect on what you are asking for and recognising what people are asking of you.

Most interaction design treats emotion as an unhelpful byproduct of conversations. This is deeply unhelpful. Emotion is an essential part of how we recognize and prioritize our own needs. NVC is good for putting emotion in the foreground: recognize feeling then need.

When listening (especially as a parent or manager), it is very easy to be dishonest. You are never going to provide the thing that is being requested. The need to be honest with yourself when listening is part of NVC.

What is violence is at the core of NVC. It’s not really the overt violence of physical threats but the violence of differing levels of power and privilege. It is about the ability of some people to say no and the inability of some people to say no. How hierarchy and power can mean conversations can be without willingness or compassion.

For example, a manager can be unwilling to change a project deadline so the conversation is pointless. The conversation merely restates the violence in the control over staff the manager has. It merely demonstrates their lack of compassion towards the needs of staff. NVC forces you to consider whether you should open a conversation where you are clear that you will never be willing to change and never care.

These are three examples of what I find good about NVC.

The bad

I like NVC. I was using it in workshops about chatbots and conversational design because the structure seemed helpful in clearly putting emotion into human/computer interactions. However, there are things about NVC that I find problematic.

It’s relatively easy in workshops to show people how to talk and listen using NVC. How this technique survives its use back in organisations is trickier tho. Mutuality means both parties are aware that the conversation is structured in the way that NVC defines. Using NVC without such mutuality merely creates another form of imbalance and violence. This problem is one of corporations training their managers but not their staff. The problem is not within NVC but it is within its application thru standard training and development systems. The raw structure of NVC can be used by total jerks. NVC cannot solve the problem of crap managers and crap organisational culture.

NVC is centered around naming and stating emotions. NVC demands a great vocabulary. This is very tricky as a) it privileges those who have better vocabularies b) it presumes that a wider range of words equals greater granularity of mutual comprehension. The latter issue has come up in Counselling training: I may know more words but that still doesn’t understand what any human talking to me feels at that moment of conversation.

Finally, there is the central problem (for me) of using NVC in active listening. It’s just feels a bit weird (and it is) describing emotions and needs in such a structured way. It may take years of practice to make this overt recognition of emotion/need comfortable. Emotions are locked into human sensemaking (“emotions coat our experiences” is a phrase used in some books). This kind of overt naming of emotions and needs is something that an AI might be able to do but it’s hard for humans.

So my problems with NVC are based in fears about bad deployment and possible failure to solve the issue it offers to help with.

Good/Bad

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I think NVC has value (and I do prefer it to other structured request systems) but I am wary of it. This post is about why I like and dislike it.

In workshops, I use NVC as a bridge to get between understanding listening and possible methods of Active Listening. It’s a useful tool but it’s not the final answer.

Written by

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX

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