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A Comparison of Clean Talk and Nonviolent Communication (NVC)
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By Alyce Barry
This article compares Non-Violent Communication (NVC) with Clean Talk, the communication model we teach and use in Shadow Work®.
NVC was developed by clinical psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D., whose book, Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Life, was first published in 1999. I have based my comparison primarily on the book's second edition, published in 2003, with the addition of a few examples from a half-day NVC workshop I attended in January 2011.
A. BACKGROUND ON THE MODELS
Dr. Rosenberg developed NVC during the 1960s and 1970s, according to the website for Dr. Rosenberg's nonprofit Center for Nonviolent Communication. Dr. Rosenberg describes himself as influenced by the humanistic psychology of Carl Rogers (pp. 113, 175-176).
In the late 1980s, Cliff Barry developed a model for clearings (conversations for resolving conflicts), which he allowed the ManKind Project (MKP) to use during his years as a leader there. He further developed the clearings model for use in Shadow Work®, where he named it Quarter Talk as he aligned its four components with the four archetypal energies on which Shadow Work® is based. He built instruction in Quarter Talk into the Basic Facilitator Training (BFT) for Shadow Work® facilitators and produced a training video that teaches Quarter Talk along with the basics of Word Coaching, the practice of coaching others in the use of the model. He also took it into the corporate world, where he renamed it Clean Talk.
I learned Quarter Talk when I took the BFT in December 1997. In 2008, Cliff invited me to help him write and record the Clean Talk CD, which explains the basics of Clean Talk and of Word Coaching. We aimed the CD at group facilitators and other group leaders.
Clean Talk is primarily known within the business organizations where it has been taught and within the community of organizations that do experiential emotional work based on Jung's psychology, including Shadow Work®, MKP, Women In Power, Woman Revealed, Priestess Path, and Woman Within, among others.
NVC is much more widely known than Clean Talk. It has apparently been taught to millions of people in a wide variety of settings, and NVC workshops and practice groups are widely available. Dr. Rosenberg's book and the accompanying workbook (Nonviolent Communication Companion Workbook by Lucy Leu, 2003) have sold well.
SCOPE OF THIS ESSAY
The two models are based on quite different beliefs about human personality, and it is beyond the scope of this essay to explore in depth the differing beliefs of Carl Rogers and Carl Jung.
This essay doesn't cover two of the topics on the Clean Talk CD: Word Coaching, and how questions in a conversation can be used to conceal a judgment or to pick a fight. Neither does it discuss Dr. Rosenberg's views on asking questions to elicit further information or his comments on the protective use of force.
I sell copies of the Clean Talk CD at the ShadowWork.com Online Store and elsewhere. The CD's copyright is held by Shadow Work Seminars, Inc., and I pay a royalty for each Clean Talk CD sold. The CD was a collaboration; Cliff and I co-wrote the script and recorded and edited the CD together. Since my name is on the CD, I also have some professional stake in the success of the CD.
II. QUICK COMPARISON: THREE EXAMPLES
NVC and Clean Talk each consist of four components, but the components differ. NVC's four elements are observation, feeling, need, and request. Clean Talk's four elements are data, feeling, judgment, and want.
Here are three examples showing the two models expressing roughly the same thing.
Adapted from p.173 of Dr. Rosenberg's book.
Feeling: "I feel scared"
Need: "because I'm needing reassurance that the children will be well taken care of."
Request: "Therefore, I now would like to plan how to provide high-quality child care while I work and how to find sufficient time to be with the children when I am not tired."
Data: "When I imagine going back to work after being with the children full-time,"
Feeling: "I feel afraid."
Judgment: "I think I'll face risks both at work and at home. At work it will be hard to focus if I'm worrying about the children being well cared for. At home I might be too tired to have quality time with my children."
Want: "I want to find high-quality childcare and plan for time with the children when I'm not tired"
Optional second-level want: "because I want both professional fulfillment and to be a good mom."
From p.149 of Dr. Rosenberg's book. The speaker has overheard a statement which he has interpreted to mean that he has been excluded from a conversation because he is Caucasian.
Feeling: "I felt really sick to my stomach, and got so scared,"
Need: "it triggered off all kinds of needs on my part to be treated equally."
Request: "I'd like you to tell me how you feel when I tell you this."
Data: "When I saw you talking to the others in the room and not to me, and then I heard you say you didn't want to talk to any white people,"
Feeling: "I felt afraid."
Judgment: "It sounded to me like you decided not to talk to me because I'm white and might be making assumptions about me without finding out what I'm like."
Want: "I want to be seen for who I am."
Adapted from an example in the workshop. The speaker is responding to a phone call from a spouse who has said, "I can't go out to dinner with you tonight as planned, dear, I'm too busy with work."
Feeling: "I feel sad."
Need: "because I have a need for connection with you."
Request: "Would you be willing to work tomorrow night instead?"
Data: "When I hear you say you can't go out to dinner with me tonight because you're too busy with work,"
Feeling: "I feel sad."
Judgment: "It seems to me that we haven't spent much time together the last two weeks, and I'm sensing some distance between us."
Want: "I want to be close to you,"
Optional second-level want: "because I love you."
III. KEY SIMILARITIES
A. OBSERVATION WITHOUT CONCLUSIONS
NVC's "observation" is quite similar to Clean Talk's "data." Both models suggest that, in accurately making an observation/reporting the data, you imagine that you are a video recorder recording the facts of the situation as objectively as possible.
Both models distinguish between describing the situation in clear data versus making conclusions.
"We need to clearly observe what we are seeing, hearing, or touching that is affecting our sense of well-being, without mixing in any evaluation." For example, "Hank Smith is a poor soccer player" is an evaluation while "Hank Smith has not scored a goal in 20 games" is an observation that contains clearer data. (NVC, p.26)
B. TAKING RESPONSIBILITY FOR FEELINGS
Both models teach the speaker to take responsibility for his/her feelings. Dr. Rosenberg's book does a good job of explaining some of the reasons for taking responsibility, as well as some of the consequences of refusing responsibility, and he offers entertaining examples that illustrate the point effectively.
"By developing a vocabulary of feelings that allows us to clearly and specifically name or identify our emotions, we can connect more easily with one another. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable by expressing our feelings can help resolve conflicts. NVC distinguishes the expression of actual feelings from words and statements that describe thoughts, assessments, and interpretations." (NVC, p.46)Both models instruct the speaker to say "I feel" followed by an adjective that describes a feeling state instead of an evaluation or judgment; for example, to say "I feel sad" rather than "I feel neglected." Both models point out that a word like "neglected" is really an evaluation or judgment, and that "I feel neglected" really means "I think I am neglected."
I'll say more about the book's list of feeling words below because I believe some of the feeling words chosen are evaluations or judgments masquerading as feelings.
C. REQUESTS: POSITIVE, CLEAR AND CONCRETE
Both models recommend expressing what we want in language that is positive rather than negative, clear rather than vague or ambiguous, and concrete rather than intangible.
"First of all, we express what we are requesting rather than what we are not requesting." (NVC, p.67)As Dr. Rosenberg writes, in words that are almost identical to those on the Clean Talk CD, "When we speak, the clearer we are about what we want back, the more likely we are to get it." (p.85).
Both models are based on a belief in treating the other person with compassion and respect, and in healthy communication that builds trust and connection between people.
The people I know who use NVC do so with an intention to share their hearts and their lives with the people they care about, and to do so safely even when conflict is present.
I think communicating with that intention greatly improves the odds of having a healthy conversation. While I believe NVC is not always successful in serving all of those intentions, I think using NVC is vastly preferable to using no model at all.
E. TAKING RESPONSIBILITY FOR CHOICES
Both models observe that saying "I have to do X" is a way of denying that what you really mean is "I want to do X" or "I choose to do X," though their observations come from different motivations.
"If we review the joyless acts to which we currently subject ourselves and make the translation from 'have to' to 'choose to,' we will discover more play and integrity in our lives." (NVC, p.140)
IV. KEY DIFFERENCES
Many of the differences between NVC and Clean Talk can be expressed in terms of their boundaries: their goals and limits. In my opinion, NVC omits some necessary boundaries and places others in unhealthy places. The results are a lack of clarity and power and, in some cases, unintentional deception, manipulation, and other forms of violence. NVC's boundaries, in my judgment, render it less effective and less safe emotionally than Clean Talk.
Clean Talk is suggested for use when emotions are high or conflict is present, or when the speaker wishes to convey something difficult for the other person to hear.
Clean Talk is not suggested for use at all times. On the contrary, using Clean Talk in all our communications would disrupt the natural flow of interpersonal communications.
"[Clean Talk] is a muscle that you're going to learn how to use so that you will have it available for you when it's important. . . . You really don't want to be that little robot going around, talking out of the model 24/7. Don't do that. It might have an impact on some of your relationships." (Clean Talk CD)Dr. Rosenberg appears to suggest that NVC be used at all times (". . . at all levels of communication and in diverse situations," p.8). In my opinion, the use of NVC at all times is likely to cause exhaustion and burnout on the part of NVC users. I add, for the sake of anyone concerned about failing to use NVC in a crucial moment, that apology can go a long way toward mending fences.
Clean Talk suggests that, particularly when conflict is present, the speaker begin by first requesting permission to proceed.
Clean Talk:If the other's reply is no, the speaker waits for another time. This boundary is based on a belief that communication is unlikely to be either effective or productive when the listener is unable to listen for whatever reason. This boundary improves the likelihood that the conversation will go well when it does take place.
In addition, I find no reference in Dr. Rosenberg's book to the advisability of confronting someone in private in order to spare them the possibility of humiliation from a confrontation in public. "Praise publicly, confront privately" is a guideline in Clean Talk.
In my opinion, confronting someone without first asking their permission to do so, and taking the risk of humiliating them by confronting them unnecessarily in public rather than in private, are both forms of violence.
Clean Talk encourages each speaker to talk for as long as it takes to express four related components (data, feeling, judgment, want) and then to give the other person a chance to respond in kind. In effect, Clean Talk proceeds in "rounds" of four elements each from each person.
NVC permits each speaker to talk for an unlimited length of time before allowing the other person to respond. In my opinion, the missing boundary here allows a speaker to "unload on" the other party, making it difficult for the other party to respond to so much that has been spoken, and they're more likely adding to conflict rather than resolving it.
Dr. Rosenberg's book emphasizes that the speaker can take his/her time (pp.152-154). In the workshop I attended, the leader and a volunteer from the audience engaged in a practice conversation in which the leader spoke for more than 5 minutes before allowing the other person to respond. I do not see a reference in Dr. Rosenberg's book to the risk I perceive of one person "unloading" to the point where it becomes nearly impossible for the other to respond.
NVC excludes in its basic recipe (observation, feeling, need, request) the expression of opinions or judgments, or at least not judgments named as such. As I argue in section E below, needs are actually judgments without being named as such.
"Life-alienating communication . . . traps us in a world of ideas about rightness and wrongness—a world of judgments; it is a language rich with words that classify and dichotomize people and their actions. . . . Our attention is focused on classifying, analyzing, and determining levels of wrongness rather than on what we and others need and [are] not getting. . . . It is my belief that all such analyses of other human beings are tragic expressions of our own values and needs." (NVC, p.16)Dr. Rosenberg dislikes what he calls "moralistic judgments" and so has not built into the NVC model a way to consistently and nonviolently communicate them, yet he occasionally adds them to his examples without explaining why he is doing so or how we might safely do so as well (examples on pp. 30, 33, 72, 86, 122, etc.).
1. Labeling the tiger. I imagine nearly everyone reading this article would agree with me that a judgment can hurt somebody. If someone says to me, "You're stupid," they are using a judgment to hurt me.
I believe that if you own a tiger, it's wise to give it lodgings somewhere you can keep an eye on it, to feed it regularly so that it's less tempted to eat its trainer, and to label the cage so that everyone knows there's a dangerous animal in there.
That's the Clean Talk approach: to treat a judgment like a tiger, by giving it space within the conversation to keep an eye on it, and by putting a label on the cage that says it's a tiger. Here are some of the many labels for the tiger's cage:
In my judgment . . .Notice the wide range of certainty these labels reflect: from the very hesitant ("It's my fantasy that") to the secure ("It's clear to me that") to the supremely certain ("We hold these truths to be self-evident, that"). That range is needed because we humans can believe one thing with our whole hearts while believing another thing with only a modicum of certainty.
2. Reclaiming the word judgment. Before going further, I want to talk about the word "judgment." It's a word that many people find distasteful, even repugnant, perhaps especially those who have ever been called "judgmental." Yet the word judgment can have several different meanings, some of which are as harmless as "decision" or "opinion." Let's look at some definitions from dictionaries.
Clean Talk's inclusion of judgments in its basic recipe (data, feeling, judgment, want) is based on a belief that human beings judge all the time, and that we must do so in order to survive. We judge what is right and wrong, judge where we want to live and what we want to eat and wear, judge whom we want to connect with and whom we'd rather not spend time with, judge what kind of career and car and house would suit us, judge what to say and do many times throughout each day. I believe judgment makes it possible for us to grow emotionally and spiritually by allowing us to distinguish how we act from how we wish to act.
In my judgment, a person using NVC or Clean Talk does so because he/she judges it to be a good or useful communication model.
If in the past you have felt uncomfortable using the word judgment, I invite you to say these aloud and see what you think:
Another consequence, in my opinion, is unintentional violence. In his 2006 article "The subtle violence of nonviolent language," Chapman Flack describes how NVC "has added violence to the language," mentioning first NVC's practice of referring to violent communication as the language of jackals:
"The encouragement, even tacit, to fancy ourselves engaged in conversations with jackals, or to file their concerns under 'life-alienated thinking,' can be flattery enough to ego and to haste. [Dr. Rosenberg's] advice never to hear thoughts may be helpful in those bitter disputes of long standing where bad faith is so firmly entrenched . . . But as a general rule it seems likely to create exactly that kind of situation out of simpler ones that could otherwise be easy to resolve. It establishes a speech rule under which matters of concern or dispute common and important among serious people may be inexpressible, dismissed, and unheard. A person who steps outside the speech rule to try to explain the trouble may . . . find that effort itself dismissed for the same reason."In other words, thinking of others as jackals, and providing no way to express disagreement with the model itself, add violence to our communication.
(a) They don't always hurt. Not all judgments hurt, and some are necessary to convey information. Judgment can mean condemnation but doesn't have to. Judgment can mean simply discernment. As Sharon Sarles puts it, "It is not necessary to eschew all content in order to stop the kind of judgmentalness that blocks understanding."It's my belief that when we attempt to hide our judgments, they emerge anyway. They leak out and stalk the conversation until they find a way to intrude, often by contaminating the other elements of the conversation: the observation/data, the feeling, or the want/request.
5. How judgments leak out. This is where the tiger metaphor breaks down, because a real cage can continue to hold a real tiger even if the tiger isn't fed, and hold it for a long time before the bars weaken enough to let the tiger escape. A tiger can starve to death inside a cage.
Not so a judgment. It can escape in the twinkling of an eye. I think most of us have had the experience of saying something that hurt somebody and wondering how it escaped our lips.
When we say something that hurts somebody, I believe it means a judgment has escaped our control. A judgment acts very much like a predator: biting, stinging. mauling, wounding.
Between people trying to communicate, judgments that aren't permitted to surface begin to stalk the conversation until they find a way to leak into and contaminate the other elements of conversation.
When a judgment leaks in:
"When you arrived 30 minutes after the time we said we'd meet"
"When you kept me waiting for 30 minutes."
"I feel afraid"
"I become a nervous wreck."
"I feel sad"
"I have nothing left to live for."
"I want to connect with you"
"I want to see your eyes looking at me rather than at that damned newspaper!"
Dr. Rosenberg's book lists 40 "basic human needs" (pp. 54-55). The workshop I attended and the CNVC website each offered a much longer list of needs.
Since Dr. Rosenberg describes himself as an advocate of the theories of psychologist Carl Rogers, I assume he takes his cue from Rogers' tenet that all human beings share the same universal needs, though I didn't find a passage in which he said so.
While I would agree that I want many of the needs on the list, I find it easy to imagine people who would disagree that some of these are needs. For example, I think I could find an introverted person who would question that "closeness" is a basic need. Similarly, Dr. Rosenberg lists "sexual expression" as a basic human need, and I imagine I could find nuns, priests, monks, members of Shaker communities, and others living a celibate lifestyle who would question that it's a basic human need.
It seems to me that when a person using NVC refers to a need, he/she is making a judgment as if that judgment is an uncontested fact.
In my opinion, every time Dr. Rosenberg says "I need," he's really saying "I believe that I require this." That he doesn't state this as a belief, in my opinion, leaves something hidden that is subtly manipulative, and in doing so is unintentionally violent.
Clean Talk, by contrast, suggests using the word "need" only when referring to those needs without which we couldn't survive: air, food, water, shelter, and so on. In general, Clean Talk suggests that any need not related to survival be expressed as a judgment: "I think I need" or "I seem to need," for example.
"I'm looking at myself and I'm saying, Gee, I really need something here. I believe or I judge that I need something. So there's an assessment in there that's being cloaked. There's a conclusion. . . . I have also sometimes noticed that there can be another assessment in there that the relationship is not going to survive if I don't get this. . . . there's almost a veiled threat in there. . . . When I say I need something, the word 'need' brings a sense of obligation onto the listener, and that's something we want to avoid. We want to say what we want knowing that they might give it to us and they might not." (Clean Talk CD)Note: The Clean Talk CD was designed primarily for group leaders and suggests that, in a business setting, the word "need" might sometimes be appropriate where it might not be in a personal setting; for example, "I need that report on my desk tomorrow morning."
In examples throughout his book, Dr. Rosenberg uses the words "need" and "want" interchangeably without comment.
When I look up each of these words in a dictionary, I see each offered as a definition for the other: want sometimes means need, and need sometimes means want.
In my experience, there is a difference between the two words: "need" seems to have more clout. "Need" seems to signal that I not only want this but require this and must have it in some sense. If that's what it means, is it not violent to suggest that I require it, I must have it, without saying so?
I invite you to read the following pairs of sentences. In your opinion, does each pair of sentences have the same meaning and impact?
I want this job.
NVC encourages the expression of emotions with the exception of anger, which is deemed too violent to express to the other person if expressed as anger. Anger may be expressed after it has been "transformed." Dr. Rosenberg stresses here that the "core" of our anger is an unmet need.
"When we are connected to our need . . . we may have strong feelings, but we are never angry." (NVC, p.143)Dr. Rosenberg believes the cause of anger is that we're thinking wrongly.
"Whenever we are angry, we are finding fault . . . judging or blaming the other person for being wrong or deserving of punishment." (NVC, p.143)Clean Talk allows for the expression of anger in the same manner as other emotions. (Note that in the first example "I need" is used and labeled as the judgment it is.)
Clean Talk:Dr. Rosenberg recommends "connecting empathically with our own needs or those of others" when we feel angry. In the example I mentioned earlier from the NVC workshop, in which a mother talked with her daughter about drunk driving, the workshop leader demonstrated how the mother might express her anger inwardly as empathy without expressing the anger to her daughter. To symbolize this, she held up a scarf in front of her mouth whenever she felt angry and said to herself things like, "Wow, I'm really angry." What strikes me most about this practice is that it attempts to hide what we're really feeling from the other person, which seems to me a form of deception.
Clean Talk allows the mother in that example both to express her anger honestly and to state her assessment of the situation:
As I mentioned above, Dr. Rosenberg's book distinguishes between words that describe actual feelings and words that describe interpretations, and offers a list of each.
"It is helpful to differentiate between words that describe what we think others are doing around us, and words that describe actual feelings." (NVC, p.42)With that statement, Clean Talk and I would agree. However, the book's list of words describing actual feelings contains quite a few words that Clean Talk would consider to be judgments masquerading as feelings, including quite a few words ending in "ed": "aggravated," "alarmed," "annoyed," "brokenhearted," "disappointed," "disgusted," "exasperated", "shocked," and "tired," among others.
Clean Talk suggests that a word ending in "ed" is subtly suggesting that something outside of us is doing something to us, and that therefore we are not taking full ownership of what we feel and perhaps even accusing someone of something harmful. "Ed points the finger" is one way to remember this boundary (with apologies to everyone named Ed!).
I invite you to read the following pairs of sentences and decide for yourself if a word ending in "ed" is implying that someone else has done something to us, compared with a simple feeling word like sad or afraid or angry.
When you broke the window, I felt alarmed.Hurt and other examples. In addition to the "-ed" words are quite a few others on Dr. Rosenberg's list that Clean Talk would consider to be judgments masquerading as feelings: "hurt," "passive," "upset" and "skeptical" to mention just a few. Clean Talk also mentions words like "heard," "seen" and "shut out" as judgments masquerading as feelings.
The word "hurt," in my opinion, implies that someone somewhere is doing some hurting. I think that "injured" is a pretty accurate synonym for "hurt," and "injured" is a word ending in –ed that Clean Talk would describe as a judgment that someone somewhere is doing some injuring.
I invite you to read the following pairs of sentences and decide for yourself if "hurt" implies that somebody is doing some hurting.
When I didn't hear from you, I felt hurt.In my opinion, by allowing "I feel hurt," which subtly implies that someone is hurting us, NVC commits unintentional violence. "Hurt" and words ending in –ed are judgments and can be used as such.
NVC permits a speaker to make a request on behalf of another person without requiring that the speaker describe how they would benefit.
"When they cancelled the contract, I felt really irritated because I was hoping for an opportunity to re-hire the workers we had laid off last year." (NVC, p.51)When I read these examples, I have questions. Why does the first speaker want to re-hire the workers laid off last year? Because they deserve to get their jobs back? Because it would be cheaper since those workers would need less training? Why does the last speaker want to come home and find the house in order and the chores completed? In not requiring the speaker to reveal how they would benefit, in my opinion, there is a lack of clarity and also a denial of ownership.
Similarly, I found examples both in the book (e.g., p.147) and in the workshop of a request to "tell me how you feel when I say this" without saying how that would benefit the person requesting it.
Clean Talk requires that the speaker state how they would benefit as a way of fully owning what they want.
"We think it's vital in stating what you want that you say what you want for you, or what you would get out of something, literally. Not that you don't have altruistic desires, but in everything there is an element that you want just for you, and we want you to own that, we want you to take responsibility for that. It's probably related to why you are having this conversation in the first place. There is something you want, something you're not getting . . ." (Clean Talk CD)
In the NVC workshop I attended, the leader used "I want you to know . . ." several times as a request. I saw only two examples of wanting the other person to know something in Dr. Rosenberg's book (pp. 75, 118), and neither of them is a very typical example, so I don't know for sure what Dr. Rosenberg thinks about this or how often it might be used in NVC.
Clean Talk holds that "I want you to know" is a rather toxic power move and therefore rather violent. For one thing, it doesn't reveal what the speaker would get out of the other person knowing, so the speaker isn't fully owning what they want.
Worse, "I want you to know" often contains a hidden judgment, a hidden want, or both.
For example, in my opinion, "I want you to know that I waited alone for half an hour" seems to contain at least two hidden judgments: that waiting alone for half an hour was harmful in some way for the person doing the waiting, and that someone was bad for causing this to happen (and I wonder who that could be?). There also seems to be a hidden want that the other person feel some guilt or shame about what has happened.
Clean Talk allows "I want you to know" only if the speaker is willing to reveal first what he/she would get out of the other person knowing it. That revelation might require that the speaker confess to a resentful desire for the other person to feel guilt or shame, which of course would be a hard thing to confess, but at least the desire would be out in the open instead of in hiding.
Dr. Rosenberg believes that praise and compliments are "life-alienating" (p.185), and he offers a different way to express appreciation.
"Conventional compliments often take the form of judgments, however positive, and are sometimes offered to manipulate the behaviors of others. NVC encourages the expression of appreciation solely for celebration. We state (1) the action that has contributed to our well-being, (2) the particular need of ours that has been fulfilled, and (3) the feeling of pleasure engendered as a result." (NVC, p.192)Dr. Rosenberg doesn't believe that appreciation is good for the recipient either; he writes that it is usually received "from one of two polar positions. At one end is egotism . . . At the other extreme is false humility . . ." (p.189)
I believe NVC loses a precious opportunity here, particularly for parents, mentors, teachers, and others who wish to acknowledge work well done or to offer blessing or support.
Feeling: "I felt so proud,"
Need: "I have a need to celebrate this dream fulfilled, and"
Request: "I'd love to celebrate the occasion with you."
Feeling: "I felt so happy,"
Judgment: "I think you worked really hard, and I'm so proud of you."
Want: "I'd love to celebrate with you,"
Optional second-level want: "because I'd love to be with you right now."
When a person using NVC makes a request and the other person turns it down, NVC suggests "paraphrasing," by which it means asking "questions that reveal our understanding while eliciting any necessary corrections from the speaker" (p.96). In my judgment, this is a form of guessing what the other person might be feeling and needing, and then asking a question seeking to confirm the guess. Continuing from Example C above:
NVC:Response: "Are you reacting to how many evenings I was gone last week?" (NVC, p.96) On one hand, this paraphrasing or guessing seems to be trying to compensate for the incapacity of the original exchange to express reasons, which are a type of judgment, and to me that seems like a good thing. On the other hand, it seems to be inviting a discussion of reasons with no clear guidelines for how reasons might be expressed safely using NVC.
In the example from section K:
NVC:Response: "Sure, you can come along. I worked so hard for this."
First speaker's response: "Are you feeling hurt because you would have liked more appreciation of your efforts than you received?" (NVC, p.96) In my opinion, the practice of "paraphrasing" seems to be based on an assumption that the other person isn't capable of expressing feelings for themselves, and is therefore somewhat condescending.
When a person using Clean Talk expresses a want, and the other person expresses a different or contrary want, the first speaker uses another round of Clean Talk to express a reaction, using the usual guidelines. To continue with Example C:
Clean Talk:Response: "When I hear your response, I feel afraid. I wish I could see a way around working tonight, but I can't, it really seems as if I need to stay here and work and get this done. I'm afraid you're thinking I don't care, and I do care, and I want to be close to you, too. I'd like to see if I can finish this and then take some extra time off to spend with you so we can be close again."
One of NVC's four components is a request of the other person, while Clean Talk suggests expressing a want.
NVC:It seems to me that a direct request is less effective for two reasons. First, it assumes that the other person can supply the request. Second, it can set an expectation that there are only two possible answers: yes and no. A request seems to me to imply that there are limited alternatives and in general to simplify and shorten the conversation rather than to open it up to whatever might help resolve the conflict.
Clean Talk offers a way to introduce what I call a "second-level want;" for example, "I want to be close to you, because I love you."
I believe that a second-level want helps to bring into the open the real reason for the conversation: the relationship between me and the other person. After all, if I didn't care about my relationship with this person, why would I bother trying to talk it out? Wouldn't I just blow it off or let it go? A higher-level want can express the love and commitment to the relationship that underlie the conversation and for that reason often helps to resolve the conflict more effectively than any other component of the conversation.
V. THE SHADOWS OF CLEAN TALK AND NVC
A. WHAT IS SHADOW?
For the sake of anyone reading who is familiar with NVC but not with Jung's psychology, I'll quickly describe the theory of shadow.
Shadow is the repressed or denied part of the Self. Our shadow consists of the parts of ourselves that we have put away, either because they were not welcome to the people around us while we were growing up, or in our lives today because they seem to be in the way of achieving a goal. Our shadow selves can include both "dark" energies like aggression and "golden" energies like self-esteem. Our attempts to keep these parts of the Self out of sight aren't completely effective: when we place a part of the Self in shadow, we lose conscious control over it, but it remains a part of us, and it "leaks" into our lives wherever it can.
Picture a dam across a river. No matter how high or how strong the dam, as long as the river keeps flowing, the water must find a way through. If it's not allowed through the dam, it will find a way over, under, or around the dam. Water allowed through the dam is under our conscious control. Water leaking over, under, or around the dam is not.
Dr. Rosenberg isn't a Jungian, so perhaps he believes that it's possible to stop our inner river of judgments from flowing if we try hard enough. I have a different belief. I'm pretty sure that life in general and NVC in particular offer a good deal of proof that we can't stop judging even if we want to.
So what happens when water leaks under, over, or around the dam? One common manifestation of a shadow leaking into our lives is the things we do "by accident" without consciously intending to: the actions we take against our better judgment, the things we do and say that lead us to ask later, "What was I thinking?" Examples include binge-eating while we're on a diet, "cheating" on addictions like smoking and drinking, and self-sabotage of all stripes.
It's my belief that every system, every group, every person has a shadow. Thus, I believe that Clean Talk has a shadow and NVC has a shadow.
B. THE SHADOWS OF CLEAN TALK
On the Clean Talk CD, Cliff and I discussed only one shadow of Clean Talk, namely, that in attempting to perfect our communication, we risk destroying the natural flow of human interaction, sounding a little like robots and thereby risking damage to our relationships. I had fun writing this example:
"When I passed you the salt and saw you use it on your baked ostrich, I felt happy. It's my judgment that it's the little things in life that matter, like having salt to sprinkle on our baked ostrich, and I wanted to share that with you, because I love you."Writing this article has focused my attention on the shadows of Clean Talk for the first time since recording the CD with Cliff in 2008.
What strikes me first and most forcefully is the difference in popularity. NVC is detailed in a book by Dr. Rosenberg, a workbook by Lucy Leu, a website (www.cnvc.org), and what appears to be a sizable empire of classes, workshops and practice groups.
Clean Talk, by contrast, is described on a CD (accompanied by two single-page handouts) and on a single page at the Shadow Work® website. It is taught to everyone who takes the Shadow Work® Basic Facilitator Training and sometimes to individuals and couples in Shadow Work® coaching sessions. A few facilitators trained in Clean Talk offer classes or private instruction.
There is a prevalent belief in the Shadow Work® community that Clean Talk is the best communication model available in the world today. Yet there is no book, no workbook, no schedule of classes, no empire.
If we who use Clean Talk believe it to be of value and of great potential benefit to the world, why have we not worked to make it better known?
I suspect a combination of reasons, some of which may reflect our shadows, while others may reflect our spiritual beliefs or our view of reality.
In 2007, when I was preparing to publish Practically Shameless, I heard from publishing and writer friends that paying a publicist often makes the difference in a book's financial success. But the cost of hiring a publicist was high, and it seemed extraordinarily difficult to find a publicist who would understand how to market a book based on ideas far outside the mainstream. I feared it was too big a gamble and chose not to pursue borrowing the money needed. Was that fear based on a shadow, a belief, or a truth about the world? I don't know.
C. THE SHADOWS OF NVC
What follows is a brief discussion of what I believe to be some of the shadows of NVC. As evidence, I will reference the ways in which I believe NVC allows water to leak around the dam.
I believe the shadows of NVC render it unintentionally violent. As Sharon Sarles puts it, "Untruth in action, that is, incongruency between words and actions is itself himsa" (where she translates Mahatma Gandhi's word himsa as harm or violence).
I say unintentionally because the people I know who use NVC have, I believe, every intention of communicating without violence and use it in good faith.
Since Clean Talk is based on the Shadow Work® Model of four archetypal energies (Magician, Sovereign, Lover, Warrior), I've ordered this discussion according to archetype.
1. NVC'S Magician shadows. The Magician is the part of us that knows, thinks, learns, intuits, controls and manipulates. It's our inner Merlin, it's the "head" or "mind" part of us. Our Magician values knowledge, clarity, discernment, understanding, reason, control. Its job is to respond to fear by detaching us so that we can find guidance about what's causing our fear and return to a state of safety.
Dr. Rosenberg appears to view thinking (Magician energy) mostly with suspicion.
". . . I've learned that I enjoy human beings more if I don't hear what they think." (NVC, p.151)Dr. Rosenberg seems to engage in a good deal of analysis in his book while at the same time denouncing analysis as an activity he's not interested in. As Chapman Flack put it, after watching a 200-minute training video by Dr. Rosenberg, "The effect is a curious picture of a man adroitly doing very fine, attentive thinking while insisting that it's not the thing to do." On Dr. Rosenberg's stated preference not to hear what people think, Flack comments, "I am not sure that is a recipe for nonviolence, when what so many desperately need is that their fully human minds be fairly heard."
When NVC discourages thinking and excludes judgments from conversation, I believe it places Magician energy in shadow. And I believe I see Magician energy "leaking" into other parts of the NVC model. As I mentioned above, I see on the feelings list, words that I think are judgments masquerading as feelings, and "needs" are expressed as facts rather than as beliefs that they are needs. I see these as examples of judgments leaking into and contaminating other parts of the NVC model.
When NVC permits the added clout of "I need" to replace "I want," it seems to me that some form of manipulation is present, and when a speaker manipulates without saying so, in my opinion it's a form of violence.
Despite his expressed dislike for thinking in general and for judgments in particular, I see Dr. Rosenberg suggesting that an NVC user make an extraordinary number of judgments, to divine the needs of ourselves and others, to respond to the "deeper meanings" beneath another person's words (p.9), to sense the other person's reality (p.97), and, when a request is refused, to guess what the other person is feeling or needing.
Yet, in making these judgments, we never say that we're doing so. In my judgment, hiding what you're doing is a form of deception, and deception is a form of violence.
I hold it as a maxim that when we suppress one function of an archetype, we have less access to other functions of that same archetype. In suppressing the Magician's ability to judge, I believe NVC suffers a significant loss of the Magician's function of providing clarity. Are want and need really interchangeable? If we're not willing to say we believe that violence is bad in any way, why are we devoting time and effort to nonviolent communication?
2. NVC'S Warrior shadows. The Warrior is the part of us that takes action, that works towards a goal, that serves, that hunts for what we need and maintains what we own, that takes responsibility, keeps an eye on the clock and anchors us in reality. If you picture Lancelot from the tales of King Arthur or D'Artagnan from the works of Alexandre Dumas, you'll have an idea what I mean by the Warrior.
Our Warrior values action, strength, cleanliness, straightforwardness, integrity. The Warrior acquires things for us and protects us, roles that are easy to see in the world of sports as offense and defense. The Nike slogan is a good Warrior motto: "Just do it."
The Warrior's job is to respond to anger by setting a boundary (a limit or a goal) so that we can accomplish something. If you're a Christian, I invite you to consider that Jesus brought up his Warrior when he overthrew the tables of the money changers in order to set a boundary about how the sacred space of the temple is rightly used.
Despite the Warrior's warlike name, Warrior energy is not violent in itself. Warrior energy can certainly be used in violent ways. (So can Magician energy: the tiger I've just been discussing.)
The Warrior could also be called the Accomplisher, the Doer, the Achiever. I use the word Warrior because I find the Warrior's symbols of sword and shield to be clear and effective. When I register for a class in order to learn new things, I use my Warrior's sword to draw a wider circle in the sand around myself to encircle the knowledge I seek to acquire. When someone says something hurtful, I use my Warrior's shield to protect my heart from hurt.
As a parent, I fight metaphorical battles on behalf of my child to obtain whatever he/she needs, and I shield my child from those features of the larger world for which my child is not yet ready.
Dr. Rosenberg equates anger with the desire to find fault; he writes that anger "indicates that we have moved up to our head to analyze and judge somebody" (p.143). His experience of anger is apparently quite different from mine; I find when I'm angry that I don't think very clearly, which tells me that I'm anywhere but in my head.
I have a different view of anger. It's my belief that anger and other emotions are signals to let us know what's happening around us. Anger is a signal that a boundary has been crossed. Without anger, I wouldn't know that someone had crossed my boundaries, invaded my privacy without my permission, blamed me for something that wasn't my fault, taken advantage of me, "put one over on" me, or "crossed a line."
When NVC equates anger with blame and requires that it be "transformed" internally before it can be expressed to another person like other emotions, I believe it places Warrior energy in shadow. And I believe I see water leaking around the dam, in many missing and unhealthy boundaries. In an exercise during the NVC workshop I attended, one person asked, "Am I myself or the other person?" I thought to myself, That's a telling question that reveals a confusion of boundaries.
3. NVC'S Sovereign shadows. The Sovereign is the part of us that leads, accepts ourselves and others, that blesses and supports, that gives and cares for others, that shows compassion and mercy. The Sovereign is our inner King Arthur, the visionary leader of the realm that wants new ways of being and leads us there. Our Sovereign values balance, being, peace, spirituality. Its job is to respond to joy by motivating us through acceptance.
As I described in Practically Shameless, every shadow can be visualized as a loop between opposite extremes. I believe Dr. Rosenberg's fear of praise reveals a Sovereign shadow in which he can see only the extremes of "egotism" and "false humility" (p.189) without seeing the balanced center between the two. As I mentioned above, by prohibiting praise and compliments, I believe NVC makes it difficult for parents, teachers, mentors, and other leaders to reward work well done and pass on their most cherished beliefs.
When NVC prohibits praise, I believe it places Sovereign energy in shadow. And I believe I see water leaking around the dam, in the situations described above where wants are not fully owned. I see water leaking also in his suggestion that we guess what the other person is feeling and needing, which seems to assume the other person isn't capable of describing it, and therefore rather condescending (in Sharon Sarles' words, "he seems to talk down to and look down upon others"). And if "need" and "want" are used interchangeably because Dr. Rosenberg is afraid that simply wanting isn't a good enough basis for a request, then water is leaking there as well.
4. NVC'S Lover shadows. The Lover is the part of us that feels, that connects us to others and to our bodies. The Lover is the part of us that is vulnerable, artistic, playful, childlike. Our Lover values feelings, connection, beauty, health. Its job is to respond to sadness by connecting us through our feelings.
Dr. Rosenberg refers to NVC as "the language of the heart," and I think its focus on connection is one of NVC's strong points. In fact, in some situations he seems to suggest that connection is all that matters and that it is better to drop boundaries rather than risk losing connection.
To illustrate the value of empathy, for example, Dr. Rosenberg tells a story about a school principal who comes upon a dejected student while hurrying to join an important meeting for which she is quite late. It doesn't seem to occur to either the principal or Dr. Rosenberg that the goal of attending the meeting need not be summarily dropped in favor of spending an unspecified length of time with the student, that the situation might be a both/and rather than an either/or. With a simple boundary expressed using Clean Talk, the principal could satisfy the needs both of the student and of those waiting for her attendance in the meeting:
Clean Talk:In my opinion, in expressing her inner conflict, the principal acts more honestly toward the student, and with more integrity toward those waiting for her in the meeting, as well as modeling for the student that life sometimes presents us with difficult choices and how neither of those choices need be sacrificed for the other.
I've quoted above several of Dr. Rosenberg's statements about preferring connection over thinking. In Flack's words, "He has focused on feeling to the exclusion of thinking." Flack's article quotes from Linda Elder's work on emotional intelligence, in which Elder helpfully points out that "thought and emotion" are not like oil and water but are rather "inseparable constituents of human cognition."
While I think Dr. Rosenberg seems to rely almost entirely on emotion at times to resolve a conflict, and while I think that is both unnecessary and unwise, I think NVC does convey the speaker's emotion in many cases and helps people connect through their feelings, which satisfies the Lover in each of us. In my opinion, NVC has fewer shadows in the area of Lover energy than elsewhere.
Barry, Cliff, and Barry, Alyce. Clean Talk CD. Boulder, CO: Shadow Work® Seminars, Inc., 2008. Communication tools for group leaders, with original music by John Whalen.
Flack, Chapman. "The subtle violence of nonviolent language." Cross Currents, Fall 2006. Online. Flack described himself in Cross Currents as follows: "Chapman Flack develops software in Lafayette, Indiana, a pursuit he has practiced in the private sector, in the federal courtswhere an interest in dispute resolution and process took holdand in computer science research. He believes that conversations between the sciences and humanities should be more common."
Rosenberg, Marshall B. Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Life. Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press, 2003. Second Edition.
Sarles, Sharon. "Non-violent? Communication?: A review of Rosenberg's NVC Method." Southwest Facilitators Network, September 2001. Online.
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