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Nonviolent Communication (Stop It!)


Someone has called me a liar and a thief, and has failed to produce any explanation or evidence. Nonviolent Communication suggests that I ask, “what is it you need?”

Bob-newhartMost management books are flawed
, says Chris Argyris in Flawed Advice and the Management Trap. Management books usually give advice using a “Model 2” mindset, while organizations are stuck in a “Model 1” mindset. Argyris’ conclusion (which I find overly simplistic, but still useful) can be translated into systems thinking by saying that the current culture in an organization rejects new ideas when the new ideas are incompatible with the old ones, and the advice doesn’t say how to get rid of the old ideas. Or, in Argyris’ words, the experts often don’t explain how to move from Model 1 to Model 2.

For example, when there’s lack of trust in organizations, management writers (including me) usually respond by suggesting there should be more trust.

When managers are not delegating decisions to teams, the common advice is to empower people and delegate more to teams.

When people have developed the unhealthy habit of smoking, their friends often suggest that they should stop smoking.

They mean it well, but it’s not very helpful.

Stop It!

It reminds me of a hilarious old video of a psychiatrist who has a very simple solution to all compulsive behaviors and neurological disorders. His advice was clear and simple:

Stop it!

Just stop doing whatever stupid thing it is you’re doing.

Simple, isn’t it?

The latest contender in this category is, in my opinion, a book called Nonviolent Communication (NVC). The author explains, in an admittedly convincing and rational way, that people will benefit greatly if they can separate signals from feelings, and separate needs from requests. It all makes a lot of sense, if your brain is actually able to do this (Model 2). But a vast majority of people suffer from a neurological condition called humanity which means their brains are wetwired to be emotional, not rational (Model 1). The NVC book does not explain how to bypass or overrule the emotional legacy framework that evolution has dumped on us.

Someone called me a thief and a liar, without giving any explanation or evidence. My first thought, dictated by 6000 years of evolution, is “screw you!” (standard brain, or Model 1). But a better thing would be to ask, “Can you explain what is your need, and how can I help you understand my need?” (NVC, or Model 2). Model 2 leads to better results. But having a parser in your brain continuously analyzing emotions, and translating signals to needs, is impossible to do in a brain wired for Model 1.

Ten years ago, being a rationally inclined person, I probably would have loved Nonviolent Communication. But by now I’ve been brainwashed with too much systems thinking and complexity thinking (Model 3). I now think that Nonviolent Communication sounds suspiciously similar to “Stop it!”

Start Wherever You Are

I firmly believe that the culture of an organization can change only from within. You have to start with new ideas that reinforce the good parts of an existing culture, instead of attacking the bad parts.

You can only end up where you want to be, when you start with what you have right now.

I’m sure it is the same with people’s minds. If you want them to change, start with how they are now, instead of showing what they should become. That means you will need an emotional approach to get people to adopt different ways of communication. It will not work showing people examples of artificial robotic conversations and alienating rational language. (The NVC book is full of that.) Yes, it will work for rational minds, but not emotional ones.

But I strongly doubt that the world needs Nonviolent Communication.

Nonviolent Evolution

Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature shows that violence in the world has been on a steady decline ever since 6000 years ago. It may not look like that, because we never shared so much news with each other as we do today. We hear bad stories more often because we share them more often, not because they actually happen more often. Really, it is a fact that the world has never been so peaceful as it is now.

I don’t believe the world needs a new way of communicating to proceed further down that road. It’s the other way around. Books such as Nonviolent Communication (and many others) are the result of 6000 years of cultural evolution. NVC is the effect, not the cause, of better communication.

Now that is systems thinking.

Toward NVC, But Without NVC

Let’s try and work with our emotional brains, and I’m sure over time they could become more rational. Yes, our minds could become what NVC suggests.

But, to the next person who calls me a thief and a liar, without any explanation or evidence, instead of killing him or setting his temple on fire, I will simply say, “screw you!” Though possibly followed by, “Let me know when you have something more meaningful to say,” after my initial anger has settled down.

It seems to me the most rational thing to do, considering the brain I have to work with now.

p.s. Does Nonviolent Communication really work for you? Great! Then you're one of the few people in the world whose neocortex is able to bypass the limbic system. Consider yourself priviliged. ;-)

This article is written by on in Communication & Relations. Jurgen Appelo is at Happy Melly. Connect with Jurgen Appelo on .

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  • Vasco Duarte

    Your assertions are, as far as I can see:
    1- NVC appeals to rational minds
    2- NVC is a rational way to deal with potential issues (conflicts, misunderstandings, etc.)
    3- Our brains are wetwired to react emotionally, not rationally
    4- NVC book does not explain how to overcome point 3
    5- We can only change a culture/behavior by emphasizing the good parts
    Did I understand your assertions correctly?
    You also seem to state that NVC is a model/approach to tackle culture and because of it’s rational nature it cannot be used in an environment where people are prone to react emotionally.
    Did I understand this causality link correctly?

  • Jukka Lindström

    p.s. Does Nonviolent Communication really work for you? Great! Then you’re one of the few people in the world whose neocortex is able to bypass the limbic system. Consider yourself priviliged. ;-)
    NVC requires that one can self-regulate attention of one’s thoughts, feelings and surroundings. If you are there (almost all of us are, if not for some brain damage :) then you’re ready to get going as that’s all that is needed to change. It is not too different than learning other skills and changing other habits, you build on stuff that you already know. It’s hard like with any habit, with requirement of consciousness, awareness, focus and practice.
    I agree, limbic system can override your prefrontal cortext if there is significant arousal of emotions. The interesting thing is that emotions are aroused based on your brains assessment, i.e. *beliefs* about what is going to happen. So as we start changing your beliefs – for instance that when people are wired up they have an unmet need instead of being jackasses out to get us – we are changing our brain and thus the ways how we might end up having limbic reactions.
    The brain is magnificently (part of the human) system, and if you’re interested there is a couple books well explain based on our current understanding how the different areas of the brain relate and what are the interactions between. For instance naming emotions has been shown to soothe limbic firing – and one of the core elements of NVC is guessing and naming the emotion (whether in oneself or in the other).
    Some links about emotions:
    Some books:

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Thanks for your input! I will certainly look more into brain science, as I find it very interesting.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Yes, I think you got my point. NVC also does not seem to explain how the human mind has evolved to be less violent in the less 6000 years. I believe overcoming point 3 is already happening, slowly, not spurred by NVC. Once point 3 is tackled, then NVC will be of great benefit, I’m sure.

  • Annemiek van def Krogt

    I feel warm and happy when I read that our communication becomes lesd violent and that our nrain reacts morr in a rational than an emotional way because peace and harmony are ver y important for me. My experience is that when I am angry it is most difficult to react in a non violent way. For me it started with consciousness that i react in an non-conscious, emotial way and now it is is a constant excercise and training to stay conscious of my needs and to take a distance when i am too angry. That is also what Non violent communication says about anger, and that it is your thoughts that make you angry. That is also my experience.

  • Vasco Duarte

    The way I read the book is that NVC is aimed at learning to live with point 3 (with the effort of the NVC practitioner), not eliminating it. I gather you don’t see it the same way?

  • Vasco Duarte

    Have you written about your techniques and attempts to gain distance when you feel angry?
    In NVC Marshall also states that we must learn to understand what causes our feelings (why am I angry?) and accept that we are the sole responsible for our feelings (not other people).
    I myself find this exercise extremely hard and frustrating as I see myself not being able to avoid anger (just like Jurgen says in his post). But in the few times that I have been successful I felt much more in control of my own reactions and was able to learn more about myself, the other or the situation.
    In the end, my exploration of NVC comes from my need to understand myself better and what situations/behaviours cause the “violent” reactions in me.

  • Ruud

    When someone says something nasty about you, it tells more about the person saying it than about you. If you can get that assumption ingrained in your system, reacting without angryness will be much easier. And yes, it will take time and practice to get that far. (BTW there are more of these happiness assumptions to make to make it even easier, like assuming that everyone does something only with good intentions. And yes, these assumptions will not always be true, but they will make life easier on you…)

  • Facebook Connect Application

    In NVC, “needs” are not things that you must-have-or-else: a need is not an excuse to say “you have to do this, because it’s my need.”

  • Jurgen Appelo

    I don’t believe you can have it both ways.
    Either you believe point 3 (as I do), which means the rational mind is not in control and only allowed to exist by the emotional part (much like an app is allowed to exist by an operating system).
    You believe that the rational mind can intervene whenever the emotional part wants to blurt something out, and then follow the rational 4-step method as prescribed by NVC.
    I don’t believe both can be true at the same time.

  • Ralf Westphal

    This to me sounds like throwing out the baby with the bath water.
    Admittedly NVC ist not easy. Admittedly it sometimes difficult to get along with hard core NVC followers due to their, ehm, sometimes somewhat artificial communication style. Well, like with every method it takes practice to really become fluent at it.
    But saying NVC is missing the point… to me sounds like misunderstanding Rosenberg.
    Is there a paragraph where Rosenberg denies our humanity, i.e. being driven by emotions/the limbic system?
    Is there a paragraph where Rosenberg denies the human race has made progress in becoming less physically violent?
    I don´t think so. Rather Rosenberg takes emotions really seriously. And he focusses on verbal/mental violence in the form of accusations, denial etc.
    You´re saying, we are wetwired to be emotional. I agree. But I guess you´d also agree that humankind has made great progress in the past 10,000 years – which is not only a history of technology, but also a history of controlling how we deal with emotions.
    Consider for example the weapon monopoly in most western countries. That´s rationally dealing with emotions. People undeniably still get angry, we can´t control that – but we can control the means at their hands to enact their angriness. We´re limiting what they can do when angry. And I like that kind of collective rational decision, because it makes me feel safer when strolling through the city.
    So despite all those emotions flowing we are not their victims. Rosenberg is not about denying them, but rather taking them very, very seriously. We´ve to live with them – but we can and should not fall prey to them.
    I agree that´s hard for many people. Even most people? We don´t learn to accept our emotions – from good to bad. We don´t learn to accept our responsibility for them either. No wonder we´re trying to find someone to blame for them.
    But isn´t that a goal worth striving for? I assume you´re all for taking up responsibility if you´re part of a social system (even one called “company”). And I assume you´re all for finding out what the goal is of a company. And I assume you´re all for stopping the blaming game in social systems.
    Well, if that´s was all the case, then you´re almost a proponent of NVC :-)
    As for systems thinking: I´d say Rosenberg is all for it. He explicitly says, for example, that you should not wait for someone else to join in NVC. Just start for yourself, become more aware of your patterns, try changing them… and the world around you will change.
    Interestingly today another blog article mentioned Rosenbergs book: And its opinion is radically different from yours, despite both of you are valuing Agility etc.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Hi Ralf,
    I’m not throwing a baby out. I’m just saying that NVC doesn’t explain how to move from Model 1 to Model 2, except “practice”. That’s like saying to an organization where people don’t trust each other to “keep trying”. I find it unhelpful.
    NVC is fine method. Except in the cases where the limbic system does not hand over control to the neocortex.

  • Ari TIkka

    All models are wrong, some are useful.
    I have found simple NVC principles extremely useful in some situations. But I have not found it the best approach in every situation.
    I see NVC a framework to practice forbearance and skillful action in life, which is part of growing to be an adult. It is not about arguing brain mechanisms.
    I participated a few workshops by Marshall Rosenberg. It was like looking at a 5 dan mental judoka. It was easy and worked. It was not easy for me…
    Best Wishes
    Ari TIkka

  • Glen B. Alleman

    I distinctly remember making a comment a year ago about the validity of a “chaos” model of evolution starting with particles. And suggesting that the self-organization starts not at the particle and molecular but rather at the biological level and having a clear and distinct response from you of essentially “screw you,” rather than “Can you explain what is your need, and how can I help you understand my need?”
    Glad to see you’ve “evolved” over the past 12 months.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Thanks. What a pity I can’t say the same thing of you. You misrepresent what was said, same as a year ago. Maybe NVC can help you separate the facts from your feelings.

  • Glen B. Alleman

    au contraire my friend. Any criticism of work gets a nasty gram back.
    Yep, same olde Jurgen.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    On the contrary Glen, not “any criticism”, as plenty of my friends and contacts are able to confirm. I get good criticism every day.
    I’m only allergic to criticism that is clearly false, or incompetently delivered.

  • Ralf Westphal

    Hm… if that´s your only critique of NVC, then I´d say, it applies to almost any method. More generally speaking it is: “Applying a new method requires practice – but practice can always be thwarted by carelessness, old habits, pressure, well, the limbic system kicking in and wanting attention to shift to something else.”
    That´s true for NVC – but also for learning a foreign language, for adoting daily meditation, for switching to Scrum, for stopping to smoke, writing cleaner code and what not.
    The limbic system is so basic for human every day operations, it´s an orthogonal concern, I guess :-) So you need an orthogonal method or a meta method to address it.
    To me that´s getting a partner on board. Someone who observes your struggle to change, gives feedback, maybe even can help, because he/she is knowledgeable concerning the subject.
    The term “coach” comes to mind. But I´d rather call this person more generally an “accountability partner”: Someone who reminds us of our resolution and responsibility. Someone who makes us accountable for results (or the lack of).
    The AA movement has decades of experience with this. But also pair programming partly is in that line, I´d say.
    Trying to change anything just by yourself can be very hard. That´s not the fault of the subject you´re attacking. So we should seek help. That´s just plain human.

  • John Miller

    NVC is training of our mind, to shape it, to become more rational. It is not a prerequisite to be “rational”, but, perhaps, a desire to be so. It is a discipline, that hopefully, becomes more of a habit. Self-directed evolution.

    As far as needing an emotional approach, NVC is an emotional approach. I have used it in very emotional situations with very emotional people, and, it has been remarkable almost every time. It does not exclude emotion, it embraces it. NVC gives us a rich literacy of feelings. Further more, understanding the roots of the feelings, which are needs.

    Robotic formula….Indeed, Marshall’s formula of Observations>Feelings>Needs>Requests can seem artificial, and some, will react negatively to it. Current NVC thinking recognizes this (so does Marshall by the way), and they focus a lot on “naturalizing” NVC or, sometimes, calling it “Street NVC”. Yet, the formula serve as effective NVC training wheels, but, please discard them, or, use another set of training wheels, as NVC habit matures.

    NVC as an effect? Possibly…partly…emerging from our evolution. Yet, Buddhism, for example, is entrenched with similar approaches to feelings, thoughts, and needs, 2500 years ago. To say it does not cause “better communication” does not necessarily follow from this premise. NVC can be very effective, creating much “better” communication, and thus, accelerating our evolution of peaceful beings.

    I understand your need for practical solutions, but, I fear you may be misinterpreting NVC. I have found it very practical for connecting to myself and others. I am not attempting to change your mind, as, you have a good one, but, I do want to present perhaps a different perspective of NVC.

    John Miller