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?”

Most 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. 😉

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