Communication is essential to pretty much everything we do every single day in every single area of being alive. You live, you communicate. Therefore, it’s important we do it well. However, we all have to admit that sometimes (or perhaps, most of the time) our communication skills leave something to be desired.
Because of this, and his eternal quest to help us better ourselves, our co-founder Lachy recently organised for the whole of Yarno to take part in a Nonviolent Communication Workshop.
What is nonviolent communication?
Have you ever been yelled at? That’s violent communication. Have you ever not been yelled at, not even been spoken to harshly, and still walked away from a conversation feeling attacked, belittled, or something you can’t quite define but leaves a queasy feeling in your tummy? That’s violent communication. Nonviolent communication is the remedy.
Nonviolent communication was first developed by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s. He wrote a book on the subject, founded the Centre for Nonviolent Communication and won a bunch of awards for his development of the process. So you can see that there is obviously quite a lot to nonviolent communication. Far more than this article can cover. However, to give you a quick overview: nonviolent communication assumes that we’re all compassionate by nature, and only resort to violence or other harmful behaviour when we don’t recognise that there are more effective strategies available to us, in order to meet our needs. Therefore, the aim of our workshop on nonviolent communication was to equip us all with these more effective strategies, and from there, to improve our inter-office communication and general lives by about 1000% percent. Not to say that we’re poor communicators, quite the opposite. But we can all be better, and the only way to do better is to learn.
The workshop started with a couple minutes of meditation. You may be thinking: meditation is the opposite of communication. Communication involves interaction. Meditation is quite literally the opposite; you meditate by closing your eyes and shutting off the world around you.
However, despite this perceived dichotomy, meditation is at the heart of nonviolent communication. Meditation is the act of taking a moment to be still, a moment before you react. Nonviolent communication mirrors this - before you react to something, some words or action, nonviolent communication advocates that we need to take a breath to consider the circumstances before you, as well as your own reaction to those circumstances. I think we can all attest that the times we communicate most violently are the times where we communicate immediately, in the heat of the moment, without any thought. Hence, we meditate.
Distinguishing feelings from interpretations
An important principle of nonviolent communication is distinguishing feelings from interpretations. For example:
“I feel hungry” is a feeling.
“I feel rejected” is an interpretation.
There is no subjectivity in hunger. Either you’re hungry, or you’re not. When you say you feel rejected, however, you are imposing your own perception of another person’s actions to mean that they have rejected you. There is no objective measurement of rejection, it only manifests in interpretation. In order to feel rejected you have to think someone has rejected you. This means that you are superimposing your own interpretation of another person’s actions on your perception of events. In fact, in their mind they may not have rejected you at all. They may have no idea that you are feeling like this. A large part of nonviolent communication comes before any communication: before you go storming off to confront someone for rejecting you, we need to discern our interpretation from neutral observation.
For example, there are exactly 1 billion and 1 reasons why someone would reject someone else’s offer to go to lunch. They might be busy. They’re not hungry. They have to give their dear old sick cat its medicine for the day. The police are after them and the only clue they have is that the perpetrator loves pulled pork sandwiches and you just asked them to go to Bob’s Pulled Pork Sandwich House, which, as you can imagine, puts them in a precarious situation. Only one of those 1 billion and 1 reasons is that they’re rejecting you. Therefore, you saying you feel rejected is an assumption that out of all those billions of reasons, you’re able to reach into their mind and pluck out the true reason.
So, first lesson of nonviolent communication: don’t assume that your perceptions are correct. Take a breath. Accept that you don’t know everything, then proceed.
Communicating our needs
So how do you communicate without imposing your perceptions on someone else? Rather than making vague invitations, or demands of another person, you make requests which are specific, do-able, and connected to needs.
Our workshop was facilitated by Glyn Conlon, who is internationally certified with the Centre for Nonviolent communication. She gave the following example:
Scenario: Someone you work with keeps missing your Friday meetings. They let you know, but only at the last moment.
What do you do? How do you communicate?
You could proceed with a confrontational demand like, ‘Be there, or else!’. That’s sure to go down well, people love being threatened.
Or you could go the passive aggressive route and say “Be more considerate.” But it’s so vague. How do they even know what you want them to do? Be more considerate by buying more milk when the office runs out? By not pressing the “close door” button when someone is running for the elevator? By taking the whole office on an all-expenses paid trip to Hawaii for the Queen’s Birthday long weekend? How are they supposed to know what it is you want?
What we can see from these examples is that demands don’t work, and neither do vague requests. You have to be specific, and you have to connect your request to a need: Instead we could say:
‘I need predictability in our work together. Would you be willing to let me know a day in advance if you won’t attend the meetings on Fridays?’
You can see how this is more effective - you haven’t accused the other person of anything, you haven’t supplemented their actions with your perception of those actions. You’ve just said what you need. It means the person is likely to actually fulfil that need, because they don’t feel attacked and they know what it is you need them to do.
In this way, nonviolent communication can also be understood as practical communication; it arms you with the tools you need for communication to actually be worthwhile, rather than create conflict. Why waste time fighting, why waste your energy feeling awful based on your own perception of someone else’s actions? Why not communicate most effectively with that other person, and let those awful, unwanted, ineffective feelings dissipate.
I have only covered a fraction of the useful examples and tools covered in the workshop. The principles of nonviolent communication are beneficial to every human in every aspect of every part of work and life. Looking for where to start? You can buy the book, here.
Courtney is the face behind the Yarno blog. She’s our fact-finding expert, Instagram connoisseur and the only person we know who can write 1500 words and fix a fence in the same half hour.
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