Weaponized feelings and non-violent communication

A few years or so ago, my circle of awareness was abuzz with people voicing enthusiasm for non-violent communication (NVC), and while it seems to have died down by now (the last time I heard anything about NVC was almost exactly a year ago, and only in the form of a flyer promoting a workshop), I’ve been thinking about it again lately.

Most of the buzz took a form like this:

So much of the communication we think of as normal and use in everyday life is so violent! People keep saying things like “put your fucking socks into the bin and not all over the floor” – it would be much better to use non-violent communication and say “I feel disrespected and hurt when I see your socks on the floor” instead. This is open and honest communication instead of an aggressive demand! It will revolutionize interpersonal conflicts and make the world a better place, and we should all use NVC from now on!

(Okay, I might be exaggerating a bit here. But not much. It’s also worth noting that this is not the whole of what actual NVC is like, and many of the things I write in this post may not apply to NVC if practiced responsibly.)

I was very uncomfortable with this, and unable to put my finger on why for a long time. Dissenting voices from other people in the same position helped me greatly to understand some of the sources of my discomfort better, and I’m still grateful to all the people who spoke out (usually very thoughtfully and politely), even though I can’t remember any specific posts.

“Put your fucking socks into the bin” is a clear instruction. It tells me exactly what the speaker wants of me: to put my socks into the bin. If there are specific reasons why I did not put my socks into the bin, I can say so (e.g. “I just took them off to put salve on the wart on my heel, I’ll put them back on in a minute”). If I am confused about why they even care, I can ask. If I intended to put them into the bin, but got distracted, I can apologize and do so now. If I find their tone or choice of words unwarranted, I can gripe about that (and if I want to gripe while also keeping the peace, I can do so while putting my socks into the bin), and they can point out that I’ve failed to put my socks into the bin five times this week already, and I can use that information to reconsider my assessment of their tone/choice of words (and possibly start thinking about how to do better in the future).

“I feel disrespected and hurt when I see your socks on the floor” is an observation about the speaker’s feelings. It doesn’t tell me anything about what they want from me. They probably want some kind of reaction, but even that is not sure in many cases, especially with people who often think out loud. (Here, it’s made easier by the fact they used “you”, talking to me directly.) I am forced to guess what they want, drawing on past experiences with them and the mental model I have of them as well as past experiences with similar statements by other people. Right off the bat, this is a lot of work in which a lot can go wrong, and you can bet I am aware of this and possibly (again depending on my mental model of them with the associated room for error) nervous about it.

While I know quite a few people who routinely observe and analyze their own feelings, including feelings of discomfort and hurt, without explicitly or implicitly assigning blame to whoever did something that caused them. If this is the case, responding by going “huh, why?” is perfectly acceptable and welcome, and will probably lead to mutually enjoyable conversations.

However, many people make statements about feeling hurt as an implicit accusation (“you’ve hurt me!”) and demand for an apology and amends.
Which means that, very likely, the speaker’s “non-violent” communication has put me into the position of a supplicant, asking for their gracious forgiveness for the heinous offense of leaving my socks on the floor.

And often, any reaction that is not the expected apology could escalate the situation. Going “huh, why?” could be seen as invalidating their feelings, as not taking their hurt seriously enough, as not treating them with the respect they (think they) deserve, as uncaring and rude. Asking “and what do you want to do about it?” would be even worse. Asking “what do you want me to do about that?” also risks being taken as disrespectful, rude, and uncaring (“well, what do you THINK I want you to do about it??”). The same goes for explanations of why I left them on the floor – after all, explanations might indicate that whatever my reason was matters more than their hurt.

Using “non-violent” statements instead of demands simply cannot work if they are consistently used in place of demands. If observations about someone’s feelings are meant to make someone change their behavior, or (at best) negotiate over how to change their behavior, feeling-statements themselves become weapons.

If people frequently use statements about their hurt to make me do things, and jumping at their every word becomes too tiring, my options are limited: I can grow a thicker skin and risk escalation more readily, or just let them crash and burn from the outset (“I feel disrespected and hurt when-” – “wow, sucks to be you, and also I don’t care, go tell someone else”).

Or I could make their weapons my own.
“I feel disrespected and hurt when I see your socks on the floor”, they say.
“I feel very uncomfortable and pressured when you say such things”, I respond. We’re both using non-violent communication! The world surely is a much better place now. Nobody is violent anymore, everybody is merely passive-aggressive. Our feelings are weapons. Whoever performs vulnerability and open honesty best wins the right to have the socks where they want them.

These patterns are not exclusive to NVC. They’re visible at a smaller scale in my shared flat – small, politely-formed requests are the only things allowed, and small, politely-formed requests are now often understood as a form of warfare – and a bigger scale and more chaotically in SJ-spaces (think oppression olympics – whoever can plausibly portray themselves as the most oppressed gets the most support). And anti-SJ backlash sometimes takes the form of deliberate escalation or subversion – “lol u triggered?” – which, of course, is indistinguishable from “true” assholery. (That’s the whole point of performative callousness.)

Once again, everything is complicated.

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