Nonviolent communication

by Anna Finlayson and Daren DeWitt

Language that fuels conflict

There are certain ways in which we tend to communicate when we’re in a conflict that can make the conflict worse and lead to a disconnection between ourselves and the other person. This is because the language we use is often heard by the receiver as an attack on themselves. The result is that the receiver attacks back, reacts with defensive arguments or withdraws, feeling resentful.

When using these forms of disconnecting language we may, consciously or unconsciously, subtly or not so subtly, be attempting to use force or coercion – ‘power over’ tactics – to get others to do what we want. This reduces the likelihood of friendly cooperation. Or the receiver may act out of guilt or fear. They may do what we want, but not freely and with a joyful attitude. This will affect the quality of relationship we have with that person, especially their trust in and respect for us.

We can also talk to ourselves internally, in these same ways, which can often lead to us giving up or withdrawing, disconnecting from ourselves and also from others.

Some common forms of disconnecting language

Nature of language Example
Blaming It’s your/her/his fault!
Judgmental He/she is bad/wrong (I am good/right)!
Labelling You are... selfish, lazy, a liar.
They are... ignorant people, racists.
I am... foolish, useless, unreliable.
Comparing That’s not as good as...
... is far more helpful than you...
Demanding – involving threat or manipulation (this can be implied with tone of voice as much as language). Do this or else
... I’ll make your life miserable.
... I’ll withdraw any praise.
... you’re in trouble.
If you cared about those around you, you would do this.
Imposing my judgment or belief You (or I) should/ought to...
Denying responsibility for choice I/you can’t/have to/must...

If we have been raised in a culture where these types of disconnecting language prevail, we might think that they are natural. However, NVC discourse suggests that these forms of language are learnt. We have been educated to speak in these ways, in our families, schools and society. These types of language prevail in domination-style cultures.

Life-alienating communication both stems from and supports hierarchical or domination societies. Where large populations are controlled by a small number of individuals for their own benefit, it would be in the interest of kings, tsars, nobles and so on that the masses be educated in a way that renders them slave-like in mentality.

Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life

When we’re in conflict, it is better if we can avoid using these types of language, and instead express ourselves using observations, feelings, needs and requests. It is also helpful if we can understand what is behind the behaviour of others (the needs that are motivating them) and show empathy or understanding for this, looking for solutions that will meet both our needs.