Saturday, June 22, 2013

NVC Niff Clotes: Chapter Two, Communication that Blocks Compassion

Chapter two describes some popular ways of communicating that interfere with empathy and connection. In other words, here's some stuff you might want to stop doing.

Moralistic Judgements

In our culture, we all seem to enjoy telling others where they went wrong. I guess the excuse would be, if I don't tell you about your mistakes, you might not notice you're making any, and so I am helping you correct yourself. But mostly it just makes people self-conscious and defensive, and it makes me seem hostile. "Our attention is focused on classifying, analyzing," etc., not on hearing and connecting. If this tactic succeeds in changing someone's behavior, it does so at a cost. "We all pay dearly when people respond to our values and needs not out of a desire to give from the heart, but out of fear, guilt, or shame." 
Rosenberg draws the distinction between value judgements and moralistic judgements. "Value judgements reflect our beliefs of how life can best be served. We make moralistic judgements of people and behaviors that fail to support our value judgements." We are more likely to get what we want when we "articulate our needs and values directly, rather than to insinuate wrongness when they have not been met."
On first sight, this seems relativistic, like Rosenberg is advising us to toss morality out the window, anything goes. But he is advising us to express the same truth in a different way, emphasizing observations, feelings, and needs in a way that enables communication and empathy and minimizes defensiveness. Instead of condemning violence as evil, reveal the fear that violence cultivates, and express the value positively, as in "I value the resolution of human conflicts through other means." This issue is a bit difficult for me to know just how to interpret. I recently heard a podcast featuring a discussion aimed at showing that this attitude toward moralistic judgements is not relativistic. It starts a bit slow, skip ahead a bit if you are not interested in what Ayn Rand said about ethics. Or check out Heiko's youtube presentation on NVC and descriptive ethics.


Comparisons can also make someone feel defensive or depressed, and interferes with compassion. Even positive comparisons cast the person making the comparison in the role of judge. Rosenberg gives the example of comparing yourself to a model from a magazine ad, pointing out that nearly anyone can make themselves miserable by dwelling on how they do not live up to our cultural standard of perfection.

Denial of Responsibility

"We are each responsible for our own thoughts, feelings, and actions." People often use language in a way that denies this responsibility, as in Rosenberg's example "You make me feel guilty." In between any stimulus and our response is our choice.


A demand is a request combined with a threat of punishment or blame for refusing. Demands undermine empathy and connection. Promised rewards also put the person offering the reward in a superior position over the person receiving the reward. 
Of course, reality may reward or punish us for various actions we take, but our adaptation to reality is somehow different from our subservience to another person. We are not trying to empathize with reality, or get empathy from it, or connect with it emotionally. In a way, reality inevitably dominates us!  Are we ever justified in treating other persons like that? If we don't reward the grocer for our food, how can she continue to operate? Even before mass production, people benefitted from dealing with strangers in the marketplace on an impersonal basis. If they had tried to deal with everyone the way they deal with family members or close friends, the system would break down. I want to think about that some more. I hope people may comment on this.

  • "We learn early to cut ourselves off from what's going on within ourselves."
  • "Life-alienating communication both stems from and supports hierarchical or domination societies, where large populations are controlled by a small number of individuals to those individuals' own benefit."
  • "When we are in contact with our feelings and needs, we humans no longer make good slaves and underlings."
  • "It is our nature to enjoy giving and receiving compassionately."

Does this mean that punishment never accomplishes any worthy goal? If we became convinced of this, how could our society make the transition from a justice system based on punishment to one based on empathy? How can we know what that would look like?

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