* This blog entry is dedicated to my dear friend Mikel – a kindred soul on a journey of self-examination and discovery.
“We are threatened with suffering from three directions,” writes Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents, “from our own body, which is doomed to decay and dissolution and which cannot even do without pain and anxiety as warning signals; from the external world, which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless forces of destruction; and finally from our relations to other men. The suffering which comes to us from this last source is perhaps more painful to us than any other.”
Freud wrote those words while suffering from cancer of jaw: an excruciatingly painful and debilitating illness (ultimately causing his death). It’s rather telling that even with all his physical pain and discomfort, Freud believed that the worst kind of suffering is the one caused by interpersonal relations.
We often tell ourselves and others (particularly children) that sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can never hurt us. Yet experience shows otherwise (the fact that we even have such a saying shows otherwise). Words often hurt. And hurt bad. Someone may take 15 seconds to say something nasty to you, and for the next 15 years you will chase those words, like mice, inside your head.
Of course verbal violence is not reserved for school bullies alone. It happens in everyday conversation between neighbors, co-workers, friends, family and lovers.
In mediation and conflict resolution, the subject of verbal exchange comes under the purview of communication theory which holds that the way in which we communicate with one another is of significance with regards to both escalating conflict and engendering harmony. Sometimes it’s not the content alone but also the quality of communication itself that determines how we respond to a conversation.
Wilmot (2009) suggests that one common communication pattern is the spiral. A communication spiral occurs “when the actions of each person … magnify those of the other.” (See excellent article on the subject here.) A spiral occurs because we tend to mirror one another’s form of communication. Good communication is usually reciprocated, as is bad communication. Thus, if we experience understanding, trust, and kindness we respond in a congruent manner. Likewise, if we experience someone who is hostile, aggressive and won’t listen – what I call an alienated/alienating interlocutor – we respond in kind. Wilmot calls the former communication a generative spiral, while the latter is called a degenerative spiral.
In conflict we often don’t just reciprocate in kind, but often we respond by “hitting back” a little bit harder than we were hit – i.e. increased negative actions. Bush & Folger (2005) argue that in a degenerative spiral parties act in ways that are increasingly disempowering and self-absorbed: in other words, when people are “stuck” in a degenerative spiral their communication patterns engender feelings of powerlessness and alienation. This is the infamous vicious cycle.
The good news is that just as communication can plunge a relationship into a downward degenerative spiral, it can also reverse course in a positive direction. What Bush and Folger call “interactional shifts.” This shift takes place when parties are cognizant of the role of negative communication and make efforts to reverse it.
Wilmot outlines a number of strategies that parties can take in order to bring about the desired change: For example, “ doing what comes unnaturally.” This means for the person caught in the conflict to become aware of their own negative pattern of communication (or general direction of conversation) and take ownership of it. For example, if both parties are shouting, one can break the pattern and speak more softly, if the conversation is lacking empathy one part can break the self-centeredness by expressing genuine empathy.
Another strategy is to shift the focus of discussion from specific issues to “Meta-communication” – talking about talking or about the communication process in general. This takes place when a person says,”let’s talk about the way we are communicating.” This allows people to step back and examine the communication itself. Pattern breaking strategies need to be repeated in order to be effective. One Metacommunication will probably not do the trick.
Non-Violent Communication in Action
A few words need to be mentioned here about Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication. In his book Rosenberg argues that the pain we inflict on one another through words is an unnecessary consequence of faulty thinking and bad communication: Learned habits of mind that lock communication into a degenerative exchange of information. All this, Rosenberg contends, can be unlearned, reconnecting us to our compassionate nature.
According to Rosenberg:
Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a way of speaking that facilitates the flow of communication needed to exchange information and resolve differences peacefully. It helps us identify our shared needs, encourages us to use language that increases goodwill, and avoid language that contributes to resentment or lowers self-esteem. Nonviolent Communication focuses our attention on compassion as our motivation, rather than fear, guilt, blame, or shame. It emphasizes taking personal responsibility for our choices and improving the quality of our relationships as our goal. It is effective even when the other person or group is not familiar with the process.
Rosenberg offers a four-step approach to communicating non-violently.
1) Observation: observe a situation, whether you like it or not, without evaluating or judging it.
2) Feeling: be aware of how the situation you observe makes you feel – angry, happy, sad, proud, hurt, annoyed, etc.
3) Needs/Desires: identify the needs that are tied up with the emotion that you feel. Are you fearful, for example, because your need for security has been violated?
4) Request: What we want from other in order to improve our own lives.
Here is an example of how such an approach can be applied in real life:
A few months ago I came home from school and much to my chagrin, I saw a cereal bowl being used as a placeholder on top a book of mine. The book: Emma Goldman’s ‘Living My Life.’ The cereal: Cheerios. The culprit: my wife (who was reading the book upon my recommendation). When I saw this, I snapped.
“What the fuck is that?” I asked incredulously.
“What?” replied my wife.
“How can you put a cereal bowl on a book? Do you have no respect for books?” I picked up the bowl.
“What’s the big deal?” she replies. ““The a bowl is without liquid, and it is just a book”, she snarled back. “Why are you so obsessive? Anyway, it doesn’t matter cause I am not going to read your stupid book. Put it back on the shelf.”
After a minute of more of the same, I decided to switch gears and try some Non-Violent Communication (a very unnatural shift). I said,
“Look, when I saw the bowl on the book I got annoyed and angry (step 1 & 2). The book is important to me. It is old and fragile. I want to preserve it, and I am afraid that putting such weight on the book will hurt it (step 2 & 3). Could you please not do that again? (step 4)”
My wife looked at me and with a smile and said “you’re trying that conflict resolution shit on me, aren’t you?” “Maybe”, I replied. “Well in that case,” she said, “yes. I could do that for you. But just in case I will get this one on Kindle.”
NVC is very loopy – using it can make you sound like a robotic Oprah. But it can also work (although probably not as effectively as advertised by Rosenberg). I recommend you try this at home and let me know how it went.