Violent communication

Philipp Giese
September 22, 2020
7 min read
Violent communication

This post is brought to you by Jonathan Soifer. Well, at least without him I wouldn't be able to write it. Jonathan was my manager at Signavio and when I received the feedback that I sometimes come across as too aggressive he recommended reading the nonviolent communication (NVC) book. At first, it sounded like one of these mushy books that I definitively do not want to read. But I trust Jonathan and so I straight up ordered it.


Read it. Sometimes you need another person to tell you something so that you can reflect better. This is what this book does. And it does it in a great way.

After you've read it you're probably never going to communicate in the same way again. Also, this book reduced my personal stress level by an order of magnitude at least. It does this by teaching you to approach situations where someone else is aggressive towards you slightly differently. But it's that slightly different approach that creates a huge difference in your reaction.

In this post I'd like to focus on my top takeaways so far:

Describing without judging

Imagine you're living with someone else. You go into the kitchen and there is a stench in the air. It can't be that your housemate did not take out the garbage again, can it? You open up the drawer and flies come swarming out.

Now, you might have already heard that it doesn't help if you snap at the other person (even though this might be what you want to do). Instead, you should describe the situation so that the two of you can talk about it and not get into a fight. You call your housemate into the kitchen, pull yourself together, and say...

You never take out the garbage!

But to your surprise, your housemate does not acknowledge their mistake. You make out a flash of surprise on their face before they reply...

So? You never put down the toilet seat!

This didn't quite go as planned, didn't it? What happened?

You did not solely describe the situation, you were judgemental. When you exclaimed that they never do something (and probably they took out the garbage at least once) you put them into a corner. In this situation, all they could do is become defensive. From there on it's much harder to have a sensible discussion with them.

Here's an alternative.

For the last 3 weeks you have not taken out the garbage.

Now you're stating facts. This doesn't drive them into a corner and they can respond better. For instance, your housemate could now respond with:

You're right. The last couple of weeks were really stressful for me because I had to study for a very important test. I probably have neglected a lot of things because of that.

With this extra information, you can explain that while you acknowledge that this is a stressful situation for them and you're happy to help them you also need them to take out the trash from time to time because you need the kitchen to be clean.

Being able to state what we're experiencing without judging the other side is an important step when you embark on the journey to nonviolent communication.

Say what you need

Being able to clearly express what you need is important. I had to learn that I didn't always state my needs and feelings in a way that was helping the conversation. You might have already heard that when you're in a stressful situation you should describe your emotions to help the other party understand what you're going through. If done properly this can be a valuable tool. But as so often in life things are a bit more complicated than they might seem at first.

Let's look at an example.

I feel frustrated when you're on the phone while we pair-program.

Sounds good, right? You described the situation, and you mentioned your feelings. The other person should now be able to change their behavior in a way that defuses the situation.

Unfortunately not. Imagine the other person now puts away their phone but starts reading a magazine instead. Would this make you less frustrated? My guess is it wouldn't. Right now you imply that the actions of the other person are solely responsible for your feelings. But in most cases, this is not true. Usually, there is a need hidden somewhere.

I'm gonna rephrase the above statement a little.

I feel frustrated when you're on the phone while pair-programming because I want to avoid rework through a second pair of eyes.

Now the statement contains a clear need. By stating that you want to avoid rework the other person knows your intentions. When you communicate your needs and connect them to your feelings you enable the other person to act towards your needs. For instance, your pair programming partner could help you write tests so that you build a safety net while you code.

Demands and requests

This one is my favorite. Because a lot of people (in my experience often times managers) demand something but disguise it as a request. I'll show you what I mean.

Can you deliver this feature by next Friday?

What do you think? Is this a request or a demand? The statement is phrased like a request. Why? Because it leaves the option to say "No". If I don't think I can deliver that particular feature by next Friday I need to say "No" to this question. When the person who asked the question then gets angry they actually made a demand. The way they should have phrased this is:

Deliver this feature by next Friday.

You could still say "No" but you would know from the start that if you do this will become a bigger discussion.

In our day-to-day communication, we need to be careful to not issue demands as requests. Even more so we should learn to not be disappointed when people reject our requests. Every time you formulate something as a request ask yourself "Am I OK with when this request is rejected?". If the answer to this question is no then you need to think about whether you actually demand that something is being done. When this is the case you need to make sure that you are clear about your needs and not judgemental.

I reflected a lot about how I talk to people and I've found myself requesting things when I was actually demanding them. NVC helped me understand the issues with this approach. It's a tool I can use every day to make my life and the life of my co-workers less stressful.

Did this article help you reflect on how you communicate every day? Have you also not been clear about your needs and sometimes judged others when you should have described a situation? Do you already use nonviolent communication? I'm curious to hear about your experiences. Send a tweet to @philgiese on Twitter.

About the author

You can find information about me in the about section. I also like to give talks. If you'd like me to speak at your meetup or conference please don't hesitate to reach out via DM to @philgiese on Twitter.


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