Saturday, April 21, 2012

NVC Partially Deconstructed

I like to explode (in the technical manual, sort of way) philosophical constructions in order to see what's going on "under the hood". "Why?" do you ask? I am not completely certain, but I think that I enjoy it as a diversion or thought-play.

Regardless, I have recently had some thoughts about the theory of Non-Violent Communication and I desire to understand what's going on "under the hood" of NVC.I do not want to explain what NVC is here, but Wikipedia is often a good resource:

And of course, the "official" site for NVC is:

So in the theory of NVC, if we identify our own "feelings" and the "feelings" of others, then we can then connect those feelings, both positive and negative, to corresponding met and unmet universal "needs", respectively, and then individuals will be much more in-touch/connected with what is most "alive in them" or connected with what is authentic/genuine/human within themselves.

The identification of feelings and the connection of those feelings to needs, should/will invoke empathy/connection between persons; personal conflict arises when strategies are chosen which do not meet everyone's needs.  Therefore, if people can connect their authentic feelings with their universal needs, as separate from the specific strategies they would prefer to employ to meet their needs, then the empathy/connection that arises out of an understanding of mutual unmet needs would promote a rethinking of the possible strategies, that could meet EVERYONE'S needs.

 At least that's my take on NVC at a theoretical level.

Now, for the explosion.

For the sake of discussion, let us adopt the mind-set of the philosophical skeptic as she might react to NVC.

The first component necessary for the process of NVC to proceed, is a willingness of both parties to communicate. If one party, is committed to a policy of non-communication, then the process of NVC cannot even begin. Why is the willingness of both parties to communicate so essential? Because, if one party will not communicate, even non-verbally, with the other party, then even the party committed to a NVC process, cannot even guess as to the feelings of the other party, and cannot therefore even begin a process of trying to connect those feelings, to the universal human needs and begin to empathize.

Fortunately, there are few people so committed to non-communication; the act of communication of itself, has so few costs associated with it for most people, that most are willing to communicate to some degree.  But I think it is clear/obvious, that is truly not possible to communicate with inanimate objects, corpses, statutes and the like; while it may seem simplistic to have to call attention to this kind of observation, when dealing with philosophical theory, all of these small necessities, however implausible to actually have to contend with in practice, may have have important ramifications at the level of the theoretical, and can have practical applications if we are aware of theoretical implications or limitations.

 The second component necessary for the NVC process, is "feelings".    I know, I know, this probably feels quite obtuse to most people.   I regard it as a given that I have feelings, and you likely regard it as obvious that you have feelings, but remember, we are taking NVC apart, piece by piece to explore the theory "under the hood" to see how this car runs, and we can only do that by taking it step-by-step, by thinking as would a philosophical skeptic.

Clearly, if the theory of NVC requires the identification of "feelings" both parties need to have feelings, for an empathic connection to be established.   If we happen to be talking to a Vulcan, or an Android or Suri on the iPhone, we are not going to be able to identify feelings, neither positive nor negative.  NVC as a process of empathy/connection/conflict-resolution requires that both parties are willing to communicate, and that both parties have feelings.

Now, as I've said, I take it as a given that I experience feelings; so, even while we are thinking like philosophical skeptics, does not mean we have to end up with a complete philosophical skepticism as a conclusion; it is that knowing, WHERE we are making philosophical choices, which would diverge from philosophical skepticism, that shows us where we are making assumptions, where certainty is not absolute.  I experience feelings, my guess is that you do as well, and therefore I believe we are on safe-philosophical ground to assume that nearly all human-beings have feelings; the fact that you and I, EXPERIENCE them, is an awfully strong proof, that at least for us, they are present.

 The third necessary component for the NVC process is "needs".  In the theory of NVC, "needs" function is something of a sticking point for me, for while I personally am willing accept these universalized abstractions of desires/preferences as a useful conceptual framework, I do not experience "needs" the same way I experience feelings... I may directly experience a sense of loneliness, but I do not directly experience a "need for connection"; the "need for connection" or the "need for meaning" or "need for safety", or even "need for food/water" are not what I am experiencing directly, but are themselves universalized abstractions. There is a sense in which "feelings" might also be a universalized experience, as "feelings" as the term has been used, assumed that my "feeling" of fear, is roughly equivalent, or universal, to your feeling of fear; but I am not interested pursuing this pedantic line of examination; I accept, in as much as language is useful to describe our experience/perceptions/sensations and in as much as our experiences may be similar given commonalities of biological similarities (and of course, if there are difference in biological makeup, such as if someone is born blind, they might not be able to find experiential reference to a concept and then expression of color) we may be able to safely assume that "feelings" are a common experiential currency that can differ in intensity, certainly, but that are roughly equivalent, in sensation/experience.
But "needs", "needs" are different; I experience hunger as a sensation, I experience frustration as an affect of consciousness, I experience preferences and desires, but I do not have direct experience of "needs".  For instance: I may experience hunger, it is an unpleasant sensation, I very much prefer to relieve this sensation, I make a guess as to how I might relieve this sensation, and then I act according to my conception as the best preferred strategy of how to relieve my desire for hunger.  Another example: I experience frustration, the sense of frustration is an unpleasant feeling, it is very much an unpleasant angst of non-success in achieving desired outcome, I want/desire/prefer to clearly explain my thoughts regarding something but the person listening to me does not seem to understand my meaning; I am frustrated in my attempts to explain my ideas sufficiently that the other person would have an understanding that I would prefer.

 I present these examples to show how the "needs" feature in NVC, could be dispensed with; there is no necessity of experience or of language that requires that a framework of "needs" be present.
So then why add it, if it is not necessary? Well, perhaps the conceptual abstraction of "needs" does some useful conceptual work, in the framework of NVC.  This is the reason we USE abstractions in the first place! They abstract from the concrete and phenomenological to explain complex ideas outside of those qualities/concepts residing or represented by particulars.

What kind of conceptual work does the abstraction of "needs" do? It abstracts from all of the particular strategies/techniques one might employ to satisfy desires, and abstracts an essential meaning from those particular strategies/techniques.   Just as we have assumed that "feelings" between persons are roughly equivalent, because to deny the universalization of feelings, would be to imply that each person's experience of "feelings" are so unique, that each experience of these "feelings" would defy all attempts at linguistic expression; we would in a sense, all be born blind to the feelings of others.  Therefore, we abstract that strategies/techniques all have a common core that they wish to satisfy.  Rather than say, "I began to feel angry, and therefore I chose to act to satisfy my anger by writing her a scathing letter", I can remove the specifics of the particular strategy chosen and abstract from it a "need", "I began to feel angry, and I reflect that my needs to be heard and understood were not being met, and therefore I employed a strategy to satisfy/meet my needs to be heard and be understood."

How does abstracting a "need" from the particular strategies chosen help in the process of communication? Well, the listener might be the person who received the "scathing letter", and they may have some negative feelings in response to, and associated with, the "scathing letter"; when the receiver of the letter, hears the first part of the expression, "I began to feel angry, and therefore I chose to act to satisfy my anger by writing you a scathing letter", the receiver of the letter, may be able to empathize/connection to the other person (because of assumed universal feelings), right at the point of "by writing you a scathing letter", at this point, the person listening is provoked/triggered by the reminder of the letter which is associated with negative feelings, which may easily, reignite the conflict. In the second expression, "I began to feel angry, and I reflect that my needs to be heard and understood were not being met, and therefore I employed a strategy to satisfy/meet my needs to be heard and be understood." In this expression, the listener can connect to the feelings, as feelings that the receiver of the letter also feels (anger), and can also connect with the desire to "meet needs", as the receiver of the letter would also like the sender of the letter to recognize their desire to "meet needs". (Here, "meet needs" might be expressed as an abstraction of a successful satisfaction of desires, apart from the particular strategies employed to meet the needs.) So using the NVC expression, one can connect/empathize with the "feelings" which are assumed to be universal/roughly-equivalent and can also connect/empathize with the abstraction of the strategies to satisfy desires/preferences/preferred-outcomes.

 So this is my explosion of the theory supporting NVC.  Why is this significant?

Well, I think it is significant, because it means that, as we begin the process of NVC, we are making three requests of the other person, that we may not have realized because they are so integral to the process of NVC itself. We are (1.) asking the other person to communicate with us; we are (2.) asking the other person to accept that our feelings are universal/roughly-equivalent/interchangeable with their feelings, with the implicit offer to reciprocate that acceptance; and lastly we are (3.) asking the other person to accept a framework for the abstraction of strategies for satisfaction of preferred-outcomes ("needs").
I am not going to venture too far into this thought right now, but I think it is significant, that there is an implied request written into the code/theory of the three we've just mentioned... it is a request to CONTINUE to communicate until an agreement can be reached to satisfactorily meet everyone's needs... this is why NVC is truly NON-violent! Because there is an implicit request to continue communications (indefinitely), you may necessarily be agreeing to forgo action/violence until a peaceful/agreeable resolution can arise.

The magic of NVC happens as a function of breaking the barriers to connection, by bringing what is alien/separate to the self, to an understanding/acceptance of a common humanity.

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