Under normal circumstances, I fully encourage and support any attempt one makes to improve interpersonal communication. Especially when it benefits me.
A partner using “I” statements and engaging in concerted efforts to be clear, open and honest warms my heart. A boss or coworker that communicates clear guidelines and expectations is a cherished gem that I would regularly polish if not for pesky sexual harassment laws. Children that are able to clearly state what is or isn’t working in regards to my half-ass attempts at helping with homework make it easier for me to justify hiring a tutor. I love boundaries. I relish opportunities to really, deeply understand what someone needs or how they feel. It is a wonderful feeling to know that I am surrounded—for the most part—by people that are not assholes and know how to communicate.
Unfortunately, there are people in this world that believe—deep down in their indigo-shaded tie-dyed souls—that they are effective communicators. What these people don’t realize is that they are crazy.
Take wannabe Nonviolent Communication devotees, for instance. And also, people who are sociopaths.
The premise seems harmless enough: Nonviolent Communication is a self-righteous cult-like language style that supposedly facilitates the flow of communication needed to exchange information and resolve differences peacefully. It also claims to help focus attention on compassion as a motivating factor, instead of guilt, blame, fear or shame. In some cases, it helps people to own their feelings. This, I appreciate. I always own the shit out of my feelings, and sometimes everyone else’s feelings, too. Growing up in an obscenely large dysfunctional family molded me into a loyal codependent. Thanks, Mom and Dad!
The framework of Nonviolent Communication adds a lot of unnecessary words to sentences, though, and can chew up anywhere from four to thirty-five minutes of any given day. For example, if someone doesn’t feel like going on a date with the drunk woman that accosted them in their therapist’s parking lot, they can just give a calm and brief “no, thanks” as a reply to the solicitation. Or utilize the pepper spray tucked away in their bicycle’s panniers. In Nonviolent Communication Fantasy Land, the response would be more like this: “I feel uncomfortable with the level of your alcohol intake and I am needing to stay home and watch the Deadliest Catch marathon this weekend.” The latter statement sets a revolving door of interaction into motion and invites questions. And questions always lead to conversation. It seems to complicate things. And it wastes a lot of precious time. Thirty-five minutes a day means about eight days out of an entire year used to engage in conversations with people we’d rather avoid when we could be doing something fun like sleeping. Or planting five acres of corn. Or having oral surgery.
In almost every instance, if the feelings bubbling up from our instinctive cores incite feelings of aversion, it is quite alright to say, “no.” Take this woman I knew who, loyal to her Nonviolent Communication teachings, decided it was appropriate to “honor” her two-year-old’s needs to repeatedly not get dressed in the morning. In typical terrible-twos fashion, he screamed and cried while he ran amok, tearing their apartment to shreds; his need for control running the game. The mother listened calmly and replied, “I hear that you are not wanting to get dressed right now, Lil Johnny. I honor your feelings and we can try again later.”
This is crazy talk.
A two-year-old doesn’t even know it has needs, nor does it recognize what those needs are beyond hunger or the deep desire to covet its sibling’s Playmobil pirate ship. An appropriate response would have been to lasso that little bastard and shove him into a heavily starched straightjacket and get on with the Goddamn day. Next, this woman is completely oblivious to the fact that she is raising one of many in a generation of monsters.
This little asshole will grow up to be a large, adult-sized asshole who will eventually enter the workforce and begin relationships. Without a serious emotional smack down and some mild shaming once in a while, kids like this become men and women with no sense of personal boundaries, frequently displaying asshole behavior because they “feel like it.” Also, the world is a cruel, gruesome place full of unanticipated pain and we should all be prepared for the hands of life shoving us down dark stairwells of disappointment every chance it gets.
In the worst case scenario of overly permissive, pot-smoking new-age parenting gone horribly, horribly awry, Lil Johnny will grow up to ruin the lives of women everywhere. He will pose as a Middle Eastern James Franco and stalk his ex-girlfriends on OKCupid because doing so meets his need of feeling in control. He will also hack into an ex-girlfriend’s email and sneak into her house to snoop through her things, opting to remove items that he feels she no longer needs because no one told him not to do it. Since she left her door unlocked, he’ll argue that he did nothing wrong. And he’ll expect everyone to honor his feelings as he walks away with his arms full of her brand new size 34B bra and panty sets along with her self-help books on verbally abusive relationships.
The rationalization for some of his displays of other wildly inappropriate behavior will surely include passive-aggressive word play: “I am sorry your anxiety causes you to choose to perceive me as a bad person because I got drunk, called you a slut and left drunk in the middle of the night to make plans to screw my ex-girlfriend. Maybe you should think long and hard about what you did to make me need to do that.”
It’s enough to make even the most sane person want to rip their veins out through their eye sockets in fits of unbearable confusion.
It doesn’t end with a few cases of Lil Johnny Lacks Boundaries. I believe that Nonviolent Communicator wannabes are the foulest creatures to walk among us. Most blend in and appear to be every day, normal people who frequent parks, bookstores, cafes, independent movie theaters and live music venues. Most of them are upper-middle-class white folks who drive Priuses or Subaru Outbacks slathered with bumper stickers reading “One Love” or “Inquire Within.” Upon close inspection, they can be spotted by an air of narcissism swirling around them and eyes that are open just wide enough to see the white orb curving back above their irises. They never blink. They carelessly block the gourmet cheese aisle at the neighborhood co-op. Often, while pretending to listen with an open heart chakra, their heads tilt just slightly to the right, as if positioning the left ear a few centimeters toward an open mouth will help them hear more fully. If they are in agreement with what they hear, their eyes squint and their heads will begin to bob like they are grooving to an inner rhythm of a slow-jam-meets-smooth-jazz-remix of Terrence Trent D’Arby. Or like their ecstasy just started kicking in and they are remembering the strawberry lollipop they stashed in the freezer. They moan and sigh a lot when a phrase moves them. Also, some of them are mouth breathers.
Sometimes, they will adorn themselves with one or more wardrobe items—earrings, a swath of sustainably harvested, fair trade berry-died alpaca fabric holding locks of hair in place or even a wallet or purse—that appears “ethnic” or “multicultural” as if wearing a Guatemalan print vest makes them a legitimate expert on socially acceptable behavior or proactive communication techniques. (Side-note: Unless the person wearing this type of garb actually lives in a developing country and is the village medicine man or woman, they should never be taken seriously. Ever. Walk away.)
These people meet in groups to practice not being assholes, or, giving empathy as described in a group that my friend Henry and I crashed last week before drinking off the panic attacks the meeting created. Correction: we met our needs of wanting calmness by drinking beer and trying to make sense of the new lingo we encountered. Apparently, acting like a giraffe is good but being a Jackal is bad. What about meerkats or aardvarks, we wondered. The club seems so exclusive and discriminatory.
But it isn’t merely the aesthetics of unfortunate fashion choices or the superiority complex that shines through their eyes to the condescending tone residing deep in their solar plexuses that makes these people some of the most irritating humans to be cornered by at a vegan cocktail party. Some of them may have heartfelt intentions of making the world a better place. To them I say, Kumbaya, My Lord. Still, there is a fine line between Nonviolent Communication and verbal manipulation. Speaking in a calm, clear tone makes no difference if what you are saying is abusive, just plain stupid or meant to make someone hate herself in order for you to get what you want.
Nonviolent Communication tactics may be perfectly appropriate in circles of self-righteous, passive aggressive cultish circles or among people who are independently wealthy, leaving them with endless hours to devote to self-improvement gimmicks. It leaves the rest of us exposed to the bitter wind of impatience and unanswered questions. And quite frankly, it transforms otherwise normal and understanding people into a pack of angry, mangy wolves. I wish people could just be decent.
But these are just my feelings.
I still have a preference for a “yes” or “no” over some long-winded inconclusive response from some creep whose prolonged eye contact makes me want an Ambien.
Obviously I need to look at the “needs list” in Chapter 5 of my Nonviolent Communication book and reflect on what is missing in my life.
I think I just feel hurt when people act like assholes and I need them to go away and never talk to me ever again.
Maybe I just need some empathy. Or maybe people should just try harder to stop being assholes.