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Can NVC Be Used for Manipulation?

by Scott Swain 
NVC is based on a book called Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, PhD.

I bet it can be used for manipulation! I see people do it subconsciously or accidentally all the time when they are in the early process of understanding and integrating the various parts of NVC. If you skip vital steps or you are in an early stage of learning, NVC can come across as manipulative. It's not unusual for a person raised - like many of us were - in a "domination culture", to still have strategies of blame, shame, demand, and guilt underlying rough approximations of the NVC speaking model. 

I'm reminded of one aspect of NVC in particular that can, if not well understood, be used and received as manipulative; the "needs" vocabulary. Especially when confused with "actions (or strategies)". 

Example: "I really need you to cook dinner." 

I might assume manipulation if I heard someone say that to me. The statement is definitely not accurate use of NVC but I've heard beginners use this kind of language and think it was NVC. For one thing, cooking dinner is a strategy or action to get a need met. The actual needs might be for fulfillment, health, well-being, or comfort. So an accurate use of NVC would be more like, "I'm hungry and tired. Are you up for cooking?" Here we want to be very sure we are getting across to the other person that our request is not a demand. We want them to know, and will tell them if necessary, that we only want them to cook if they get their needs met by doing so. Can it be tricky? Sure! It helps if we get sensitive to their potentially hidden "no". More on that later.

Another aspect of the "needs" vocabulary is just that we even call them needs. It's one of my issues with the book. I'd say it is just as - if not more - accurate to call them wants, desires, or even values. Why? Because the word "needs" has too many connotations that are not fully in line with the NVC principles of consent and responsibility. More on this later.

All that said, I wouldn't bet against there being people out there who are expert with NVC and still use it for manipulation. Like any tool, it can be misused.

For me, NVC has quite a bit of "anti-manipulation" built in, in at least four ways:

(1) One is the letting go of agenda that is part of the NVC empathy process. I find that the deeper I integrate NVC, the less I want to control outcomes. Part of that, I suspect, is the practice of letting go of my perspective in order to fully see the other person's view. 

Bonus: When we look at the benefit/cost of using empathy vs. controlling, we see that with practice, empathy becomes easier and more automatic, increasing the contrast of the drawbacks/cost of controlling, which can include energy expenditure, added responsibility, worry, and whatever effects happen to the person/people we are attempting to control. 

(2) Another bit of anti-manipulation built into NVC: It teaches us to eschew compromise for consensus. We want both/all parties to get their needs met, so getting someone to do something that doesn't serve them is not in the spirit of NVC. Marshall (the author) often said something like, "When we push people to do something that doesn't meet their needs, we both pay the price." Think resentment.

(3) Next, we are responsible for our own feelings. This means we do not guilt or blame people about our emotions. NVC proposes we do not say things like, "Your words made me feel _____." No one can make us happy or angry without our permission. People do not make us happy or angry; they trigger our emotions. Whomever or whatever you place in charge of your feelings, you have placed in charge of you.

(4) Finally, the "practice/do" aspect of (1), the 4th component of the NVC practice formula: Observation - Feeling - Need - REQUEST. 

NVC teaches us to make a clear distinction between request and demand. We strive to never demand. We prefer that our request come from an energy of wanting the other person to do the thing only if they really want to. We strive to get sensitive to the "maybe" or "no" that body language may reveal when someone says "yes" for "unclean" reasons. We want only a "real" yes.

Disclaimer: I have actually violated a few NVC principles during the writing of this document. One, for example, is the use of the word "unclean", which is an evaluation. I chose to leave it in for three reasons: (a) I don't have a desire for perfection; (b) efficiency; and (c) mistakes can serve as great lessons. I invite you to watch the satirical NVC animations I've made where the characters are never perfect:
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Anthem Atlas Shrugged
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