Friday, June 15, 2007

Enemy Images

One of the reasons I spend so much time teaching the Observation component in Nonviolent Communication is because labeling pervades so much of our human experience. Labels create convenient, simple-to-use, easy-to-understand channels of communication. If I know something is "cheap," or "durable," or "appropriate," I can make decisions more quickly and accurately, living my life with integrity and aligned with my purpose.

Or can I?

I think labels do help us make decisions faster and easier. They also come with a cost: They can help situations devolve into conflict. Any time we simplify the complexities of human interaction and communication, we risk setting up polarities that divide, rather than bridges to cooperate.

So when I hear about people making efforts to change situations they perceive as unjust or unfair, I always ask myself, "Are they building bridges or walls? Are they separating people into camps of good and evil, or are they seeking to connect with one another through common human experiences?"

I value justice and fairness, but I try to avoid those terms in heated discussions, because they beg the question: Justice for whom? Fair for whom? I think those are valid, legitimate questions, but yelling, "That's not fair!" typically evokes defensiveness in the listener. Few of us can keep our cool when we're accused of acting unfairly!

Another thing I've noticed is that when I ask a person to describe the unfair situation in "observation language," they often drop the "unfair" label and switch to other labels: rude, selfish, disrespectful, exploitative, etc.

When I am dealing with my own triggers, it often takes me a long time to abandon labels. It takes even longer if I try to suppress them. To get beyond the labels, I write down all the ones that come to mind. I let my label maker run wild! I celebrate the enormous range of ways I have created to call someone evil! I try to get it all out of my system... and ON PAPER.

Then - and only then - I start translating into observations, feelings, needs and requests. NVC suggests I say, "When I hear you describe [specific policy, in terms of NVC Observation], I feel distressed, because I'm imagining [the needs unmet by the policy]." Then, I can present a connecting request or an action request. That way, I can focus my energies on the actual situation and on meeting our mutual needs, rather than on diagnosing who is "bad," which will probably not move me closer to a solution with the other person.

It's easy to get stuck on labels, and to think of them as objective, dispassionate descriptions. It's easy to think an "atrocity" is pretty self-explanatory. Yet I've found that when I and others take the time to work out the observation, we begin to work toward a solution. When I and others keep holding on to our labels and defending the "rightness" of them, we have remained stuck, frustrated, and angry.


Anonymous said...

I like that term, the "labelmaker." I guess that we each have a labelmaker part of us. That part probably needs some empathy and compassion too. Its just trying to do its job. Thank you for the interesting post. DJ

Michelle De Lude said...

Thanks for reading! I agree, my label maker has positive intentions. Those can usually be satisfied in other ways, but I really have to listen for the intentions or needs and not focus all my energy on the labels.