NVC Question #8


It seems to me from reading the book that what he calls “observation” can only include direct observations of physical actions and all frequency statements must be strictly numeric. In fact, any non-exact statements seem to be outside the definition, whether they include estimates of frequency or not. The examples were telling because they were so extreme, in the sense that I would predict most people would assume that the word ‘observation’ applies to them. If this is where it starts, where does it stop? Thus, we have:

“My aunt complains when I talk to her.”

This is not ok, it seems, because “complain” is not sufficiently low-level to be an observation, and because this makes a non-exact statement of frequency: “When I talk to her” is not ok, because it doesn’t include the information on when, in fact, I have talked to her, even if this has occured every single time such an interaction has occurred. Thus, I cannot convey the sentiment “The correlation between my aunt saying ‘hello’ to me and her having a smile on her face is 1” without also saying the frequency of her saying “hello” which of course also must be exact. So if I don’t have that information, it seems this is an observation I have a lot of trouble making!

His suggested alternative:

“My aunt called me three times this week, and each time talked about people who treated her in ways she didn’t like.”

Two notes:

  1. This statement is missing information that was in the first statement, some of which was not judgment, which I assume is a feature and not a bug.
  2. This assumes that your aunt is truthful, which the first statement didn’t. Is this not a judgment? All I can say, at most, is that she claimed to have been treated in a way that she claims to not have liked. I haven’t seen this type of thing addressed: “My aunt called me three times that I know of this week, and each time talked about people who she claims treated her in ways she claims she didn’t like.”

I’m hoping you can help clarify this.


I think you’re right about the second one assuming the aunt is truthful. I don’t see it as much of a leap, but I take your point. I bet when coming up with examples no one really noticed that or thought much about it. I would say that the missing information is intended as a feature. I’ll quote this part from the intro:

NVC is a process language that discourages static generalizations; instead, evaluations are to be based on observations specific to time and context. Semanticist Wendell Johnson pointed out that we create many problems for ourselves by using static language to express or capture a reality that is ever changing: “Our language is an imperfect instrument created by ancient and ignorant men. It is an animistic language that invites us to talk about stability and constants, about similarities and normal and kinds, about magical transformations, quick cures, simple problems, and final solutions. Yet the world we try to symbolize with this language is a world of process, change, differences, dimensions, functions, relationships, growths, interactions, developing, learning, coping, complexity. And the mismatch of our ever-changing world and our relatively static language forms is part of our problem.”

The way I see it, there are two different motivations for being very particular about separating observation from evaluation. One is so that other people don’t hear it as criticism or judgement. The second is so that our own judgments don’t prevent us from perceiving new information. They’re related, and I’m going to address each one separately. Finally, I’ll try to touch on this distinction as it fits into the process as a whole.

How other people hear it:

Granted, we don’t know who the person who says “my aunt complains when I talk to her” is talking about, so maybe it’s kind of silly to consider this part of it without making some assumption there. I do think telling your aunt “you complain when I talk to you” is likely going to provoke defensiveness is the way that the transformed statement doesn’t. I think the same applies if you’re talking to someone who’s likely to feel protective of the aunt as well. Even if it might seem pretty objective, I think whenever you make a generalization like that, people who don’t like its implications for whatever reason find it pretty easy to come up with objections and challenges to it—which isn’t the case if you just give facts.

How it affects the person saying it:

Some of my thoughts on this issue come from another book I really liked about communication, Crucial Conversations. Our brain responds to facts and stories in different ways. Maybe the distinction would be that facts don’t create emotions, and stories do. And stories tend to be “sticky” in a way that facts don’t. As in, once we’ve told ourselves a story it tends to become self-fulfilling prophecies and by default we act in a way that provides confirming evidence. I think it’s similar to what Eliezer’s getting out when he talks about the blood type theory of personality and how as soon as we make a mental category we start harvesting similarities. The effect of saying the words to yourself “my aunt complains when I talk to her” leads your mind in the direction of thinking of other times she has complained and fitting her into a mental image of a complainer. Saying it the other way doesn’t have this effect so much, since you’ve contained the statement, after a fashion. Aggressively trying to harvest confirming evidence in the second case doesn’t do much harm, since it’s pretty specific.

To make another reference to the sequences, Eliezer also talks about we are “running on corrupted hardware“, and I’d say that’s the reason statements like “my aunt complains when I talk to her” are problematic. I would believe some people (like you, maybe) have safeguards in place in your mind to mitigate or eliminate the side-effects of statements like this. I’ve seen stranger things. But phrasing it as an observation way both provides a safeguard and tends to (subconsciously) communicate to people that you’re not letting your brain run wild harvesting evidence, so I think that’s a big part of why it makes them feel less defensive when you just present facts. Even if you don’t mean your generalization as a judgment, generally people end up turning their generalizations into judgements whether they mean to or not.

That being said, I think there are potential problems with focusing on a single instance (or two) when what’s bothering you is an overall pattern. Your emotions might seem out of proportion to the other person, and (like you said), you’re throwing out information that does in fact bear on the situation at hand. However, I think there are NVC-approved ways to incorporate the additional information about the pattern you’ve noticed.

But I think to figure out how to tackle this, we need a bit more information about the situation. Part of the point of NVC is that we don’t talk at all except to try to meet our needs. So, what’s the point of having the conversation about the aunt in the first place? Once we know that, it’ll suggest ways to talk about it.

Let’s assume that you’re actually talking to the aunt, and you’re annoyed about her complaining all the time. You could say something like, “Last week, both times I talked you you talked about people who treated you in ways that you said you didn’t like. I’m feeling frustrated because it’s important to me that the time I spend talking to you is enjoyable for both of us, and I have difficulty enjoying conversation with that sort of focus.” Something along those lines. At some other point if you think she’s not getting that it’s a pattern, maybe something like, “When you say that I’m ‘making a big deal out of just a few times’ I get concerned, because I’m seeing a pattern here and I really want you to understand what I’m getting at. Can you tell me how you see the pattern I’m describing?”.

Once again, I think the point about why you’re even talking about your aunt in the first place is relevant. Because I think it’s not so much that statements like “my aunt complains when I talk to her” are so awful, but more that they fall into the category of things that are likely provoke defensiveness in certain contexts. Also, by no means is the book saying that such statements are useless. If nothing else, one of its main claims is that if ONE person in the conversation is using NVC, it’s all good. So if you said this to someone who was very good at translating generalizations then it wouldn’t much matter how you said it and it would just be information. And maybe the people you choose to associate with are pretty good at this sort of translation, so in practice it’s not such a big deal for you.

Something else I just thought of about talking about patterns: NVC would tell you to speak up about it the first time it happens if it bothers you, so if you’re really doing the NVC then you won’t have too many patterns to talk about. NVC is not about talking about the past.

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