I’ve written about using Nonviolent Communication (NVC) as a core component of a set of restorative practices and also a core component of social and emotional learning practices. In effect, all are interrelated and several school leaders that I’ve consulted with have found the three helpful for explaining and enacting parts of their behavior management and youth development efforts.
Concern 1: Teachers’ and administrators’ lack of proficiency following training.
Some have trained their faculty and staff over weeklong trainings, offered ongoing professional development hours, or provided resources for educators to learn material on their own time.
Response to concern 1: Facility with concepts, terms, structures, and how to respond in complex situations requires a lot of practice. So NVC trainers recommend consistent study and practice of NVC for at least six months before using it beyond practice spaces. Fortunately, many cities have practice groups (for example, here’s the NVC group for Nashville, TN). Perhaps even more importantly, as with most practices, teachers who are internally motivated to learn NVC are more likely to develop proficiency. It’s commonly reported by teachers who have taken NVC workshops that they often find NVC to be very practical and helpful for both their professional work and personal lives.
Concern 2: NVC can be used in ways that perpetuate power differentials, particularly in schools that are embedded in hierarchical social structures (students often have less power than teachers).
Moreover, it may be used to (unintentionally) deceive, manipulate, or harm others. For example, some educators have expressed concern that NVC practices do not stipulate sufficient communication boundaries for fair and constructive communication. NVC doesn’t permit taking turns, and a teacher might use NVC in ways that do not permit a student a chance to offer their observations of and experiences with a particular issue. Also, NVC doesn’t require checking in with all relevant parties on whether the present moment might be a good place to share dialogue. Concerned educators have noticed that some people can force NVC conversations in public spaces where a lack of privacy can prevent authentic and wholesome discussion . Finally, some perceive that NVC requires people to “tone down” their expressions of suffering and injustice.
Response to concern 2: NVC typically is talked about as including four core steps. Part of investment in training is to develop and embody an intuitive understanding for how NVC can be used and abused. NVC should be used in ways that respect boundaries and champion equity, inclusion, justice, and diversity.
Concern 3: A common critique of NVC is that it stifles intimacy, authenticity, and natural flows of conversation with its structure. Educators are concerned that this can obstruct healthy relationships.
Response to concern 3: Although NVC structure can be asymmetric to typical communication patterns, NVC is purposeful in at least two ways. First, it can be useful for negotiating higher intensity topics in ways that are not going to follow normal conversation flows. Second, it can be helpful to use within one’s personal reflection and internal processing so that one may engage with insight gleaned from NVC when in conversation. Although NVC may not necessarily follow a linear, structured employment in conversation, it offers valuable and constructive ways to engage with others. Again, practice leads to proficiency. The four NVC steps provide structure that, once one becomes more familiar with them, can be used to inform communication choices that can be expressed more naturally.
Concern 4: NVC can cause exhaustion and burnout. And, it can be over-used and even unnecessarily used.
Response to concern 4: NVC addresses real-life experiences such as emotions and relationships. Over time, without the appropriate support, it can lead to burnout. NVC should be used in concert with broader structural supports, like those found in restorative practices. Adults in schools are often charged with leading NVC initiatives, because NVC requires emotional and social maturity. Some adults are not fit for—or need additional support—to be successful NVC models. Again, practice is helpful for learning to discern how and when to use NVC.
Concern 5: Nonviolent communication, while helpful, misses key opportunities for growth—particularly those associated with judgments.
Concerned adults argue that judgments can reflect opinions and decisions based on careful thought, an ability to make good decisions about what should be done, and processes of forming opinions through discerning and reflective consideration. In other words, judgments can be helpful for emotional growth and to distinguish how we act from how we would wish to act. Many times, judgments seem to not hurt others and careful inclusion and discussion can serve to identify problematic judgments (those that are racist, sexist, etc.). Others contend that the several “universal” needs associated with NVC are simply views about what people truly need. For example, they argue that some folks don’t want closeness (e.g., those who identify as anti-social or seek solitude) or sexual expression (e.g., those who chose celibacy or identify as asexual).
Response to concern 5: A tight and literal interpretation of NVC suggests that effective communication does not include space for judgments. However, NVC can be used to talk about judgments and how we respond to and make sense of them. That is, the purpose of NVC is to remind us of the utility of observations and avoid the traps associated with judgments. sing NVC in relation to judgments can have these positive implications if practiced well.
Concern 6: NVC should be used in all conversations that happen in schools. Some educators don’t believe that NVC is relevant to many conversations throughout the school day, including those pertaining to curricula.
Response to concern 6: From personal experience, I’ve found that as I practice NVC and continue to find value in including observations, feelings, needs, and requests, I’m better able to act and talk in ways that align with my authentic experience. Although I might not speak using the NVC steps throughout the day, these communication skills are relevant for everything from providing advice to a friend, listening, staying present, improving my productivity, addressing tough conversations, and much more. I believe that the same kinds of benefits apply to engaging in everyday school activities and conversations.