Often we are trying to help others with advice but instead feel rejected or misunderstood. It happens especially in situations where a substantial inequality is present: in the interaction between teachers and students, leaders and team members, parents and kids, and so on. The main reason is we think that our habitual ways of communication are also natural and effective, which isn’t always the case.
I’ve written this post as a continuation to How to give feedback on writing. In that post I focused mostly on feedback content, while now I’d like to say more about the form, which is equally important.
The Principles of Nonviolent Communication
First, let me introduce to you a few ideas of Marshall Rosenberg, the author of an approach known as nonviolent communication. Marshall Rosenberg was an American psychologist, teacher, and mediator who started conflict resolution programs in many war-torn areas throughout the world.
- The source of conflicts and misunderstanding in communication lies in the very human desire for autonomy. We want freedom to decide for ourselves. We can’t get rid of the desire for autonomy because it’s part of human nature—we only can respect it, especially if we really want to communicate, not command.
- Punishments and rewards are never reaching their goals, because they don’t respect human autonomy. That’s why the idea is not to try to get a person to do what we want, but instead to create a quality of connection based on mutual respect and concern where everyone’s needs matter and can be heard.
- It requires a shift away from the language based on evaluation/manipulation to the language based on needs. We need to learn how to tell others in a safe, guilt-free manner whether what they are doing is in harmony with our needs or conflicts with them.
- Human beings need empathy. They may want advice also, but only after they receive the empathic connection.
Many people believe that reward is good, as it’s the opposite of punishment, but in fact both reward and punishment are manipulative as they use power over others instead of empowering others. By using rewards or punishments, we try to influence others to do what we want. We need a way to help people hear one another, learn from one another, and contribute to each other’s happiness freely, not out of fear of punishment or hope for reward.
Below you will find the twelve «communication blocks» listed by Thomas Gordon, a pioneer in teaching communication skills and conflict resolution methods. I tweaked the examples to better reflect the writing feedback theme. Note how habitual many examples look and how well-disguised, sophisticated, hard-to-discover manipulations they are. If taken as advice, many of them are not wrong at all, but so often we don’t have enough empathy to base them on. So here’s the list:
- Ordering, directing, commanding: «Don’t do that.»
- Warning, admonishing, threatening: «You’d better not write that if you care about your reputation.»
- Exhorting, moralizing, preaching: «You must always respect others.»
- Advising, giving solutions or suggestions: «Why not to talk to X about that?»
- Lecturing, teaching, giving logical arguments: «If kids learn to take responsibility, they’ll grow up to be responsible adults.»
- Judging, criticizing, disagreeing, blaming: «You’re wrong about that.»
- Praising, agreeing: «I think you’re right.»
- Name-calling, ridiculing, shaming: «Look, Mr. Know-It-All.»
- Interpreting, analyzing, diagnosing: «You’re just jealous.»
- Reassuring, sympathizing, consoling, supporting: «All people go through this sometime.»
- Probing, questioning, interrogating: «Who put that idea into your head?»
- Withdrawing, distracting, humoring, diverting: «Just forget about it.»
We may believe that we use similar sentences with purest intentions, but have you ever thought about what the other person actually hears? Most probably, something along these lines:
- «You don’t accept my feeling the way I do.»
- «You think I’m not as smart as you.»
- «You think I’m doing something wrong.»
- «You think it’s my fault.»
- «You don’t seem to care about how I’m feeling.»
- «You don’t take me seriously.»
- «You don’t feel my judgment is legitimate.»
- «You don’t trust me to work out this problem myself.»
Alternative Methods of Giving Feedback
After reading this long list of communication blocks you probably ask yourselves: «So how to give feedback to people if we don’t use those habitual tricks?»
In fact, giving feedback is simple. We don’t need tricks or complicated methods, however it requires training to get rid of them. Paradoxically, in our critique-based culture we need to learn to be ourselves, be authentic.
The first, easiest, and most important method is to describe what’s happening inside you when you are reading the other person’s writing (or interacting with her/him in another way) instead of trying to evaluate the other side or give advice.
You can start with «When…» (here goes the fragment you give feedback on), continue with «I see/feel/think that…» and end with the description of your feelings or thoughts. Be careful: it’s very easy to slip into judging, so keep an eye on whether you really describe what you feel. Thomas Gordon calls this «I-messages» as opposed to habitual «You-messages.»
- «You are too verbose in this part.» (evaluation, You-message)
- «When I was reading this part, I felt tired.» (description, I-message)
- «When I was reading this part, I felt that you are too verbose.» (You-message disguised as I-message)
If we’re speaking about writing feedback, this is what we really want to know—what kind of movies are happening inside of others’ minds when they read our writing. (Of course, we also secretly want a wise one to tell us objectively the truth about our writing so that we could correct and conform, but the only truth is that nobody knows anything and we have to guess what’s going to work.)
The other ways of non-manipulative communication include:
- Using passive listening (you confirm that you are listening without further action).
- Using active listening (you emphatically describe a mental state the other person speaks from).
- Asking open-ended questions or just inviting the other person to tell more.
- Bringing facts, information, examples without advice or comparison attached.
- Using metaphors and stories that illustrate what’s happening inside yourself.