Nonviolent Communication: Clear Thinking About Moralistic Judgements

Shawn Powrie
Shawn Powrie
Nonviolent Communication: Clear Thinking About Moralistic Judgements

I feel grateful to have the space to reflect on some of the most important principles I’ve learned in my life, and that you (dear reader) are along for the journey with me. Thoughtful reflection brings a lot of joy to me.

One of the most important frameworks of understanding reality and communication I’ve ever learned is Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg (a special thanks and mention to my close friend Emma who told me about it one sunny day on a boat in the Sydney harbour).

The framework is comprehensive and covers a lot of ground, so I won’t be replicating it all in detail here, rather, I’d like to reflect briefly on one specific thing it taught me, that I consider to be a very deep lesson and that I continue to reflect on an (almost) daily basis: the nature of moralistic judgements.

The nature of moralistic judgements

One of the fundamental premises of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) posits that:

Moralistic judgements are tragic expressions of our own values and needs. 

By moralistic judgements we’re referring to labels or analyses of others that imply wrongness that are commonplace in our everyday speech. People are, in our private conversations with ourselves or others, variously labelled as “idiots”, “mean”, “lazy”, “careless”, “incompetent”, “greedy”, “sloppy”, “selfish”, “paranoid” or any number of other names.

These are tragic because they don’t help us or those around us to connect with what’s truly alive in us, which feelings we’re experiencing or which needs are being highlighted. For example, a teacher might label one of the students “lazy” but in actual fact the teacher themselves might just be feeling exhausted and have a need for cooperation or contribution. A spouse might label their partner as “cold” or “distant” but the true significance of these labels are the more vulnerable feelings of loneliness and isolation, and the need for emotional connection or intimacy. Moralistic judgements tend to not be constructive. They usually result in increased defensiveness on the part of the other person, and, when I think closely on the reasons, I think it’s because we have an intuitive sense that we’re simply not “cold” or “distant”- these descriptions don’t match the reality within us (what’s alive within us).

Challenging deeply held conceptions

Once my mind was exposed to this simple, highly intuitive idea, the way I saw the world and our communication started to be radically challenged.

I love this idea because it challenges the very nature of moralistic judgements themselves as constructs. When we use terms like “lazy”, “irresponsible” or “arrogant” or many other terms (they come quickly to the tongue) we think we’re speaking in objectively true or real terms. Surely, a person who frequently doesn’t complete their tasks in the expected time is “lazy” right? Surely, a person who cuts in front of you in the traffic is “an idiot” right? Surely, a person who occasionally yet consistently drops objects they’re carrying is “clumsy” right?

Well no. They’re none of those things. They’re boundless consciousnesses into which is pouring a rich variety of content and experiences, and so are you.

When that “idiot” cuts in front of you in the traffic, on the level of real conscious experience, you’re feeling annoyed, and you have a need for safety, respect or consideration. And that “idiot” driver? Might be feeling anxious, stressed, rushed, or even (to consider other interesting interpretations) they might be feeling thrill or excitement connected with a competitive spirit of cutting in front of people. Or they’re simply not aware and didn’t see you in their blind spot. By considering these interpretations, we’re not justifying their action of cutting in front of you (most of us would agree that the value of safety is higher than the thrill of cutting in front of people) but they are nonetheless not an idiot. Is anyone, really?

Are they “incompetent”, or perhaps just unaware?

One particular thing that comes up a lot for many of us is anger and frustration at perceived “incompetence” on the part of other people. This happens frequently in the context of receiving products or services from a market or just interacting with the civilized world that we live in. The queue at the grocery store took too long. The cashier at the post office didn’t know what we were talking about. Our bosses laid on us yet more tasks. Or an example that comes up for me a lot in my SEO agency work, I frequently encounter situations where web marketing or development teams have made decisions that have negatively impacted a website’s SEO. In all these situations, as consumers of products on a market, we have various desires and needs, and when these needs go unmet we feel frustrated or angry. We jump on to the Google Reviews site, give it a solid 1/5 rating and vent our frustration with many moralistic judgements.

But I wonder if what we see as “incompetence” on the part of others is mostly just unawareness. They’re either unaware that we have a need, or otherwise unaware of how to meet that need. It might be other things too- they could be scared or ashamed for not knowing how to solve your problem, they could be tired or frustrated themselves from being overworked, or even disillusioned with the entire enterprise of 9-5 work.

How different would our reactions be if instead of viewing people as “incompetent” or “idiots” we viewed them instead as “unaware”? We might still choose to go to a different service provider, utility company or grocery store, but the landscape of our interpretations might shift dramatically. We might instead learn to say “I’m going to use a different internet service provider who’s more aware of how to meet my needs as a consumer”.

There’s so much more

These are just some reflections based on NVC about the nature of moralistic judgement. I warmly recommend the framework to anyone wanting to learn more.

Shawn 26-01-2024

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