18 July 2015

Book Review: Nonviolent Communication - A Language of Life

I am firm in the belief that effective communication skills are vital to the successful practice of magick.  The way I see it, if you cannot articulate what you truly want to another person how can you articulate it with your magick?  Due to this belief I've spent a fair amount of time honing my ability to listen and communicate well.  I'd heard a lot about nonviolent communication in recent months so I decided to check it out.  I picked up the Kindle version of Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg.  Never in my life have I had a harder time deciding if I liked a book or not. 

TL; DR - Recommended with reservations. See below for why.

The raison d'etre of Nonviolent Communication is teaching people to speak effectively and to listen well - a worthy goal.  Rosenberg does a good job at giving readers the tools necessary to do so.  The book is very well written and easy to understand.  It's formatted beautifully for both skimming and referring back to it later without needed to highlight and mark it up.  As someone who likes to reread books for their salient points I thoroughly appreciate this.

Some of the most important ideas from the book revolve around learning to how to separate the observation of facts from the drawing of moralistic conclusions.  A huge number of the conflicts in our lives stem from the difference between the judgments we make and what is actually happening around us - particularly when it comes to inferring the thoughts and motivations of others from what we see them do and hear them say.  The book does a great job helping the reader to learn to see their own though process more clearly and be more objective.

The book then goes on to try to teach the reader how to better understand their own needs and desires and how to articulate themselves so that they can actually have their needs filled - also a worthy goal.  This is where the book begins to stumble a bit.  Rosenberg makes it seem like being able to clearly articulate what you want to others is some kind of magic bullet for getting what you want.  While there are undercurrents that can be inferred as saying, "if what you want is selfish and irrational you really need to reevaluate whether you should really get it," it's glossed over.  In fairness, if the book were to delve deeply into all the concerns about understanding our own desires it would be a multi-volume tome rather than a slim, readable book. Rosenberg does about as much as he can within the framework he's designed for himself, but I found this section a bit lacking in reality checks.

Then the book goes on to chapters on listening and empathy.  This is where I really had a hard time, not so much with the tools and techniques described, but in the examples given.  Rosenberg talks about the importance of sincere and attentive listening and having empathy for others and making sure that you've understood what they're trying to communicate rather than whatever your brain turned it into when you heard it.  This is probably the single most important skill anyone can develop in terms of improving your interactions with other people.  It is absolutely critical.  However, in the example scenarios Rosenberg seems to make a lot of assumptions about what other people are feeling rather than letting them tell him.  I think it stems from the fact that Rosenberg is a psychologist and thus has been trained to help teach people about their feelings.  It comes across as arrogant and really leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  In mediation folks are taught to never, ever presume they understand what someone wants or feels unless that understanding is specifically validated by the person who's actually doing the thinking/feeling. 

Overall I think that Rosenberg communicates some really important ideas about communication and human understanding.  I don't always like the way he demonstrates his techniques, but I do like the techniques themselves.  Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life has some really good ideas that I think just about everyone who has to interact with other people (aka everyone) can benefit from learning.  Just keep an eye on how much you buy in to how the author demonstrates his techniques and you'll get a lot out of it.

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