Updated: May 28
Does Nonviolent Communication work when you’re at work? This is a question I’ve been exploring since 2007.
I very much enjoy visiting corporations and other organizations as a trainer, and also as a coach. I’ve coached people at every level of organizational hierarchy from entry level employees in their first job out of college to CEOs.
In workplaces, especially corporate workplaces, the skills I offer are often referred to as “soft skills.” This is to distinguish them from vocational skills, or “hard skills” like engineering, finance, design etc. Unfortunately the name lends itself to a variety of dismissive interpretations. “Soft skills” translates for some people as “unimportant skills for people who are soft.” When I get to work 1-on-1 with those people I often hear from them that they find “soft” skills to be a little “hard” to master.
Whether “soft,” “hard” or something in between (“firm skills?”), I'm happy that I get invited into organizations by leaders and HR/people teams who have seen for themselves the importance of communication and conflict resolution skills.
Years ago after leading a 2 or 3 hour training at a client company I was approached by an employee who said “I’ve been in the workplace for about 20 years. Every 3 years or so I happen to be at a company when they bring someone like you in to give a training, similar to the one you just gave. I agree with the things they teach and I agreed with you today, and I liked the training. But my question is, why is it that after the trainer leaves, nothing much seems to change, even if the training was popular and well-attended?”
I had a sense even then, still early in my career as a communication trainer, that I knew just what he was talking about.
For example, I’ve led trainings on "Giving Feedback" where people told me afterwards that what I’d offered was relevant and easy to follow and turned abstract ideas into something clear and doable. Great – those people are immediately going to start to give more feedback to direct reports, peers and even their own boss, right? Their feedback is going to be clearer and more focused on outcomes that bring greater benefit to more people and to the organization as a whole, wouldn’t you say? After all, they said they liked the training . . . and that’s what the training was about.
Well, yes, they will – some of them. Exactly how many will depend on a number of factors, characterized by the answers people come up with to questions like:
How invested is my immediate boss or team lead in applying the methodologies we just learned and practiced. Surely it’s her place to really adopt this into our team, not mine?
How frightening is it to me that someone might “take offense” to something I say to them and hear it is a personal criticism? I don’t want to burn bridges or risk losing future promotion or the chance to do more interesting projects.
How confident and secure do I feel in how I’m performing my job. I don’t want to give constructive feedback to others from a shaky foundation where someone might call me out on not doing my job right.
Now that I’m working with a real scenario, outside of a workshop setting, can I still see how to apply the principles that seemed so clear in the training?
Will I get angry if the other person is unwilling to listen to what I have to say? What if they seem to accept my feedback, agree to some new way of doing things or interacting but then don’t follow through?
Am I at risk of showing emotions that feel too vulnerable to show at work? What if I raise my voice, or get red in the face or cry?
Will I get tongue tied the second I get any pushback on what I’m saying, and then just revert to my old ways of communicating that don’t tend to work so well?
All these questions and concerns make a lot of sense to me. I hear variations on them on a regular basis.
Nonetheless, NVC has some useful answers to give to all these questions. Those answers might not get sufficiently integrated from a single training to provide the kind of change that’s possible. Still, with a little practice, perhaps some coaching, and/or some mutual support from other team members, the new communication habits start to form and, “benefits accrue,” so to speak. Those benefits can include lower stress, higher morale, improved flow and collaboration leading to higher productivity, and many more.
I feel hopeful when I encounter corporate and other organizational leaders who champion company culture. I not referring only to the more visible and well-known aspects of culture like in-office lunch, bean bags and pool tables, although I am certainly not trivializing these things. However, I feel a much greater sense of enthusiasm and hope when I meet or hear about leaders who are actively changing their own communication, and thinking, with the intention that they and their employees more reliably treat each other as human beings with human needs.
These are leaders who understand the value of empathy as a workplace tool.
These are leaders who understand that they are always leading by example so the organization they lead will act as an echo chamber for the communication style they use.
If a CEO who is prone to angry outbursts decides to do something about his anger, to better understand it, to choose differently when it comes up, even to be transparent with his team or his whole staff about the changes he’s making and why, it’s highly likely that the incidence of angry outbursts throughout the company will quickly start to diminish.
And we know, don’t we, that human emotions, including anger, happen in the workplace? Anger, impatience, frustration, delight, excitement, fear, amusement and more and more…they happen. I’m not suggesting that work become like a huge group-therapy session, but I’m also not in favor of the old “emotions should be left at home” philosophy. I see the emotional system as a message delivery system, telling us how far we are from how we’d most like things to be for us to thrive. Pay attention to what’s coming up and you get instant internal feedback – constant guidance and course correction for the individuals within an organization and for the organization itself.
Read around on what makes for thriving workplaces – Harvard Business Review, Inc.com, Psychology Today etc. – and you’ll find the articles can often be summarized down to words that you’d find on an NVC needs list.
This is not a great surprise given that organizations are full of humans and humans continue to have human needs when at work. Trust, respect and a sense of contribution, reinforced by expressions of appreciation might come first. Then growth, learning, autonomy and a sense of purpose are in hot pursuit. Clarity of expectations, sense of challenge, social connection, openness/transparency, communication, a sense of mattering, authenticity – even to the point of vulnerability….and empathy.
A friend used to work at an organization where her team dreaded the weekly meetings – they said they were inefficient, a drag, a downer, a list of complaints without solutions and more tasks being put onto already packed to-do lists. My friend asked the team what they wanted to change about the meetings. Part of the change was to incorporate an extended period where anyone who wanted empathy got it. The meetings became a much-loved, even most-loved part, of the week. They became places where people got to know each other better, put their heads together to come up with creative solutions, helped each other with overwhelm and task-sharing and so on. Getting heard and met with acceptance even when you’re having a hard time – that’s a great platform from which to create and innovate!
So, I say the skills, attitudes and awareness that grow through learning and practicing Nonviolent Communication have a place in the workplace. You might make changes to how you give voice to NVC at work. You might remove language that could be judged as “touchy-feely,” and yet still proceed in a way that acknowledges and responds skillfully to the fact of human emotion and need in the workplace. Observation becomes a tool in the workplace toolkit. Feelings awareness becomes a tool, as does needs awareness. Then there are the tools of requesting, offering, proposing, listening and self-connection…along with a host of supporting principles.
I invite you to take the step of bringing your skills with Nonviolent Communication into your workplace!