Good and Bad

One of the ideas that stuck with me after reading Nonviolent Communication (Rosenberg, 3rd ed. 2015), is that words such as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘better’, ‘worse’, ‘right’, and ‘wrong’ can often be problematic. For example:

In expressing our feelings, it helps to use words that refer to specific emotions, rather than words that are vague or general. For example, if we say, ‘I feel good about that,’ the word good could mean happy, excited, relieved, or a number of other emotions. Words such as good and bad prevent the listener from connecting easily with what we might actually be feeling. (p. 43)

Notice how Rosenberg very intentionally did not say that using vague words is bad or wrong — which would of course be a contradiction! Rather, he walked the talk and described a specific problem that can arise when such words are used. (Elsewhere in the book he describes all sorts of terrible problems that can arise from using judgmental language including “right” and “wrong”.)

Part of what’s poignant about this is how easy it is for my mind to jump to the simplified version: that using these words is bad or wrong. They appear frequently in conversation, social media, news, and books. So now every time I notice one, I have an opportunity — I can judge the wrongness/badness of the writer, or I can simply become curious and see if I can think up a more specific way to phrase what they may have meant (helping to improve my own communication skills). Sometimes my mind does both. Sometimes I end up liking the author’s word choice a lot.

In a way, the most remarkable thing about Nonviolent Communication is that it is a self-help book (which we would presume to contain some ideas about what sort of behavior is good or bad) written entirely without resorting to judgmental language like “good”, “right”, “should”, and “must”. Instead, everything is framed as techniques that can be employed to achieve certain goals or qualities.

If our objective is only to change people and their behavior or to get our way, then NVC is not an appropriate tool. The process is designed for those of us who would like others to change and respond, but only if they choose to do so willingly and compassionately. The objective of NVC is to establish a relationship based on honesty and empathy. (p. 81)

I think it is critically important to recognize that someone who does not practice nonviolent communication is not bad or wrong. They may be suffering unnecessarily, but they are doing their best.

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