Nonviolent Communication™ and Dealing with Authority Figures

“Never give authority power to make you submit or rebel.”

Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD.

How do we use Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to interact effectively with authority figures or people in positions of power?

What is NVC?

Let’s start by defining Nonviolent Communication as a way of harnessing thought, language, communication, and the use of power in order to create a high quality of connection with others.

When the connection between people is positive and high quality, misunderstandings and conflicts are prevented or resolved more readily, trust is built or reinforced, and mutually satisfying outcomes become consistently available.

Structural Power

One thing to consider is that there can be different kinds of authority figures who can hold different kinds of power.

If you are an aspiring artist, there might be people you look up to and respect because they have honed their craft or perfected their art. This is one type of authority, who you might respect for their knowledge and experience, but they have no “structural power” over you.

An example of structural power would be an organizational hierarchy in which, because of the titles and positions, one person might have more power than another within that structure. For example, they might have the power to fire another person. If both people leave that organization, that structural power differential disappears.

Structural power could include parents’ legal ability to make certain decisions for their children, and a law enforcement officer’s ability to use deadly force within the scope of the law and their official duties. (As we have seen, police sometimes use deadly force in ways that are not only unethical but illegal, and they can be tried and convicted under the law for that.)

It is our relationship with authority figures with whom we have some sort of power differential that can be most challenging and problematic, and these will be our focus here.

The Importance of Intrapersonal Communication Skills in Power Differentials

The term “intrapersonal communication skills” refers to how you communicate with yourself — your self-talk. (This is as differentiated from skills between people, also known as interpersonal skills.)

While someone may have structural power (legally or organizationally) there are at least three other kinds of power, and one of those is directly related to self-talk or intrapersonal communication.

Different Kinds of Power

The other three kinds of power are:

  • Physical power — you can lift something heavy for someone or use your physical strength to protect them;
  • Interpersonal or relational power — you can call in favors or you are someone who others respect and listen to; and,
  • Interior power — also known as personal or spiritual power. This is the type of power that allows people to stay emotionally resilient in very challenging situations. An example might be how Nelson Mandela survived nearly three decades in prison while humanizing and befriending his jailers, and later becoming South Africa’s first Black president.

Interior Power, Intrapersonal Communication, 2 modes of Consciousness, and 4 Types of Self-Talk

It is this last one — interior power — that relates directly to your intrapersonal communication.

The trick is what one emphasizes.
We either make ourselves miserable
or we make ourselves strong.
The amount of work is the same…

— Carlos Castaneda

Most people don’t realize that they are constantly talking to themselves. We tell ourselves stories and create narratives that shape our reality, our perception, our interactions with others, our worldview, and in very real ways our effectiveness in life.

We can subdivide self-talk into two basic types:

  1. life-disconnected, life-alienated, and
  2. life-connected, life-serving. You can think of these as two modes of consciousness, and two different approaches to life and relationships.

After decades of training people and resolving conflicts around the world, Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, originator of NVC, said that in every culture people are playing one of two games. One game is called, “who’s right and who’s wrong?” The other game is called, “how can I make life more wonderful?”

These two “games” correspond to the two previously mentioned modes of consciousness or approaches to how we relate.

As a form of short-hand, you can also think of them as judgmental consciousness and compassionate-and-empowered consciousness.

From these two approaches, you can direct your attention outwardly and inwardly, now giving you 4 options:

  1. Judgmental attention inward (you judge yourself),
  2. Judgmental attention outward (you judge another),
  3. Compassionate-and-empowered attention inward (you connect empathically with yourself),
  4. Compassionate-and-empowered attention outward (you connect empathically with another).

(To “connect empathically” means to offer a respectful or compassionate understanding to what someone is experiencing. In NVC we usually we use a language of feelings and needs for this.)

When you find yourself in a situation with a power differential, it can make all the difference where you put your attention — on which of the four options above. Your body language, the energy coming through your eyes, and the next words that come out of your mouth — these will all be different based on where you are placing your attention.

For example, if someone is at work, and their boss says, “I need that report by tomorrow at 5am. Can you agree to do it?” — this person has the four options above.

  1. Judgmental attention inward (you judge yourself):
    Where your attention might go: “This is my fault. I’m not organized enough… and I never should have taken this stupid job! I’m so dumb!”
  2. Judgmental attention outward (you judge another),
    Where your attention might go: “He is such a jerk! …always bossing me around. 5am! He’s clueless and rude!”
  3. Compassionate-&-empowered attention inward (you connect empathically with yourself),
    Where your attention might go: “When he asks that, I feel stressed! I need more support and I’m not creating the kind of balance in my time to really attend to my self-care. I feel torn. I want to say yes and I also want to ask for more time to complete the report.”
  4. Compassionate-&-empowered attention outward (you connect empathically with another).
    Where your attention might go: “I wonder if he’s feeling stressed and is needing support because he’s under pressure from his boss. Even though the request is hard for me, I feel curious about why it is so important to them that the report be complete by 5am…”

With regard to these four options, you could either keep them to yourself or express them out loud — giving you eight possibilities!

If you’re in the first two — judging another or yourself — then you are less likely to be in an open space of learning and growing, and you are more likely to say yes to actions you will later regret and/or resent. It might also be likely that you speak to the other person in ways that don’t show care for the relationship or the shared purpose behind the work.

The last two options — demonstrating understanding and care, for yourself and the other — are more likely to result in communication that builds trust and emotional safety.

Regardless of the type of power dynamic — parent/child, teacher/student, therapist/patient, boss/employee, prison-guard/prisoner — when we humanize the other instead of reacting to a role, we are much more likely to steer the conversation toward mutually satisfying results and outcomes.

The Problem with Demands

Demands, whether intended or perceived, can further complicate things. Demands — as opposed to requests — are inherent to power-over dynamics. When someone, especially someone in a position of structural authority, expresses a demand, it’s easy to perceive that you have only two options: to submit or to rebel.

NVC gives you a third option!

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg was fond of saying, “never give the other person the power to make you submit or rebel.”

You stop giving others the power to make you submit or rebel when you can stay in a more self-connected and empowered inner state. NVC gives you tools to achieve this, helping you stay more connected to your interior clarity and personal power.

This third option relies on connection with yourself and connection with others so that you can both play the game how can I make life more wonderful regardless of your roles or power dynamics.

Grief, Choice, and Translating our Judgments

Unfortunately, sometimes the other person doesn’t want to play or connect or collaborate.

NVC is not for changing others or getting them to do what we want!

NVC is for creating connection and mutually satisfying outcomes.

If someone is unwilling to hold that shared intention with you, you still have the four options for where to put your attention with regard to their stance.

In some situations what what you are left with is grief work — mourning the unfulfilled needs.

Again, if you engage with the grief process through the judgmental consciousness you are more likely to add to the violence in world — even if just through your thoughts!

If you attend to your grief and mourning with compassion, care, and self-connection, you are more likely to make it through in a way that feels like healthy learning and growing.

One powerful insight from NVC: you always have choice.

You may not like any of the options of which you are aware, but within that you still have choice.

And it’s hard to have choice over things you are not aware of.

NVC is a path of awareness, and slowing down can help you identify negative self-talk.

In NVC you’re not trying to get rid of negative interior messages. Instead, you transform them by giving them empathy. This means listening for the feelings and the needs behind any judgmental message.

“I don’t think I can do this” can become, “I feel discouraged and need more support.”

“This person is driving me crazy” can become, “I feel frustrated and confused and need more ease and clarity.”

“I’m tired of them bossing me around!” can become, “I feel exhausted and despondent and I’m needing respect for my choice and autonomy.”

The primacy of self-connection

Again, where you put your attention — life-disconnected thinking and language, or life-connected, life-serving thinking and language — can make all the difference as to how a situation unfolds.

And though NVC gives you tools in three areas — honest self-expression, empathic listening, and compassionate self-connection — it all starts with your connection with yourself.

When you are triggered or disconnected from yourself it impacts your ability to show up with authenticity and presence — the keys to honesty and empathy.

Practice the tools for transforming your intrapersonal communication so that you can have more effective interactions with people in positions of authority.

How to Talk to People in Positions of Authority: Police Officers, a Boss, Parents, Teachers, Your Child’s Teacher, Your Coach, or Your Child’s Coach

There’s a lovely expression in the English language:

Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.

This refers to how much care and trust influence whether another can receive your message.

If you are engaging with someone in a position of authority, and that person perceives your animosity or disdain, the conversation is less likely to be productive or constructive.

Again, when you can humanize the other person, beyond a role, then you are more likely to create the kind of connection that allows you both to find a life-serving approach or solution.

NVC teaches us is that conversations are more likely to get stuck if both people are wanting to be heard at the same time!

So one important insight from NVC is the power of taking turns. If just one person can get in a place of listening, the other person can then feel heard, and a taking-turns conversation can proceed from there.

As Dr. Marshall Rosenberg reminded us, “The other person is more likely to hear you out if they feel heard first!”

So if both people are needing empathy at the same time, it can be helpful — context permitting — to have a time-out in order to give yourself self-empathy by connecting with your own feelings and needs, or to get empathy from someone else. As long as one person experiences enough of a shift to be able to listen, then the conversation can move forward.

By training yourself in NVC, you can learn to do what is referred to as emergency first-aid self-empathy in the line of fire. And this can transform interactions and situations!

When a challenging situation arises and emotions are prickly or intense, you are supported up to the level of your training. That is when “muscle-memory” and having turned NVC increasingly into a practice that feels like second-nature will serve you well.

When a challenging situation arises and emotions are prickly or intense, that is not necessarily the best time to work on improving your skills.

You want to work on your skills when things are not so intense, and you’ll find that you are affecting interactions more positively when they do happen.

In order to get through difficult conversations and to be able to transform challenging interactions or situations, don’t underestimate the power of self-empathy and of a community of support!

When in writing — or before a meeting — take the time to get self-connected and clear about what you’re observing vs telling yourself as well as what you’re feeling, needing, and wanting.

Depending on the nature of relationship, remember that sometimes the mutually satisfying resolution — or at the very least the one that everyone can live with — might be several conversations into the future.

In most situations, you don’t need to bring everything to closure or a conclusion in one conversation. Instead, you can have the intention to leave this conversation with an open energy — open in the sense that it enables the next conversation and the one after that.

Many times people in positions of authority perceive blame and criticism, and experience a deficit around having their intentions and efforts known and appreciated. (Of course, in some situations the person in authority has lost our trust or respect. Remember that you still have the four options for where to put your attention!) Whether the person is a police officer or your child’s coach, NVC offers you insights for how to interact in a constructive way.

Can you teach NVC to the police?

For example, NVC trainers who work with police departments, trying to teach them de-escalation and connection as a path toward serving and protecting, have discovered some valuable insights. People who work in law enforcement will benefit from appreciation, empathy, and honesty — in that order! (In the context of a training, content and workshop exercises would be considered part of honesty.)

When an NVC Trainer is invited to train police, they can anticipate that going into the department and teaching right away might lead to some stiff resistance! Instead they can start by expressing appreciation and empathy and then finding more receptivity with offering tools and skills.

What does the appreciation and empathy sound like? It sounds like a sincere recognition of their reality. Police put their lives on the line, daily, not knowing when they leave home whether or not they will return. They deal with the worst parts of human nature — domestic disputes, thefts, assaults, violence — on a daily basis, which has a psychological toll. If you can help them feel seen and understood — then whatever you have to share will be like seeds falling on soil that is more fertile than before.

A checklist to put into practice

This is a pattern that, while not to be followed rigidly, can help and contribute in a vast majority of interactions with people with greater structural power than you: appreciation/recognition, empathic understanding, then honest self-expression.

This is not meant to be prescriptive in a rigid way, but can be thought of as a checklist of things to consider.

Appreciation, empathy, and honesty can be expressed briefly or at length, in subtle or in more obvious ways.

Play with it and learn from the feedback that you get from real life situations and interactions.

Clear, Actionable Requests

NVC would remind you that part of sharing your honesty — your truth or your perspective — includes ending with a clear, actionable request.

Sometimes the request can be, for example, to be heard — and from the other person’s eyes and body language the request is already met without you having to voice it.

However, most of the time NVC requests also function as a way of taking responsibility for your needs and what you’re wanting.

This is contrasted with the belief system that if people really cared they would telepathically know what you want, when you want it, how you want it — and you shouldn’t even have to ask! They should somehow magically already know, and if they don’t then it means they don’t care.

Instead of making assumptions and leaving people guessing, you can ask for what you would like, and still hold the other person’s needs with care.

What makes it a request rather than a demand is that no is an option.

Key differentiation: tools vs skills

In all of this there is an important key differentiation between tools and skills. While reading about Nonviolent Communication and attending NVC workshops is helpful, having a tool is not the same thing as being skillful with that tool.

A hammer is a tool that you can use to build a beautiful home. A hammer can also be used to hurt others.

NVC, if not understood and applied as it is intended, can also be used to do harm or to manipulate or to judge — and then it is not NVC at all.

What is NVC again?

NVC is not the tools.

NVC is the consciousness and the intentionality we bring to our interactions.

If there is a consciousness that recognizes that we both have fundamentally the same needs, and if there is an intention to find a win-win, mutually agreeable outcome, that is consistent with NVC.

If my intention is to get my way or manipulate a specific outcome, then I can use language that sounds like observation, feeling, need, and request — but it would then be a subtle form of manipulation or coercion. It would not be NVC at all.

So the consciousness and the intentionality are primordial.

The tools help you bring the consciousness into manifestation. The tools allow you to enact, bring to life, or simply live the consciousness of NVC — of being self-connected and connected with others; of celebrating autonomy and interdependence; of power-with rather than power-over.

And only by building your skills can you make the most effective use of the tools.

How do I get good at NVC?

To become fluent in Nonviolent Communication you will need three ingredients:

  1. Interior clarity: This means noticing when you are telling yourself a story versus making an observation, knowing what you are feeling, what you are needing, what is motivating you, what you value, and what you would like in this moment.
  2. A community of support: This can look many ways, for example empathy buddies you can call when needed, or an empathy-honesty circle that meets weekly. The point is that it’s very hard to progress in NVC when all or most of your life is operating from a different set of values, unless you have the support — both empathic and skill-building — to operate at a higher level in the challenging situations that life brings.
  3. Practice, practice, practice.

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg on the Topic of Authority

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, originator of NVC, used to talk about the key differentiation between respect for authority versus fear of authority.

Respect for authority is less about someone’s structural power (for example a job title that confers more power inside an organizational structure) and more about respecting someone for their knowledge, their achievements, their contributions, or what they might have to teach, guide, or mentor you.

Someone is referred to as an authority in their field due to their knowledge and competence.

We respect the depth of their knowledge and experience.

And, of course, this key differentiation has everything to do with power.

NVC, specifically, was Dr. Rosenberg’s attempt to find the key elements in thought, language, communication, and the use of power that would lead to the high quality of connection that results in win/win, mutually satisfying outcomes.

The old paradigm is one of power-over, “you do as I say,” demands, and coercion. This characterizes a relationship built on fear of authority, which leads to both disconnection and resentment.

The newer paradigm — and one of the invitations NVC extends — consists of relationships of power-with. Dr. Rosenberg would say that we’re much more powerful with power-with than with power-over.

So we use NVC, not only to communicate, connect and to prevent and resolve conflicts. We can employ NVC to use our societal advantages and structural power to uplift and empower others.
These relationships based on power-with, more easily lead to connection, collaboration, and mutually agreeable outcomes.

PuddleDancer Press Books About Effective Communication Skills for Life

PuddleDancer Press is the foremost proponent and publisher of books on Nonviolent Communication and life skills.

NVC has shown time and again that human beings are capable of overcoming power differentials and arriving at mutually crafted solutions.

Because of the emphasis on self-connection and personal empowerment, and the fact that the solutions include everyone’s buy-in, using NVC to deal with authority figures predictably gives you outcomes that meet a greater number of needs and are more durable.

Our books on communication skills for life can help you:

  • Create exceptional personal and professional relationships,
  • Offer compassionate understanding to others,
  • Know when and how to ask for that same understanding for yourself,
  • Prevent and resolve misunderstandings and conflicts,
  • Speak your truth in a clear, powerful way more likely to lead to harmony than conflict, and
  • Create mutual understanding without coercion.

Whether you are a long-time student — or are brand new to NVC — PuddleDancer Press has the educational resources, including the books on effective interactions with authority figures, to help you grow your emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and communication prowess.

Check out our catalog of books on communication skills for life… and give yourself the gift of Compassionate Communication!

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There is a wealth of information on Nonviolent Communication – in articles and videos. Of course we endorse all of Marshall’s sharing’s, however, there are many transcripts and videos created by others. Due to limited resources we do not verify the full accuracy of any particular video or articles created by others, even though there is plenty of wonderful and educational information on the web.