Nonviolent Communication and Social Media

How does Nonviolent Communication (NVC) View Social Media?

To answer the question of how Nonviolent Communication holds or addresses social media, first let’s define NVC and some relevant key differentiations.

What is NVC?

Nonviolent Communication, or NVC, is a process for arriving at a high quality of connection through which people prevent and resolve misunderstandings and conflicts, create exceptional personal and professional relationships, and spontaneously enjoy contributing to one another’s well-being.

One of the key differentiations NVC emphasizes is the distinction between needs (Universal Human Needs) and strategies.

Needs vs Strategies

Needs, as defined within NVC, are universal in the sense that all humans share them.

Strategies, on the other hand, are the ways we attempt to meet needs — and by definition they are not universal.

For example, we all have a need for safety. Some people meet that need through keen awareness of their surroundings. Other people meet that need by getting to know their neighbors and creating a sense of community. Others meet that very same need by carrying a gun. And still others might meet their need for safety by staying home and hiding out. It’s the same need — potentially fulfilled by various and very different strategies.

However, not all strategies are equally effective in fulfilling a given set of needs!

We all have a need for connection, and there are many strategies for meeting that need. One among them is what people call social media, a set of strategies that may also meet other needs, whether or not it actually meets people’s needs for connection.

Social media itself is not a need — certainly not in the way we define needs in NVC. And social media is not one singular strategy! Social media is an umbrella term for many different applications and platforms, each of which works a bit differently from the others. Facebook, X (formerly known as Twitter), Instagram, TikTok — they are all different. And they each excel at some things more than others. Each platform also attracts people from different cultures and demographics. All of this is to say that it’s tempting to flatten the social media landscape and succumb to oversimplification.
Before we go further into looking at how NVC might view social media, let’s dig a little deeper into strategies as a whole.

A deeper look at strategies

Strategies themselves can be categorized into different types:

There are strategies that directly meet a need; for example, what water is to thirst.

There are strategies that meet some needs but at the expense of others — for example, smoking tobacco or driving an internal combustion car. These meet, or attempt to meet, certain needs — but they have consequences that go against the fulfillment of other needs.

And then there are strategies that attempt to meet a need but tragically go in the opposite direction. For example, someone who is hurting emotionally and needs compassionate understanding, but the way they handle it is by lashing out and hurting others. Deep down, perhaps, this is an attempt to get others to understand how much they are hurting. However, this is the kind of strategy that backfires, and goes against the very need yearning to be addressed.

Social media, like many other strategies that have become ubiquitous but are historically relatively new, is a mixed bag. It fulfills some needs, it partially fulfills other needs, yet at a cost, and sometimes results in the opposite of what someone might be trying to accomplish.

An example might be the person who feels lonely, and they attempt to meet the need for connectedness by scrolling through their Instagram or Facebook feeds. As social media users often find, this person then feels less fulfilled and more lonely than when they started. The need for connection and belonging remains unfulfilled.

Are the strategies meeting the needs? Looking at the bright and dark sides of social media.

This would be the NVC perspective on social media: pay attention to needs-and-strategies, needs-and-strategies — and be discerning as to whether your chosen strategy is actually meeting the intended needs!

This presupposes being connected to what your needs are in the first place! Most of us are not taught this either at home or in school. This is where learning the skills NVC has to offer is so helpful. What is actually motivating you in any given moment? What needs are you trying to fulfill when you frequent a particular social media platform?

There are many reasons people go on social media. For some people it is a cathartic way of journaling their private life to the world. For others, it is a way of getting the news, or a platform for commenting on it. For many, it is a place to stay current with everyone from old high school friends to family members. Some people use social media as an outlet for creative expression, and many others use it as a place to market their business and their offerings. And for some of us it is a combination of some of the above.

Social media has been a great way for people to find NVC- related groups, workshops, and practice groups. At the same time, you get people with little experience posing as experts. And this is part of the crux of the complexity of the challenge: how do you know what is true and legitimate?

People are known to pose and perform on social media, selectively posting only the happy, fulfilled, successful side of their life — distorting reality like a fun-house mirror — which some of us might be tempted to compare our lives against.

Law enforcement are known to create fake profiles to track people of interest.

Twitter (X) has long been plagued by non-human bot profiles.

But the dark side gets darker still.

Governmental intelligence services from around the world are known to use social media to manipulate perceptions, influence culture, and meddle in social and political processes.

Some countries and non-state actors are known to exploit cultural fault-lines to sow division among certain populations, part of a process known in psychological warfare as national demoralization.

The advent of social media made it easier for hate groups to find each other.

There has been much criticism of how social media algorithms exacerbate polarization through the siloing of groups, lead suggestible people down disinformation conspiracy rabbit-holes, and how certain apps exacerbate issues of body image in girls, negatively affecting their mental health.

Again, as a set of strategies, social media sometimes meets some needs, and does so very well! At the same time, vulnerable individuals and groups experience real harm through their participation in social media.

Effective use of an NVC lens would have each of us look at the dynamic interplay between our deeper needs and the strategies we use to fulfill them. Needs-and-strategies, needs-and- strategies…

NVC and Online Communication

Online communication is a relatively recent phenomenon for our species, and it is filled with promise and potential as well as limitations and pitfalls.

One principle which aligns with NVC could be expressed as the faster the medium, the less conducive it is to connection.

For example, texting works well for brief data exchange: “Yes, I can be at the restaurant at 2pm.” And texting is a terrible medium — read: it does not meet needs — for having a deeper conversation that involves an honest and empathic exchange of feelings and needs. Why? Texting does not convey important information, such as tone of voice and body language, and this can easily lead to misunderstandings and conflicts. Speed and brevity neuter nuance.
In online communication:

  • people can hide behind anonymity, saying things they would not say in person while avoiding accountability and repercussions.
  • one person can send out a hateful message which can be spread to millions of people.
  • messages that have high emotion — in particular anger and outrage — tend to be spread and re-posted more often than others.
  • the speed and the emphasis on shorter posts, particularly on some platforms, reduces complex issues to soundbites which lack context or nuance.
  • much of the time we don’t know if we’re dealing with someone who is both different than who they say they are or if this person has a less-than-transparent agenda.
  • the fragile and tenuous sense of community makes it easy to walk away from conversations and connections, without much consequence, leading to unresolved and dissatisfying conversations.

The medium is the message

Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan is famous for coining the phrase “the medium is the message.”

As one commentator points out: “In Understanding Media, McLuhan describes the “content” of a medium as a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. This means that people tend to focus on the obvious, which is the content, to provide us valuable information, but in the process, we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time. As society’s values, norms, and ways of doing things change because of the technology, it is then we realize the social implications of the medium. These range from cultural or religious issues and historical precedents, through interplay with existing conditions, to the secondary or tertiary effects in a cascade of interactions that we are not aware of.”
(Source: The_medium_is_the_message)

To emphasize McLuhan’s prescience, he wrote the groundbreaking Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man in 1964!

In today’s social media, it’s undeniably challenging to slow down conversations to a deeper level of connection based on feelings and needs. It’s not impossible, though it is very difficult, and extremely rare.

Effective Communication on Social Media, Mindful Communication Online, and Compassionate Communication on the Internet

The first key to effective communication on social media is clarifying both the purpose for posting as well as your intention when you do so. Why are you communicating? Is to connect? Is it to market something? To change somebody’s mind about something? To win an argument? To get a point across? To educate?

Secondly, to whom are you communicating?

Clarify the purpose, your intention, and the audience — and right away your communication will be more effective.

So when you are posting, it’s valuable to remember basic kindness, patience, slowing down before posting, and not posting when emotionally triggered…

As more people clarify their purpose, intention, and audience, communication will predictably become more compassionate.

At the simplest level, one strategy that will usually serve you is slowing down!

The other element NVC would have you consider is what is your request? What kind of response are you aiming or hoping for? Are you simply wanting to be read? Based on your purpose and intention, for example, if you are wanting to be understood: what kind of response would demonstrate understanding? If you are wanting to educate, what kind of response would let you know that you have fulfilled your intention?

You can take NVC anywhere you are communicating — including online!

And knowing the nuances and proclivities of the specific social media strategy you are using is likely to make you more effective.

Because of the clarity NVC provides, applying it mindfully when you use social media will make your online communication more effective and compassionate.

Empathy, Building Connection, NVC Principles in Social Media, and NVC Strategies for Online Interaction

Empathy is a universal human need that is met when you are deeply understood and gotten. We can define it as a respectful or compassionate understanding.

The person offering empathy usually exemplifies a quality of being completely present with the other person.

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg used to say that most of the time empathy happens in silence. In other words, most of the time your presence is all that is needed.

Other times, it can be comforting or reassuring to whoever is needing empathy if the person listening reflects back their understanding. This is sometimes referred to as offering empathy out loud — as opposed to silent empathy.

When we consider that “the faster the medium, the less conducive it is to connection,” we are left with the enormity of the challenge.

The more trust there is between us the less careful we need to be with our words. When there is more trust it is easier to assume goodwill and it is less common for people to second-guess each other’s motives.

However, most of the people we interact with on social media are people we have never met, meaning that the requisite trust has not yet been established.

So demonstrating empathic understanding online requires slowing down, being very deliberate about word choice, and finding ways to demonstrate both that you care as well as your intention to understand — all of this in a high-paced environment where people scan rather than read, and where people are used to conversations that resemble a debate-and-rebuttal structure, rather than a real conversation.

Much of our culture teaches us to listen in order to respond rather than to understand. This issue is exacerbated in a fast- paced social media environment.

As we mentioned earlier, basic kindness, patience, slowing down before posting, not posting when triggered, clarifying the purpose and your intention for posting… all of these practices will contribute to your effectiveness at building connection on social media through empathy and honesty.

And though it is possible to use social media as a way to connect using NVC, remember that strategy creation can involve a significant amount of creative thinking.

For example, you can use social media as a stepping stone toward an audio call, or to set up in-person, live interactions in which mutually-fulfilling connection is more likely.

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg on NVC and Social Media

Though there is not much documentation of Dr. Rosenberg saying anything regarding social media, he was consistent over the years regarding how humans work, what drives us, and what constitutes fulfilling interactions.

Though he had a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, he called himself a recovering psychotherapist. Why? Because he was taught to keep a professional distance rather than prioritize authentic human-to-human connection. He was taught a language of labeling and pigeonholing other people — and these labels often get in the way of authentic connection.

Many of us are educated to rely on a type of thinking and language that is based on rigid concepts of rightness and wrongness. Also known as life-disconnected, life-alienated communication, it is a language that labels, judges, criticizes, blames, imposes demands, justifies punishing people we judge as bad, and encourages motivating others through coercion, guilt, shame, fear, duty and obligation, and manipulating others through rewards and punishment.

Dr. Rosenberg was convinced that there was a better way!

NVC — also known as life-connected, life-serving communication — recognizes that we all share the same core human motivators, the same needs, yearnings, and longings. When you can distill the issues in any given conflict to the underlying needs, then people can relate to each other’s humanity — and at this point, many conflicts tend to resolve themselves.

With all its downsides, social media is still many peoples’ preferred strategy to attend to a variety of needs.

Dr. Rosenberg would not be against social media. He would encourage us to use it with intentionality and wisdom.

PuddleDancer Press Books on NVC and Effective Communication

PuddleDancer Press is the foremost proponent and publisher of books on Nonviolent Communication and effective communication.

NVC has shown time and again that human beings are capable of coming back to compassion, deepening relationships, and arriving at mutually beneficial outcomes.

Because of the trust-building process involved, using NVC for effective communication — online and offline — predictably gives us outcomes that meet a greater number of needs and are more durable.

Our books on effective communication can help you:

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  • Offer compassionate understanding to others,
  • Know when and how to ask for that same understanding for yourself,
  • Prevent and resolve misunderstandings and conflicts,
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  • 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 communication, to help you grow your emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and communication prowess.

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