“Observation without evaluation is the highest form of intelligence.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti
In NVC 1, we learned about the basics of non-violent communication (NVC), developed by Marshall Rosenberg. The first step in NVC is calling to other people’s attention – concretely and specifically – what they’re doing that affects us. The trick is to make observations about what we see or hear without mixing in our evaluations of meaning and significance. In the words of Detective Sergeant Joe Friday, “Just the facts, ma’am.”
Why bother focusing on the facts and avoiding the tendency to mix in judgments about people’s behavior? As Rosenberg explains in Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life:
“When we combine observation with evaluation, we decrease the likelihood that others will hear our intended message. Instead, they are apt to hear criticism and thus resist what we are saying.”
When I’m not consciously trying to observe rather than evaluate, I might say something to a co-worker like, “Why do you always slam the conference room door?” If my goal is to get the person to close the door more quietly, that statement won’t help. Nor will it promote a good working relationship between us. Because I used an exaggeration (“always”) and an evaluation (“slam”), the person will very likely react with defensiveness. Instead, I could say, “Both times you shut the conference room door during today’s meeting, it sounded really loud to me.” By separating observation from evaluation, I created a statement that’s less likely to become the crux of an argument and more likely to inspire compassion and a positive reaction from my co-worker.
The authors of What We Say Matters: Practicing Nonviolent Communication describe an example of observation versus evaluation that most of us will recognize:
“Imagine the following. A parent knocks and enters the bedroom of a teenager with the following words: ‘This room is a mess. Please clean it up by tomorrow morning because company is coming.’ We almost guarantee that the response from the teenager will be: ‘It’s not a mess.’ If the parent persists, the teenager will likely switch to, ‘But I like it this way.’ And if that fails, the teenager will resort to the time-honored, ‘Whose room is it anyway?’ We would bet lots of money that what follows is not a period of sweet connection between parent and child.
“A more desirable connection is likely to result if the interchange begins with observation language. Pay attention to how different you feel when you imagine the communication starting with, ‘When I see your clothes on the floor, dishes with food on them on your desk, and your bed unmade ….’ The key point here is to notice the difference between making an observation and making a judgment. For example, to say, ‘When I see that your room is a mess’ is not to make an observation. The term ‘mess’ is a judgment; messes are not desirable.
“Observation used in this way is an expression of what we call spiritual speech. It is learning to leave out our judgments and beliefs about what is observed and just describe it as a camera would record it. ….
“We are not proposing a new set of rights and wrongs. It is not wrong to use judgments. We just want you to be aware of using them, so you can learn what ensues from using judgments and what ensues from using observations instead. Then the choice is yours.”
In NVC 3, we’ll shift the focus to from making observations without evaluations to identifying and communicating our feelings and needs that arise from what we observe.