Monday, April 13, 2015

Back to Basics: I-Messages for Activists

So, there is a lot I want to say on this topic. Someone recently told me she was very interested in reading about using Nonviolent Communication as applied to activism. I consider this post a "pre-NVC" skill building invitation. I hope to go more in depth in coming weeks.

Last week I went to a meeting of an organization a friend has been trying to get me involved in. I went as a witness to observe and learn how the group functions and what it focuses on, not to participate directly yet. The meeting progressed in a somewhat typical fashion, with many of the communication challenges faced by groups of people attempting to work together cropping up.

At one point though, I started to feel quite uncomfortable. A very new idea came up, a way of doing things that would be a big change from how this group has historically functioned. But some people in the group seemed to think that it was both completely reasonable, and perhaps even urgent to implement this idea. One person in particular kept saying, "They should...[do this]. We should [do this]."

I felt worried. I was introduced to the problematic aspects of the word "should" about 10 years ago. I actually feel scared of the implications of the word should. I think it is a word that underwrites violence, whether that be micro-aggressions or all-out crusading war. The very idea of the word should is a rejection of reality as it is, an unwillingness to be present with our emotional response to something surprising or uncomfortable, and act from there. Instead, when people want to avoid feeling the discomfort of something unfamiliar, they act from a place of should, which means trying to force or coerce someone into their comfort zone. Here are some examples of how "shoulding" leads to violence.

1. A straight, cis man sees an apparently male-bodied person on the street wearing what to this man seem like women's clothes. The guy thinks, "He shouldn't be wearing those clothes. That's gross/ a sin/unnatural." He starts to harass the person. The man might have felt attracted to the person he saw at first, and then when he noticed cues that he was taught to associate with "male," he thought, "I shouldn't be attracted to a man! He shouldn't trick me!" This might escalate to physical assault if the man in question is so unwilling or unable to be with his discomfort with this unfamiliar experience.

2. A parent tells a child not to do something. The child questions why this is, or says that they really want to do the action, such as drawing on a wall with crayon. The adult in question has a belief that "children shouldn't talk back/should respect their elders," so they either slap the child across the mouth, or hold them down and "wash their mouth out with soap."

3. A teenage boy who is passionate about sustainable living sees his neighbor throwing recyclable items in the trash. He thinks, "That guy should know how to separate out his trash and recycling!" He starts to yell at the neighbor, "What the f*** are you doing? Don't you know how to f***ing recycle? Are you trying to destroy the Earth?" The neighbor, a college student hungover from partying the night before, gets defensive and punches the boy in the face in retaliation for this confrontation.

This last example might be hard for some of my readers who have great care for our planet and great mourning for the way we are harming our home seemingly beyond repair. This is the essence of the word should though: it comes from a place of unwillingness to be with that grief, or whatever other uncomfortable feelings we have about something--and results in attempted coercion of other people. (For ideas on how to be present with grief, see the two posts previous to this one.) It also escalates violence instead of de-escalating by speaking from our hearts.

In our collaboration efforts, I think we as activists will better embody a more respectful culture now if we speak for ourselves, rather than trying to speak for the whole group, to make it conform to our whims. This is another problem with the word should: it pretends to speak for objective reality (should as a universal truth), rather than the speaker taking responsibility for their own preferences and vision.

The most simple translation from the word should, I think, is "What I'd like to see happen is...." Here are a few examples.

"We should start raising the admission fees to events and make them mandatory instead of donation,"
"I'd like to see us raise the admission fees to events and make them mandatory instead of donation."

"You should recycle your bottles and cans! You're destroying the planet!"
"I'd really like to see us recycling in our neighborhood. I don't want the planet to be destroyed."

"You should treat your elders with respect,"
"I'd like to be treated with respect." [Could continue, "What that looks like to me is...."]

"We should include the police in our efforts at community building,"
 "I'd like to see us include the police in our attempts at community building [because they are a part of the local community too and have an effect on us]."

"We shouldn't include the police in our efforts at community building. They shouldn't go around shooting people if they want to be included in the community,"
"I'd like to see us exclude the police from our community building efforts, because I want to build an infrastructure with people I trust and feel safe from violence around."

This last piece starts to bring in more detail about why we'd like to see this thing that we may have been thinking everyone "should" do. And maybe we even discover that we don't have a why, and that we don't even like our own idea anymore! Or maybe we are able to better articulate our reasoning in a way that our collaborators can understand. Either way, the movement will move forward from a place of personal responsibility.

For now, I invite you to share an example of something that you think a fellow activist, or group of activists should do (be honest with yourself) and then translate this into a simple I message of "What I'd like to see happen is...." Does this feel more vulnerable? More powerful? For me, it is both.


  1. I love this line: The very idea of the word should is a rejection of reality as it is, an unwillingness to be present with our emotional response to something surprising or uncomfortable, and act from there. I appreciate that 'should' disconnects us from whatever intense emotion we are having and I also appreciate your examples. I struggle with incorporating NVC because I haven't had lots of opportunities to practice and feel very awkward stumbling my way through. I have, however, been practicing more and been more and more willing to seem foolish in the name of increasing my skill level and my consciousness....

  2. Thank you so much for sharing what you liked about it! I really appreciate getting feedback about specifics, as opposed to general comments about a whole piece, because knowing exactly what spoke to those reading my thoughts helps me direct my energy to the next place.

    Yes, NVC seems to be awkward for most people in the beginning, although there are some valiant efforts being made by teachers such as Miki Kashtan (she blogs at to make it more accessible and applicable to daily life right away, through a method called Principle-Based Teaching. One thing she suggests is asking people's permission to try out your NVC skills: "Hey, I am learning about this new communication skill that I think might be helpful in this conversation, but I might sound a little awkward because it's still new to me. Do you mind if I try it out?" That sets things up for the awkward-ness to be OK.

    Thanks for commenting. :)