How to turn judgment into understanding

Nonviolent Communication views all humans as sharing the same universal needs. While the lists of needs may vary from one organization or adherent to the next, the point is that humans are human—so their needs are the same.

The differences in human behavior can be accounted for by differences in strategies used to meet those needs.

In Nonviolent Communication, also called Compassionate Communication, we recognize the human need for Connection as a major driver of our actions. And so we try to choose to not judge people or their actions because our act of moralistic judgment fuels our disconnection from the person we are judging. (Disapproving of someone’s actions is not the same as judging. “We do not appreciate what that person said,” is not a judgment. “He is a lazy bum,” is a judgment.) When we do judge self or others, we try to recognize that happened and translate the judgment into our feelings and unmet needs in order to create Connection and Understanding, maybe even Appreciation.

In practice, here is how this could look:

NVC believes that every human has a need for Integrity. Let’s say that one of Person A’s strategies to meet their need for Integrity is to speak out when they see people being treated in ways that don’t meet Person A’s need for Respect (a disapproval, not a judgment). Person B also has a need for Integrity. Their personal strategy to meet their need for Integrity is to behave in a manner that emphasizes order, peace, quiet–even or especially when they are upset, such as when someone is being treated in a way that doesn’t meet Person B’s need for Respect.

These two might attend the same social event, where they might both hear about the same treatment of marginalized people. Neither has their need for Respect met. Person A might speak personal truth loudly in defense of the marginalized people (as a means to meet their need for Integrity), while Person B might process upset internally while prioritizing a stable outward appearance (as a means to meet their need for Integrity).

They are both meeting their needs for integrity. It might be easy for Person A to judge Person B as uncaring, heartless, a snob. It might be easy for Person B to judge Person A as a hot-head, a loudmouth.

It it also possible for them to recognize every act by every person is an attempt to meet needs. Their default stance might be to Respect the other’s strategy for meeting Integrity; and they might choose to converse—to Connect—to learn about each other’s needs and strategies.

Here is a more contentious example, and the parameters are the same:

Everyone has a need for Safety. Person A does not wear a facemask when they go out in public (even when it is recommended or required by municipalities) because wearing the mask causes them to feel like a prisoner, like danger is everywhere. The quarantines, the hand sanitizers, the lack of faces–these are adversely affecting Person A’s mental health. Going maskless is their strategy for feeling Safe. They actually feel unsafe wearing the mask. Whether or not they are physically unsafe without a mask and whether or not they are jeopardizing other people’s safety by not wearing a mask, Person A goes without a mask in order to meet their need for Safety.

Person B has a need for Safety, too, because they are human. Person B wears a mask in public whether it is recommended, required, or not because Person B meets their need for Safety by focusing on the reduction of the spread of COVID-19. Person B is worried about the mental health effects of quarantine and germ spreading and also thinks the more that people avoid social contact and wear masks to slow the spread of COVID the faster the pandemic will be over. Whether or not their masking is causing distress in other people, Person B wears a mask in order to meet their need for Safety.

Person A is concerned that the COVID vaccine is not well studied since it was created so hastily. Person A realizes that other vaccines exist. Person A has been inoculated against many childhood illnesses. But since long-term studies cannot yet exist for the COVID vaccines, Person A deems the COVID vaccine unsafe and does not get vaccinated. Person A will rely on their personal immunity from exercise and diet. Even though many people tell Person A their stances are contradicted by science and experience, Person A’s decisions are strategies to meet their need for Safety.

Person B has been vaccinated and gotten a booster. They are meeting their need for Safety via strategies that follow scientific guidance. Some people warn them that the vaccine could cause long-term harm to them and that they can still get COVID even once vaccinate, but Person B’s strategies are intended to meet their need for Safety.

Another conflict can occur via the NVC principal that we try to consider everyone’s needs, not just our own. And when Person A does not mask, they put other people’s physical health at risk. And when Person B does wear a mask, some people’s mental health suffers.

What a stressful situation, and it is really happening! And the only way we can act in ways that meet as many people’s needs as possible is by considering ours and other people’s needs equally. Doing this will be challenging under the best circumstances, which would be Connecting with other people to Share Realities, Empathize, Learn, Understand, share Perspective. Meeting everyone’s needs will be next to impossible if we Disconnect via moralistic Judgments.

Both Person A and Person B can call each other names because people tend to their their strategy for meeting their needs is “right,” while other people’s strategies are “wrong.” If we are a science adherent, we can deem those who don’t follow science as wrong. If we look to a religious text for our guidance, we can deem those who don’t follow that scripture as wrong. Another option is to see what needs they are meeting via their strategy in order to Connect with what we share: a need for Understanding.

When we share with others what is alive in us and are accepting or allowing (nonjudgmental), it is common that we want to meet each other’s needs. We might adopt another’s strategy because we find that we are, after all, able to meet our needs that way; or we might work to find entirely new strategies (we meet outside, Person A without a mask and Person B with a mask; Person B sits upwind from Person A) that value everyone’s needs equally.

The magic is in the Connecting. And the nonjudgment, the recognition of people’s universal needs, is a challenging pre-cursor. Trying it over and over is a way to alter perspective, to turn judgment into Understanding.

Next time you get angry at someone’s behavior, try to determine what need they are meeting by their action. If you are willing to be vulnerable, ask them if you are correct. If you’re open to listening, you can Learn a lot and gain Empathy and Connection. You might then ask if you can share the strategies you use to meet the same Need. See if you can emphasize what makes you similar. See if you can catch yourself in judgment and refrain from saying out loud your judgments. See if the Connection and Learning and Empathy make it worth risking vulnerability.

Here are some links to Needs:

New York Center for NVC

Center for NVC

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