How I’ve Found Nonviolent Communication Helpful, Part 2; In the Mental Health System

Rufus May
23
386

In Part One of this blog I gave an introduction to Nonviolent communication (NVC). In this second part I look at how I’ve found it helpful in mental health settings

As I outlined in Part One of this blog, NVC is an empathy tool that gets us to focus on our own and other people’s feelings and needs.  However the dominant way of relating in our society is to ignore what we feel and need and focus outwardly on what systems need. Where we don’t fit in to society’s expectations we are taught to judge and blame ourselves and each other. Marshall Rosenberg calls this judgemental way of relating “jackal language” and empathic ways of understanding “giraffe language.”

Here are some examples of Jackal talk (some of which I admit I’ve used myself in the last couple of days):

  • “You’re getting on my nerves.”
  • “He’s a control freak.”
  • “I am an idiot.”
  • “They are obsessed with themselves.”

These are all examples of judgmental thinking.  We say what we think is wrong with the other person or ourselves, and a sense of blame is often attached.

If we use NVC (or Giraffe language) to look empathically at the statement “You’re getting on my nerves,” it could be translated as:

  • “I am really tired and vulnerable right now and need to take some time out to look after myself.”

Jackal language might initially seem like it protects us and at times get others to do what we want, but it tends to damage the relationship we have with that person. So if I shout at one of my sons:

  • “Stop being so slovenly and tidy your bloody room!”

He may tidy his room, but out of fear of more judgement rather than out of a need to live cooperatively.  As a result our relationship will be likely to deteriorate.

We live in a society that is largely built on domineering ways of relating. This privileges the needs of systems and those with status and power.  However, partnership ways of relating based on equality and empathy have always also been present and seem to be growing.  Whilst domineering practices are still strong, gradually ‘power with’ as opposed to ‘power over’ ways of relating are being used more in different parts of society — including education, business and the family home (see Humanzing Healthcare by Melanie Sears, 2010).

Systems that privilege domineering relationships involve everyone in the system being socialised to suppress or deny their true feelings and needs.  People in power have to ignore their own need for connection and empathy from others.  Those complying with domineering practices have to ignore their own will and the wisdom that comes from an awareness of ones own qualities and needs.

Domineering ways of relating are strong in the mental health system. Health systems are extremely hierarchical and, rather than empathy, the dominant approach to people’s difficulties is based on top-down management practices, which assume experts know what is best for people. When we learn to ignore our own wisdom a culture of dependence is created, where we think we always need other people (or pills) to solve our problems.

I am hopeful that we can help people within the mental health system and other parts of society to strengthen their empathic ways of relating. Within self-help groups I have helped organise we have tried to approach everyone as having wisdom and expertise, and to share empathic ways of relating.  However, I’ve noticed how easy it is for me to get feel quite righteous and do my fair share of jackal talking about mental health workers who seem more judgemental in their approach.  Jackaling the jackal however is probably not the way forward.  I realise that if I really want to help change things for the better I will also need to use NVC to understand people who seem to be my opponents.

I have used NVC to help people recognise they have legitimate feelings and needs.  For example, I worked with a man who blamed himself for being bullied as a child. When we used an inventory of feelings and needs (see Part One) he was able to identify feelings of sadness and grief related to the fact that he did not get the respect, consideration and understanding he needed from his fellow pupils and teacher.  I see NVC as one way to learn to be more compassionate to ourselves.

I employ NVC to give myself empathy, as well. After a demanding working day I can easily ignore my feelings and distract myself by going on the internet or reaching for the cake tin! However if I tune into how I am feeling I might notice I am feeling overwhelmed and sad and deduce that I need some relaxation time or perhaps to go for a walk in the woods near where I live.  Being honest with my partner about how I am feeling helps me get the space I need to take care of myself, or some supportive conversations and a hug!

I believe there are times to collectively challenge psychiatric practice and lobby for alternative approaches. However working in the mental health system as a psychologist I have also found it practical to empathise with those in positions of power in order to negotiate new ways forward.  For example if a psychiatrist refuses to reduce somebody’s medication when they ask for a reduction, it will be easy to analyse and judge the psychiatrist for being controlling, risk averse and ignorant.  Alternatively, I’ve found it helpful to use NVC to try and think about the psychiatrist’s feelings and needs. Maybe they are anxious about change and worried if the person becomes more agitated on less medication and does something destructive, they will be blamed. Knowing this is a possibility, I have sometimes been able to reassure the psychiatrist in this kind of situation, that there are a group of people willing to share responsability for supporting the person to be on less medication – so that if things get difficult they will not be blamed.

Having these kinds of understandings has helped me in my negotiations with people in power. I’ve also found that empathy skills can be useful to avoid feeling constantly angry with people who don’t adhere to my world view.

I do think it’s good to let ourselves be judgemental sometimes and release that part of us that enjoys confrontation. I have found I need to do it carefully at the right time and place (for example, in humourous exchanges). I also think there is a time to be angry and channel our feelings of hurt into actions that protect us, or to stand up for more fair and compassionate ways of relating.  However endlessly using jackal or blaming talk about people who see things differently will backfire and not produce the kind of respectful relating we desire.

I do think there’s definitely a place for the jackal. Once I was camping at a festival where I had run an NVC workshop.  The next day, early in the morning, someone started banging a drum. I started to think what I would say using NVC. Then, before I had formulated 1) the facts, 2)what I was feeling and 3)needing and 4) what request I was going to make — someone else intervened, saying:

“Its Five O’clock in the morning, shut the ****  up!”

In this situation a more direct form of communication seemed very effective. The drumming stopped immediately.

* * * * *

Thanks to Elisabeth Svanholmer for editorial advice.

Recommended Reading: 

Humanizing Health Care: Creating Cultures of Compassion With Nonviolent Communicationby Meanie Sears (2010), PuddleDancer press

How I’ve found Nonviolent communication helpful, Part One

Raamro Aakha Ma (In the Eyes of the Good)New film by Carolyn Davies about using NVC to help with reconciliation processes in Nepal

Nonviolent Communication in Mental Health Settings: Forthcoming training on using NVC in mental health settings

23 COMMENTS

  1. “Its Five O’clock in the morning, shut the **** up!” – I find that statement so reasuring.

    Kick out the Jams Mother****er

    I want to be that person who goes to meetings and is rude to everyone

    I’ve had it up to hear with being understanding

    I can do it, be the Girrafe, understand my own and other’s feelings and needs, carefully present them, but I’m not sure how much good it is doing me or anyone else for that matter

    I went to a lecture by Marshal Rosenburg once. He was boring. So I went and got a cup of tea in the welcome room for the lecture and chatted to a man who was distressed. He ran a mediation service for rival black gangs in London who were from some specific community (Somalian, Eritrean – I dunno, it was a long time ago) and he was worried about his son getting involved in the gangs. So I tried to understand how he was feeling, what was going on for him, what his worries were. He calmed down – visibly. The person who booked Marshal and put on the course was looking on and said to me something about how I had used NVC without knowing it.

    Fair enough.

    But I just want to Kick out the Jams Mother****ers

  2. “Jackal language might initially seem like it protects us and at times get others to do what we want, but it tends to damage the relationship we have with that person … As a result our relationship will be likely to deteriorate.”

    Could “jackal language” not also be called extreme paternalism? And I agree, such discourteous maltreatment does quickly result in the patient losing all respect for doctors who behave in such an ungodly disrespectful manner.

    “We live in a society that is largely built on domineering ways of relating. This privileges the needs of systems and those with status and power. However, partnership ways of relating based on equality and empathy have always also been present and seem to be growing.”

    Again, I think this is a description of a way too paternalistic society. And I hope you’re right, we’ll be seeing a swing back to what is just and empathic care, and a return to the belief “all people are created equal.” I had no idea the US medical community did not believe “all people are created equal,” it’s in the Declaration of Independence for goodness sakes. Nor did I realize that they apparently did not learn from WWII that espousing belief in scientifically invalid, made up mental illnesses, then torturing and murdering millions based upon such fictions, was unacceptable human behavior. I’m quite shocked at what I believe is the extreme stupidity and / or lack of ethics of today’s medical community.

    Although, such a judgmental statement would likely be considered “jackal language.”

    “I also think there is a time to be angry and channel our feelings of hurt into actions that protect us, or to stand up for more fair and compassionate ways of relating. However endlessly using jackal or blaming talk about people who see things differently will backfire and not produce the kind of respectful relating we desire.”

    Forgive my anger regarding the fact today’s psychiatric druggers are now above the 6 million Jews who were killed by psychiatrists during WWII’s holocaust. The last several decades of our current psychiatric industry’s DSM / toxic drugging “medical holocaust” has likely resulted in psychiatric practitioners having killed 10 million or more in the past several decades.

    http://www.naturalnews.com/049860_psych_drugs_medical_holocaust_Big_Pharma.html

    I do so hope the doctors in our county wake up and realize killing patients with toxic drugs is murder, thus unacceptable human behavior. I know a few doctors are starting to confess to the invalidity of the DSM, and the toxic nature of the psychiatric drugs, but it seems like way too few still.

    I, of course, do not use such “jackal language” with my current doctors, as I agree that would not make for a mutually respectful relationship. I took the time to research medicine, and politely explained that anticholinergic toxidrome is not “bipolar.” My doctor did get a bit embarrassed to have it pointed out that today’s recommended “bipolar” treatments are, in fact, a recipe for how to create “psychosis,” via anticholinergic toxidrome.

    I’m not certain, however, how we actually change a medical system that does not want to change, despite it’s harm of so many. Especially since our current government has been taken over by the “central banks and corporations that will grow up around them” that Thomas Jefferson forewarned this country about, ironically the same banking families that profited off of WWII. And so our current government is still advocating belief in the “mental illnesses,” because this is what their corporate “owners” are dictating they do.

    I just hope the medical industry will soon realize it was, and still is, truly wrong to make up “mental illnesses,” then torture and poison people to death, based upon such medical fictions. And go back to their promise of “first and foremost, do no harm.” If the doctors want to be treated with respect, they actually need to behave in a respectful manner. And they are not currently, because they want to maintain their “dirty little secret” way of legally defaming, discrediting, and poisoning patients to proactively prevent legitimate malpractice settlements.

  3. Hi Rufus, thanks for your column. I appreciate the practical way you approach these subjects, and the way you can both advocate for something and see its limitations at the same time.

    I’ve also appreciated hearing you speak in the past about using nonviolent communication ideas in communication with voices, including ones that are being very nasty.

  4. Sorry but no. You don’t deplete your energy and self-respect by trying to please and “understand” your oppressor. Problem is, you don’t seem to recognize that psychiatry is an inherently oppressive, inherently violent system of social control, and mixing sugar with the Abilify does nothing to sweeten the situation. What you should be questioning is why you cooperate with a situation where people are being prescribed drugs to smooth over social and political contradictions. Practicing true nonviolence in this circumstance would be something like chaining oneself to the pharmacy door, not sweet-talking assholes.

  5. How about if we were to just communicate directly, no frills, to the point–say what we mean and mean what we say. Aside from being responsible for how we communicate, we are also responsible for how we hear feedback and respond to it, emotionally. How we respond internally to feedback is a reflection of the one being reflected back, not the one giving the feedback.

    I think when you ask an abused or oppressed person to ’empathize’ with their abusers/oppressors, you are asking the receiver of that abuse to be responsible for how their abuser feels. That’s neither fair nor just, from what I can tell. People in positions of authority have a responsibility to those they serve, not the other way around.

  6. Regarding this approach,

    “I have also found it practical to empathise with those in positions of power in order to negotiate new ways forward… I’ve found it helpful to use NVC to try and think about the psychiatrist’s feelings and needs.”

    This might sometimes be true, but another viable option can be to lie to and deceive those in power. This is how I got off meds: for about a year I self-tapered myself off while deceiving my psychiatrist about the situation. This was in my late teens when I “had” to see a psychiatrist because my parents insisted upon it as a condition of giving me financial support.

    I would add that empathizing with those in power, or appearing to empathize with them, can also be a tool used by mildly sociopathic people such as myself to deceive and manipulate them. Thus with my psychiatrist, I would happily describe to him with a straight face how the antipsychotic and antidepressant were helping my “symptoms”, all the while knowing that I was not even taking the drugs. I understood his need to feel like a good doctor prescribing an effective drug. It is amazing how easily most people are deceived when their needs to be perceived as “good” are played into.

    Experiences like this built my attitudes of “doing whatever it takes” and “the ends justify the means”. These attitudes also led me, perhaps unfortunately, to engage in other criminal activity such as stealing to survive, for which I was never caught. But when faced with oppressive powerful systems – systems that are telling you that you have a brain disease and have to take drugs – all legal and “illegal” options short of actual physical violence should be on the table. This includes deceiving psychiatrists and stealing from those in power in order to extricate oneself from the system.

    “Dark” qualities such as manipulation and deception are often perceived as “bad”, but when used in moderation, can be adaptive. I have no regrets about what I did, and I have advised others to consider using the same strategies.

    • I’m an honest person, but I, too, had to manipulate my psychiatrist to get him to wean me off the drugs. I quickly learned that telling him about the adverse effects of the drugs only resulted in him increasing the doses, or adding more drugs. So I stopped telling my psychiatrist how sick his drugs were making me, told him I was doing much better, and encouraged the ‘all powerful’ psychiatrist, to start weaning me off them. He did.

      Maybe so many people figuring out this is the only way to get off the psych drugs, is part of why the psychiatrists have delusions their drugs are beneficial, though? In addition to all the fraudulent pharmaceutical research, of course.

      • “Maybe so many people figuring out this is the only way to get off the psych drugs, is part of why the psychiatrists have delusions their drugs are beneficial, though?”

        I think that’s a great point to consider. I totally understand the need to lie one’s way out of a dangerously oppressive situation, but I actually was honest down the line as I tapered from nine psych drugs.

        I was very clear about how sick and disabled they were making me, and how long they’d been breaking down different organs in my body (including the brain, of course, but also liver and kidneys) without my even being aware of it, because any sign of this as I went along would be totally inaccurately attributed to some other factor, whereas all along it was the drugs.

        I know this for a fact because since I stopped taking them about 15 years ago now, I’ve gotten only healthier and healthier since that time, all in balance, not to mention I have my clarity now, and the life I’d always intended to live. This never would have been possible had I stayed in any way connected to psychiatry, drugs, or the mental health system. That was all leading me down a very deep and dark rabbit hole. Thank God I woke up.

        But indeed, one of the pitfalls of lying to clinicians about this is that then they will feel they have even more proof that the drugs work, because that is what clients are telling them, regardless of whether it is true or not. So it does confuse the situation, no doubt. Quite a conundrum.

        I guess it would be a matter of discerning what is for our own good vs. what is for the greater good. My way of seeing it is that if it for the greater good, then that includes us, because we are all part of that collective. Still, we all choose based on what we know and feel in that moment, which is how we exercise our free will and self-respect.

        • Alex said: “I was very clear about how sick and disabled they were making me, and how long they’d been breaking down different organs in my body (including the brain, of course, but also liver and kidneys) without my even being aware of it, because any sign of this as I went along would be totally inaccurately attributed to some other factor, whereas all along it was the drugs.”

          Yeah. I did that.
          See this rash?
          See my hair falling out?
          See that I have to pee every 45 min?
          See my flat affect?
          See my don’t-give-a-yhit-a-tude?
          See my anhedonia?

          The kidney numbers were high, but “normal enough”

          Oddly, though, when I tapered the lithium, ALL of the above symptoms discontinued or diminished.

          But when I described those symptoms to GP, Psychiatrist, and sometimes even psychologist – the answer was, “maybe you should get a new script…..”

          I ended up bullying my psychiatrist. I told her, I was going to do it anyway – did she want in, or should I find someone else?

          She opted in, and I’m glad she did.

          Now, all these practitioners are like: “you’re doing so well!”

          Hunh.

          I get the lying, and I see the NVC as a form of “negotiating.” If one saw psychiatrists as terrorists, I can see why one would not want to negotiate with them.

          I guess it depends on the level of abuse. I was one of the lucky ones. I never submitted, and was always lucid enough to resist or produce a coherent argument against many of their drugs. (until, of course, I submitted, and ended up with the symptoms at the beginning of this post).

          Thank you for the jackals and giraffes. I welcome new ways to think about communication, and I will offer your NVC negotiation to my friends who have trouble getting their psychiatrists on board.

          Another method is to just say, “well, if I’m going to be on these for life, I want to be on the lowest possible dose….” (and just keep going)

  7. Great article Rufus, thanks. I agree that one big societal problem is the “dominator”-culture, which is very prevalent within psychiatry also. It seems to really be changing though, thank goodness.
    I have also found that it is easier to deal with people if you come from a place where you try to understand the reasons behind their behaviour, instead of just judging that behaviour. Understanding what is behind someones unpleasantness or bullying comments doesn’t mean that you don’t stand your ground or that you try to sweet-talk someone, rather it means that you are not being so triggered by other peoples e.g. oppressive behaviour. So many things would really be much better if we people would make an effort to empathetically understand each other.

  8. CTOs are higher than ever in the UK, the police involvement in MH care higher than ever, and news is leaking out now of unprecedented suicides.

    We decided here that the banking crisis would have to become a crisis of care, health, housing, and civil liberties.

    In Iceland and Germany and France and other EU countries, they’ve taken a different approach, and consequently they have decided on alternative crises.

    Psychology as a discipline is — unless I am wrong — supposed to act on a higher level as a way of effecting social change, for the better.

    Not every psychologist is as engaged as perhaps they should be with positive change. You only have to read The Gulag Archipelago to get a good handle on how the violent power struggle continually plays out.

    And, the mental health system and all those in it are a fractal of all human systems.

    The point I’ve been edging up to with a mild tilt of the head and a wink of the eye is that the author is engaged in social change. They are sticking their neck out. Like a giraffe.

    Anyone who disagrees with them is a jackal.

    Only joking.

    I see nothing here but positive. A little bit of irony in the responses. Both ways across the Atlantic culture is becoming more violent. Any pressure tap is surely a wise addition?

  9. I hate lying! But right now I have no choice. I refuse to steal, but lying to people who have lied to me all the time bothers me less. Besides to continue to take the neurotoxic poisons I have been dished out would be another moral crime. Suicide is wrong and if I continue with the drugging I will be guilty of that.
    “Thou shalt not lie,” is not one of the Ten Commandments. “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” is.
    The men and women in white coats with stethoscopes around their necks are those who have defamed me and told society around me that I am a monster willing to kill them at the drop of a hat if I don’t take my medicines. Who does it sound like is bearing false witness against their neighbor? Hmm?