Recently, I encountered a couple of situations in which organizations – in the name of empathy and inclusion – required that all employees use feelings-focused communication, variations of non-violent communication (NVC) and I-statements. This had unintended negative consequences for neurodivergent employees – from increased stress to the possibility of ending their employment.
Why would the use of these tools backfire?
Tools can be fantastic. But they can also be misused and even weaponized. That does not just apply to tools with obvious destructive potential, such as Nobel’s invention of dynamite. Seemingly innocuous and well-intended psychology and communication tools can result in harm as well. This is especially true when tools are oversimplified and applied in rigid ways devoid of their original spirit. While both non-violent communication (NVC) and I-statements can be applied to promote personal growth and reduce conflict, formulaic applications that fail to take into account diversity can be harmful.
Marshall Rosenberg developed the approach of NVC on the foundation of person-centered therapy and his extensive clinical practice. It was meant to be an approach that could be used across various contexts (with a focus on families and personal relationships) to clarify what we are observing, what emotions we (and others) are feeling, and what we want to ask of others – and, importantly, ourselves. NVC was also rooted in the understanding of our values, empathy toward others, and the motivation “to give and receive compassionately” (Rosenberg, 2003, p. 5). NVC does not require that the one we interact with must use the same approach – the practice is internal, not imposed.
After the original publication of Rosenberg’s book, “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life” NVC became quite popular and generated a variety of counseling, coaching, and training applications with various degrees of connection to Rosenberg’s original thinking. From family and personal applications, the approach was increasingly extended to business; various workplace products and training packages were developed. In particular, workplace applications expanded after Satya Nadella used NVC to help transform the culture of Microsoft from infamously brutal to positive when he took over in 2014 and made the members of his senior leadership team read Rosenberg’s book.
In a simplified form, the four components of non-violent communication are:
- Observations: observing and describing what is happening, without judgment. In the original Rosenberg’s example, a mother observes to her son that “There are soiled socks under the coffee table and near the TV.”
- Feelings: stating how you feel. Again, in the original example, the mother says “I am irritated.”
- Needs: explaining how your needs are connected to your feeling. “I need more order in the rooms we share.”
- Requests: requesting a concrete action. “Would you be willing to put your socks in your room or in the washing machine?”
Rosenberg was very clear that “NVC is not a set formula, but something that adapts to various situations as well as personal and cultural styles.” He even believed that NVC could be experienced without words (Rosenberg, 2003, p. 7). This message of diversity and flexibility, however, was lost in many applications that turned NVC into a rigid, say-this-not-that formula.
Similarly, I-statements “I feel X when Y occurs” / “I feel anxious when I don’t have at least 15 minutes between meetings” can be helpful, but are not a panacea in all problematic or conflict situations.
The formulaic application of any psychological or communication approach disregards the diversity of human thinking, feeling, and connecting. As such, one-size-fits-all approaches run counter to the spirit and the idea of neurodiversity, and all diversity. This disregard for diversity is particularly clear when feelings-focused approaches such as NVC and I-statements are applied to those with alexithymia.
Alexithymia was originally defined as cognitive-affective condition characteristic of persons who cannot describe their feelings – recognize and verbalize emotions. It also involves difficulty in communicating with others. Alexithymia may co-occur with autism (at about 50%), ADHD (at about 22%), and, likely, with learning differences. Alexithymia may be associated with additional difficulties for neurodivergent people, such as higher levels of anxiety and/or depression.
Identifying feelings (steps 2 of the “classic” NVC) is extremely difficult, sometimes impossible, and often anxiety-inducing for those with alexithymia. Hence, a rigid organizational demand for formulaic use of NVC (as in examples that inspired this article) excludes those with alexithymia and may even subject them to shunning or punishment. In some cases, a worksheet for identifying emotions could help, but this does not always work. It definitely does not work in a “real-time” conversation while being put on the spot by a manager or a coworker and pressured to discuss emotions.
The inclusion of those with alexithymia (and many other neurodivergent individuals) involves understanding that people process emotions differently and that some may need (much) extra time to work through their feelings. They may not be comfortable or able to have feelings-focused conversations, especially when such conversations are imposed on them by those in power (employers) or occur as an “ambush.”
For those who do not struggle with identifying their emotions, remembering that there are very real and consequential differences in processing emotions is an important part of practicing diversity awareness and emotional inclusion.
Facts or feelings?
Autistic individuals tend to focus on facts and communicate directly – a highly effective approach with other direct communicators. In relatively simple situations, this can align with NVC well. In more complex social interactions, however, NVC, especially its more rigid forms, can feel convoluted, inauthentic, or even manipulative.
In a straightforward example, NVC can serve as a helpful script. “The air conditioner is set at 65 F, can’t be adjusted, and blows in my face. I am distracted because I am too cold to focus. I need to work in a place with a more comfortable temperature. I’d like to move to the second-floor office where I can regulate temperature settings, or work from home.”
However, other situations are more complicated – especially when the more rigid variation of NVC forbids or condemns the use of “fake feelings” (the concept not present in Rosenberg’s book but present in some interpretations and training programs) that are considered “blame” rather than feelings. “Fake feelings” include overworked, harassed, or interrupted. But what if a coworker fails to complete an assignment, leaving an autistic employee to pick up the slack (again), and another interrupts their flow to ask the same question (again)? Are overworked and interrupted “fake feelings” or authentic responses to these situations? “Frustrated” or “irritated” may not quite express that individual’s experiences. Being “forbidden” to express “fake feelings” that are very much real to our lived experience can feel extremely disempowering – although “disempowered” would also be considered a “fake feeling.”
The answer to how to communicate both authentically and effectively in complex workplace situations may come from the discussion missing from the typical “one-size-fits-all” NVC and I-statement training – the consideration of power.
The role of power
Liz Kislik, a business consultant and a workplace relationships expert, provides an important critique of the use of I-statements, a technique similar to NVC, in the workplace. Her Harvard Business Review article takes on the common advice to use “I statements” in business contexts, such as, “I feel frustrated that you missed the budget deadline twice.” According to Liz Kislik, while I-statements may be helpful in personal relationships, in professional settings they can backfire.
First, they can make the person be judged as “overly emotional.” The judgment may come from the same people who encourage “non-judgemental focus on feelings” – in theory. In reality, individuals often default to split-second automatic biases. This is especially risky for those who are already walking the tightrope of biases – such as women, in Kislik’s example, or neurodivergent individuals.
Second, they can make the person seem selfish – more interested in themselves than in what’s best for the business. Again, this is particularly consequential to those who are already “suspect” due to biases – such as neurodivergent employees.
Third, I-statements can make an individual seem weak. And, I would add, this opens one up to the mother of all gaslighting – “I am sorry you feel this way” reply. Of course, those already marginalized are particularly in danger of being dismissed in this sorry-not-sorry fashion.
Kislik suggests that a more effective approach to workplace communication does not require focusing on our feelings. Making an argument about what the business needs is most effective.
What if we could replace “feelings” statements with “facts” statements? The “overworked and forced to do other people’s work” conversation in an emergency situation may look like this:
- Observations: the external report is due tomorrow, Brett’s section only has 2 paragraphs and no supporting data, and he is gone for the week.
- Facts: I am the only one who knows enough about the data to complete that section. However, that would mean staying up most of the night because tomorrow I still need to merge everyone’s work and add appendices.
- Needs: To ensure the report is done with appropriate quality, I need someone to work on appendices – this does not require my expertise but requires attention to detail.
- Requests: Would it be possible to extend Adam’s deadline on (XYZ) so that he could help with appendices? Or perhaps you have someone else in mind?
This makes for a much stronger argument than it would as feelings–focused statement. In this situation, facts–focused argument is also more likely to result in a favorable outcome.
In a more long-term situation (Brett repeatedly dropped the ball), the proposed solution may involve better aligning responsibilities with the track record of performance – again, facts, rather than feelings. For example, the speaker and Adam could take over the reporting, with a corresponding reduction in other obligations. Regardless of feelings, this will support the best organizational outcomes. Those more comfortable with discussing feelings at work should have an opportunity to process them, but for others, making a business argument should be sufficient for a practical resolution.
Those wired to focus on facts can be extremely effective if allowed to work with their communication style and not against it. Flexibility is an essential feature of inclusive systems, and emotional inclusion also means considering diversity in emotional needs and processing.