Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Tone-Policing and Nonviolent Communication

I recently finished reading this essay, where Maisha Z Johnson uses the recent public clash between Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj as an occasion to talk about tone policing and the way that it's used to discount or silence black women's voices. As I was reading it, I was reminded of my study of nonviolent communication strategies. There are, I think, useful lessons to be found in thinking about tone policing in light of those strategies.

Tone Policing

The basic concern of tone policing is this: a member of an oppressed or socially marginalized group speaks candidly about their experience with oppression, speaking out against it, perhaps loudly, perhaps with discernible anger. Someone else (often a member of the privileged group) responds by complaining about the tone of the message. Johnson offers, as examples, the following kinds of responses:

"You're being too harsh"
"You're overreacting"
"You're making your cause look bad"
"I'm on your side"
"This is counterproductive"

"I'm on your side" is a bit different from the others on this list--a point I'll come back to later. But what all of these responses have in common is that they shift the topic away from the substance of what the oppressed person is talking about and towards something else: either the tone with which it is delivered (too harsh, hostile, or extreme); or the strategic failures of the speaker (counterproductive or alienating to actual and potential allies).

Strictly speaking, only the former is tone-policing. But the latter is sufficiently bound up with the former that it makes sense to treat them together. In both cases, the person offering the response distracts from the original speaker's message by complaining that how it was delivered will distract from its message.

It doesn't take much to see the problem here: If we really care about not distracting attention from someone's message, we won't respond in a way that distracts attention from their message. And that's true even if the way we distract from the message is by complaining about how the tone will distract from the message. Got that?

Nonviolent Communication

In its simplest terms, nonviolent communication is about finding ways to communicate with one another that encourage mutual understanding, reduce defensiveness, and help promote cooperative conflict resolution where everyone's needs and feelings are taken into account.

On one level, tone policing sounds as if it's about offering helpful advice with respect to these very things: "Hey, you! The way you're saying that isn't likely to encourage mutual understanding, may increase defensiveness, and may interfere with your goal of promoting cooperative conflict resolution!"

But even if that's true, talking about nonviolent communication isn't the same as engaging in it. There's a place for the former--including a place for pointing out to someone how they can be better at nonviolent communication. You might do it in a workshop about nonviolent communication strategies (or in a blog post about them). But if someone in a heartfelt moment expresses their frustration and anger about something, and I respond by saying, "You're a bad nonviolent communicator!", then I'm talking about nonviolent communication while failing to actually practice it.

When I actually seek to practice nonviolent communication, the focus is not on policing what other people say and how they say it. Rather, nonviolent communication is the effort to communicate in ways that move away from the language of judgment and accusation and towards the language of self-disclosure. And I do this both in terms of how I speak, and in terms of how I listen. The basic strategic tool for doing this is something called the "I-statement."


An I-statement offers a way to address my problems or concerns without making accusations (it can also be used to address things I'm grateful for, but that's another topic). The basic technique is to point out a situation or behavior that bothers or upsets me--in purely descriptive terms that don't make judgments--and then share how this situation or behavior makes me feel, and why.

An I-statement is about self-disclosure all the way down. When I share the reasons why I'm angry (or afraid, or sad) about your behavior, I do so in terms of my own needs, interests, significant desires, and core values (what I'll just call "needs" for short). I share with you something about myself that explains my emotional response.

Sometimes I may need to talk about my beliefs or perceptions as well--although there are dangers in this. It may be best to wait to talk about my beliefs for a time when emotions are less raw, a time when feelings and needs are in less urgent need of attention. But to fully explain my feelings and promote genuine understanding, sharing perceptions at some point is often crucial. If so, I should do it honestly and without judgment or accusation. It's one thing to say, "You're seeing racism that isn't there." It's something else to say, "It looks to me like you see the playing field as less fair with respect to race than I do." When we do share our perceptions or beliefs, we need to do so with humility, recognizing that our perceptions may be imperfect.

An I-statement usually culminates in a request. Not a demand or an ultimatum, but a request. The request is for something that would help me to meet my needs and resolve my emotional distress. When I deliver an I-statement, I understand that there may be more than one way to meet my needs, and that the request I'm making may be just the start of a conversation. After all, the specific way of meeting my needs that I've identified might not satisfy the needs of the other person. I need to be prepared for that, and ready to explore alternative ways that we can both get our needs met.

But if we're going to work together on finding ways to meet all our needs, it's not enough that you know what my needs are. I need to know what your needs are. This may require more than just talking in I-statements. A special kind of listening may also be needed.

Listening for Hidden I-Statements

In conflict situations, we're so used to talking in the language of judgment and accusation ("you-statements") that it's unlikely that when I share an I-statement, the other person will respond in kind. But as nonviolent communication guru Marshall Rosenberg has noted, "you-statements" can be seen as nothing but tragically failed attempts to share our feelings and needs. When I launch into a you-statement tirade, it's because I'm angry (my feeling). And I'm angry because I'm being thwarted in getting things that are really important to me (my needs). And I want things to change in a way that will resolve those feelings and meet my needs (my request).

In short, I can choose not only to express myself in I-statements but to listen for the hidden I-statements in what others say.

Of course, I might get it wrong. So, it's important that I check in: "Here's what I'm hearing. Is that right?" The trick is to try to identify the feelings, needs, perceptions, and requests of the other person, and then make sure I've got it right. If I don't, they'll correct me--maybe in more you-statement forms, but hopeful in a way that will deepen my understanding of them even as I invite them through my I-statements to a deeper understanding of me.

This kind of reflective listening--listening that's attuned to the self-disclosure behind the actual words--can be magical. When people feel heard, anger fades. When people feel understood, a cooperative spirit grows. Conflicts become shared problems that people work collaboratively to resolve, rather than a reason for animosity.

Tone-Policing Revisited

Let's return to the five tone-policing responses that Maisha Johnson talks about in her essay. It should be clear that all but one of them are clear-cut you-statements. They amount to telling the other person what is wrong with them. The exception is "I'm on your side," which I'll talk about on its own.

Tone-policing you-statements are a self-protection strategy. Someone has just said something angry, something full of feeling and deeply expressive of unmet human needs. And maybe their outrage encompasses me, and so I feel an indictment. Maybe the judgment is explicit, maybe not. But either way, my focus becomes immediately on that. I feel defensive. Maybe I agree in general terms with the judgment they're making, but I don't think it applies to me. And so I completely ignore their rich self-disclosure. Instead of listening for the feelings and needs and perceptions that lie at the heart of what they say, I launch into self-protection. I point the finger at them to deflect the perceived attack on me.

In short, I'm more concerned about avoiding blame than I am about listening. Or--as the case may be--I care more about whether you adhere to some standards of nonviolent communication than I care about what nonviolent communication is supposed to facilitate, which is deeper mutual understanding.

All of the tone-policing responses could be changed into I-statements, although in cases like this it may be far more important to listen to what others are trying to say to us--and to check to make sure that we've understood them--than it is to launch into our own self-disclosure. This is especially true in cases where the speaker is a member of a marginalized minority whose voice has been traditionally silenced, and we are members of a privileged group used to being heard. In such cases, there is reason to prioritize nurturing the voice that has been historically silenced over having our own say. There will always be time for us to speak.

But suppose I'm just too worked up to listen. Maybe I realize I'm being defensive, but that realization doesn't help. Maybe I'm even self-aware enough to know that my privileged position in society is part of the reason I'm getting so defensive. And it may well be true that I'd be less defensive, better able to listen, if the other party said things in a different way.

In that case, I might say something like the following. "I'm feeling frustrated, because I want to understand and digest what you're telling me but I'm feeling really defensive. Could you put your point another way?"

This is, in effect, an effort to unpack the hidden I-statement in the typical tone-policing you-statements. While such an I-statement might not be nearly as helpful a response as a listening one, if I'm not able to listen I don't do anyone a favor by pretending to. And this I-statement is a clear improvement over typical tone-policing responses in two ways: (1) it honestly reveals the speaker's issue rather than trying to cast blame, and (2) instead of silencing the other person by shifting away from the substance of their message, it is an invitation for the other person to continue sharing that message.

The response, "You are being counterproductive by taking that tone," changes the topic and invites everyone to ignore what the person is saying in favor of condemning its mode of delivery.

The I-statement response does not.

But what about "I'm on your side"? The problem here is a bit different. In many cases, "I'm on your side," is a comforting reassurance. But much hinges on context. When Johnson brings it up as an example of tone-policing, she has in mind Taylor Swift's response to Nicki Minaj's complaints about racism in the music industry. Johnson's worry is that, in that context, "I'm on your side" is a defensive response with an implicit judgment, namely, "You're wrongly attacking your allies." Even if the former is not in itself a you-statement, the latter is.

There may be an important difference in perspectives here that needs to be addressed. One person may voice a complaint that includes me as part of the problem causing them pain. By contrast, I see myself as their ally, trying to help them fix the problem. But when perceptions diverge like this, the solution is not to silence the opposing perspective with a forceful counter-assertion. The solution is to dig more deeply into the experiences that lie behind each perspective.

Imagine if "I'm on your side" were replaced with the following kind of I-statement: "I'm upset, because I want to be on your side in this, and I worry now that you don't see me as the kind of ally that I want to be. Could you tell me more about the kind of ally you need?"

This is not a rejection of the other person's perspective, but a request to understand that perspective more deeply. Instead of silencing or delegitimizing the other's message, it's an invitation to expand on it.

In short, tone-policing generally takes the form of you-statements. If that's true, one way we can avoid tone-policing is by committing ourselves to practicing nonviolent communication techniques in the kinds of situations where tone-policing so often rears its head.

Shouldn't we condemn those who say, "You're Tone Policing"?

I can already hear a critic say, "Accusations of tone-policing aren't good nonviolent communication. Anyone who labels someone else as guilty of tone-policing is violating the very principles that nonviolent communication tries to teach."

But here's the thing: Nonviolent communication strategies are intended to be used to guide our communication efforts, not as a template for judging the communication efforts of others. The moment I do the latter, I've abandoned nonviolent communication.

Yes, "You're tone-policing!" is a you-statement. But when I point this out, I'm talking about nonviolent communication instead of doing it. I'm mentioning its categories instead of using its strategies.

If I were using those strategies, I would never criticize or condemn those making the tone-policing charge. Instead, I'd do one of two things: (1) I might try to understand the feelings and needs and requests that underlie the tone-policing charge and then try to honestly express them, checking to see if I'm right (and then listening to see what I've missed or got wrong); (2) I might formulate an I-statement about how I feel about the tone-policing charge and why, in terms of my needs.

I think I've attempted to do the former in this post. It doesn't make much sense for me to do the latter, since I haven't been accused of tone-policing. But if I ever am, I hope I don't respond by saying, "You're overreacting! I'm on your side!"


  1. I found this article really interesting. I hadn't thought about tone policing before, but it makes perfect sense. Cordelia

  2. My problem with Nonviolent communication is that the very first sentence of the book claims that it is in human nature to be compassionate. This is false, as Christians, we all know our core nature is sinful, not compassionate. We must remember that compassion comes from God, not man. God is love and we love because God first loved us. This book is the textbook for one of my classes this term. I asked my professor where forgiveness fit in to the non-violent communication strategy and she said it would fit no where because forgiveness implies that you are judging someone. When I asked about self forgiveness, it seemed she had no problem with that. The very foundation of nonviolent communication is self-dependence, instead of dependence on God. Yes, some things may appear true in this book, but yet we must also remember that many of the world's traps tend to make good arguments with our flesh and against the Spirit. Let's not forget how convincing the arguments of Job's friends were and God declared them all false. If you would ask me, the core root of this text completely rejects Christ's teaching. The only way to true compassion and "nonviolent communication" is by full surrender to Jesus Christ.

    1. A few points:

      1. It is important, I think, to distinguish between the practical communication tool that is nonviolent communication and philosophical justifications for it. I-messages and reflective listening existed long before Rosenberg wrote his book on nonviolent communication, which approaches and develops these core methodologies in the light of his philosophy. But divergent philosophies often converge on the value of a practice for different reasons. Marshall Rosenberg's reasons for valuing nonviolent communication techniques may not be the only reasons for valuing them--and not embracing a particular philosophy which underwrites a practice needn't mean not embracing the practice. The question I invite you to ask is whether your Christian philosophy offers reasons to make use of nonviolent communication practices. You may find that there are such reasons.

      2. You say, "...the book claims that it is in human nature to be compassionate. This is false, as Christians, we all know our core nature is sinful, not compassionate." I understand Christian theology differently. As I understand it, sinfulness is a corruption of our core nature, not our core nature. Our core nature springs from our creator. If God is essentially compassionate, and if our very being flows from God, then our very being is ordered to what is divine, and hence towards compassion. But sin-conceived as alienation from God--corrupts and distorts this essential nature.

      3. Not every practitioner of nonviolent communication would answer your question about forgiveness in the same way. Judgment is something we do. Forgiveness is a difficult concept, but insofar as it involves letting go of judgment-or, perhaps more accurately, letting go of the power of our judgments of others to define how we treat and respond to them--nonviolent communication may be a tool for practicing forgiveness.

      4. "The very foundation of nonviolent communication is self-dependence, instead of dependence on God." Again, I see matters a bit differently. Nonviolent communication describes a loving way of communicating with neighbors. If I try to rely on myself to live up to the love command, then I am self-reliant. If I rely on God to do so, then I am God-dependent.

    2. Explain why Jesus does not follow Nonviolent Communication. If does not follow it and we are supposed to follow Him, why should we follow Nonviolent communication? Our call is to deny ourselves and follow Him daily, not to follow a manmade communication technique

    3. Nonviolent communication does not describe a loving way of communication because it does not attempt to mention, praise, or glorify God. God is love and we love because God first loved us. Anything without God is not love at all. And anything without God is meaningless. God is the only being that can make nonviolent communication a truly loving way of communicating

  3. I'm not sure why you think Jesus never used nonviolent communication, that is, never self-disclosed in favor of making judgments. Is it because you don't find examples of it in the Bible? Keep in mind that most of what is recorded there are His moral teachings, his parables, and his confrontations with unjust systems. My view, at least, is that nonviolent communication is a limited technique in these settings and really comes alive in moments of interpersonal relationship-building at the point of conflict.

    But let's put that aside. English is a man-made communication technique, one that Jesus did not use. Nevertheless, there are reasons for me to use it--and sometimes, at least, the reasons may include my commitment to be a follower of Jesus, where living up to that commitment can mean I need to communicate with those around me as effectively as I can, which in the circumstances may call for English. If I knew that those circumstances were likely to arise, but I refused to learn English because Jesus never used it and I should be a follower of Jesus, I would be compromising my ability to be a follower of Jesus in the name of being a follower of Jesus.

    Perhaps you believe that nonviolent communication techniques will never be like this? If so, I wonder if you have seen to the heart of what nonviolent communication is about. So let me put the question another way: Do you think your ability to follow Jesus will never be served by mastering techniques of communication that have been shown to reduce defensiveness in conflict situations, promote mutual understanding and empathy, and encourage looking for ways to meet the needs of everyone in the conflict?

    Put that way, the answer strikes me, at least, as obvious. My own understanding of what following Jesus means includes building bridges of mutual concern and empathy at the point of conflict. Because that, it seems to me, is what it means to be a peacemaker. And being a peacemaker is something Jesus called us to do (not ONLY this, of course, and not to the exclusion of naming injustices for what they are and calling out their perpetrators--but nevertheless, we are called to be peacemakers).

    When I first studied Rosenberg's version of nonviolent communication in a workshop with him, I was bothered by his systematic refusal to use the language of right and wrong, good and evil. I am still bothered by it, because I think there is a place for it--in preaching, in exhortation, in challenging unjust systems, in teaching, in venues like this one. But in the business of negotiating conflicting needs and interests in immediate human relationships, the language of self-disclosure is so much better at moving towards the goal of everyone's needs being met than is the language of judgment.

    Perhaps this is the meaning behind Jesus' words, "Judge not, lest you be judged." And his insistence that before we try to take the speck from our neighbor's eye, we should take the mote from our own. These injunctions speak to a way of approaching conflict that eschews judgment of others in favor of honesty about oneself.

    1. On the issue of love not being authentic love without God, I have several thoughts.

      My theology teaches me that everything that is good springs from God, that God's essence is love, and therefore that authentic human love is not authentic unless it expresses and channels love itself, which has its source in God. It also teaches me that the best way to praise and glorify God is to try my best to be a conduit for divine love in the world, to let that divine light shine through me so that all may be blessed by it.

      But I have seen that blessing, experienced that blessing, shining through people who are Jews and Hindus and Muslims. I have seen it shining in the lives and choices of atheist friends. My best theological interpretation of this experience--the best understanding I can offer of this experience in light of my theology--is that God works through anyone who is open to being moved by divine grace in the right way, no matter what their theologies, no matter what their explicit beliefs. In other words, it is possible to be a conduit for divine love without oneself using Christian theological categories and concepts to understand what one is doing.

      I have also seen those who are always hard at work mentioning God and Jesus, overtly praising his name and glorifying Him in ways that studiously observe the language and categories of orthodox Christian thought...and do all this in a spirit of works-righteousness where they use other's failure to do likewise as a standard for judging them inferior. In short, they use the language of God and displays of worship as ways to shut out the divine radiance and make sure they are conduits of self-righteousness and mean-spiritedness instead of love.

      Whether we are capable of real love seems to hinge on a spirit of openness to being moved by a love that transcends us, as opposed to having all the right beliefs and saying all the right things about that transcendent good and our openness to it.

      That is the inner side of love--the motive that makes an act loving as opposed to self-serving or self-destructive or whatever else might move us. But there is an outer side as well. I'm not a fan of the saying, "Love, then do as you will," because it seems that if you love, there are certain kinds of things you will do and certain kind of things you won't do. Giving to OXFAM to help the needy is the kind of thing that loving people will do--even if the motive for doing so might be self-serving (it's just about the tax break). So, we can distinguish between outwardly loving acts and loving motives.

      Nonviolent communication techniques might be used by someone who lacks loving motives. Nevertheless, I think it is an outwardly loving way to engage with people in conflict situations, insofar as meeting needs is an outward way to show love, and nonviolent communication facilitates meeting the needs of everyone affected in conflict situations.

      In other words, nonviolent communication offers a way to achieve what people with loving motives aim to achieve--even if, as you rightly note, it might be employed by people lacking loving motives.

      But my experience with nonviolent communication is that practicing it *can* be a vehicle not only for being outwardly loving in relation to those we are in conflict with but for trying to remain open to the spirit of love that transcends us. And sometimes its deliberate use can move us inwardly, such that what started out as simply a cookie-cutter application of a technique for motives disconnected from love leads us to love more fully across the gap of conflict than we realized we could.

    2. "I am the truth the way and the life, no one comes to the Father except by me." You misunderstood what I said completely. All I am saying is that Nonviolent communication without Christ is meaningless. What I am saying does not contradict scripture, I am applying it. There is no such thing as being outwardly loving without being inwardly loving according to scripture. Love is one of the spiritual fruits, to say we can possess it without first having the Spirit is nonsense. Note: long responses do not encourage readership. Not that I don't care, I am just busy. If you respond to me, please make it concise, thanks.

    3. I was not saying that God had to be mentioned explicitly, I was saying that His love is not even implied by the author of the method because of the foundation by which he set it, which is "it is in human nature to be compassionate." And this foundation as I stated above contradicts Scripture. As scripture says in Matthew 7: 24-27, a sturdy foundation, meaning Christ/Trinity alone, is key to living a Christlike life. Sorry if I seem to be hypocritical by making my response longer, as you can see by the different times, I did not think of this until later.

    4. "There is no such thing as being outwardly loving without being inwardly loving according to scripture. Love is one of the spiritual fruits, to say we can possess it without first having the Spirit is nonsense."

      Let me try again, since it seems I didn't convey my point clearly before. A loving act has two dimensions to it--an outer and an inner. I do not by this mean that a loving act can be a loving act absent one of these dimensions. But it does mean we can speak of certain outer forms of action (e.g., feeding the hungry, educating the ignorant) that are characteristic of loving acts in the sense that they are outward actions that persons motivated by the right inner spirit of love characteristically perform--or characteristically would perform if they had the requisite skills and resources.

      My point is that nonviolent communication strategies might, arguably, be viewed as such an outer form--an outward way of acting that (assuming requisite skills and resources) someone motivated by love would adopt. When I originally said to you that nonviolent communication was a loving way of acting, that is what I meant. I did not mean that it was loving apart from the right inner spirit and motivation.

      I hope that was concise enough for you. In choosing between being concise and being complete, I always favor being complete in order to minimize misunderstanding. Sometimes careful editing and re-editing can make matters both concise and complete, but, just like you, I am busy and don't typically have enough time in my day to do that. So often the choice is between no reply, a lengthy reply, or an inadequate reply. And I generally feel I'm wasting my time if my reply to inadequate by my own lights.

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