Observing without evaluating is the highest form of human intelligence.
The first of the key areas of our experience and communication on which NVC recommends we focus our attention is what we are observing.
Observations versus evaluations
Making clear observations involves stating simply what we see or hear without evaluation. Evaluations often take the form of critical judgments about people’s characters, based on one or more incidents we have experienced with them. Making an evaluation of this nature about someone and expressing this to them is highly likely either to lead to conflict or to escalate existing conflict.
Let’s look at some examples of evaluations and then what they might look like as observations:
‘You are so rude!’
Here, ‘rude’ is not an observation, because it doesn’t describe an action. It is not clear what has just happened. Did they say something? Did they just do something, such as poke their tongue out, for example? If we were to make a clear observation, we would describe exactly what they said or did. For example, if they had told us we were a lazy worker, our observation would be: ‘When you tell me I am a lazy worker...’. As this is exactly what they said, they are less likely to react to us when we express our observation.
Of course, the dialogue isn’t over yet. Our observation here is just the first part of our communication. We will also need to follow this up with an expression of our feeling and need and a request in relation to this observation. We will explore those elements in the following pages.
Let’s look at another example.
Following the same logic as above, if we get clear as to what the person actually said or did, our observation might be something like: ‘When I asked if you could help me and you carried on with the task you were doing...’
This is a factual description of what happened, free from embellishment and judgment.
Evaluation: ‘This place is a mess!’
Observation: ‘There are papers and folders covering most of the desk.’
See if you can have a go with this one – (our answer is near the bottom of the page).
Evaluation ‘You always withdraw in the meeting...’
Making clear non-judgmental observations to assist your communication has several benefits.
- It identifies in your mind, and for the other person, what it is specifically that you are reacting to (what triggered you) and helps you sift out your interpretations from what actually happened, therefore providing clarity.
- It establishes an initial connection – the other person will be more open to hearing you if what you say is free from evaluation and judgment. This, in and of itself, can lessen the likelihood of a dispute developing in the first place.
- It leaves room for correction if the two of you have different memories of the situation.
- It is part of taking responsibility for your communication and therefore how you are received.
Observations about the past, the present or the future
We can make observations about something that is happening now, in the present: ‘When you look out the window while I am talking...’
We can make observations about something that happened in the past: ‘When I remember you hanging the phone up on me last week...’
Our observations can also be about something that we are imagining might happen in the future: ‘If I imagine letting you handle our portfolio with this client...’
It takes patience and discipline to be accurate about what took place without adding or distorting the information. In our experience, the more intense the conflict with another person, the more care we need to take when expressing our observations about what has happened.
One possible answer to the evaluation ‘You always withdraw in meetings...’
‘When I have asked the team for contributions to the discussion in team meetings, for the last three meetings we’ve had, you have remained silent.’
The next step in the NVC process would be to follow up your observation by expressing how you feel in relation to this.