Tip #313: Nonviolent Communication #4: Observation Without Evaluation

“When we combine observation with evaluation, people are apt to hear criticism.” Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D.

According to Dr. Marshall Rosenberg in Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, the first component of Nonviolent Communication requires that we learn how to observe behavior that affects our sense of well being without evaluating it at the same time.

This does not mean that we must remain completely objective at all times. It just means that we need to keep our observations separate from our evaluations. If we do not keep them separate, our communication will be heard as criticism.

Unfortunately, “for most of us, it is difficult to make observations, especially of people and their behavior, that are free of judgment, criticism, or other forms of analysis.”

For example, we mix evaluation into our observation when we say, “You are too self-critical.” If we want to communicate this observation without evaluation, we might say instead, “When I see you worry about every mistake, I think you are being too self-critical.”

The difference between the first and the second statement is the fact that the speaker takes responsibility for the evaluation in the second statement.

If we say, “Doug procrastinates,” we are using a verb that has an evaluative connotation. We can communicate the same thought without evaluation if we say,
“Doug saves all of his Christmas shopping until Christmas Eve.”

The generalization, “Old people are slow drivers,” is highly evaluative. A more specific observation would be, “No matter what road he is on, my elderly uncle always drives 10 miles below the speed limit.”

We tend to combine evaluation with our observations when we state broad generalizations rather than specific facts and when we offer these statements as if they are the truth rather than simply our opinion.

For example, “If you don’t floss after brushing, you will get gum disease” is an evaluation, while “If you don’t floss after brushing, I worry that you will end up with gum disease” is an observation for which I take ownership because it is just my concern, not an absolute fact.

“Jim is a poor dancer” is an evaluation, while “Jim has stepped on my feet during every dance” is an observation of a specific situation.

“Sue is pretty” is an evaluation while “I like Sue’s looks” is an observation for which I take ownership, since it is just my opinion and not an absolute fact.

By the way, the words: always, never, ever, whenever, at least, etc. can be used to express an observation. For example: “I cannot recall your ever thanking me for my help,” and “I have noticed that whenever Sally eats while watching television, she takes at least an hour to finish her meal” are specific observations.

However, if these same words are used as exaggerations, they combine evaluation with observation and generate defensiveness rather than compassion. For example, the statements: “You are never home” and “He is always unavailable when the real work needs to be done” are both critically evaluative.

Words like frequently and seldom can also contribute to confusing observation with evaluation, because although they sound specific, they really are not. For example, “You seldom agree with me” is an evaluation, while “The last three times I said something, you said the exact opposite” is a more specific observation. “He frequently forgets to call me” is an evaluation, while “He said that he would call me every night last week, but he forgot” is another more specific observation.

In summary, if we want to separate observation from evaluation, we need to make observations that are specific in terms of their time and context.

Let’s test your ability to distinguish observation from evaluation. Which of the following statements do you think is an observation only?

1. Julie left our meeting in a huff for no reason.
2. Last night Linda knitted a sweater while watching her daughter’s karate lesson.
3. Tori did not listen to my advice at lunch.
4. My mother is a wonderful artist.
5. Michell argues too much.
6. Zelda is very assertive when faced with conflict.
7. Billy was the last one out the door every day last week.
8. My granddaughter often forgets to wash her hands before a meal.
9. Anna told me that red isn’t my color.
10. My friend complains when we get together.

If you email your answers to me at dlaurel@laurelandassociates.com with NVC Answers in the subject heading, I will send you a list of NVC Resources.

Next week’s Tip will discuss the second component in Nonviolent Communication, which is to express how we are feeling.

May your learning be sweet.

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