Tossing Out the Community Rules, Nonviolently

(Note: NVC is an abbreviation for Nonviolent Communication, a fluid, ever-evolving language process created by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. It is also sometimes referred to as Compassionate Communication, and is based on universal human feelings and needs, the giving of empathy and making humble requests rather than demands. For information on NVC coaching and counseling services offered by Steve Pollack, please visit

There are many kinds of relationships that we can develop.  Among them, intimate, personal relationships.  Family relationships. Extended family. Or larger group relationships that grow out of an idea or organization.

As you may know, in Hindu teachings, there is a god who is all creative energy, and another god who is all destruction.  Ideally, if you prefer not to destroy or toss out the rules, then consider closely whether it is really going to be helpful to create them in the first place. If there is trust in the NVC process, that is the ideal situation.  That would be all that is ever truly needed.

Unfortunately, we all have limited skills in NVC. We can’t always execute our NVC skills perfectly. Our timing may be off. We may be in so much emotional pain or anger that we cannot take an empathetic NVC approach.  We may need emergency self-empathy and try tragically to give empathy when we have none to give.

Why do we turn to rules, regulations, guidelines and codes of behavior? Because we feel unsure of our compassionate communication/NVC skills. We feel afraid that if we don’t post the rules, people will take liberties that cross all sorts of painful personal boundaries. We’re concerned there will be pain from unmet needs for structure, safety, organization, courtesy, mutuality, fairness, unity, etc.

What we often forget to create when we make up rules, is a list of the specific penalties or punishments that will be dealt out when rules are broken. We don’t point out how we will ascertain beyond a reasonable doubt who has broken which rules and to what degree. We don’t state who will be in charge of meting out punishments. Who decides what is a fair sentence?  Who will judge what the penalty will be.  And who or what will enforce the “sentence.”

Although the rules are supposed to meet many needs for safety and structure, we often don’t think about what painful feelings will come up and what needs will not be met by our self-created, internal “court system.” We are, in a way, creating our own kangaroo court to discipline those who transgress the rules. Some feelings that may come up in response: Hurt, embarrassment, shame, regret, anger, resentment.  Some needs that may not be met by a rule system: Respect, self-respect, trust, compassion, understanding, etc.

I personally prefer to have no rules, guidelines, or private system of penalties and punishments.  (Public court systems are another matter) Each time a personal boundary is crossed in a private group, why not use the NVC 4-step process?

1. The observation of what boundary is being crossed and how

2. The painful feelings that come up

3. The needs that are not being met

4. A positive action request that people be aware and observe the boundaries

Ultimately, instead of rules, why not just have requests?

In this way, I feel hopeful that the safety and structure which rules are supposed to create, will actually grow slowly and organically.  When rules and guidelines are created and published, there is also some work involved in reviewing them periodically. There is more work involved in changing them, voting on them, republishing them.

When the 4-step process is used instead, everything is fluid. When trust is built up over time, there is a general understanding of where the boundaries are. They come up from time to time in group discussions.  People are reminded of what kinds of actions or inactions trigger painful feelings of unmet needs.  This kind of information and understanding tends to be missing when rules are created and posted.  All people see is the rule itself. They forget the specific kinds of incidents that inspired the creation of the rule. Naturally, those who don’t know or remember the reason for the rules, may feel annoyed or rebellious when they read a lengthy list of rules.


About swpollack

I’m an independent mediator and collaborative communication coach who can help you to co-create greater ease, connection and mutual understanding in your personal and professional relationships. As a non-traditional specialist, my aim is to get concrete results for my clients in a fraction of the time usually required by traditional therapy and counseling. Please visit my business website: . The emotion-based coaching work I do is deeply therapeutic, yet I am neither a psychologist nor a psychotherapist. Instead I work with a holistic, empathic process called compassionate, nonviolent communication. I also facilitate ongoing support groups for people who want to learn this organic process of nonjudgmental communication to help build bridges of connection, harmony, collaboration and understanding. For more about my Build Compassionate Relationships meetup group, visit: . I’ve been offering these services to the public since 2000 in the greater Miami and Fort Lauderdale area, as well as by phone and through Skype conferencing. . Nonviolent Communication is a process developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. It’s based on a very pure, nonjudgmental language of feelings, needs and requests. I’ve found this to be a powerful tool in my mediation work which involves bringing two or more people together despite a painful history of conflict.
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