||The Protective Use of Force
Chapter 10 of Nonviolent Communication
by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D.
|When the Use of Force is Unavoidable
When two disputing parties have each had an opportunity to fully express what they are observing, feeling,
needing, and requesting - and each has empathized with the other - a resolution can usually be reached that
meets the needs of both sides. At the very least, the two can agree, in goodwill, to disagree.
In some situations, however, the opportunity for such dialogue may not exist, and the use of force may be
necessary to protect life or individual rights. For instance, the other party may be unwilling to communicate,
or imminent danger may not allow time for communication. In these situations, we may need to resort to force.
If we do, NVC requires us to differentiate between the protective and the punitive uses of force.
The Thinking Behind the Use of Force
|The intention behind the protective use of force is to prevent injury or
injustice. The intention behind the punitive use of force is to cause individuals to suffer for their
perceived misdeeds. When we grab a child who is running into the street to prevent the child from being
injured, we are applying protective force. The punitive use of force, on the other hand, might involve
physical or psychological attack, such as spanking the child or reproofs like, "How could you be so
stupid! You should be ashamed of yourself!"
|Two kinds of force: protective and punitive
|When we exercise the protective use of force, we are focusing on the life
or rights we want to protect without passing judgment on either the person or the behavior. We are not blaming
or condemning the child rushing into the street; our thinking is solely directed toward protecting the child
from danger. (For application of this kind of force in social and political conflicts, see Robert Irwin's
book, Nonviolent Social Defense.) The assumption behind the protective use of force is that people
behave in ways injurious to themselves and others due to some form of ignorance. The corrective process is
therefore one of education, not punishment. Ignorance includes (a) a lack of awareness of the consequences of
our actions, (b) an inability to see how our needs may be met without injury to others, (c) the belief that we
have the "right" to punish or hurt others because they "deserve" it, and (d) delusional
thinking that involves, for example, hearing a "voice" that instructs us to kill someone.
|The intention behind the protective use of
force is only to protect, not to punish, blame, or condemn.
|Punitive action, on the other hand, is based on the assumption that people
commit offenses because they are bad or evil, and to correct the situation, they need to be made to repent.
Their "correction" is undertaken through punitive action designed to make them (1) suffer enough to
see the error of their ways, (2) repent, and (3) change. In practice, however, punitive action, rather than
evoking repentance and learning, is just as likely to generate resentment and hostility and to reinforce
resistance to the very behavior we are seeking.
Types of Punitive Force
Physical punishment, such as spanking, is one punitive use of force. I have found the subject of corporal
punishment to provoke strong sentiments among parents. Some adamantly defend the practice, while referring to
the Bible: "Spare the rod, spoil the child. It's because parents don't spank that delinquency is now
rampant." They are persuaded that spanking our children shows that we love them by setting clear
boundaries. Other parents are equally insistent that spanking is unloving and ineffective because it teaches
children that, when all else fails, we can always resort to physical violence.
|My personal concern is that children's fear of corporal punishment may
obscure their awareness of the compassion that underlies parental demands. Parents often tell me that they
"have to" use punitive force because they see no other way to influence their children to do
"what's good for them." They support their opinion with anecdotes of children expressing
appreciation for "seeing the light" after having been punished. Having raised four children, I
empathize deeply with parents regarding the daily challenges they face in educating children and keeping them
safe. This does not, however, lessen my concern about the use of physical punishment.
|Fear of corporal punishment obscures
children's awareness of the compassion underlying parental demands.
|First, I wonder whether people who proclaim the successes of
such punishment are aware of the countless instances of children who turn against what might be good for them
simply because they choose to fight, rather than succumb, to coercion. Second, the apparent success of
corporal punishment in influencing a child doesn't mean that other methods of influence wouldn't have worked
equally well. Finally, I share the concerns of many parents about the social consequences of using physical
punishment. When parents opt to use force, we may win the battle of getting children to do what we want, but
in the process, are we not perpetuating a social norm that justifies violence as a means of resolving
|In addition to the physical, other uses of force also qualify as
punishment. One is the use of blame to discredit another person: for example, a parent may label a child as
"wrong," "selfish," or "immature" when a child doesn't behave in a certain way.
Another form of punitive force is the withholding of some means of gratification, such as parents' curtailing
of allowance or driving privileges. In this type of punishment, the withdrawal of caring or respect is one of
the most powerful threats of all.
||Punishment also includes judgmental
labeling and the withholding of privileges.
The Costs of Punishment
|When we submit to doing something solely for the purpose of avoiding
punishment, our attention is distracted from the value of the action itself. Instead, we are focusing upon the
consequences of what might happen if we fail to take that action. If a worker's performance is prompted by
fear of punishment, the job gets done, but morale suffers; sooner or later, productivity will decrease.
Self-esteem is also diminished when punitive force is used. If children brush their teeth because they fear
shame and ridicule, their oral health may improve but their self-respect will develop cavities. Furthermore,
as we all know, punishment is costly in terms of goodwill. The more we are seen as agents of punishment, the
harder it is for others to respond compassionately to our needs.
|When we fear punishment, we focus on
consequences, not on our own values.
Fear of punishment diminishes self-esteem and goodwill.
|I was visiting a friend, a school principal, at his office
when he noticed through the window a big child hitting a smaller one. "Excuse me," he said as he
leapt up and rushed to the playground. Grabbing the larger child, he gave him a swat and scolded, "I'll
teach you not to hit smaller people!" When the principal returned inside, I remarked, "I don't think
you taught that child what you thought you were teaching him. I suspect what he learned instead was not to hit
people smaller than he is when somebody bigger - like the principal - might be watching! If anything, it seems
to me that you have reinforced the notion that the way to get what you want from somebody else is to hit
In such situations, I recommend first empathizing with the child who is behaving violently. For example, if
I saw a child hit someone after being called a name, I might empathize, "I'm sensing that you're feeling
angry because you'd like to be treated with more respect." If I guessed correctly, and the child
acknowledges this to be true, I would then continue by expressing my own feelings, needs, and requests in this
situation without insinuating blame: "I'm feeling sad because I want us to find ways to get respect that
don't turn people into enemies. I'd like you to tell me if you'd be willing to explore with me some other ways
to get the respect you're wanting."
Two Questions that Reveal the Limitations of Punishment
|Two questions help us see why we are unlikely to get what we want by using
punishment to change people's behavior. The first question is: What do I want this person to do that's
different from what he or she is currently doing? If we ask only this first question, punishment may seem
effective because the threat or exercise of punitive force may well influence the person's behavior. However,
with the second question, it becomes evident that punishment isn't likely to work: What do I want this
person's reasons to be for doing what I'm asking?
|Question 1: What do I want this
person to do?
Question 2: What do I want this person's reasons to be for doing it?
|We seldom address the latter question, but when we do, we soon
realize that punishment and reward interfere with people's ability to do things motivated by the reasons we'd
like them to have. I believe it is critical to be aware of the importance of people's reasons for behaving as
we request. For example, blaming or punishing would obviously not be effective strategies if we want children
to clean their rooms out of either a desire for order or a desire to contribute to the parents' enjoyment of
order. Often children clean their rooms motivated by obedience to authority ("Because my Mom said
so"), avoidance of punishment, or fear of upsetting or being rejected by parents. NVC, however, fosters a
level of moral development based on autonomy and interdependence, whereby we acknowledge responsibility for
our own actions and are aware that our own well-being and that of others are one and the same.
In situations where there is no opportunity for communication, such as in instances of imminent danger, we
may need to resort to the protective use of force. The intention behind the protective use of force is to
prevent injury or injustice, never to punish or to cause individuals to suffer, repent, or change. The
punitive use of force tends to generate hostility and to reinforce resistance to the very behavior we are
seeking. Punishment damages goodwill and self-esteem, and shifts our attention from the intrinsic value of an
action to external consequences. Blaming and punishing fail to contribute to the motivations we would like to
inspire in others.
|© 2000 by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D. &
Center for Nonviolent Communication.
Excerpted from Nonviolent
Communication - A Language of Compassion with permission by Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D.
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