Protective Use of Force
Chapter 10 of Nonviolent Communication
by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D.
|When the Use of Force is
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!"
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
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
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
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 differences?
|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.
also includes judgmental labeling and the withholding of
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
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
|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
Excerpted from Nonviolent Communication - A Language of Compassion with
permission by Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D.
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