Nonviolent communication and the concept of “denial of responsibility”

nvc_book

One of the most important books ever written is Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella reportedly gave the book to his team and made them read it when he took over as CEO in 2014 — an admirable leadership move and a serious statement on the kind of culture he wanted to enforce at Microsoft. I’m certain that the concept of nonviolent communication (often referred to as NVC) has contributed to their incredible success since then. I saw a great example of nonviolent CEO communication today and wanted to call it out — but first a little background.

One category of violent communication (“violent communication” being defined as “communication that blocks compassion”) is “denial of responsibility.”  It’s described this way in the book:

Another kind of life-alienating communication is denial of responsibility. Communication is life-alienating when it clouds our awareness that we are each responsible for our own thoughts, feelings, and actions. The use of the common expression have to, as in “There are some things you have to do, whether you like it or not,” illustrates how personal responsibility for our actions can be obscured in speech. The phrase makes one feel, as in “You make me feel guilty,” is another example of how language facilitates denial of personal responsibility for our own feelings and thoughts.

In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, which documents the war crimes trial of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt quotes Eichmann saying that he and his fellow officers had their own name for the responsibility-denying language they used. They called it Amtssprache, loosely translated into English as “office talk” or “bureaucratese.” For example, if asked why they took a certain action, the response would be, “I had to.” If asked why they “had to,” the answer would be, “Superiors’ orders.” “Company policy.” “It was the law.”  We deny responsibility for our actions when we attribute their cause to factors outside ourselves:

* Vague, impersonal forces—“I cleaned my room because I had to.”

* Our condition, diagnosis, or personal or psychological history—“I drink because I am an alcoholic.

* The actions of others—“I hit my child because he ran into the street.

* The dictates of authority—“I lied to the client because the boss told me to.

* Group pressure—“I started smoking because all my friends did.

* Institutional policies, rules, and regulations—“I have to suspend you for this infraction because it’s the school policy.

* Gender roles, social roles, or age roles—”I hate going to work, but I do it because I am a husband and a father.

* Uncontrollable impulses—“I was overcome by my urge to eat the candy bar.

We have all seen this type of communication. We are so used to these kinds of “denial of responsibility” statements from our leaders that we no longer see them as the violent language that they are. This type of language is rife in our culture and I’m unfortunately sure that I’ve used it myself. But I think positive examples are worth calling out, and Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson’s tweet today and the post it links to fits the bill:

Twilio is a publicly-traded company so Jeff has substantial responsibilities as a CEO. It is not an easy job (take it from me). But Jeff is also an actual person (and from spending some time with Jeff and following his career, I put him squarely in the “good person” category). It would be really easy for Jeff to say that he doesn’t comment on politics because he’s the CEO of a public company — and many do. He could say he’s not sure of the political views of his shareholders so he will remain silent out of deference to them. He could say he won’t speak out unless he has a “business case” for speaking out (and this Wall St. Journal columnists argues just that: “You’re a CEO: Stop Talking Like a Political Activist.“) These all follow the pattern of “denial of responsibility” described by Rosenberg. In doing all of those things, Jeff would be denying his responsibility as a person and a citizen.

But Jeff didn’t follow the “denial of responsibility” pattern and I applaud him for speaking his mind clearly and directly. I think Jeff’s post is a great example of nonviolent communication in action by actively avoiding the “denial of responsibility” traps that are really easy for CEOs to fall into, especially public company ones:

  • Vague, impersonal forces—“the markets might react poorly.”
  • The dictates of authority—“My shareholders wouldn’t like it.
  • Institutional policies, rules, and regulations—“I can’t say anything because public company CEOs don’t talk about politics without a business case
  • Gender roles, social roles, or age roles (I’m defining “CEO as a ‘social role’ here)—”I wish I could say something, but I’m a public company CEO.

Thanks for your leadership, Jeff, and for stepping out into the truth. We can all learn from your example.