The Role of NVC in Critical Thinking

For my birthday this year, Dr. Bigbie gave me a piece of art that made a comment about critical thinking in our society. I think it is funny, poignant, and beautiful; I quite like it. And it got me thinking about the role that Nonviolent Communication has in critical thinking.

I am defining critical thinking as a healthy and reasonable dose of skepticism combined with logical reasoning to uncover any truths that exist and distinguish them from judgment. I realize “healthy”, “reasonable”, and “logical” are all subjective here, and therefore judgments on some level… the irony is not lost on me! Basically, I think critical thinking means to not immediately believe everything you see or hear, even if it is particularly compelling – nay, especially if it is particularly compelling, and especially if it contains judgments – and then think more deeply about why, how, and from whom the information is being presented.

So how does NVC play a role? I think it mainly comes down to awareness. My study and practice of nonviolent communication has taught me great awareness when it comes to the difference between a thought and a fact, a feeling and a judgment, and what’s real and what’s a fabrication that helps us feel comfortable or safe. It is a practice that illuminates truth in a way that nothing else I’ve learned has. And is that not the purpose of critical thinking – to find the truth? Or at least to find the untruths disguised as truth?

Nonviolent communication focuses on observations, specifically as opposed to evaluations. An observation is information that someone can gather with one or more of their five senses, whereas an evaluation is a thought or assumption that someone makes based off of an observation. Here is an example: “I saw him walk into the office at 8:17am and 8:30am yesterday. The employee handbook reads that all employees must arrive at work no later than 8am.” Those are observations. They state what someone saw, and what a text says. There is no argument around this. Someone could make an evaluation of “He is always late to work”. This evaluation takes some leaps in knowledge that may or may not actually be true. For instance, just because someone saw this person walk in at a certain time does not mean that is when they arrived at work. It is possible that this man came at 7:30am and then left to pick up some coffee after already settling in and reading his emails for the morning. There are so many unknowns, so to say that “he is always late to work” is to assume more than what is known. What is known is the observation.

This is just one example but there are endless examples of this. Heck, you could probably find an example in this blog post alone if you tried. The point is, there is a very real difference between an observation and an evaluation. One is based in observable fact while the other is based on thoughts and assumptions. This is not to say that there is never a place for evaluations; they are not inherently “bad”. I do, however, think it is dangerous to conflate the two, or to not have an awareness of the difference. Everything always comes back to awareness.

So, when I am presented with an evaluation or judgment of any kind – especially one that is stated as if it were fact – I am first aware that it is a judgment, and therefore I do not treat it as if it were true, but rather I note that someone has a thought. Then, I start to think about what truths are lying at the root of this judgment. What actually happened that caused someone to make such an evaluation, and are there any other possible scenarios or any missing information that might render this judgment absurd? (The answer is almost always “yes”). And those, friends, are the first two steps of critical thinking: noticing the difference between fact and judgment, and deciphering what the actual truth is behind the judgment.

It is very easy to be persuaded or convinced that an evaluation is a fact, or that it is something that one should agree with. There is literally an entire study and practice around just that; it’s called rhetoric. It takes practice to strengthen one’s awareness to be able to notice these differences and then ask the important questions that lead to truth. Nonviolent communication lays the foundation for this awareness.