I have been carrying a vivid memory with me for over 50 years. In it, my father is chasing me around the little circle of dining area, kitchen, corridor, and living room that existed in our apartment. In my memory, this has happened already, to me and to my older sister. I don’t know, in actuality, if it was a one-time event or recurring. As I am running away from him, I suddenly realize there is just no way I can manage to escape. He is bigger, and faster, and I am small, not as strong. Sooner or later he will catch up with me. I stop, crushed by the futility of the effort, and turn around to accept the inevitable slap in my face I know is coming. I stand in my small body facing him as he is coming my way. I close my eyes as tightly as I can, contracting the muscles around them, raise my face in his direction, and wait. The burning sensation of that slap is still imprinted on my cheek. More significant by far is the impossibility, to this day, of having a visceral understanding of how a grown man could look at his five year old daughter, see her stand the way I remember me standing, and still deliver the slap. What could possibly make it appear to be the right thing to do?
I have no awareness of what the “transgression” was that led to this event. I do know that making me submit to his will was a major project for my father. As it is for so many parents in relation to so many children.
The essential form of interaction between adults and children is based on the premise that adults tell children what to do. I was well aware of that, as a permanent insult, while growing up. I have often wondered about pushing the limits. I still do as I observe children interacting with their parents. What if a child persists in saying “no” to the parent? How far would the parent, almost any parent, let it go before threatening the child? As the threats escalate, where can the child find the increasing strength and courage required to persist? Behind it all, every child knows the parent’s superior strength, the possibility of physical violence, always present, even if never exercised. I am surprised and so grateful that any of us emerge from childhood able to stand up to authority.
Punishment is always present at the other end of a demand. When I make a demand, its essential message is that the only thing that matters is that I get my way. If I don’t, and I have the power to do so, I will punish you. If I do, I will reward you.
Shifting from making demands to making requests means embracing the possibility that the other person will say “no” and accepting it. It means letting go of using any kind of power we have to punish the other person, adult or child, for saying “no.” Without that willingness, without accepting that others are free to choose, without releasing the habit of trying to restrict others’ choice by holding the threat of negative consequences, anything we ask of another will appear like a demand.
I am totally unsurprised that people in positions of authority - parents, teachers, managers - usually balk at the notion of making requests and not demands. A teacher once said it most eloquently when I proposed that they make requests and not demands: “Oh, no. What you are talking about is democracy in the classroom. There will be no democracy in my classroom. I am the dictator - benevolent dictator, but dictator.” That was the day I decided I wouldn’t bring NVC to teachers, because I was so identified with the child’s perspective that I couldn’t recover from my own pain fast enough to shift into an empathic perspective with the teacher.
I have since learned that a less stark version of inviting the shift to requests is orders of magnitude more appealing to people, and I have never once had anyone reject it out of hand like this teacher did. I tell people that every time they get someone to do something just because they have the power to deliver unpleasant consequences (read: punishment) to them if they don’t, they lose that person’s goodwill and trust, and to be as sparing as possible in exercising that form of interaction. Very few understand the full radical implications of this statement.
Punishment takes many forms in adult interactions. When power differences are present, we can lose opportunities for promotion or meaningful projects, we can be fired if the “no” is big enough, we can have our access to resources restricted. We can also be imprisoned, hospitalized, or even tortured. Even within equal relationships such as friendship, neighborhood, or between lovers, we still habitually punish and reward each other for saying “no” and “yes.” Even if the punishment can be very subtle, it is nonetheless punishment. If I don’t smile at you for three days after you didn’t change the diapers of our baby, you know all too well it wasn’t a request, and you feel the force of the punishment.
We all know the experience of receiving a demand. When I most recently asked people from about ten different countries what it was like for them when they experience a demand, the responses were quite unanimous. People described the experience as one of helplessness, being overpowered, discouraged, or at times indifferent. They had an experience of closing down in response. Beyond the obvious lack of freedom, the personal cost was also of connection and of respect, both in terms of not being respected and losing respect for the person making the demand.
We are told that punishment deters people from continuing to engage in harmful behavior. If I had any doubt that punishment, itself, is part and parcel of the system that perpetuates violence, none is left after reading James Gilligan’s Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes, a book I have referenced here more than once. The intimate links between punishment and shame and between shame and violence are described and explored in painful detail. Moreover, Gilligan convinced me beyond remaining doubt that the very system of punishment we have created is itself a form of violence, often enough taking the very same forms that the people being punished engage in.
I will forever be grateful to Marshall Rosenberg for bringing home the point that violence can only emerge from an experience of unmet needs. A human being who has access to choice, to dignity, to love is not the one to commit violence. When we punish people, we deprive them of their human dignity. While people may choose not to do certain things because of fear, the longterm consequences are increased violence. This is the horrific tragedy of any war on terror I have ever heard of.
If we want to create societies in which people thrive, it will take all of us recovering from the millennia of systems of punishment and reward. Some may wonder why I am including rewards. Aren’t rewards a more humane way to motivate people to take positive action?
I remain uncompromising. We can only choose “yes” when we can choose “no.” The promise of reward makes the option of saying “no” challenging. The absence of a reward is its own form of punishment. Either way, we don’t experience the fundamental human access to choosing from within, knowing what we want, why we do what we do. Rewards, whether in school or in the workplace, appear to decrease performance.
I have no doubt that all of us suffer from the system of punishment and rewards that has been the prevalent form for so long. Alas, we have grown so used to this suffering, that we are not fully aware of its consequences, or see them as inevitable. More tragically, even when we know, even when we actively want to transform them, we continue to enact them. I am grateful to Dominic Barter, who applied NVC principles in a systemic way to create a restorative justice system - Restorative Circles - which is being widely used in Brazil and slowly becoming known elsewhere. He is the one who taught me that because of the prevalence of punitive systems, if we don’t consciously create an alternative, we will default back to punishment and reward, even in our personal interactions.
Not all of us are going to participate in large scale experiments to create restorative systems. Not all of us will take up any cause and fight for it. Most of us, always, will only live our own personal lives, hoping for the best for ourselves and our loved ones. We can still become personal pioneers, commit to overcoming the habit, commit to creating conscious methods of attending to our relationships so that we work out differences instead of imposing our will. At the very least, we can begin by committing to making requests, providing others with the basic access to exercising full choice.