Punishment and Reward

Demands imply punishment or rewards. Can requests work instead?

Posted Oct 22, 2012

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.

From Demand to Request

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.

Punishment, Choice, and Violence

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.

Why would we want to inflict this experience on anyone else?

Carol and James Gilligan

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.

Transcending Punishment and Reward

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.

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.