Stopping Sexual Harassment in its Tracks Using Nonviolent Communication: Part 1

If you or someone you love has recently encountered a workplace violation – like racial discrimination or sexual harassment – you may be bombarded with advice how to rectify the situation and, possibly, hold the wrongdoer accountable. Whether a boss said something lascivious about your workplace attire, or a co-worker forwarded you something ghastly and inappropriate in an email, you want tools and ways of processing this unwanted event that empower you and protect your rights.

One very interesting method for dealing is a process called Nonviolent Communication. Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, a widely respected psychologist and peace negotiator, who has helped warring Rwandan tribes and Palestinians and Israelis negotiate with one another, developed this model of communication to help people resolve conflicts. Rosenberg claims his methodology helps people in conflict focus on their feelings and needs instead of on guilt, shame, and recrimination. In two blog posts, we will discuss a little bit about how the nonviolent communication approach might be deployed to help victims of harassment.

Let’s consider a hypothetical situation in which a vice president at a telecommunications company encounters his secretary in the break room and makes comment, such as, “Wow, you look smokin’ in that outfit.” What might you do? Here are some typical reactions:

  • “Give as well as you get” – either “harass” your boss back, insult him, or act in some kind of aggressive way;
  • Say nothing but take your complaint to a higher authority, such as HR, to stop the behavior and, possibly, inflict penalties;
  • Say nothing and “take it” and hope it goes away;

These solutions may work to make your workplace more comfortable; the sexual harassment may stop. But they all have potential drawbacks. For instance, if you “give as you get,” you may only encourage the bad behavior. Alternatively, if you go to a higher authority to solve the problem, you could successfully end the annoying behavior, but you might set back your relationship with your boss. Simply absorbing it could make you stressed and may cause you to “explode” at some later time. Not reacting at all might also be construed as complicit acceptance of the unwanted behavior.

Nonviolent communication suggests two alternative ways to deal with the problem:

1. One involves expressing your own feelings and needs;
2. The other involves listening and empathizing with the boss’s feelings and needs.

These two strategies can be deployed simultaneously, and you can shift from one to the other. But you might be surprised at how much more effective this nonviolent communication approach can be not just in terms of ending the harassment, but also in terms of “saving face” for everyone, maintaining a positive, constructive workplace, and even helping you and your boss both grow from the experience in dynamic ways.

In our next post on this topic, we will delve into nonviolent communication tactics to solve situations differently. We’ll also give you more resources to explore this alternative philosophy.

If you need immediate assistance with an issue like sexual harassment, racial discrimination, gender discrimination, or any other workplace conflict, connect with the attorneys at Joseph & Kirschenbaum at (212) 688-5640, or learn more about the team at

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