Using Nonviolent Communication to End Sexual Harassment Part 2: Two Approaches to Common Problems

In a recent post on how workers can deal with sexual harassment, we discussed how people typically react to insensitive, inappropriate, and sometimes outright malevolent workplace comments. We also talked about a school of thought known as nonviolent communication, which emphasizes constructive problem-solving by getting the parties involved to focus on fundamental universal human feelings and needs at the core of conflicts.

In this follow-up post, we will apply Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s conflict resolution theories to a typical workplace harassment problem.

Say your boss makes a comment to the effect of “Those jeans looks so hot on you, I just want to squeeze you all over,” and that makes you feel disgusted. According to Rosenberg, you can use two paths here. First, you can express your own feelings and needs by using a four-part system.

Step 1: Observation (done without judgment – just stating the facts): “When you just said to me ‘You look hot in my jeans, I want to squeeze them’…”

Step 2: State your feelings, taking responsibility for them: “I felt humiliated and angry…”

Step 3: Discuss your need that was or was not met: “Because my need for respect and professionalism at work was not met…”

Step 4: Make a concrete request: “Will you avoid making remarks like that in the future?”
Notice that, in this approach, you take complete responsibility for your feelings and needs. (No one can “make you feel” anything, according to Marshall Rosenberg’s paradigm.)

The second approach involves focusing attentively on the other person’s feelings and needs. Often, when you empathize with another person, that person will then open up and listen to your needs and feelings. The process is the same.

Step 1: Begin with an observation: “When you said ‘you look sexy in your jeans’…”

Step 2: Guess about the other person’s feelings (you can never really know, so you must guess): “Were you feeling aggressive…”

Step 3: Guess at his needs: “Because you wanted to test boundaries?”
Step 4: Make a definitive, actionable request: “Please refrain from making similar comments to me in the future.”

Again, when you go this route, you avoid judging, condemning, or evaluating the other person. You are focusing on feelings and needs. You open the door to dialogue instead of immediately putting the other person on the defensive. Focusing on the offender’s needs may not diffuse the situation, in which case, you might need to go to a higher authority to get the behavior to stop. But you might be able — by practicing empathy in this way — to get the offender to open up to your request (i.e. to stop doing the offensive behavior and/or apologize.)

This is only the tip of the iceberg of the nonviolent communication methodology, but it might be a useful paradigm to explore, particularly if you have chronic workplace problems. You can learn more about nonviolent communication at the official NVC website. If you need help understanding your rights and legal resources, connect with the team at Joseph & Kirschenbaum at (212) 688-5640, or explore additional resources at

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