Why Being Nice is Not So Nice

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Recently I came across two of my coworkers having a conversation. One looked up at me and said, “Oh, this could relate to you, you do that nonviolent communication thing, right? I think I’m naturally nonviolent, I always try to be nice. I don’t like confrontations”. Then the other person responded, “but I don’t like passive, aggressive either”. The other person was on to something.

Nice isn’t always nice. When most people say nice, they mean they don’t want to say or do anything that will end up with confrontation. They agree, sometime just to get along. Having a “nice” conversation is the primary concern. Why are some of us so intent on being nice, not causing waves?

I think part of the “nice” strategy is self-protection. Some of us have beliefs that tell us that if other people are unhappy or angry when having a conversation with us, it is somehow our fault. We are taking responsibility for things that really aren’t ours to own. So we want everyone to be happy when talking with us. This protects us from the terrible thought that we just “caused” someone to have unpleasant feelings and the ensuing feelings of shame or guilt that come with that. When we tend to own another’s issues, we want everyone to be happy because it’s easier for us.

Nonviolent communication isn’t about being nice; it’s about being clear on your needs and communicating in a way that allows you to compassionately connect with others. With nonviolent communication you are very clear on what issues are yours, and what belongs to others, and you are striving to connect in a way that allows you both to have your needs met. Nonviolent communication never requires you to do anything, and certainly not anything you don’t want to, because there is always a cost involved with that.

Amanda Fama talks about the five struggles of “overly-nice people”. First, they are a “universal doormat”. What is really happening is they are choosing to make everyone else happy at their own expense. Although in the short-term, they think it’s for them because they manage, for the most part, to avoid those feelings of shame or guilt; at some point their need to make their own choices will come through. Whether that is by saying one thing and then doing the thing you really wanted instead, or blaming others for the choices you made. This is where the idea of “passive-aggressive” comes in. The most life-affirming thing you can do is to be clear with others what you need, and to only do the things that bring you joy.

The second struggle is being mistaken for being naïve. She describes how nice people like to look at the cup as half-full, and think about happy things. This can be very frustrating for people who want someone to hear about the problems they are having. It’s really difficult to hear someone else’s pain if you think you have to fix it. It’s so much easier if everyone would just be happy. But they aren’t. Nonviolent communication teaches us to hear what is going on for another, to be with them in the discomfort, and to realize that by trying to fix it, unless asked for advice, we are simply trying to make ourselves comfortable at the other’s expense. It would be more authentic to just say, “I see you are really having some problems with this, and I wish I could hear you but I can’t get past this thought that I have to fix it.” Believe me, there is nothing more frustrating than trying to share something painful with someone, and they tell you to look on the bright side.

The third struggle is nice people are rarely taken seriously. She talks about laughing at any awkward situation and smiling all of the time. When that happens she doesn’t think people take her seriously. Again, it’s about self-connection. People will always take you seriously when they know you are being authentic. When someone is sharing something that is very important to them, nonviolent communication teaches how to really hear the needs in what they are saying. When I am focused on listening for this, I’m probably not going to be smiling unless you are smiling. But when we are connected and finding ways to have both of our needs met, it is a very joyous occasion!

Forgiving and forgetting too easily is the fourth struggle. Fama describes how she forgave people too quickly and regretted it. There is no forgiveness in nonviolent communication. Forgiveness implies that someone has done something wrong, and with nonviolent communication there is the understanding that there is no “wrong” just people trying their best to get their needs met. Now sometimes those strategies aren’t life affirming and they may be regrettable, but we don’t forgive in nonviolent communication, we understand. And we also hope the other person is willing to understand how their action impacted us in a life-alienating way. But that isn’t necessary for our understanding, and that understanding also guides us in future interactions with the person.

The final struggle is nice people love fast and fall hard. It is true we do get great joy in contributing to others. And when we can be clear on our own needs, we can make requests to have those needs met. In other words, I want you to be happy because that makes me happy, and I’m hopeful you will want the same. When you can be clear on that, you can be sure to find people who make your happiness a priority for them as well.

I don’t want someone to be nice; I want them to be self-connected and interested in compassionately connecting with me.

“What I want in my life is compassion, a flow between myself and others based on a mutual giving from the heart.” — Marshall Rosenberg