This post is a follow-up to my previous post, “Words as Windows or Walls“. I feel intuitively drawn to more deeply explore the connection between Nonviolent Communication—NVC for the remainder of this post, which is a process I learned about, together with some of the concepts described by it—and one particular way of describing (human) consciousness, using the Free-Energy principle.
I would like to invite you to consider the following: looking at maybe the most important aspect of human experience, feelings, in terms of being related to habitually wanting to achieve a state of least friction and of greatest fit with one’s environment has merit. Similar to any living organism, humans have innate needs to support the life process. This process is characterized by a set of intrinsic demands, each of which attempts to minimize surprise and a deterioration of a sub-system related to the whole internal structure. Consciousness arises when these internal processes become self-represented in a way that allows the organism to use past and present experiences that accompany inner states to guide future action.
In his book, “The Hidden Spring,” the author Mark Solms uses this example: humans must balance—among other physiological, psychological, and inter-relational demands which support survival and reproductive success—between needing rest and needing sustenance through experiences of hunger and tiredness, followed by either sleeping or eating. Each of the needs that humans have is characterized by positive feelings when the respective need is met, and negative feelings when the need is unmet.
That is precisely the link between this description and NVC, where needs are a core tenet of those teachings: all human beings have the same needs. In this post, I want to delve a bit deeper into what I see as a more mechanistic explanation of how and why NVC works. If my intuition is correct, understanding this mechanism may help me personally implement it more effectively. Also, due to a lack of scientific backing, NVC remains somewhat in “woo-woo land” for many people who seem to experience resistance toward using “touchy-feely language terms”.
The first important aspect I want to touch on is that due to the habitual nature of the process that minimizes free-energy, we generally are only aware of the feelings elicited by the process. The actions that follow such feelings are often chosen for us by evolution and through feedback of strategies we successfully try out early in life—before we develop language. One way to capture our habitual tendencies with which we attempt to automatically meet needs, especially in the interpersonal domain, is through the Enneagram type descriptions.
A critical set of human needs revolve around how we deal with the uncertainty of, that is the additional risk coming from, interacting with other people. Most problems that humans face are too complex to be solved entirely individually. Think about the food you will need for the next two, three weeks. Now imagine that you had to support yourself in your need for food without the help of anyone else—including supermarkets, restaurants, electricity, gas, etc. It is easy to see that, especially in our current highly inter-connected world, we almost absolutely depend on others, whether we want to or not.
And given this fact of true, factual inter-dependence, we need to find ways to minimize the surprise and chaos that can potentially erupt at any moment between people. On a larger scale, we have found that institutions like a commodity market, paired with broadly accepted (fiat) currency, or the police and courts, based on democratically passed laws, help us regulate human behavior sufficiently to avoid constant feelings of anxiety and distrust. On the smaller scale of inter-personal relationships, we have to rely on our own strategies however.
That’s where the Enneagram type system is helpful. It describes how people see to fall into somewhat regularly defined categories as they attempt to meet their needs—their inner organismic demands—to reduce surprise and risk. Everyone wants to feel safe and comfortably embedded into both society and a network of functioning relationships.
Type 2 (The Helper) might for instance use a default strategy of offering support to others in return for feelings of affirmation and appreciation. The flip side of this type could be described as possessiveness and a grudge when this strategy fails to create the conditions that actually minimize free-energy. I can see some overlap with my own personality structure here…
Type 3 (The Achiever) might be more driven to demonstrate their value to others through their accomplishments. If I can show people around me what I can do, they will surely include me in their in-group, and share their resources with me. In short, the Enneagram types describe, in a manner of speaking, default tendencies for how to approach the free-energy-minimization problem that exists for humans due to our fragility and inability to truly care for all of our needs by ourselves.
How does this matter? How can understanding the free-energy principle together with NVC help people in their own efforts to minimize their free-energy? Part of the problem is almost any inter-personal engagement requires us to successfully use language. Unless we want to rely on externally sanctioned relationships—in NVC called the “power-over model”, such as when the police has the power to question and arrest people—or we are willing to use physical violence, we need to meet our needs in ways that does not create more problems than we already have. In short, we want to use the “power-with model”, in which we find ways to explain to others why we want them to cooperate with us, and they then choose to do so willingly.
Put differently, we are tasked to find words that will signal to other people that we understand our and their inner states as well as our and their needs that seek to minimize our respective free-energy. In NVC this process of correctly identifying needs is called (self-) empathy or presence. To work well, it requires for us to shift our attention away from the habitual programming we are bound to reenact again and again. Instead, we can develop curiosity about feelings and needs.
Why am I feeling the way I do? What need am I trying to meet? What is it like to be the other person? In NVC this is called asking, “what is alive for me and you in this moment?” What is the quality of life energy at the core of our beings? What is driving us to act as we do? What would be helpful for both/all of us in this very moment to help us minimize our free-energy jointly?
As a hint: whenever you have strong feelings, especially unpleasant ones, your attention will habitually most likely reside with your own problems or goals. And to make matters worse, given the feedback you received as a child—such that you formed your own regular patterns or scripts of acting the way you do when things don’t work as well as you wish—your attention will be drawn to strategies and how other people block you in implementing them.
This can easily lead to secondary emotions of either anger, which could be translated as, “the other person is doing something wrong, something that prevents me from meeting my needs.” Or, on the flip side, this can feel like guilt or shame, “I am/have been doing something wrong, or I am not good enough to meet my needs.”
So how can we solve this habitual booby trap that evolution has left us with? If we want to ensure that what we say is interpreted as a source of support for the other person to minimize their free-energy, we need to find ways for us to resonate with their experience of how the world is currently providing obstacles—ourselves included—that make this process challenging for them.
For some people saying something like, “I guess you are feeling frustrated because you are wanting me to support you better?” might be such a signal. Others might consider that intrusive and outright dangerous. If you can so easily “read” their inner states, that certainly is another reason to close up further, to build a wall. And if you can identify them as “needy”, that can further undermine their self-image. Here the Enneagram types can be super helpful, as you can see which people might be most dependent on feeling self-efficacy as part of their defense mechanism to avoid feeling the anxiety of not being able to get what they initially want.
And if I look at it that way, what Marshall Rosenberg said about people has some merit: there are only ever two things that people truly say—“Please”, which means “help me minimize my free-energy,” and “Thank you!”, which can be translated as “this has helped me minimize my free-energy.”