Nonviolent Communication for Coaches

In the 1960s and 1970s, Marshall Rosenberg developed the Nonviolent Communication (NVC) process1 as a way understanding how language has the power to drive people apart or bring them together.  NVC gives us a framework for expressing ourselves without judgement, blame, or criticism, especially in emotionally-charged situations.  There are four parts to the NVC process which can be used to describe your own position or to anticipate what the other person’s position might be:

  1. Observation – Describing what you see or hear without judgement
  2. Feelings – Describing how you feel about the things you observe
  3. Needs – Describing the need that is not being met
  4. Requests – A specific, concrete action you would like the other person to take

This style of communication does not come naturally to most people, and it can feel awkward and artificial at first.  Some people are turned off by the idea of “violent” versus “nonviolent” communication, finding it a little too New Age-y.  However, even if you are not comfortable using the NVC formula in conversation, it is still an extremely useful tool that will help you to organize your thoughts and clarify your position while empathizing with the other person and anticipating what they may be feeling and needing.

Let’s say that a mother on your Bantam AAA team requests a meeting to discuss the way her son Danny is being treated in the locker room.  Her child is struggling to keep up with the team because he is the only one who hasn’t had his growth spurt yet.  He is a skilled player and a good skater, but the players with a bigger stride catch up to him quickly and he is easily knocked off the puck because of his size.  You haven’t been able to give him as much ice time as you used to because the team is vying for a chance to go to Nationals and Danny is just not getting the job done right now, especially against the stronger teams.  Recently, a couple of players started calling him names and telling him that he doesn’t belong on the team.

She may approach you calmly, but let’s imagine that she doesn’t.  Instead, she says something more like, “Johnny and Bobby are horrible kids!  They are bullying Danny even though he could skate circles around the both of them any day of the week and twice on Sunday with both hands and a leg tied behind his back!  If you were a good coach you would not allow this to go on in your locker room and I hold you personally responsible for the fact that Danny wants to quit the team!  How dare you take away his ice time!  He is +5 in the past twenty games and is the hardest worker on the team!  Tommy is -1 but you keep putting him out there for a regular shift, and he’s lazy and never back checks.  Danny is a good teammate and he loves hockey, he doesn’t deserve to be treated this way!  We aren’t paying all this money and traveling all over the place for him to sit the bench!  You say that you care about the kids and their development, but that’s obviously a lie!  I demand that you suspend Johnny and Bobby and start giving Danny the ice he deserves, or I am going to file a complaint with USA Hockey about the hostile environment you have created for my son!”

Even though we know this is really about the mother and her feelings about her son, it definitely feels personal.  This mother has accused you of ruining hockey for her child, she has questioned your judgement as a coach, and she has called you a hostile liar.  She is telling you how to run your team and threatening to go over your head – possibly giving you a bad reputation and even damaging your career – if you don’t give in to her demands.  You work hard for your players and you do not deserve to be spoken to this way.  Even if what she said was true – which it obviously isn’t, at least in it’s entirety – she is still outside the bounds of common human decency.  You really like Danny as a kid and as a hockey player, but he is definitely in a rut right now.  He will probably be back on top when he grows, but right now he is ineffective.  You get him as much ice time as you possibly can against the weaker teams, and the weaker lines on the stronger teams, but the District championship is on the line and you have a responsibility to the group to put them in the best position to win.

Right now, you are not especially sympathetic to this mother’s position and are not inclined to listen to anything she has to say.  She isn’t worried about your feelings or needs, and quite frankly you don’t care much about hers either at the moment.  However, in order to respond constructively you will need to swallow your pride.  It isn’t easy, but it’s important.  As the leader, you set the tone and model the expectations, and you need to be in control of yourself and of the conversation.  Though it may be satisfying in the moment to lash out and hammer this mother over the head with her wrongness, all you will accomplish is driving her discontent underground and inhibiting future communication.  You may feel like you’ve been effective because you aren’t hearing from her any more, but believe me when I tell you that you have increased your own comfort at great expense.  You have lost trust and respect that you may never earn back, and instead of talking to you this mom is now talking to her family, her teammates, the other PTO moms, the ladies at her spin class, her book club, her bunco group…you get the idea.

You need to address this mother’s question as well as her conduct, and you can use the tools of NVC get yourself into a frame of mind where you can do so in a way that is firm, effective, and civil.

You can use the four-step NVC process to identify what, exactly, is triggering you about the mother’s approach.  It might look something like this:

  • Observations:  This mother is raising her voice and appears to be on the verge of tears.  She is comparing Danny to other children, making vague and subjective statements about their effort and skill, and and questioning your commitment to your players.  She is using some information out of context and making connections between things that are not necessarily related.  She says that Danny told her he wants to quit hockey.  She is asking you to take action against the “bullies” but this is the first you are hearing of the situation and need to investigate further before taking any action at all, not to mention the fact that the action she has requested is most likely out of step with your team culture.
  • Feelings:  You feel indignant about this mother’s accusations about your character, commitment, and skill as a coach.  This mother has never acted this way before, and you are unnerved by her unexpected outburst.  You worked hard to set clear expectations for your parents and you are disheartened by this mother’s failure to follow the team rules (and the rules of respectful human interaction).  She has always seemed like an ally, but now you are distrustful of her and of all parents by extension.  It has been a physically and emotionally demanding season, and you feel burnt out and unsure if all the effort is worth it.
  • Needs:  You coach because you enjoy the opportunity to nurture young athletes and make a contribution to their well-being, and it is important to you that your motivation is recognized by the players and their parents.  You hold yourself to a high standard of integrity and you are proud of the fact that your team has become its own little community.  You approach your job with professionalism and you don’t like it when parents tell you what to do and make threats in an effort to force you to comply with their demands.  You do not want to come to the rink every day wondering if you are going to be blindsided by an irate parent.  You are happy to communicate with them but only if the conversation is mutually respectful.  Coaching kids shouldn’t be this hard.
  • Requests:  You would like this mother to respect your guidelines for communication.  If she wants to speak in the future, you would like her to approach the conversation calmly and make her points as objectively (within the context of the inherent subjectivity of parenthood).  You would like her to acknowledge that, like her, you have Danny’s interests at heart but, unlike her, you also have the interests of 17 other children to consider.  You want her to see you as a partner who is working with her to do the best thing for Danny.

The four-step NVC process also allows you to empathize with the mother by looking for what is underneath her accusations.  This does not mean that you condone the way she chose to express herself; you can hold her accountable for her inflammatory tone while addressing the content of her complaint.

  • Observations: While most of this mother’s outburst consists of judgments and emotions, she does make some valid observations.  Danny’s teammates are making fun of him.  It is true that he is playing less than he used to.  Danny is +5.  He is a hard worker.  Most importantly, he has told his mother that he wants to quit hockey.
  • Feelings: This mother is concerned that her son wants to quit a sport that has been so important to him for so many years.  She is confused about why he isn’t playing as much as he used to.  She feels helpless because she wants to make things easier for him but she has no control over the situation.  She is frustrated about his size and impatient for him to finally catch up to his peers.  It saddens her to see her son so discouraged.  Maybe she feels lonely because she fears losing her social group if her son doesn’t make the team next year.
  • Needs: This mother is concerned that Danny’s goals for the next several years have been derailed by the late onset of puberty.  He is not feeling accepted and safe as a part of his hockey community.  He and his mom both need reassurance and support.
  • Requests: This mother does make one clear and reasonable request, which is for you to address the way Danny’s teammates are talking to him in the locker room.  You are unlikely to deal with it quite the way she has in mind, but you could – and should – reinforce your expectations about sportsmanship and teamwork, outline consequences for failure to follow the rules, and/or increase locker room supervision.  She makes another request, to give her son the ice he deserves, which is reasonable in theory but there is a disconnect between what she thinks that means and what you think it means.  Her unspoken – and most likely unconscious – request is for you to help her understand the situation and reassure her that her son is still a valued member of the team.

What would you say?

Everyone’s style is different, and what works for me is not necessarily going to work for you.  With that said, here’s what I might say to this mother:

“Wow, you must have been pretty upset when Danny said he wants to quit hockey.  That’s the last thing I want to happen!  I think he’s a great kid and I want to help him work through the funk he is in right now.  I was not aware that Danny was having problems with his teammates and I’m glad you brought it to my attention.  I will be sure to address it with the other players. 

“You have every right to be upset, but I’m feeling a little provoked by your tone and I think we need to dial things back in order to have a productive conversation where we can both listen to each other.  It seems like you may have forgotten some of my ground rules from the pre-season parent meeting.  I only discuss ice time with the players, and under no circumstances will I talk to a parent about someone else’s child.  This is a Bantam Major team playing for a spot at Nationals and ice time is not guaranteed.   Winning is a high priority for this team, and I have a responsibility to all 18 players and families do what I think, in my professional opinion, gives us the best chance to succeed. 

“Every player goes through highs and lows.  Danny happens to be at a low right now because of his size, but I expect him to come out of it once he grows, which I’m sure will happen soon.  I have discussed Danny’s playing time with him, and I think he understands why he is playing less than he is used to.  We have talked about the fact that right now, he is finding it difficult to consistently win puck battles and touch first.  I explained to him that he needs to make up for his short stride by working on his skating efficiency, and I suggested some off-ice exercises that he should do every day to increase his leg strength.  I encourage you to ask him about our conversations, and if you still have questions after you speak with Danny the coaching staff will be happy to sit down with the two of you to discuss the situation calmly and rationally.”

“I understand that Danny is frustrated right now, and I’m sure that must be difficult for you to watch as his mother.  I think the best way for us to help him is to work together as a team and I know that our future interactions will be more neighborly.”

This response includes some effective techniques for dealing with parent complaints and outbursts.

  • Validation Sandwich – Start and end the conversation or email with a statement of validation so the parent understands that the two of you are in this together.  Again, this is not to say that you excuse the delivery of the message.  You are simply acknowledging that you both care about this child and you empathize with the parent’s point of view even if you don’t agree with it.
  • Reinforcing Expectations – This is a situation where the pre-season meeting comes in handy.  Instead of approaching the situation with a vague sense of having been treated inappropriately, you can refer back to your shared language and expectations.  A parent may argue that you misinterpreted their agitation as accusation, but they cannot argue with an objective analysis of their behavior relative to the rules.
  • Specificity – If you do choose to address the content of their complaint, do so in a clear and specific way.  Generalities are arguable; specifics are not.  If you say, “Danny is ineffective because of his size,” the parent will give you a dozen examples to the contrary.  If you say, “Danny isn’t skating hard to the puck because he is afraid to get hit,” the parent will hear that as a judgement (their child isn’t tough enough) and the conversation will get derailed.  If you give clear-cut examples that are easily identifiable and measurable, there is little room for disagreement.  In addition, the parent will feel empowered when they have some specific knowledge in hand.
  • I-Statements – First described by Dr. Thomas Gordon1 in the 1960s, I-statements are a way of making your point without putting the listener on the defensive.  Starting your sentences with “I” and speaking about your own observations and feelings helps you to avoid making judgements and accusations – or, at the very least, it helps to keep from saying them aloud.  Instead of saying, “Your tone is unacceptable,” you say, “I feel provoked by your tone.”  In both cases you are expressing your displeasure, but in the second statement you are describing your feelings about the message rather than making an accusatory statement towards Danny’s mother.

    [1] Gordon, T. (1998). P.E.T., parent effectiveness training: the tested new way to raise responsible children. New York: Penguin Group.

NVC Feelings Inventory:  https://www.cnvc.org/sites/default/files/feelings_inventory_0.pdf

NVC Needs Inventory:  https://www.cnvc.org/Training/needs-inventory

1Rosenberg, M. B. (2015). Nonviolent communication: a language of life (3rd ed.). Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press.