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The Protective Use of Force

by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D.

 Chapter 10 of Nonviolent Communication

When the Use of Force is Unavoidable

When two disputing parties have each had an opportunity to fully express what they are observing, feeling, needing, and requesting - and each has empathized with the other - a resolution can usually be reached that meets the needs of both sides. At the very least, the two can agree, in goodwill, to disagree.

In some situations, however, the opportunity for such dialogue may not exist, and the use of force may be necessary to protect life or individual rights. For instance, the other party may be unwilling to communicate, or imminent danger may not allow time for communication. In these situations, we may need to resort to force. If we do, NVC requires us to differentiate between the protective and the punitive uses of force.

The Thinking Behind the Use of Force

The intention behind the protective use of force is to prevent injury or injustice. The intention behind the punitive use of force is to cause individuals to suffer for their perceived misdeeds. When we grab a child who is running into the street to prevent the child from being injured, we are applying protective force. The punitive use of force, on the other hand, might involve physical or psychological attack, such as spanking the child or reproofs like, "How could you be so stupid! You should be ashamed of yourself!"

When we exercise the protective use of force, we are focusing on the life or rights we want to protect without passing judgment on either the person or the behavior. We are not blaming or condemning the child rushing into the street; our thinking is solely directed toward protecting the child from danger. (For application of this kind of force in social and political conflicts, see Robert Irwin's book, Nonviolent Social Defense.) The assumption behind the protective use of force is that people behave in ways injurious to themselves and others due to some form of ignorance. The corrective process is therefore one of education, not punishment. Ignorance includes (a) a lack of awareness of the consequences of our actions, (b) an inability to see how our needs may be met without injury to others, (c) the belief that we have the "right" to punish or hurt others because they "deserve" it, and (d) delusional thinking that involves, for example, hearing a "voice" that instructs us to kill someone.

Punitive action, on the other hand, is based on the assumption that people commit offenses because they are bad or evil, and to correct the situation, they need to be made to repent. Their "correction" is undertaken through punitive action designed to make them (1) suffer enough to see the error of their ways, (2) repent, and (3) change. In practice, however, punitive action, rather than evoking repentance and learning, is just as likely to generate resentment and hostility and to reinforce resistance to the very behavior we are seeking.

Types of Punitive Force

Physical punishment, such as spanking, is one punitive use of force. I have found the subject of corporal punishment to provoke strong sentiments among parents. Some adamantly defend the practice, while referring to the Bible: "Spare the rod, spoil the child. It's because parents don't spank that delinquency is now rampant." They are persuaded that spanking our children shows that we love them by setting clear boundaries. Other parents are equally insistent that spanking is unloving and ineffective because it teaches children that, when all else fails, we can always resort to physical violence.

My personal concern is that children's fear of corporal punishment may obscure their awareness of the compassion that underlies parental demands. Parents often tell me that they "have to" use punitive force because they see no other way to influence their children to do "what's good for them." They support their opinion with anecdotes of children expressing appreciation for "seeing the light" after having been punished. Having raised four children, I empathize deeply with parents regarding the daily challenges they face in educating children and keeping them safe. This does not, however, lessen my concern about the use of physical punishment.

First, I wonder whether people who proclaim the successes of such punishment are aware of the countless instances of children who turn against what might be good for them simply because they choose to fight, rather than succumb, to coercion. Second, the apparent success of corporal punishment in influencing a child doesn't mean that other methods of influence wouldn't have worked equally well. Finally, I share the concerns of many parents about the social consequences of using physical punishment. When parents opt to use force, we may win the battle of getting children to do what we want, but in the process, are we not perpetuating a social norm that justifies violence as a means of resolving differences?

In addition to the physical, other uses of force also qualify as punishment. One is the use of blame to discredit another person: for example, a parent may label a child as "wrong," "selfish," or "immature" when a child doesn't behave in a certain way. Another form of punitive force is the withholding of some means of gratification, such as parents' curtailing of allowance or driving privileges. In this type of punishment, the withdrawal of caring or respect is one of the most powerful threats of all.

The Costs of Punishment

When we submit to doing something solely for the purpose of avoiding punishment, our attention is distracted from the value of the action itself. Instead, we are focusing upon the consequences of what might happen if we fail to take that action. If a worker's performance is prompted by fear of punishment, the job gets done, but morale suffers; sooner or later, productivity will decrease. Self-esteem is also diminished when punitive force is used. If children brush their teeth because they fear shame and ridicule, their oral health may improve but their self-respect will develop cavities. Furthermore, as we all know, punishment is costly in terms of goodwill. The more we are seen as agents of punishment, the harder it is for others to respond compassionately to our needs.

I was visiting a friend, a school principal, at his office when he noticed through the window a big child hitting a smaller one. "Excuse me," he said as he leapt up and rushed to the playground. Grabbing the larger child, he gave him a swat and scolded, "I'll teach you not to hit smaller people!" When the principal returned inside, I remarked, "I don't think you taught that child what you thought you were teaching him. I suspect what he learned instead was not to hit people smaller than he is when somebody bigger - like the principal - might be watching! If anything, it seems to me that you have reinforced the notion that the way to get what you want from somebody else is to hit them."

In such situations, I recommend first empathizing with the child who is behaving violently. For example, if I saw a child hit someone after being called a name, I might empathize, "I'm sensing that you're feeling angry because you'd like to be treated with more respect." If I guessed correctly, and the child acknowledges this to be true, I would then continue by expressing my own feelings, needs, and requests in this situation without insinuating blame: "I'm feeling sad because I want us to find ways to get respect that don't turn people into enemies. I'd like you to tell me if you'd be willing to explore with me some other ways to get the respect you're wanting."

Two Questions that Reveal the Limitations of Punishment

Two questions help us see why we are unlikely to get what we want by using punishment to change people's behavior. The first question is: What do I want this person to do that's different from what he or she is currently doing? If we ask only this first question, punishment may seem effective because the threat or exercise of punitive force may well influence the person's behavior. However, with the second question, it becomes evident that punishment isn't likely to work: What do I want this person's reasons to be for doing what I'm asking?

We seldom address the latter question, but when we do, we soon realize that punishment and reward interfere with people's ability to do things motivated by the reasons we'd like them to have. I believe it is critical to be aware of the importance of people's reasons for behaving as we request. For example, blaming or punishing would obviously not be effective strategies if we want children to clean their rooms out of either a desire for order or a desire to contribute to the parents' enjoyment of order. Often children clean their rooms motivated by obedience to authority ("Because my Mom said so"), avoidance of punishment, or fear of upsetting or being rejected by parents. NVC, however, fosters a level of moral development based on autonomy and interdependence, whereby we acknowledge responsibility for our own actions and are aware that our own well-being and that of others are one and the same.


In situations where there is no opportunity for communication, such as in instances of imminent danger, we may need to resort to the protective use of force. The intention behind the protective use of force is to prevent injury or injustice, never to punish or to cause individuals to suffer, repent, or change. The punitive use of force tends to generate hostility and to reinforce resistance to the very behavior we are seeking. Punishment damages goodwill and self-esteem, and shifts our attention from the intrinsic value of an action to external consequences. Blaming and punishing fail to contribute to the motivations we would like to inspire in others.

© 2000 by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D. & Center for Nonviolent Communication. Excerpted from Nonviolent Communication - A Language of Compassion