Marcus Aurelius has a great line about dealing with desires for wine or fashionable purple clothes:
This noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood.
The idea is to break the myths around things down by considering their parts.
By doing this one can practice the Stoic discipline of judgment. Seeing things as they are, without adding additional value judgements or stories. For example instead of focusing on the temptations of status and fashion, see the tunic as it is. Merely things. Marcus Aurelius continues:
Perceptions like that — latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the time — all through our lives when things lay claim to our trust — to lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them.
A lot of the focus on Stoicism is on the internal and navigating our own thoughts. For example, the discipline of desire and discipline of judgement are about navigating our own desires and judgements. However, we can apply the principles when dealing with others. It’s important to recognize that the Stoics emphasized the social nature of human beings and that the Stoic principles concern the world, not just our own minds.
As an example of this consider the related idea of nonviolent communication. Now, as far as I know, nonviolent communication wasn’t inspired by Stoic writing. But it contains the insights that Stoics realized years ago, there’s significant overlap.
Consider two motivating ideas of nonviolent communication: avoiding moralistic judgment and taking responsibility for our own feelings.
Avoiding moralistic judgement refers to changing our language from “You should stop doing that” to be more concrete, specific and accurate. When we use language like “should” statements, we often sneak in unnecessary value judgements. This can make others feel like we are making demands on them. It may reveal confusion in our own beliefs, specifically around what our needs or purposes are. This is why Stoics practice the discipline of judgment.
For example, if someone is annoying you instead of saying, “stop doing that it annoys me”, it would reveal more self-knowledge to say “when you listen to music loudly, I feel annoyed because it is difficult for me to focus.” Marshall Rosenberg notes that judgements are often expressions of unmet needs. What we want to do is communicate those needs to ourselves and others effectively.
The second idea, taking responsibility for your own feelings aligns perfectly with Stoicism. Instead of blaming your bad mood on the fact that someone else did something, embrace reality. You may be in a bad mood. This mood was shaped by your reaction to external events, something you have control over. How you continue to react is up to you. Consider Epictetus:
Remember, that not he who gives ill language or a blow insults, but the principle which represents these things as insulting. When, therefore, anyone provokes you, be assured that it is your own opinion which provokes you.
From these two ideas, the framework proposes that one communicates in the following way:
- Observe: note specific and concrete events. Communicate them in a non-judgemental way. Strip away the story, in the way that Marcus Aurelius decomposes the tunic.
- Feel: take responsibility how you feel. This sentence should begin with “I feel”. State how feel and nothing else. Note that others don’t make us feel in a particular way. Remember you don’t have to be a lower case stoic. You can express how you feel. What you are doing is observing yourself (and in that way describing the reality which your are a part of).
- Need: communicate what you want or what your purpose is. This is what is behind the feelings. If you feel annoyed because you want to focus on work, feeling annoyed is the feeling and you need to focus on work. By communicating this need you are taking responsibility.
- Request: make an explicit request to the other person. Do not use vague language and expect them to get it. Just ask.
The sequence summarized is:
- Make a clear observation
- Express feeling
- Take ownership of feeling by expressing a need
- End with a request
When you communicate this way, it is more important to use the concepts than it is to follow the framework in order, word for word. However, when you’re beginning it is useful to use the framework to guide you.
Communicating this way is useful for talking to others, but also for talking to yourself. It helps you know and take responsibility for your own needs, goals, and purposes.
By communicating in this way, you’re expressing to others and yourself that you take objectively observing reality and responsibility for yourself seriously. Call this way, nonviolent Stoic communication.