Last week, I wrote about a power struggle I had with student over a late paper, and the shift that changed our relationship.

Quite a few of you wrote to ask me whether or not the “problem of late papers” was fixed as a result of the process I described.

In essence, did it “work”?

In my work with leaders, managers, parents and educators, this question of whether or not collaborative, compassionate or nonviolent communication “works” comes up frequently.

We find it hard to trust that tending to the quality of a relationship by letting go of our attachment to particular strategies, can be more powerful than using rewards and punishments to get our way.

The power struggle that I described last week, beautifully illustrated the price we pay when we focus too heavily on controlling behaviors, and not enough on the relational conditions between ourselves and others.

By the time that student challenged my authority so vehemently, I had exhausted my arsenal of behavior change tactics in the classroom. This was no longer about the papers or the deadlines. This was about the relational agreements implicit in the power structures I had set up in my classroom: My students didn’t really trust that I had their best interests at heart. I had become an authority figure to them, they had become “students” to me.


Marshall Rosenberg used to say that anytime you want to get someone to do something differently, that you need to ask two important questions:

  1. What is it that I want this person to do differently?

  2. What do I want their reasons to be for doing as I ask?

My answer to the first question was simply that I want them to comply with my rules and then felt quite justified in simply providing rewards and enforcing punishments.

However, as Marshall often pointed out, if our objective is to get another person to behave in a certain way, people are likely to resist no matter what it is we are asking for. When behavior is rooted in the experience of submission, it breeds resentment, distrust and rebellion.

Coercion creates resistance. Compliance has a cost.

However, including the second question ~ What do I want their reasons to be for doing as I ask ~ changed the game completely.

I wanted them to care.

About the deadlines, about me, about self-discipline, about structures, about agreements, about integrity.

I wanted them to care.

Being attached to my strategy of timely papers was a poor proxy for the experience of a learning, growing, collaborative community that cares about one another.

Care cannot be forced.

This second question invites a radical shift: when I care about your reasons for doing as I ask, not only on your doing as I prefer even if it’s with resentment, then I show up differently: As a fellow human being with needs, just like you.

The second question sets the frame for a new kind of conversation.

I didn’t want them following orders resentfully or out of fear.

I wanted them to work with me, understanding that honoring agreements fosters trust, that structures help us collectively manage workload and maintain balance between work and play, that my requests weren’t arbitrary or power-hungry, but borne out a deep need to be available to my job and my personal life in meaningful ways.

I also wanted the structures to work for them, and began including them in decisions about deadlines.

Yes, initially, it took consciousness and effort to respond based on care and empathy, instead of moralistic judgments attached to superficial strategies.

But, we can become present to one another as human beings, not as “students,” “employees,” “children.” We can drop our labels of one another. We can choose to consistently bring ourselves back to treating one another with dignity – especially when we occupy positions of power over others.

So, did the students stop handing in papers late? No, of course not.

Papers still came in late sometimes. But when they did, it wasn’t to play out a subversive power struggle with me; it wasn’t done out of disrespect or lack of care. There are genuine reasons why we sometimes don’t meet a deadline. And, I was willing to work with that.

Life is emergent and messy.

  • Sometimes, things get done later than we’d prefer.

  • Sometimes, people disappoint us.

  • Sometimes, we don’t show up the way we wish we had.

When I make it a practice to greet myself and others with empathy, connection, mutual respect, dignity and kindness, power struggles dissolve; suffering decreases.

I am more willing to help, more willing to shift, more willing to learn, grow and change, and willingness is borne out of a trust that we will not be forced or coerced. That we will be treated well along the way.

There is an important, but subtle difference between treating people as objects to be manipulated to meet our needs, and between creating connections based upon mutual care and respect.

When we trust that our needs matter, when we are aware of our collective well-being resting in an interdependence we have with each other, and when we are treated as people who matter and are valued … everything changes.

(Seriously, it is so not about the papers or the deadlines.)