Observing Without Evaluating

Posted by Beetle B. on Thu 01 June 2017

Separate the observation from the evaluation. If you say both in one go, people are more likely to interpret it as criticism and resist.

This does not mean being objective and not evaluating. Just maintain a separation.

Static language is language like “You are…” It lacks qualifiers, so simplistically it implies the person is that way, cannot change, has always been that way, etc. No nuances.

Static language vs observations specific to time and context. Even static positive labels limit perceptions.

It is hard to make an observation that is free from evaluation. Consider the story of the principal (taken from the book Nonviolent Communication:

I opened the meeting by asking the staff, “What is the principal doing that conflicts with your needs?”

He has a big mouth!” came the swift response. My question called for an observation, but while “big mouth” gave me information on how this teacher evaluated the principal, it failed to describe what the principal said or did that led to the interpretation that he had a “big mouth.”

When I pointed this out, a second teacher offered, “I know what he means: the principal talks too much!” Instead of a clear observation of the principal’s behavior, this was also an evaluation - of how much the principal talked. A third teacher then declared, “He thinks only he has anything worth saying.” I explained that inferring what another person is thinking is not the same as observing his behavior. Finally a fourth teacher ventured, “He wants to be the center of attention all the time.” After I remarked that this too was an inference - of what another person is wanting - two teachers blurted in unison, “Well, your question is very hard to answer!”

We subsequently worked together to create a list identifying specific behaviors, on the part of the principal, that bothered them, and made sure that the list was free of evaluation. For example, the principal told stories about his childhood and war experiences during faculty meetings, with the result that meetings sometimes ran twenty minutes overtime. When I asked whether they had ever communicated their annoyance to the principal, the staff replied that they had tried, but only through evaluative comments. They had never made reference to specific behaviors - such as his storytelling - and they agreed to bring these up when we were all to meet together.

Almost as soon as the meeting began, I saw what the staff had been telling me. No matter what was being discussed, the principal would interject, “This reminds me of the time … ” and then launch into a story about his childhood or war experience. I waited for the staff to voice their discomfort around the principal’s behavior. However, instead of Nonviolent Communication, they applied nonverbal condemnation. Some rolled their eyes; others yawned pointedly; one stared at his watch.

I endured this painful scenario until finally I asked, “Isn’t anyone going to say something?” An awkward silence ensued. The teacher who had spoken first at our meeting screwed up his courage, looked directly at the principal, and said, “Ed, you have a big mouth.”


  1. Use of “to be” without indication that the evaluator takes responsibility for the evaluation. You are too generous vs When you give all your lunch money away, I think you are being too generous.
  2. Use of verbs with evaluative connotations. Doug procrastinates vs Doug only studies for the exams the night before.
  3. Implying that one’s inferences about another person’s thoughts, feelings, etc are the only ones possible: She won’t get her work in vs I don’t think she’ll get her work in vs She said she won’t get her work in.
  4. Confusing prediction with certainty. If you don’t eat balanced meals, your health will be impaired vs If you don’t eat balanced meals, I fear your health may be impaired.
  5. Failure to be specific about referents. Immigrants don’t take care of their property vs I have not seen the immigrant family next door shovel the snow on their sidewalk.
  6. Use of words denoting ability without indicating that an evaluation is being made: Hank is a poor soccer player vs Hank has not scored a goal in 20 games.
  7. Use of adverbs and adjectives in ways that do not indicate an evaluation has been made: Jim is ugly vs I am not physically attracted to Jim.

Words like always, never, ever, whenever can be an observation or an evaluation depending on their usage.

Exaggerations provoke defensiveness.

Frequently and seldom are also indicators of an evaluation.

tags : communication, nvc