In our society, when someone makes a mistake or engages in inappropriate behavior, it's natural to think of consequences and punishments as interchangeable terms. However, there is a significant distinction between these two concepts that often gets overlooked. Understanding the difference between consequences and punishments is crucial, especially when it comes to shaping behavior, promoting growth, and fostering healthy relationships.
So what is a "consequence" and what is a "punishment"?
Basically, punishments are intentionally negative actions put upon someone as a result of a specific behavior, while consequences are more neutral in that there is simply a cause and effect relationship. This distinction around intent is important when communicating with others, especially if there are requests involved.
In the lens of Nonviolent Communication, requests are opportunities to ask for participation from others in helping one get their needs met (a very reductionist definition, but good enough for now). Sometimes, in making a request, it makes sense to provide clarity around what will happen if the request is fulfilled versus if it is not. This clarity often helps to differentiate between consequences and punishments.
Let me explain.
Let's assume one's request is around turning in a document to the local post office by a certain date in order to receive a new passport. If the request is fulfilled, and the person does indeed bring the document to the correct place in the requested time-frame, the requester's needs have been met (consequence 1), and one would receive a new passport (consequence 2). Now, let's assume the request is not fulfilled. The consequence of that is the knowledge that the person who made the request still has needs that haven't been met, and the desired passport will no longer be arriving in the time that is necessary for travel, which might also mean altered or cancelled travel plans. These are not punishments, because no one is actively deciding "I am going to make this person pay for what they have done (or didn't do)". Instead, these are simply all consequences, as each action or inaction is the cause for a particular effect, and the post office has pretty clear standards as to what will happen if the document is not submitted on time.
Here is an example the other way around. A father asks his son to clean his room by 1pm the next day. When the son cleans his room, nothing much happens other than the room is now clean and the father is satisfied. When the son does not clean his room, his father reprimands him for being disobedient, then revokes privileges around the use of technology like cell phones, television, and computers for a week. In this second scenario, the father is clearly punishing his son, as these actions are specifically done to make his son suffer in some way. It is not a simple cause and effect, but rather an intentional effort towards retribution.
So how does one go about parenting or teaching children without chaos? Aren't punishments necessary?
Well, there is another way to look at this. Let's go back to that piece about clarity. Sometimes it is okay to make a request, and then explain what exactly will happen if the request is fulfilled versus if it is not, and this can result in consequences rather than punishments if done correctly. Using the same example of the father who asks his son to clean his room. He might tell his son something like this, "If you finish your chores by 1pm tomorrow, which includes cleaning your room, then you will be able to continue using your devices. If you do not finish, that's okay with me, but you will not be able to use your devices". The difference here is two fold. First, there is clarity in what will or will not happen. Second, the father does not have personal attachment to whether or not his son cleans his room. He will not think differently of his son, and it will not change the nature of their relationship; it will just mean no technology for some time. The revoking of technology privileges in this case is clear from the beginning as a benign effect to a lack of action. It is not a reaction to a lack of action out of anger, frustration, and judgment. This distinction is huge, because it is the main difference between making a true request versus making a demand.
In Nonviolent Communication, requests are very specifically set apart from demands. Demands are things that you have strong attachments around, and when someone says no, you are upset. Requests do not carry those same attachments to strategies, and if someone says no, instead of being upset with them or thinking less of them, you simply think about other strategies that might work to get your needs met and maybe even meet the needs of the other person as well.
So from an NVC perspective, consequences are things that happen around requests, and punishments tend to happen with demands. Punishments threaten emotional safety and maybe even trust, while clearly understood consequences foster emotional safety and trust.
If this is intriguing or thought provoking in any way, and you would like to learn more about Nonviolent Communication, consider this Intro to Nonviolent Communication Course. As always, these blogs only ever scratch surfaces when it comes to NVC. There is so much more to it that would not fit in this format.