In a number of past posts and newsletters I’ve referred to “nonviolent communication” as an important and effective strategy for dealing with difficult conflict scenarios, or for working towards conflict transformation. Much more than just an abstract notion, nonviolent communication is a core concept couched in a strong theoretical base. Not only is it a powerful tool in mediation or formal conflict resolution, it is a holistic process and a lens through which an individual can come to see all relations and communication. At its most potent level, nonviolent communication can ultimately embody a spiritual or worldview. I wanted to take a post to focus on this extraordinary technique, and perhaps make it more accessible for readers in their daily lives.
What is widely recognized today as the core theory of nonviolent communication (NVC) was spearheaded by the psychologist and PhD. Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s. With questions about communication and violence originating from childhood run-ins with anti-Semitism and violent race relations in Detroit, Rosenberg began to develop his model during his activities in the civil rights movement. He sought to better understand how entrenched patterns of communication kept humans from expressing their needs to one another without violent escalation, and how he and others could develop the ability to surpass those patterns.
The idea of NVC is founded on some basic assumptions about human beings and their mutual interactions. It assumes that all humans are capable of compassion for other humans, and that violence ultimately arises because humans feel left with no better way to meet their own needs. It asserts that communication patterns that regularly lead to violence are taught to individuals through cultural and social norms. By breaking from those habits, we can learn to minimize conflict and foster harmony when differences arise.
In NVC, compassion becomes the central focus of communication, rather than guilt, fear, shame, or coercion. It emphasizes attentiveness to ourselves and our own needs so that we can articulate clearly, without being reactive or mixing up our actual needs with projections, stereotypes, blame, or fears. Alternatively, it emphasizes attentiveness to the other, truly hearing them without interference. By allowing all participants full validation as humans, capable and deserving of compassion, communication becomes less about judgment and diagnosis, more about mutual care and mutual gratification, and ultimately less inclined towards violence. Often changing the way we communicate creates openings for both parties to feel that the needs they are seeking are fulfilled, without hurting one another or escalating into conflict.
While Rosenberg formalized and published NVC as a theory in the modern western world, it is important to recognize that philosophies of nonviolent communication have roots around the world. (Note that Rosenberg himself openly recognizes this.)
Rosenberg’s model for nonviolent communication looks like a sideways figure eight: one side of the figure symbolizes the process of “empathetic listening,” while the other symbolizes “honestly expressing.” The shape of the figure embodies the flowing, interlocking relationship between these two processes.
On both of these sides of the model Rosenberg places four components: observations, feelings, needs, and requests. Honing in on these elements, in relation to our own honest expressions as well as our empathic listening to others, helps us focus our minds on the true content of an exchange, while actively expressing empathy, compassion, and a commitment to nonviolence.
This model is a guide for practicing communication mindfully, without getting caught up in defensive, reactive, aggressive, or judgmental patterns. In his book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, Rosenberg tells a story about a man who is searching for something on his hands and knees under a street light at night. A police officer approaches and queries the man as to what he is doing. The man explains he is looking for his keys, but when the officer asks whether he dropped his keys there, the man responds that he did not – he dropped them in the alley, but there is more light here where he is searching. Rosenberg uses this story as a metaphor for the way that culture, socialization, and habits often “shine the light” in places where it is not possible to find the answers. The NVC model can help us look in the right places.
NVC applies to many theaters of communication. It can help you to communicate interpersonally amongst your loved ones and your co-workers. It can also be understood as a structural solution to much larger conflicts in communities and societies.
One of the most beautiful elements of NVC is that it can take on a certain contagious quality that doesn’t always necessitate formal training (though NVC training is extremely valuable). When you treat a co-communicator with compassion and empathy, and pay careful attention to the way you articulate your needs, they are much more likely to feel comfortable enough to try out a different form of communication that is less violent. They may even unconsciously or consciously emulate your behavior as they recognize its positive value. This by no means occurs as a rule, but you may be surprised to find a pleasant change in the tenor of your communications with a variety of persons in your life when they find themselves feeling validated and safe by your communicative behavior.
In closing, remember that it takes practice to be a good nonviolent communicator. Understanding the concepts while you’re reading a book or an article, and putting them to good use when the heat turns up in a tense situation are two entirely different exercises. It takes a great deal of commitment to keep focusing on the model and your goal of expressing compassion when a situation invites you to feel attacked and respond defensively, fearfully, or angrily. By practicing and thinking about NVC frequently, you can train and strengthen your mind’s ability to be mindful when difficulties arrive.
We encourage you to try out strategies of nonviolent communication throughout your day, and please feel free to submit any questions or comments here if we can be of any assistance.
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.