Speaking from the heart

IssueDecember 2010 - January 2011
Feature by Cedric Knight

I recently spent a little time studying “Nonviolent Communication” (NVC), and thought some Peace News readers who had never heard of it would be interested in it as a positive way of hopefully spreading peace and compassion.

NVC is probably easier to describe than to categorise, as I understand it to be more than just one simple approach to conflict resolution or a method of dialogue. NVC claims to have uses “from the bedroom to the boardroom, from the classroom to the war zone”. So I will try to summarise the process, based on Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B Rosenberg (PuddleDancer Press, 2003, ISBN 978-1-892005-03-8).

Rosenberg, who originated the term, studied clinical psychology under Carl Rogers, has been teaching NVC since the 1960s, and includes in his book moving illustrations of NVC furthering understanding in a refugee camp in Bethlehem, with street gangs in Cleveland, Ohio, and volunteers at a food bank as well as in supposedly more intimate family relationships. I will also give my own thoughts on how extending empathy at a personal level might help create wider social change.

The components

The first “component” of NVC is expressing a concrete, specific observation of something that affects us, separate from any moralistic evaluation. Rosenberg warns us that while the negative effects of using categories like “arrogant” or “stupid” are obvious, even describing a person as “a cook” is a limiting judgement.

The second component is expressing what we are feeling; something that can be surprisingly difficult to do accurately depending on the person and the situation, so NVC books have helpful lists of words expressing shades of emotion.

The third component is identifying the universal human need or desire that the feeling reveals, such as for beauty, autonomy, authenticity, to understand and be understood or simply for food or shelter. This revealing of needs or desires is where NVC goes a little deeper than similar communication techniques, such as “scripts” in assertiveness training. The final component is making a concrete, specific, positive request that relates to the need for something that “enriches life” by meeting the need, as distinct from a “demand” which is backed by a threat of coercion.

By asking for these observations, feelings, needs and requests from others and expressing them ourselves (as far as we are able), the aim is to deepen and confirm understanding and compassion and develop what Martin Buber called an “I-Thou” relationship.

We have all experienced the power of empathy or compassion on occasion, but it seems sadly rare in an increasingly mechanised and impersonal world and of course we often choose not to extend it to those we are in conflict with.

Compassionate communication is contrasted with “life-alienating communication”, the language of blaming, deserving, labelling, demands and obligations, diagnosis, and comparisons between people.

Discovering NVC

My encounter with NVC was when a friend initiated a study group with six of us meeting in each others’ homes and working through the Rosenberg book one chapter every week, assisted by the Nonviolent Communication Companion Workbook by Lucy Leu, who also edited Rosenberg’s book and had experience of using NVC in prisons. Some of us found some of the exercises revealed a lot in how we relate to people, even though they applied NVC more often to role play (mostly in domestic scenarios) than to situations in our real lives.

Half of us had grown up with typical British reserve, used to “rubbing on by” with humour and letting some conflicts fester for fear of provoking a defensive response, and so some NVC requests seem surprisingly direct. Much of the study involved “translating” comments like “that’s not fair” into NVC, which involves a lot of guesswork since everyday interactions often do not include essential information about observations, feelings or needs, encouraging a rush to diagnose or judge.

Rosenberg’s book is comprehensive and written in admirably plain English, but one question we had was how far NVC is truly nonviolent in a Gandhian sense (Arun Gandhi, M K Gandhi’s grandson, contributes the foreword). There is a section acknowledging “protective use of force”, for example stopping a child running across a road, but it’s not clear how the limits of such “protection” should be defined; perhaps it would be knowing that the other person would want you to intervene if they were fully aware.

I found particularly interesting the idea that it is possible to minimise rather than suppress one’s anger. My blood pressure suffers at thoughts of Tony Blair, George Osborne, Chinese internet censorship, and everyone who ignores me, and I’m now questioning my assumption that all such anger could be usefully “channelled” into action to remedy injustice.

NVC and group process

I have found the book’s ideas useful when facilitating group dialogue, and I hope the applications are obvious in interpersonal relations and conflicts within consensus groups, although I’m not proposing NVC as a routine part of consensus decision-making. Now, although it has been used in places such as Rwanda and Croatia, a possible criticism of the appropriateness of applying NVC to wider, international or political disputes or oppression is that it lacks any kind of institutional analysis.

Indeed, in chapter two Rosenberg emphasises the language of personal responsibility and choice, effectively denying the existence of coercion and power relationships.

To counter that, I would say that observational language encourages concentration on real, physical conditions underlying divisive economic or political constructs; we simply attend to evidence of people’s needs. Also, dialogue and NVC, by helping us truly understand someone from a very different background, can help us see beyond our own personal “power horizon” to locate real causes of suffering, and with luck subvert the most oppressive use of power, if only people could sit down together.

One could equally say of many “political” statements that they lack real personal stories that many people find necessary in order to empathise. The concept of solidarity seems close to that of empathy, and in fact David Hume believed the very foundation of ethics is our “sympathies”. We know now that our ability to respond to other’s feelings is through inbuilt “mirror neurons” that are used to learn through mimicry. Or, as that other great philosopher, Sting, put it: “we share the same biology, regardless of ideology.”

Rosenberg claims that: “Life-alienating communication both stems from and supports hierarchical or domination societies.... When we are in contact with our feelings and needs, we humans no longer make good slaves and underlings.”

Even if I’m wrong about the possibility of extending empathy to breaking down coercion, NVC gives us a guideline to assert our needs in an ethical and non-manipulative way while respecting other human beings. The practising it is another matter, but there’s no time like the present....