Nonviolent communication

Letter by Robbie Spence, Colchester

Yes, nonviolent communication can be used politically… I was glad to see PN devote a full page (PN 2528) to Cedric Knight’s account of nonviolent communication (NVC), and I’d like to make three points in response.

Firstly, Cedric focuses on the mechanics of NVC – the four-stage process of observation, feelings, needs and requests. While this is important, indeed distinctive of NVC, compared to other conflict resolution techniques, it should not overshadow the heart of the process, which is empathy and compassion.

The purpose of NVC is to create circumstances where we are more likely to be able to relate to one another heart-to-heart, free of enemy images, and create a world where everyone’s needs are met. The four-stage process is useful, especially in the early stages of learning NVC, in helping us achieve this compassionate consciousness, but it is just a toolkit.

Secondly, Cedric may have misunderstood the point about the “protective use of force”. The example quoted in Marshall Rosenberg’s NVC book is of pulling a toddler out of the path of an oncoming vehicle. This is force, not violence, and no sane parent would behave otherwise.
Last but not least, in answer to Cedric’s headline question, “Can nonviolent communication can be used politically?”, I’d say yes. Rosenberg chose to name his process “nonviolent communication” (rather than “compassionate communication”, which is its sub-title) to echo Gandhi’s example of nonviolence for social change. Drawing on, among others, theologian Walter Wink’s book, The Powers That Be, Rosenberg argues that for the last 8,000 years or so, people have lived under hierarchical systems where minorities with power have dominated majorities without power by means of violence that is mainly subtle and structural (with physical violence as a last resort). The features of domination culture include blame, shame, reward and punishment, duty and obligation, and doctrines of right and wrong – all of which are so deeply ingrained that it is hard for us to unlearn them on our way to practising NVC. While NVC is clearly a process of personal development, the way it challenges domination culture make it intensely political as well.