The Wisdom of Indra

While in Nepal, I hired a guide named Indra to show me around Kathmandu Valley. Indra apologized that he wasn’t fluent in English. His economy of words resulted in some memorable and wise one liners.

“Every Boy Has Scooter.”

As we drove through Kathmandu’s crowded and crazy action-packed streets, Indra sighed and commented, “Every boy has scooter.” He wasn’t exaggerating. The scooter population in Kathmandu is about 700,000, with approximately 1.7 million people living in the Kathmandu Valley. I had a blast riding on the back of a scooter to and from Tranquility Spa in the Thamel district, where the massages are incredible, and incredibly inexpensive. I highly recommend it (both the spa and the scooter ride).

“Very Cheap, No Need.”

Kathmandu is a haven if you’re shopping for jewelry, pashminas, hiking gear, prayer wheels, singing bowls, statues of Hindu gods and goddesses and countless other trinkets. Thamel is a shopper’s paradise. More aggressive salespeople follow you, promising that what they’re selling is “very cheap, very cheap.” Indra summarized his shopping advice, and made the salespeople go away, with four little words: “Very cheap, no need.”

“All Gods, Same Same.”

Until 2006, Nepal was a constitutionally declared Hindu state. About 80 percent of its population is Hindu, and about 10 percent is Buddhist. Indra took me to see the palace of Nepal’s own living goddess, the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu. The Kumari — who has a sweet ride, pictured below — is believed to be the incarnation of the Hindu goddess Taleju or Durga. When the Kumari has her period, the goddess vacates her body. No one wants to be around PMS.

The three main gods of Hindu mythology are Vishnu (the Preserver), Brahma (the Creator) and Shiva (the Destroyer). They’re honored in the dozens of temples in Hanuman-dhoka Durbar Square, pictured below. Each god has a number of incarnations, along with a goddess-mate with her own incarnations. Parvati (shown below with Shiva), for example, is an incarnation of Shiva’s mate Shakti (the Mother of the World).

One of my favorite places in the Kathmandu Valley is the famous Buddhist temple and monastery Swayambhunath (literally the “place of the self-born”). It’s more commonly known as the Monkey Temple for its numerous furry inhabitants.

Buddha is believed to be the ninth incarnation of Vishnu. After dozens of questions from me about Buddhist and Hindu gods, Indra advised me that, when it comes down to it, “All gods same same.” They and their wise followers all share a common goal: MAY PEACE PREVAIL ON EARTH.

Namaste, Kathmanduties!

Before and after Tibet, our travels took us to Nepal, a country the size of Alabama, bordered to the north by Tibet and to the south, east, and west by India. I fell in love with its capital, Kathmandu, whose citizens are called Kathmanduties, and their greeting of namaste. It’s the Nepalese aloha, a word used for “hello” and “goodbye” and not reserved for the end of yoga class like in the U.S. We arrived at the Tribhuvan airport in Kathmandu, the country’s only international airport. Between the signs in baggage claim and the marigold-lei greeting, my troll Aurora and I had a feeling we weren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.

We stayed at the Hotel Yak & Yeti at Durbar Marg in Kathmandu city. Located in a former Rana palace, the Yak & Yeti has gorgeous gardens, statues of Hindu gods (including my favorite, Ganesha, who helps to overcome obstacles), and framed quotes from the Bhagavad Gita in the guest rooms. It’s a little slice of heaven.

Our first evening was spent at a traditional Nepalese restaurant, enjoying many shots of rice wine and very good local beers. In Nepal, the red dots on our foreheads are called “tikas” and are a mixture of abir, a red powder, yoghurt and grains of rice.

We were entertained by Nepalese folk dancers. Aurora hung out with them afterwards.

The Kathmandu Valley includes Kathmandu city and several surrounding municipalities. It’s the cultural and political hub of Nepal and has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. I was anxious to see Patan, also known as Lalitpur Sub-Metrolpolitan City. Founded in the third century B.C., Patan is renowned for its fine arts, particularly metal and stone works and wood carvings. Patan also contains many fine examples of nature’s own beauty, and the beauty of the Nepalese people.

Next post: The Wisdom of Indra (lessons learned from my Kathmandu guide)

“Buddha Doesn’t Want To See Your Legs”

We spent much of our time in Tibet visiting Buddhist monasteries and temples. Their beauty and spirituality was offset with the sadness of knowing that so few of them remain. After the People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet in 1950, unrest among the Tibetan people escalated and culminated in the Tibetan Uprising of 1959. Many Tibetans, including the 14th Dalai Lama, sought asylum in India. In the years following 1959, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, there was wholesale destruction of Tibetan religious buildings and artifacts by the Chinese. All but a few dozen of more than 6,000 monasteries were destroyed.

Drepung Monastery monastery — home of the Third, Fourth and Fifth Dalai Lamas — is one that survived. About 10 kilometers from Lhasa, Drepung was built in 1416 and was home to over 10,000 monks before what the Chinese euphemistically call the “Liberation” of Tibet. Here we saw our first prayer wheels, which people set in motion as they walk in circles around the building in a clockwise direction as a form of prayer or meditation. Our big American feet had a hard time climbing the ladders built for little Tibetan monk feet.

Since it was a hot day, I removed the leg bottoms from convertible pants. Our guide Dolma told me to put them back on before going into any of the chapels because “Buddha doesn’t want to see your legs.” We quickly learned that we’d need to pay a smallish fee (20 yuan = about $3.20 US) to take photographs inside the chapels. It was well worth it the price. The large candle below is actually made from yak butter, which people bring to the chapels as an offering.

We couldn’t get into a few of the chapels …

… so we did some souvenir shopping …

… and had lunch at the on-site restaurant, where the decor shifted from Buddha to NBA all stars.

We next visited the Sera Monastery. Founded in 1416, Sera is home of the Gelukpa Order (the Dalai Lama’s sect). Here, as at Drepung, many of the monks renounced their vows to take up arms during the Tibetan Uprising. We arrived in time to witness the action in the Debating Courtyard, where each afternoon monks debate  the teachings of Buddha and Buddhist philosophy. Monks sitting on the ground are questioned by monks standing over them. The standing monks clap their hands together for emphasis, palms together if they agree with what the seated monk has said and right palm up if they disagree. It was a blast to watch them discuss issues with so much energy.

I asked Dolma about this painting at our hotel in Lhasa. She said that Tibet is in the shape of a dragon lying on the ground. At the heart of the dragon is the Jokhang Temple, the most sacred site in Tibet.

Jokhang Temple was built in 642 by King Songsten Gumpo, who brought Buddhism to Tibet. Pilgrims walk for days or weeks to visit Jokhang and see the face of the Compassion Buddha inside. (Photos were not allowed.) Outside the temple, people do hundreds of sun-salutation type of movements as a form of prayer. I bought flowers from one of the many flower sellers to lay in front of the Compassion Buddha. (Note that my legs are covered.) The courtyard area adjacent to Johkang Temple houses several beautifully ornate thrones of the Dalai Lama.

Our next stop was Potala Palace, the former winter residence of the Dalai Lama. Located in the heart of Lhasa, Potala Palace is a popular site for circumambulation (fancy word for walking around a sacred object). Parts of the palace date back to 637. The “newer” portions were built by the Fifth Dalai Lama in the mid to late 1600s. The hike up the front steps gets your heart rate going, especially at Lhasa’s altitude of 12,000 feet. Pictures inside the temples weren’t permitted, but the views from outside were wonderful as well. My troll (Aurora) was happy to find a troll-sized rock with the inscription Om Mani Padme Hum, a mantra commonly used by Tibetan Buddhists to invoke compassion.

From Lhasa, we took a long bus ride to Gyantse to visit the Pelkor Chode Monastery and Kumbum Stupa. The large white wall on the hillside in the first photo below is for hanging thangkas (huge paintings of Buddha) on special occasions. Kumbum — Tibetan for “100,000 holy images” — is aptly named, with 108 art-filled chapels scattering its multiple floors. We even found a Cell Phone Buddha (fifth photo below), and Aurora rode on a dragon. (You know how trolls are: she had to outdo my yak ride.)

Our final stop was the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest city. Founded in 1447 by the First Dalai Lama, Tashi Lhunpo is the main seat of the Panchen Lama, the traditional teacher of the Dalai Lama. Dolma explained that the circumambulating pilgrims at Tashi Lhumpo walk as many circles as their age, using “rock calculators” (pictured below) to keep track.

In the village outside Tashi Lhunpo, we saw that young monks are like teenage boys all over the world, hanging out on street corners with their friends, enjoying a beautiful sunny day. I hope for their sake, and ours, that Tibet’s future is much brighter than its recent past.

If you’d like to learn more about Tibet and the fight for its freedom, visit FreeTibet.org.

Tashi Delek, Tibet!

Arriving at the airport in Lhasa, Tibet, our travel group (including my troll, Aurora) was welcomed by our guide with the traditional Tibetan greeting of “tashi delek”, which means good fortune. We were also “greeted” by Chinese security, who searched our bags for anything relating to the Dalai Lama and took my passport into a separate room for a while without explanation. You get no stamp on your passport indicating that you’ve been to Tibet. If you ask, they will — begrudgingly — give you a China stamp. Our experience at the airport set the tone for our six-day stay in Tibet: a surreal mix of the spirituality and warmth of the Tibetan people and culture, and the constant dark presence of Chinese security forces that have had a stranglehold on Tibet since the 1950s.

It wasn’t long before we saw our first yak, the official animal of Tibet. About 85 percent of the world’s yak population lives in Tibet. That’s about 10 million yaks. We ate yak burgers (not bad). Check out the brown circles stacked on top of the homes in the last photo below. They’re 8-inch circles of dried yak dung, which Tibetan villagers use to heat their homes.


The breathtaking Tibetan landscape is dominated by the Himalayas. Our drive through the countryside took us to altitudes in excess of 17,000 feet. (FYI: 5,248 meters = 17,217 feet.) Thank god for Diamox!

Tibetans string prayer flags and white scarves throughout the countryside and peaks in the Himalayas to bring blessings. Traditionally, prayer flags come in five colors, arranged from left to right in specific order: blue, white, red, green and yellow. Blue symbolizes the sky, white symbolizes water, red symbolizes fire, green symbolizes air, and yellow symbolizes earth.

The Tibetan people are gracious and beautiful, with their black hair, ready smiles and flushed cheeks. Our guide Dolma (with Aurora below) left Tibet at the age of 15, walking over the Himalayas and through Nepal to reach India, where she attended school. A death in her family 10 years ago made her return to Tibet, once again walking home. Maria von Trapp has nothing on Dolma!

Chinese security was enforcing the “no photographs” rule at the border crossing, but I managed to sneak a quick pic of one of the many Sherpas (most of whom were women). I will never again complain about carrying a few bags of groceries.

Next post: “Buddha Doesn’t Want To See Your Legs” (our tour of Buddhist monasteries in Tibet).

Adventures in India

India was the launching point for our trip to Tibet and Nepal. We were greeted by the New Delhi Airport’s Hands Sculpture at the T3 Terminal. The nine beautiful mudras or hand gestures in the sculpture are an intrinsic part of Indian classical dance, yoga and visual arts. This was just the beginning of the beautiful works of art we’d have the privilege to see on this journey.

I learned at a young age that it’s a good idea to travel with a troll or two. Their constant smiles and open arms are reminders of how we should be as travelers, and almost everyone laughs when you bring out your troll. On this trip, I was accompanied by my troll Aurora. Here she is on the Superfast Shatabdi Express train from Delhi to Agra, where we spent our day in India.

Our first stop was Fatehpur Sikri (the City of Victory), a cultural and imperial capital built by Emperor Akbar (1556-1605). He decided to construct it in 1571, on the same site where the birth of his son, the future Jahangir, was predicted by the wise Shaikh Salim Chisti (1480-1572). In 1585, Akbar abandoned Fatehpur Sikri to fight against the Afghan tribes and chose a new capital, Lahore. The site was abandoned until its archaeological exploration in 1892. (If you visit Fatehpur Sikri, please heed the signs that thank you for “not scratching on the monument.”)

As we walked between monuments at Fatehpur Sikri, we got our first taste of little — and I mean little — kids with pencils or other items for sale. They were some of the cutest kids I’ve ever seen, in some of the saddest conditions I’ve ever seen.

The complex of monuments and temples at Fatehpur Sikri, all in a uniform architectural style, includes one of the largest mosques in India, the Jama Masjid. It was like a mini Taj Mahal, which was our next stop.

We walked past this group of Indian tourists. I fell in love with all of the colors and patterns that they wore. It’s SO much lovelier than the “grey and black” uniform we lapse into in Chicago.

Shortly before arriving at the Taj Mahal, we were advised to remove electronics and candy from our bags. They’re on the list of “Prohibited Items at Taj Mahal” (along with “colors” — a.k.a crayons — and “helmates”). What I didn’t know is that trolls are also prohibited, under the category of “Toys Item”. My bag was descended upon by security and Aurora was about to be taken from me forever when …

… our tour guide (Gobol) saved the day. He talked the security guards into returning Aurora and gave her to one of his friends at the gate to hold until we finished our tour, thus avoiding a “trolls at Taj Mahal” episode of Locked Up Abroad.

My travel group was 14 women and 2 men. Upon seeing the Taj Mahal, more than one woman in our group asked why she couldn’t find a guy who would build a monument to her.

Maybe that’s why they separate foreign tourists from Indian tourists?

Foreign tourists are given shower caps for their shoes …

… while Indian tourists go barefoot.

Regardless of footwear, I knew I was very lucky to visit the Taj Mahal.

Aurora (in the lower left-hand corner) had a slightly different point of view, but she still kept smiling.

The Air We Breathe

I returned from Kathmandu late last night. More on my other-worldly experiences there and in India and Tibet to follow. Today, I want to share the news that my Peace Corps odyssey has come to an end. I debated whether to write a post about it. I don’t want to discourage anyone who’s currently in, or thinking about joining, Peace Corps. And I’d be a liar if I said I don’t care about being judged for backing out of something I had planned to do. Those concerns are outweighed by my desire to put my genuine self – the good, the bad and the ugly – into my posts, in the hope of helping someone who’s going through a similar experience. So here goes.

When I decided to apply for Peace Corps, I pictured myself living in a village or small city in South America, habla-ing Espanol, and helping people improve their skills and education to make their lives better. I put South America as my preference on my Peace Corps application and started investigating places to brush up on my Spanish skills. During my Peace Corps interview, I was told they only send people to South America who are already fluent in Spanish.

I was nominated to teach English at a university in China. Anxious to learn more about what that experience would be like, I searched for books about volunteering for Peace Corps in China. I hit the jackpot with Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion, by Michael Levy (the “Kosher” part referring to the fact that Levy is Jewish). Levy liked his experience in China. The intent of his book is not to discourage people from joining Peace Corps.

But Levy wrote about things that were news to me. Did you know that sixteen of the world’s twenty most polluted cities are in China? That nearly 200 Chinese cities fail to meet minimal air quality standards? And that fifty percent of China’s rivers and lakes are so polluted that they’re not even fit for industrial usage, and ninety percent of China’s urban groundwater is contaminated?

Levy describes his airplane’s “slow descent into a brown soup of pollution” and an “industrial nightmare” in Chengdu (the capital city of the Sichuan province and Peace Corp’s headquarters in China):

“I imagined the capillary veins in my lungs recoiling in horror as breath after contracted breath dumped carcinogenic particulate matter into my previously healthy chest cavity. It wouldn’t be long before my Chinese teacher would tell me that smoking cigarettes was actually healthy because it prepared one’s lungs for Chinese air. The tobacco, she insisted, served as a vaccine against the smog. This seemed far-fetched to me, though I reconsidered my convictions after the Peace Corp nurse advised us to cease all exercise. An increased heart rate, she warned us, would lead to deeper breathing which, in Chengdu, meant a more profoundly damaged cardiovascular system. Best to sit and smoke, perhaps.”

This seemed far-fetched to me, too. How could any country, especially a world power like China, be in such horrendous environmental condition in 2012? Then the Universe handed me a gift. I went for my annual physical at Northwestern and my regular doctor was on vacation. I saw another doctor who recently returned from several years of living in China.

She confirmed the dangers of breathing Chinese air. After living in China for two years, a CT scan of my lungs would look like that of a life-long smoker. Knowing that I’m on Synthroid (a prescription thyroid medication), she also told me about her mistake of getting a prescription filled in China. Many commonly used U.S. medications aren’t available in China, or don’t contain the same ingredients, or are counterfeit. She became seriously ill from the prescription medication and had to return to the U.S. for several months of detox.

Not exercising or taking my thyroid meds for two years would be compounded by what Levy describes as the “oil heavy” Chinese diet, consisting of “fried dough for breakfast every morning and piles of greasy meats for lunch and dinner” (something  I experienced first hand during my week in Tibet, which is officially — albeit very, very sadly — part of China). And the meat frequently comes from man’s best friend. Lassie. Rover. Toto. Levy describes walking past the “Dog Meat King” every day on his way to his classroom: “Its name – as well as the carcasses that dangled in its windows – made me pretty sure they weren’t serving chicken.”

Not. What. I. Bargained. For.

Sometimes that thing you’re pursuing with all of your energy turns out not to be the right thing for you. But if you’re lucky, and if you’re open to it, you learn from the journey. You learn about yourself, the world, and what truly matters in life. In this case, I learned that while I was willing to sacrifice my material possessions, I’m not willing to sacrifice my health. I also learned how lucky we are to find ourselves living in a place where we can step outside and breathe the air without worrying about what our CT scans will look like as a result.

I still have visions of going to South America for volunteer work. Only this time I plan to go to Guatemala in 2013 to help build schools from recycled materials with an organization called Save The World Today (featured in an article in the September 2012 edition of Oprah’s “O” magazine). Did I mention they don’t eat dogs in Guatemala?

In Search of Shangri La

I’m taking a hiatus from blogging to travel through the Himalayas in Nepal and Tibet. Having never been to that part of the world and needing to literally get away from it all, I couldn’t be more excited. Watching Frank Capra’s “Lost Horizon” one too many times has lodged an illogical hope in the back of my mind that maybe, just maybe, we’ll stumble upon Shangri La. Or maybe we’ll have an Indiana-Jones type of adventure in Kathmandu. Even if that doesn’t happen, we’ll learn about the Nepalese and Tibetan people and cultures, and have up close and personal views of some of the most beautiful scenery on Earth.

In preparation for the trip, our group leaders gave us the following warning:

“Do NOT carry any pictures of the Dalai Lama, Free Tibet posters or T-shirts, Tibetan flags, any political magazines or books, etc. The Chinese government is very strict about this and may not allow you into the country or may deport you from the country if you possess any such material. Furthermore, your local Tibetan guide is highly regulated with regards to what he can and cannot discuss about Tibet, its politics, its religion, and/or its history. You may ask your guide questions but should he not want to discuss it, PLEASE do NOT push him as (like it or not) his livelihood depends on his following prescribed rules.”

Just last week, we were informed that the Chinese government has unexpectedly, without reason, declared that no foreign tourists will be allowed to visit Tibet from October 1st and beyond. Also, no tourists are allowed to visit the Mount Everest base camp, which was going to be a highlight of our trip.

My natural inclination is to be angry with the Chinese government. How can you not like the Dalai Lama? It’s like not liking chocolate-chip cookies fresh from the oven. And why are you blocking foreign tourists from visiting Tibet?

But since I’ve read The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, I know better than to react with anger. As the Dalai Lama emphasizes, it’s important to avoid negative emotions such as anger and hatred and focus on cultivating positive emotions:

“For example, so far as our own dealings with China are concerned, even if there is a likelihood of some feeling of hatred arising, we deliberately check ourselves and try to reduce that, try to consciously develop a feeling of compassion toward the Chinese. I think countermeasures can ultimately be more effective without feelings of anger or hatred.”

“If you maintain a feeling of compassion, loving kindness, then something automatically opens your inner door. Through that, you can communicate much more easily with other people. And that feeling of warmth creates a kind of openness. You’ll find that all human beings are just like you, so you’ll be able to relate to them more easily.”

I may not be able to bring the Dalai Lama’s books into Tibet, but I will bring what I’ve learned from him about compassion, kindness and love. And that is its own kind of Shangri La.

NVC 5: The Power of Empathy

NVC 2, 3 and 4 focused on what we ourselves are observing, feeling, needing and requesting from other people. That’s the first half of the process of non-violent communication (NVC). The second half involves applying those components when we receive messages from other people, regardless of their communication style. This allows us to make an empathic connection with what’s alive in the other person and what would make life better for them.

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There

Marshall Rosenberg (the creator of NVC, featured in the videos in this post) defines empathy as a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing. In Speak Peace in a World of Conflict: What You Say Next Will Change Your World, he distinguishes empathy from other practices:

“The goal isn’t intellectually understanding it, the goal is empathically connecting with it. It doesn’t mean we have to feel the same feelings as the other person. That’s sympathy, when we feel sad that another person is upset. It doesn’t mean we have to have the same feelings; it means we are with the other person. This quality of understanding requires one of the most precious gifts one human being can give to another: our presence in the moment.”

“Notice this doesn’t require that we agree with the other person. It doesn’t mean we have to like what they’re saying. It means that we give them the precious gift of our presence, to be present at this moment to what’s alive in them, that we are interested, sincerely interested in that. We don’t do it as a psychological technique but because we want to connect to the beauty in the person at this moment.”

Too often, we fail to connect empathically with people who are in pain and instead respond in one of the following ways:

  • Advising (“I think you should….”)
  • One-upping (“I had something even worse happen.…”)
  • Educating (“What you can learn from this is….”)
  • Consoling (“It’s not your fault….”)
  • Shutting down (“Don’t feel so bad….”)
  • Interrogating (“How long have you felt this way….”)
  • Sympathizing (“OMG, you poor thing….”)
  • Story telling (“That reminds me of the time….”)

When someone responds to me that way, I feel frustrated because I don’t think they’re really listening. Empathy requires focusing our full attention on the person, and giving them the time and space they need to express themselves and feel understood. There’s a wonderful Buddhist saying that describes this ability: “Don’t just do something, stand there.”

Reflecting Back

So how do we provide people with a sense that we’ve heard and understood them? It starts with listening for their observations, feelings, needs and requests, regardless of the words they use. This enables us to shift from perceiving what people say as an attack on us to an expression of what’s going on inside of them.

After we’ve listened to the person fully expressed herself, we may want to paraphrase or reflect back our understanding of what we’ve heard. In NVC, this takes the form of questions that show our understanding of what’s going on in the other person while eliciting their feedback. The questions might focus on what the person observed (e.g., “Are you reacting to …?”); their feelings and needs (e.g., “Are you feeling [guess their feeling] because you’re needing [guess their need]?”); or their requests (e.g., “Are you wanting me to …?”).

If our understanding is correct, the person will know we’ve heard them. And as Rosenberg explains in Speak Peace in a World of Conflict, our paraphrasing doesn’t have to be perfect to make the situation better:

“Even if we’re wrong, if we are sincerely trying to connect with the divine energy in another human being – their feelings, their needs at that moment – that shows the other person that no matter how they communicate with us, we care about what’s alive in them. When a person trusts that, we’re well on our way to making a connection in which everybody’s needs can be met.”

How do we know when we’ve done enough empathizing with the person? Usually they (and we) will experience a sense of relief at having been understood. And they may stop talking! But if we’re not sure, we can always ask (e.g., “Is there something more you want to say?”).

Silent Empathy

Even if we don’t reflect back our understanding to the other person in words, empathy can be a powerful presence in a conversation. Silent empathy impacts our intention toward others, and it shows  in our eyes and body language when we’re hearing what’s in a person’s heart. In What We Say Matters: Practicing Nonviolent Communication, authors Judith Hanson Lasater and Ike Lasater explain the practice of silent empathy:

“To give silent empathy is to intuit or guess what the other person might be feeling or needing in the moment. Be sure to start with observation language. Your inner dialogue might go something like this: ‘When I hear her say ________, I am guessing that she was feeling _________ and needing ___________.’ It does not matter if you are correct about what is ‘true’ for her. Rather, it is the process of considering the other person after having empathized with your own needs that fuels the shift. When you make this shift to compassion, you will have a greater potential to actually say what you want to say.”

NVC Resources

Although this series on NVC only scratched the surface, I hope it piqued your interest in nonviolent communication and the amazing benefits it can bring. If you’d like to learn more, I recommend the three books I’ve referenced throughout the series: Nonviolent Communication: A Language of LifeSpeak Peace in a World of Conflict: What You Say Next Will Change Your World; and What We Say Matters: Practicing Nonviolent Communication. In addition to covering the basics of NVC, they address advanced subjects such as dealing with anger, expressing and receiving gratitude, and practicing NVC at the workplace and in talking to our parents, children and significant others. Also, the Center for Nonviolent Communication offers a variety of books and resources on its website, in addition to NVC training.

Now for some parting words from Marshall Rosenberg:

“As NVC replaces our old patterns of defending, withdrawing, or attacking in the face of judgment and criticism, we come to perceive ourselves and others, as well as our intentions and relationships, in a new light. Resistance, defensiveness, and violent reactions are minimized. When we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion. Through its emphasis on deep listening — to ourselves as well as others — NVC fosters respect, attentiveness and empathy, and engenders a mutual desire to give from the heart.”

52 Shades Of Greed

We’ve all been impacted in some way by the financial crisis earmarked by the demise of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. Now 28 freelance artists have created an amazing illustrated deck of playing cards to commemorate the people, institutions and things that contributed to the crisis. Entitled 52 Shades of Greed, the deck of cards is complete with text to explain “who the players are in the casino we call the world financial system.” For example, here’s the memorable introduction to the description of Dick Fuld (9 of Diamonds):

Richard Fuld was the last Chairman and CEO of Lehman Brothers. He was nicknamed “Gorilla” because of his aggressiveness. His best known quote is, “I am soft, I’m lovable, but what I really want to do is reach in, rip out their hearts and eat them before they die”.

52 Shades of Greed was commissioned by the Occupy Wall Street movement. 1,000 decks will be given away on September 17 to celebrate its one-year anniversary. Decks and related artwork can be purchased at www.52shadesofgreed.com, where you can also view the completed designs. In addition to funding the 1,000 free decks, proceeds will go to the artists and towards creation of a sequel deck of “heroes” of the financial system. For their inspirational creativity and humor, the 28 artists who created 52 Shades of Greed are my Rainbows of the Week.

NVC 4: Making Requests

Having learned about making observations without evaluations and expressing our feelings and needs without blaming others, we move to step four of Marshall Rosenberg’s non-violent communication (NVC): making requests of others in order to get our unfulfilled needs met. Sounds easy, right? We’re all used to asking for things. But making effective requests requires more mindfulness than most of us realize.

In NVC terms, requests have three characteristics:

  1. They’re stated in terms of clear, positive, concrete action, and they avoid asking someone to refrain from doing something.
  2. They’re specific enough to be doable in the present.
  3. They aren’t demands: the other person can say “no” without fear of retribution.

Use “Positive Action” Language

NVC suggests that we make requests using “positive action” language, positive in the sense that we request what we want the other person to do rather than what we want them not to do. Negative requests can create confusion as to what we’re asking for. In his book Speak Peace in a World of Conflict, Rosenberg explains, “We get to a different place with people when we are clear about what we want, rather than just telling them what we don’t want.” Also, negative requests are more likely to provoke resistance. (Just think about the last time someone told  you to “stop doing that.”)

Make Specific Requests That Are Doable in the Present

In addition to using positive language, NVC requests avoid vague, abstract or ambiguous phrasing and take the form of concrete actions that others can undertake in the present. Nonspecific requests can hamper understanding and communication, and they’re sometimes used to mask interpersonal games (like telling people how we want them to feel or be). By making ourselves formulate doable requests, we’re also forced to become aware of what it is that we want from others. And the more clear we are as to what we need from the other person, the more likely we are to get our needs met.

Here’s an example from What We Say Matters: Practicing Nonviolent Communication of how to transform a non-specific request into an NVC request:

“It would not be a request to ask, ‘Would you show me that you love me?’ The problem is that it is not doable. How would either person in the conversation know that the ‘showing love’ request has been met? Showing love is not something a camera can take a picture of. A doable request might be reworded as, ‘Would you be willing to hug me now?’ or ‘Would you be willing to sit on the couch now and listen to me tell you about my day for 5 minutes without saying anything?’ These sentences are requests because not only are they referencing the present, but they ask for something that can actually be done, and in a sense measured, by the parties involved. Both people would know when the request had been met.”

Make Requests Instead of Demands

If we’ve expressed our feelings and needs in a way that doesn’t blame other people, our requests can be made in a context that sound less like demands. What’s the difference between a request and a demand?  When we make a request, we’re open to hearing a response of “no.” Demands, on the other hand, implicitly or explicitly threaten people with blame or punishment if they fail to comply:

“We can help others trust that we are requesting, not demanding, by indicating that we would only want the person to comply if he or she can do so willingly. Thus we might ask, ‘Would you be willing to set the table?’ rather than ‘I would like you to set the table.’ However, the most powerful way to communicate that we are making a genuine request is to empathize with people when they don’t respond to the request. We demonstrate that we are making a request rather than a demand by how we respond when others don’t comply. If we are prepared to show an empathic understanding of what prevents someone from doing as we asked, then we have made a request, not a demand. Choosing to request rather than demand does not mean we give up when someone says ‘no’ to our request. It does mean that we don’t engage in persuasion until we have empathized with what’s preventing the other person from saying ‘yes.’”

(From Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.)

As Rosenberg emphasizes, the underlying purpose of NVC — including making requests instead of demands — isn’t to get our way; it’s to build relationships based on honesty and empathy so that everyone’s needs can be met. In NVC Part 5, we’ll learn more about “The Power of Empathy.”