“It is through our speech that we are known, for it tells a story of our thought life and essential self. How we speak can open or close doors, heal or hurt, create joy or suffering, and ultimately determines our own degree of happiness.”
This quote, from the foreword to Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s book Speak Peace in a World of Conflict: What You Say Next Will Change Your World, kicks off a series on non-violent communication, or NVC. I first encountered Rosenberg’s work at the Chopra Center. I was there for the meditation practice, but as a lawyer dealing with conflicts every day, I was intrigued by Rosenberg’s book entitled Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.
A clinical psychologist, Rosenberg has applied NVC in conflict zones ranging from Rwanda and Serbia/Croatia to corporate board rooms to interactions between family members. NVC is premised on the concept that everything we do is to enable us to meet some need. Yet we’ve been raised in a world where we’re discouraged from identifying our needs and feelings for fear of being labeled weak and dependent. This leads us to engage in communication that’s harsh, judgmental and critical, i.e., “violent” communication. This type of communication, laden with diagnoses and demands, provokes defensiveness and aggression instead of creating connections and relating to each other based on compassion.
NVC guides us to shift our communication mindsets from violent to nonviolent by utilizing four skills:
- Observing what’s happening within us and around us without judging or evaluating.
- Identifying and expressing what we’re feeling, as opposed to what we’re thinking or how we’re interpreting the situation.
- Connecting those feelings to needs that create them.
- Making and responding to requests to take action that will fulfill our needs, without making demands that will be met with punishment if not satisfied.
These skills are applied to enhance self-empathy (compassionate awareness of our own inner experience); empathy (listening to others with compassion); and honest self-expression (expressing ourselves authentically in ways that are likely to inspire compassion in others).
This may sound like a strained form of hippy-dippy-trippy communication. But the focus is less on the four steps themselves and more on our intentions when we speak. Shifting our mindsets to nonjudgmental observations, feelings, needs and requests can be as valuable as years of therapy for our relationships with others and ourselves. Becoming aware of our own feelings and needs and transforming our own inner dialogue paves the way for us to develop empathy for other people in our lives and to listen to them with compassion, even if they’re not practicing NVC:
“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 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.”
(From Nonviolent Communication.)
So how do we keep our attention focused on feelings and needs and avoid the seemingly natural drift into judgments and demands? This series will go over key aspects of NVC designed to help us do just that. Also, Rosenberg’s Center for Nonviolent Communication offers training in NVC. To get the ball rolling, here’s a video of an introductory class with Rosenberg on the basics of nonviolent communication. Hang in there with it. Rosenberg’s approach may be far different than what you’re used to, but the results can be profound.
Next week: NVC 2: Making Observations Without Mixing In Evaluations