Tag Archives: non-violent communication

We Can Do Better (Talking to Each Other)

The more I watch and engage in public discourse, the more I believe that one of the most important things we can do for our children and our society is to learn and practice new ways of communicating with each other.

Right now, we’re learning to engage with each other in ways that are damaging and thoughtless and building habits that perpetuate harm and disconnection. Trading memes and sound bites, labeling each other based on assumptions, and not acknowledging the emotions that are being generated as a result only serve to polarize us more and make it harder to find common ground.

Non-violent communication (NVC) is a phrase most often associated with Marshall Rosenberg and a specific method of interaction, and I find the basic principles incredibly useful and sensible. Unfortunately, when I try to put it in to practice, I often find it to be rote and robotic, and often, if only one person is embracing the practice, it feels awkward.

Because of this, I’ve thought a lot about how to build the ideas in to a way of conversing that feel more natural to me. [I am absolutely not disparaging the work of Rosenberg. I see this more as building on it and working to make it accessible to other folks who may feel the same about the role-playing as I do. I am tremendously grateful for the work he and others have done in this area.] To that end, I’ve put together a list of things I think are necessary for more compassionate, purposeful communication.

  • GENUINE CURIOSITY – Going in to a conversation or dialogue where you’re convinced you “know” and it’s your intent to teach the other person or get them to adopt your perspective is not conducive to an honest, respectful exchange.
  • TIME – This kind of interchange takes effort. It requires pauses to digest what the other person is saying, an attempt to ‘read’ their body language and tone, and it’s important to make sure you’ve really understood what they’re trying to say to you. This doesn’t come quickly. And it’s challenging. We often want conversations to be quick and simple – especially when they are about difficult subjects. 
  • WILLINGNESS TO BE UNCOMFORTABLE – Learning requires growth, and NVC is about learning. It is also often about giving up the idea that there is a Right and a Wrong conclusion, or that there is any clear conclusion at all. That is scary. Our brains are wired to look for certainty, and we’ve been taught that the ideal outcome of any interaction is a winner and a loser. In order to communicate this way, we have to give up those ideas and sink in to uncertainty and really listen for what resonates as we navigate the conversations. And we have to be open to the possibility that more profound understanding is the outcome, as opposed to a concrete resolution. 
  • EMPATHY – Being willing to entertain the notion that someone else’s perspective is both very different from yours and also totally valid is key. Empathy is about acknowledging everyone’s right to feel the way they feel, honoring their lived experience even when we can’t understand it, and not judging them for the conclusions they’ve come to based on those experiences. It is also about a feeling of compassion for someone who is struggling and resisting the urge to minimize it, justify it, or fix it. 
  • DESIRE TO CONNECT, LEARN, UNDERSTAND – This kind of conversation leads to deeper, more authentic connections between people. Anytime someone feels that their world view is heard, validated, and respected, they learn to trust a little bit more. When we can enter in to a dialogue by setting aside the need to be Right or exercise our power, and set the intention to learn, we are creating a setting where we can connect on a deeper level. 
  • PRACTICE – Most of us have grown up watching people battle it out for supremacy in debates – whether by coercion or negotiation or outright fighting. We have been conditioned to think that any conversation that doesn’t require a definitive conclusion is “small talk” or “fluffy.” It takes a lot of time and patience to undo those lessons. 
  • EVERYONE ON EQUAL FOOTING, FEELING HEARD AND RESPECTED AND LEARNING – When we begin by “othering” the person we’re talking to (thinking we know what they believe, labeling them, mentally listing all the ways they are different than us or the things they ‘don’t know’), we’ve already made the interaction ten times harder. Starting with the assumption that the person we’re engaging with deserves equal time and opportunity to talk, and that they know things that might be valuable for us, allows us to be more receptive to what they’re saying. Eye rolls, sarcasm, mocking, and labeling change the dynamic so that not everyone feels respected and heard. 

The added bonus of this kind of conversation is that it doesn’t trigger our fight/flight response because we’re not automatically on guard. When we’re focused on learning and leading with curiosity and empathy, we are less likely to be emotional, which means that our pre-frontal cortex is working more effectively. We are able to think critically and learn better. But that’s only when all the participants are willing to show up with empathy and curiosity and a willingness to be uncomfortable. Even one person who doesn’t use the above tools can trigger emotional responses that derail the conversation and lead us back to those old habits. 

What is Non-Violent Communication and Why Does it Matter?

Bhuston at English Wikipedia [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0), CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
One of the foundations of The SELF Project’s parent and student curriculum is non-violent communication. For people who haven’t encountered this term before, it can seem a bit strange, but it is an important piece of understanding how to have strong, mutually respectful, healthy, compassionate relationships.

So what is it?

The term itself was coined by Marshall Rosenberg, a psychologist, whose life’s work revolved around the notion of compassionate connection and individual needs. He believed that if we could distill our communication with others down to which of our needs we were trying to get met, we could then begin to find strategies to meet those needs in concert with others rather than at odds with them.

Non-violent communication does not involve guilt or shame, power or control tactics, or manipulation. It is a way of communicating where each individual is sincerely interested in the needs of the other and validates their right to have those needs. It also involves taking personal responsibility for one’s feelings, actions, and sometimes, coming to terms with the fact that your needs cannot or won’t be met.

Why does it matter?

As teachers and parents, we generally assume a level of power and authority that can lead us to set up communication patterns with children that are rooted in violent communication (that is, shame/blame, power/control, manipulation). And while those tactics might work to keep things peaceful for a while, they aren’t long-term strategies for creating trusting relationships.

Threats of punishment, taking away privileges as a punishment, tit-for-tat rhetoric or behavior, and “because I said so” are all examples of this kind of violent communication. They might be effective at squashing behaviors short-term, but they won’t foster relationship or ultimately teach the child skills that will serve them as adults.

Non-violent communication is also about really understanding where someone else is coming from. Because it involves being really curious about what someone’s behaviors or rhetoric is trying to say about what needs they have that aren’t being met, it fosters compassion. I often use the phrases “hurt people hurt people” and “where there is bad behavior, there is pain.” Both of those are reflective of the notion that we express ourselves negatively when we need something we aren’t getting. Using non-violent communication techniques can help parents and teachers begin to understand what is at the root of certain behaviors or relationship dynamics.

We have all had at least one ‘a-ha’ moment when our assumptions about why a kid was acting out were proven to be horribly wrong. I once knew a mom whose (pre-verbal) toddler was throwing a massive tantrum and she got increasingly frustrated and angry as she tried nearly everything to calm him down – food, drink, cuddling, shushing, threatening. He was arching his back and pulling at his overalls and causing quite the scene. It was only when she finally laid him down to check his diaper that she realized he had somehow slipped a fork down inside his overalls and the tines were stabbing him in the genitals. No wonder he was screaming!

These techniques, when used by parents and teachers, are also a good way to teach kids how to get curious about their own feelings and motivations. So often, we react to pain or frustration in less than desirable ways without even really thinking about it, but the earlier we can learn to identify what is behind those strong feelings, the better. We will be able to express ourselves to people without them becoming defensive or angry and are more likely to get our needs met in the end. It’s an important life skill to have.

Think about how much easier your life might be if your co-worker or boss was able to come to you and say, “I am feeling really anxious right now because I need this report to be absolutely perfect. I know you’re on a deadline, but would you consider helping me by proofreading it?” That is non-violent communication. Unfortunately, there aren’t many adults who talk to others that way – especially when they’re stressed and anxious. What would it be like if more people did? The agitated person in line behind you, the police officer who is worried you pose a threat, your mother-in-law…. Don’t we want our kids to have this skill, too?

It also teaches us how to negotiate by helping find common ground. Because we all have needs, if both the adult and the adolescent can get really clear on what those needs are, they can also begin to work out whether the strategies each person has been using to meet those needs are at odds. If they are, there’s a chance to get creative and work together to find a solution that works for everyone.

The more we can find ways to work together to get all our needs met, the fewer stand-offs we’ll have. The fewer kids will get kicked out of class or their house. 

Questions? Please comment below and I’ll do my best to answer them. If you want to know about NVC more in depth, check out any of the books by Marshall Rosenberg.