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Non-violent Communication: A powerful way to challenge prejudice

NVCThe planet is full of humans who think, talk and behave differently to each other. These differences can be embraced and enjoyed, yet they can also result in misunderstandings, disconnection and all-too-often, violence. Nonviolent Communication (NVC), also known as compassionate communication, is a language that teaches us how to have conversations with those to whom we are struggling to relate, writes Sarah Barry.

10 April 2011

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) was developed by Marshall B. Rosenberg, an American clinical psychologist who founded the Centre for Nonviolent Communication in 1984.

He has trained people in NVC around the world, and has developed peace programs in some of the most war-torn states on the planet. Hundreds of trainers and facilitators worldwide are taking NVC into corporations, schools and personal relationships in group and one-on-one formats.

There are peace activists utilising NVC in war-stricken countries such as Palestine, Israel, Rwanda, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Columbia.

NVC is expressed through four components: Observations (as opposed to evaluations), Feelings (as opposed to thoughts), Needs (as opposed to interpretations) and Requests (as opposed to demands). The practice also has a strong emphasis on empathy, including self-empathy.

I was introduced to NVC by a friend in 2006, and have been a part of a fortnightly NVC practice group since then. It was the use of NVC as a tool for social change that first impressed me, yet it was my desire to be able to connect with the people around me more authentically that inspired me to keep practising.

Learning Nonviolent Communication is like learning a new language. Regular practice, and acceptance of our slow progress is helpful. Yet as soon as you have learned the basic premise of any language, communication can take place.

I have been more inspired to practice than ever before these past few months. In light of current world events and the recent election of a conservative political party in my home state of New South Wales in Australia I am more aware of a personal desire for open and clear communication that addresses everyone’s needs compassionately.

To this end, what I am curious about right now is how can NVC help us sit with anger and how can it help us dialogue with people who hold strong, even violent prejudices?

Kate Raffin, a Sydney based NVC facilitator and accredited mediator, runs NVC practice groups and foundation courses. She says practicing NVC supports her to notice the effects anger has on her body.

Feeling it, she can make some time for this anger, and really hear herself while in this state. When she notices the symptoms of anger expressing themselves with the statements “I want them to be different” or “I want them to fucking get it” she knows that NVC supports her full expression of anger without having to suppress anything.

Experience shows her that the first response to anger is probably the least likely to get her what she wants, and that what is beneath the anger is very important, and well worth looking for.

When I asked Kate about how NVC prepares her for dialogue with someone who holds a strong prejudice she talked about the practice of empathy, and in particular for heated situations, self-empathy.

Empathy is the capacity to be present with another person’s feelings, to listen with our entire being. If we are struggling to relate to what someone is saying, we probably need to have a moment to connect with what we ourselves need right now.

Once we have self-empathised, we are in a better position to be able to practise empathy for the person in front of us.

Kate says learning NVC has taught her to not set herself up to think, “I can change this person”. She gives herself a break from thinking she can get them to agree with her.

Through this work, she can begin to see their humanness, and what is important to them about the subject at hand. She acknowledges that we don’t have to agree, but practising NVC allows us to get clear about what we want.

NVC can help us take the opportunity to act in an authentic and engaged way, rather than sitting in apathy, or addressing the vilification in front of us with even more vilification.

When two parties get together with the intention of ‘educating’ each other, we have set ourselves up for a disconnected process.

Kate believes that NVC is closer to our true nature rather than our learned behaviour. It’s about being compassionate and giving, yet she makes it clear that it is not about being “soft and nice – hell no”.

Catherine Cadden and Jesse Wiens are US-based Centre for Nonviolent Communication Certified Trainers. They founded ZENVC: NVC combined with Zen Buddhist philosophy. Their work takes on many forms that are grounded and radical.

In Catherine’s book Peaceable Revolution Through Educationshe shares stories from the TEMBA school, a visionary academic program she founded, which is rooted in nonviolent philosophy, NVC, sustainable living and artistic expression.

In her book she shares what happened while running a workshop in the San Francisco Bay Area. One of the students was a 16-year-old Ku Klux Klan member. The inspiring transition he made with the assistance of NVC style empathy is shared in this TedXTriangleNC talk.

The first experience she shares in the video reveals how important empathy can be in crisis, particularly for the people we might automatically judge for the part they have played in dire events.

Catherine was present when a young girl was run over by a car. She assisted the girl until the paramedics arrived, and then noticed the man who had been driving the car. Catherine heard people saying to him “You should die for what you just did to her”.

She approached him and said “I’m guessing this isn’t how you planned to have your day go…”. The level of connection that came from that empathic guess allowed him to receive the support that he also needed.

NVC is a rich and ever-growing language that reminds us of the relief we feel when we have connections with people (and with ourselves) that go beyond the conditioned behaviors of evaluation, blame and demands.

This work can be taken into high-intensity situations, yet there is a beauty in the way it can also transform our most intimate relationships. Whether we want to have genuine connections within our families, relationships, communities or workplaces, this is a tool that can help facilitate integrity.

If we are not getting results we are looking for, surely it is well worth examining and changing our old habit patterns for the awareness and harmony that comes with true empathy.

Sarah Barry is a full-time professional tarot reader who enjoys working with people in grounded and empathetic ways. Her regular practice of NVC, along with her Vipassana meditation practice supports the way in which she likes to work. She writes and blogs at her website Psychic Sarah.


+1 #2 sistertongue 2011-05-14 14:10
Having lived in an alternative community that went through the "fad" of NVC, as well as being a psychotherapist specializing in the field of trauma, my experience with it is what I call "No Viable Communication." The result of its teachings I found in the devotees of this method were folks who used it as a form of controlling conversation and/or relationship. I am sure it helps people who do not have the faintest beginner's clue about how to simply sit and listen to someone else, but primarily I found it was simply another tool used to establish inferior/superi or power dynamics and to re-inforce such dynamics. It stifles authenticity with canned phrases used by the devotee in repetitious fashion. I'm experienced enough to spot the money-generatin g scheme of workshops, trainings, teacher trainings, workbooks, dvd's etc, etc which provide nothing more than fluff lite material at larger and larger expense to the participants.
-1 #1 Mark 2011-04-14 05:32
Really encouraging to hear practices and stories of compassion and transformation. Well done, Sarah, for circulating these ideas and opportunities.

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