An inner city teacher in St. Louis found herself in a dangerous situation when she stayed after school to help a student, even though her superiors warned her, for her own safety, to leave the building once classes were dismissed. A stranger entered the room and demanded she take off her clothes. This incident had a better outcome than you might expect. So did the following: A metropolitan police officer arrested a man at a housing project, only to exit the building to find an angry mob of sixty people surrounding his car, demanding that he let the man go. Both the teacher and policeman had recently been trained in Nonviolent Communication (NVC), and both escaped with their lives. Their secret weapon? They engaged the people who were ready to act on their violent urges in a conversational process that diffused the danger. The teacher escaped her rapist and the policeman calmed the crowd. Both incidents are recounted by Marshall Rosenberg in his book, Nonviolent Communication, A Language for Life. Rosenberg, a psychologist and renowned mediator, has used Nonviolent Communication (NVC) in his work with warring nations, tribes, and gangs. In his book he shows how we can use language to shape our experience and create more conscious, compassionate interaction, resulting in greater connection, honesty and empathy in our relationships.
Rosenberg’s background explains a lot about how and why he began to look at language to understand its connection to violence. When Rosenberg was a young boy he moved to Detroit with his family. Race riots in the street outside his home and anti-semitic slurs from neighbors imprinted on his young mind the “dis-ease” of violence. In an introduction to Rosenberg’s book, Ghandi’s grandson, Arun, explains that passive violence, in the form of criticism, judgments and taunts, bottles up inside people until they explode in acts of physical violence. Language foments physical violence, and in its non-physical form takes hold of a mind and works its poison. At the same time that Rosenberg witnessed angry mobs outside his home, he describes the impact of watching his uncle arrive every evening at his family’s home to help care for his ailing grandmother. Exhausted from a long day of work, his uncle remained cheerful, smiling, peaceful. The contrast of the angry mobs with his beatific uncle inspired Rosenberg to study psychology. He wanted to understand the ccnnection between people’s mindsets and the way they relate to the world. Ultimately, his studies led him away from psychology and toward his work teaching and using NVC as an inner city and international mediator. His mediation toolbox includes an arsenal of observations and prescriptions about how to bring consciousness to the words we speak to one another. What we say matters.
At the heart of NVC are four components: observing (not judging), identifying our feelings, identifying the needs that underlie these feelings, and requesting (not demanding) from others what they might do to help us meet our needs. No relationship can thrive, according to Rosenberg, whether between partners or nations, unless both sides are getting their needs met. As an example, Rosenberg describes a difficult mediation he conducted between Palestinians and Israelis that began with the usual hurling of epithets, judgments, and diagnoses of the other side’s problems. Not until Rosenberg was able to get each side to step back from blame, and move into a dialogue about what they needed, could he begin to help them find a way to talk to one another so that each side was recognizable to the other. Listing the needs that each side shared in common allowed Rosenberg to build empathy between the two factions. This is the shift of recognition described by transformational mediators; new possibilities for dispute resolution flow from this moment when opponents empathize with the other side’s perspective.
In the case of the school teacher and policeman above, both applied what they’d learned from Rosenberg’s workshop to use empathy to connect with their aggressors. The school teacher said to her attacker, “I can hear how much you want this. At the same time I want you to know how scared and horrible I feel, and how grateful I’d be if you’d leave without hurting me.” The process took many minutes. She later described how each time she empathized with the man, she could sense his becoming less adamant in his intention to follow through with the rape. Similarly, the policeman said that although he was skeptical, he remembered his training in that dangerous moment and reflected back the crowd’s feelings, saying things like, “So you don’t trust my reasons for arresting this man? You think it has to do with race?” Only after recognizing the crowd’s anger, giving words to their feelings, was he able to get them to listen to his assurance that he would treat the prisoner fairly. The hostility drained from the crowd and they parted to clear a path for him to pass.
Rosenberg’s NVC movement asks of its students that “each one teach one” how to apply NVC to daily interactions. There are many takeaways for mediators in Rosenberg’s work. At the heart of NVC is a belief that by “shining the light of consciousness” on our own and others’ feelings and needs, we can begin to experience empathy and connection. More than a philosophy, NVC is a roadmap for creating a more peaceful world through compassionate communication.