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Be the Change

Nonviolent Communication presents a vision of compassionate communication — with ourselves, the people around us and the world we live in. It is a language of respect, empathy and honesty, and is sometimes described as ‘the language of the heart.’

We are engaged in the process of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) when we have the intention create the quality of connection that will lead to everybody’s needs being met nonviolently. And this is the vision of NVC — to get everybody’s needs met nonviolently.

An impossible task? The only thing that gives meaning to our lives? If we’d like to see this change in the world, NVC enourages us to embody it in ourselves. As Gandhi said, we can ‘Be the change we wish to see’.

In practice, NVC supports us to:

  • Make clear observations about what we see and hear (separating them from any evaluations we might make on the basis of them)
  • To express our feelings in a way that clearly takes responsibility for them
  • To express our basic human needs in a way that is easy for others to hear
  • To make clear, concrete requests to meet our needs.

These four — observations, feelings, needs and requests — are the basic ‘Ingredients’ of NVC. By focussing our attention on these Ingredients as we express ourselves, listen to others and simply get in touch with ourselves, we increase the flow of compassionate communication.

Of the four, needs are the heart of the process. By ‘needs’, NVC means basic, universal human needs: physical needs like food, shelter and protection; social needs e.g. connection, honesty, respect understanding and love. And spiritual needs e.g. meaning, beauty, wholeness, harmony, and contribution to life.

But what happens if everybody looks after their own needs? Is this a recipe for selfishness? NVC suggests that everybody, every moment, is trying to meet their basic needs. They may not be aware that this is what they are doing, and they may be choosing strategies that are tragic for themselves, others and the world around them. Nevertheless, all of us are always trying to meet our needs.

And it’s okay to have needs! Needs are just another way of talking about how life moves through us. My experience is that as we get in touch with our own needs we realise that we are connected to others. We find it easier to see each other’s common humanity. We realise that nobody’s needs get met unless everybody’s needs get met.

Does all this sound familiar to you? Marshall Rosenberg, who developed NVC in his work as a psychiatrist, Civil Rights activist and mediator, claims he has invented nothing new. He says it’s all there in previous traditions – he’s just drawn it together in a way that’s easy to understand and practise.

In his work during the Civil Rights movement in the US in the 60s, he was involved in preparing communities for desegregation. He found that bringing people’s attention to their feelings and needs helped them to understand each other. All the time they used the labels of ‘black’ or ‘white’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, they reinforced their separateness. By contrast, Marshall says, ‘When we hear the other person’s feelings and needs, we recognise our common humanity.’

So for me, this is the powerful message of Nonviolent Communication — that we can make connections with anyone on the basis of what unites us – our common humanity. And in this way we make it more likely that we will get everybody’s needs met peacefully.

But does talking about needs work in practice? Marshall Rosenberg has used this process in mediating between Arabs and Jews, with street gangs in US cities, with people classed as mentally ill or criminally insane, between warring tribes in Africa, in couples mediation. The trainers he has trained (currently 175 ‘certified’ trainers plus thousands of others) are applying and sharing NVC on every continent with some of the poorest (and richest) people on earth. There are currently about 1000 Israeli schools that have been introduced to ‘the language of the heart’, and there are such schools in Palestine, Serbia, Italy, Sweden and the US.

In my experience, most people start to learn NVC by attending an Introduction, or reading Marshall Rosenberg’s book: Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (available from Amazon) or watching some introductory videos (available in the UK from www.GnB.org.uk). They then go on a workshop, usually a two-day, intensive Foundation Training (see www.NVC-UK.info for trainers). This gives them the tools and the practice to start using NVC in their everyday life. However, like learning a language, fluency comes with time.

Most people start using it in family and work situations — often relationships that have been ‘stuck’ for years. They immediately notice the benefits of communicating honestly in this way, and the connection they get from understanding the other person’s feelings and needs. They learn how to stay in touch with their own needs while giving space to others. And they find that when they are in touch with their own needs, it makes it easier for the people around them to get in touch with theirs.

Then they start using it to get in touch with other needs — to contribute to life, to live in harmony, to heal themselves and the world. For me this has involved learning how to share NVC — to meet my need to contribute to life. It’s also involved going more and more deeply into my present experience, and staying connected with the people around me at the same time. My mantra goes like this: ‘Go for connection – let go of the outcome’. So here I am, going for the connection. I’d love to know how you feel when you read this!

I feel like I’ve said as much as I can usefully say in written words. NVC is so much about live interaction – the flow of understanding and empathy from person to person. Before I say more, I want to know what you’ve understood me to be saying, and how you feel about it! Maybe I’ll have to wait until I get an email from you or meet you at a workshop. In the meantime, as Marshall Rosenberg says, may we ‘Laugh all our laughter and cry all our tears’.

Next: Getting in Touch with Your Needs.


© Shantigarbha. This article first appeared in Funky Raw magazine (issue 2, Spring 2005). It has been lightly edited for context.

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