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Conflict is inevitable, violence isn’t

Moving on from the previous article, Empathy cribsheet, let’s look at this distinction — that conflict is inevitable, violence isn’t — because it helps me to be present when I’m in conflict with the people around me, and when I’m mediating between people who are in conflict.

I grew up fearing conflict, fearing strong emotions, fearing people throwing saucepans in the kitchen, fearing people leaving. And I spent my early life avoiding conflict – it was too painful for me to deal with.

Through Nonviolent Communication (NVC), I’ve come to understand that conflict is inevitable; it’s part of human life. What isn’t inevitable is the violence that can accompany it. With empathy, honesty and creativity I have found nonviolent ways to deal with conflict when it arises.

With these tools, I can use the energy I previously invested in protecting myself from conflict in more enriching ways. I’ve found that this affects my whole way of life. I can be more free and relaxed, my life energy has risen up and my sense of joy in life has increased.

And since I don’t fear conflict in the way I used to, I am able to be present with what’s alive in myself and others, even if that brings us into conflict with each other.

So how does conflict arise? As I understand it, conflict arises from differences between us – differences in temperament, upbringing, culture, the way we deal with things.

Here’s an example of what I call conflict. My partner Christa gets annoyed and upset when I say that I’m going to go to bed at a certain time and arrive later than that time. And when she tells me about her annoyance and upset in a particular tone of voice, I feel angry and shocked.

Here’s what I mean by violence. In the situation above, an example of physical violence would be Christa slapping me on the face (or vice versa – me slapping her on the face). In my experience, physical violence is easier to spot – somebody does something and it affects another person immediately.

But of course violence can be both physical and verbal. With verbal violence, the effects are not always so obvious, though in my experience they can go deep as well. Here are some examples of what I mean by verbal violence. In the situation between Christa and I, Christa labels me as ‘late’ – she says, “You’re always late”. Then perhaps I blame her; “It’s your fault for being so intolerant.” Then she might judge my in terms of good / bad / right / wrong; “You’re useless”. And I might impose my judgement on her; “You shouldn’t speak to me like that”. And she might use language implying no choice; “You just can’t get it into your head how upsetting it is for me when you’re late into bed”. And finally, I might make a demand (threat); “If you speak to me like that again, I’m going to leave and go back to the UK”.

My understanding is this language – the language of Labels, Blame, Judgement, Imposing my Judgement, Language implying No Choice, and Demands – is violent too, in the sense that it attempts to use ‘power over’ the other person, and supports that by denying responsibility for my actions.

The difficulty with violence – whether physical or verbal – as a way for us to meet our needs is that everybody pays for it. It’s too costly. In my experience, violence leads to fear, anger and resentment. And fear, anger and resentment are the conditions for further violence. Even without actual words or blows, there will be lack of connection, lack of trust, lack of cooperation.

Now, according to Nonviolent Communication, whatever we do, we’re always trying to meet our basic human needs. Whatever action we choose, the driving force is to meet an unmet need or express a met need.

Nonviolent Communication encourages us to get in touch with the needs behind the ‘violent’ actions and words, as a way of increasing understanding and connection. And when understanding and connection are established, it gives us the tools to find a less harmful, more life-enriching way to meet those needs for everybody involved.

We’ve looked at a conflict between my partner and I and some possible ‘violent’ outcomes. What would the same situation look like if we applied Nonviolent Communication?

Let’s take the last of my statements, the threat that ‘If you talk to me like that again, I’m going to leave’. What are the needs behind these words?

I would guess two needs: firstly, the need for protection – to protect myself from pain. Secondly, the need for understanding. Here’s how it works: I desperately want understanding for the depth of pain I’m in. The way I imagine getting this understanding is to create an equivalent amount of pain in them. I imagine that then they’ll understand the pain I’m in. Of course they will, but they will be too busy trying to repeat the experiment in me for me to enjoy the moment!

So these are the needs I guess: protection and to be understood.

If my partner is in too much pain to guess these needs for me, I can guess them for myself. I can remember two or three occasions when I had the presence of mind to do this – I took a ‘Time Out’ and empathized with myself until I was in touch with the needs behind my threats.

When I was in touch with these needs, I looked for a less harmful, more life-enriching way to meet them for everybody involved. And I found to my surprise that the first thing I wanted to do is to re-establish connection. However, I didn’t want to do it in a way that re-triggered the pain in me (hearing again how Christa feels was likely to do this). So what did I do?

Well, the solution I hit on was to ask Christa just for her need that was unmet, making it clear that I didn’t have space to hear what she was feeling about it. Here’s what I said: “Christa, I notice that we haven’t spoken to each other for two hours now, and I’m desperate for connection. I don’t have space to hear what you’re feeling at the moment, but I do have space to hear the unmet needs that’s on the table for you. Would you be willing to tell me that?”

“OK,” she replied, “I will do that.” She went quiet for thirty seconds before speaking again. I stayed in touch with my need for connection during the silence

“The deepest need I’m in touch with is the need for…dignity. Yes, that’s it.” I was surprised, and afraid for a second that I would hear it as blame or criticism. And then I found that I really did have the space to hear it as her unmet need. I really could feel the dignity of it, and the sadness behind it in me. I felt overwhelming relief – I’d re-established trust and connection in a way that had also met my need to protect myself.

Next, Teaching NVC in a US prison.

© Shantigarbha 2005. This article first appeared in Funky Raw magazine. It has been lightly edited for context.