Header Image
Home > NVC & Buddhism: heart-to-heart communication

NVC & Buddhism: heart-to-heart communication

An unlikely “guru”

The first time I heard Marshall Rosenberg talk was in London in 2002. I’d heard about him and Nonviolent Communication (NVC) from Prasannasiddhi (another member of the Triratna Buddhist Order), who first got interested and became a trainer. I’d also heard Sangharakshita, the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order mentioning Prasannasiddhi and the work he was doing in the Order.

So there I was, in a crowd of around 400 people, waiting for the talk to start. There were several people standing at the front, to the side of the stage, talking. One of them was a man who looked to be in his late sixties, dressed casually, even a bit scruffily, and with what I would describe as a gloomy, even “hangdog” expression. I hadn’t yet seen a photo of Marshall Rosenberg at that time, so if someone had turned to me and said, “Look, there he is, he’s the one who’s going to give the talk.” I would have said, “No way!”

Anyway, after a while the man with the hangdog expression went up onto the stage, sat down, and started talking about Nonviolent Communication. Why was I there? Well, there was the obvious connection with Buddhism, with the First Precept of ahimsa — Nonviolence. Marshall traced his use of the term to Martin Luther King’s Nonviolent Direct Action and further back to Gandhi’s programme of Nonviolent Action. He said that NVC was not just about personal development and interpersonal conflicts &mdash it was also about radical social change. I was happy to hear this, as I’d lost hope of integrating these two burning interests in my present life. I must confess I don’t remember understanding much else of what he said that evening. It sounded plausible, but there was nothing I could put my finger on and say, “Ah, yes, that’s it!”.

When it first clicked

I had to wait for that moment until I’d done a Foundation Training with Gina Lawrie and was on a Deepening plus Empathy training with Bridget Belgrave (I mention these two UK trainers because, apart from Marshall, they have supported me the most in my understanding and practice of NVC). On this second training, Bridget was coaching a participant to deepening their understanding and skills in a life crisis. With a shock, I realised that this was where I came in — coaching people. I told myself that she was doing what I was already doing with friends and other Buddhists. The only difference was that she was taking 30-40 minutes to do what took me several months. And all the time she supported them so profoundly, they remained in control of their life, their inner world. So this was my “Aha!” moment, watching Bridget coaching and identifying with her role and the profoundly sensitive way she contributed to life. I realised that if I learned her skills and used them, I would enjoy a profoundly meaningful life.

To my disappointment, I couldn’t just step into Bridget’s shoes. It took me a couple of years to find my feet with these skills, and during that time I went through a lot of heartache and inner growth! I needed to get in touch with my own needs before I could support others to get in touch with theirs. I also needed to learn some facilitation skills that weren’t apparent to me that first time, when Bridget was demonstrating them so effortlessly!

The language of disconnection

So now, when I’m introducing NVC to a new group of people, what do I say? I start by saying, “conflict is inevitable, violence isn’t”. What I mean by this is that I find it difficult to imagine a world where there is no conflict – conflict that arises from differences in temperament, outlook, religious beliefs, world views. However, I can imagine a world in which we find solutions to conflict, which don’t involve violence. (By the way, there doesn’t need to be a conflict present for NVC to work — it can deepen connections and understanding even when no conflict is present).

Here’s the situation: there are two people living together (they could be partners, could be community members). They are both standing in the kitchen. They are both in pain. One says to the other, “You’re a slob!” The other replies, “You’re OCD!” So they tell each other their thoughts about what the other one is – they use labels: “slob”, “OCD”.

Hearing these labels, the pain in both of them increases, and the first one says, “You’re a bad person to live with.” The other replies, “You’re wrong about that.” So they make judgements of each other in terms of “good, bad, right and wrong”.

The pain increases and they start overtly blaming each other and imposing their judgement: “It’s your fault — you should be more mindful!” And the other replies, “This is your problem — own it! You should go and see a psychiatrist about it.”

Hearing the “shoulds”, the pain on both sides increases and they switch to the language of no choice, “You can’t carry on like this. It’s against the rules.” The other replies, “You can’t talk to me like that — it’s not allowed.”

And to finish they resort to demands (threats) to make their point, “If you don’t tidy up the kitchen this evening then you’ve got to leave!” And the other replies, “If you don’t back off right now, I will!”

Does this sound familiar? In my experience, this is the kind of language that comes out of people’s mouths when they are in conflict. I learned this language as I was growing up — at school, at home, in the various jobs I’ve had. It’s the kind of language that comes out of my mouth when I’m in pain — when I’m trying to express my pain to another person. And the sad thing is, it doesn’t serve me — it doesn’t get me the understanding and co-operation that I’m looking for when I’m in pain. In fact, it does the opposite — it increases the pain and creates disconnection.

So I call labels, judgements, blame, imposing my judgement, no choice and demands, the “language of disconnection”. And I’m curious what comes up for you when you hear this language? Sadness? Anger? Fear of losing connection? Wondering how to apply the speech precepts in this situation?

Heart-to-heart connection

I’m glad to say that’s not the end of the story. I’m interested in what happens when we get connected at a heart level. There are many ways to do this, and NVC is one of them. So how do I go about creating a heart-to-heart connection — to find out what is in the heart of these two people? The way that I’ve found to be most effective is to get in touch with the basic needs on both sides — the “good reasons” why they are acting and speaking in this way. And these “needs” are distinct from any particular strategy that the two of them might have for fulfilling them.

What’s important to the first person, the one who said, “You’re a slob!”? People usually guess: a sense of order, care, mindfulness or awareness, perhaps health.

And what’s important to the other person, the one who said, “You’re OCD!”? People usually guess: a sense of perspective and self-responsibility, respect, autonomy, perhaps ease.

This is what I mean by creating a heart-to-heart connection: finding out what is important (what are the needs) on both sides. People usually have an “Aha!” moment just looking at these two lists of needs — realising that there are needs on both sides. OK, so maybe it’s easier for them to identify with one side or the other, but they get a glimpse that both sides are needing something, are longing for something that would enrich their lives.

I’ve found that when people are connected at this level, whether they live in a Buddhist community in the UK, the slums of India, war-torn Sri Lanka, or a US prison, they are only a short distance from finding a solution that honours the needs on both sides, where no-one gives in or gives up.

The intention of NVC

And for me this is the intention of NVC — that I act in this way because I have the intention to create the kind of connection that will lead to everybody’s needs being valued and met. And this for me is the deepest connection with the Dharma — this compassionate intention to connect with a view to enriching the lives of all beings.

List of life-enriching “needs”

So what other “needs” would you add to this? What enriches your life? We’ve already got:

  • A sense of order
  • Care for their living space
  • Mindfulness / awareness
  • Health
  • A sense of perspective
  • Self-responsibility
  • Respect
  • Autonomy
  • Ease

What would you add to this list? Here’s what I would add:

  • Love
  • Honesty
  • Empathy
  • Freedom / release
  • Wholeness
  • Beauty
  • Peace
  • Harmony
  • Growth
  • Freshness
  • Vitality
  • To contribute to life
  • Meaning / inspiration / purpose
  • To be valued
  • Food, air, water, shelter, rest, movement
  • Safety
  • Control / choice
  • Power (empowerment)
  • Understanding (to understand and to be understood)
  • Support and encouragement
  • Consideration
  • Connection
  • Closeness
  • To matter and belong
  • Recognition
  • Self-acceptance
  • Creativity
  • Play
  • Spontaneity / authenticity
  • Celebrating dreams/goals/values
  • Mourning (mourning lost dreams and lost lives)

Reaching out to humanity

When I’m doing this with a group of people, I usually ask them at this point: “Are there any ‘needs’ on this list that you haven’t been in touch with in the course of your life?” I haven’t yet heard someone say “No”. Then I ask: “Do you think that there is anybody in this room who hasn’t been in touch with all of these at some point in their life?” Again, I haven’t yet heard someone say “No”. Then I ask them to reach out in their imaginations to the people in the local town, the country, the continent, the entire world, and ask the same question, “Do you imagine that there is a human being who hasn’t been in touch with all of these at some point in their life?” There’s usually a pause while people do this for themselves. I haven’t yet heard someone say “No”.

It’s at these moments that I quiver with a sense of common humanity — a sense of deeply belonging to the human race.

Needs and Enlightenment

I’ve heard some practising Buddhists who say that talking about “needs” won’t get you to Enlightenment. They say that needs are mundane, and don’t lead to the Transcendental. I deeply appreciate their concern for complete freedom, the “inconceivable emancipation” for the benefit of all beings, and their reluctance to accept a language that might fall short of this.

For myself, I’m confident in my intention: creating the kind of connection that leads to everybody’s needs being met (or “Going for the connection, hanging loose to the outcome”). It’s already brought unimagined richness into my life.

Through staying with this intention, I’ve become more present to myself and others. I’ve healed painful memories relating to my childhood. I’ve become healthier and stronger physically. I’ve supported hundreds of people to go more deeply into what’s important to them. I’ve found a way to contribute to life that gives me meaning and purpose, and supports me in other ways. I find that I’m not drawn to the idea of “attainment” or Insight as much as I was in my teens, twenties and thirties. I seem to have found something in the present moment that is more nourishing, more fruitful than the ideas I had about these things. I’m still working on the language and skills to support my intention.

However, I do have two clarifications to offer:

  • “Getting your needs met” doesn’t just mean getting them met “externally” – from outside. “Needs” can also be met “internally” by getting in touch with the particular living ‘energy’ of that need.
  • My “need” for food doesn’t get met fully by having food in my stomach. As I am interconnected with all beings at the level of basic needs, my “need” for food is only met when all beings have food in their stomachs. Nobody’s needs get met unless everybody’s needs get met.

For ten years before I came across NVC, I was the co-publisher and co-editor of Urthona, the Buddhist arts magazine. For those ten years, and many before it, the Arts were the love of my life: a deep source of inspiration and connection. Now I find that I can get those things freshly and bountifully through my connection with myself and the people around me.

Perhaps I’ve just matured with the passing of time. I like to think that practising and teaching NVC has contributed. I don’t know whether exploring and practising NVC will take me “all the way to Enlightenment”.I am hopeful that exploring NVC will help me and others who follow the Dharma to communicate more clearly, more creatively and more compassionately.

About the author

Shantigarbha is the author of I’ll Meet You There: a practical guide to empathy, mindfulness and communication, published by Windhorse in 2018.

He grew up in Croydon (UK) and studied Latin, Greek & Philosophy at Oxford University. He’s had a variety of jobs including charity fundraising for the Karuna Trust, managing Dharmachakra, working in a psychiatric hospital, working as the Sales and Marketing manager of a software company, publisher and co-editor of Urthona. While he was managing Dharmachakra, he co-wrote an audio-version of the life of the Buddha, which has sold more than five thousand copies. In 1996 he was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order and given the name Shantigarbha, which means “seed of peace”.

He’s been practising Nonviolent Communication for the last six years, teaching it for the last five, and been certified with the Centre for Nonviolent Communication since 2004. He works in the UK, the USA, India and Sri Lanka offering trainings and retreats for Buddhists; public workshops including transforming anger, healing retreats and Year Programmes; trainer development groups; training for prison inmates; training days for teachers and marriage guidance counsellors. He spends time each year running retreats for ‘Dalit’ Buddhists and others in India and working with mixed groups of Sinhalese and Tamils in war-torn Sri Lanka.

He has been a Chapter Convenor and Regional Order Convenor for men in the Eastern Region of the UK, and mediates as a member of the Order Mediators’ Pool.

He has appeared on Sri Lankan TV to talk about NVC, and has written regular columns on NVC for two UK magazines: Juno (a natural approach to family life), and Funky Raw (raw food).

This article was previously published as NVC in the FWBO: Heart-to-Heart Communication on the now-defunct FWBO Features Blog. (The FWBO was the previous name of the Triratna Buddhist Community.) It has been lightly edited for context.