Nonviolent communication

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This is a recipe for nonviolent communication a type of communication.

Skillsurfers booklet 106.png

Written by the Skillsurfers

An interesting topic that I kept myself busy with during the tour is the model of nonviolent communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg. We visited several free schools, which worked with this model (among others), and so I was getting more and more curious what nonviolent communication is about. So I read a book by Marshall B. Rosenberg that was randomly lying round in our bus library.

Rosenberg works as a mediator, and gives workshops and seminars in all the world. For big business companies (and a lot of money) as well as for nonprofit associations (sometimes for free), for schools, families, for everybody. He is particularly active in the movement of „democratic schools“, that is: schools which want to teach students about democratic participation processes and organisation (like for example Sudbury schools).

Half amused, half sad, Rosenberg tells about his experiences as a mediator: He tells about women, who argue that their partners don’t love them, but who also can’t tell him precisely, what their partners should do to show that they love them.

He tells about a (black) gangstaboss, who (in the time of segregation in the U.S.) first threatened him for even daring to enter „his“ quarter, but then after a while of empathic talking went together with Rosenberg to a school in the surrounding to explain and express the needs and motives of young (black) violent kids to the school’s director.

He tells about women whom he brought together with their rapers, to talk, until they could reconcile with them. About his troublesome attempts to teach Israeli policemen about nonviolence. About parents who show more respect to the neighbours they don’t like than to their own children. About all the things he learned from and together with his own kids – his best teachers it seems.

About astonishing, exciting cultures where people who caused damage to others are not punished , but all the people of the community form a circle and take the wrongdoer to it’s middle, to shower them with praises and tell him/her about all the good things he/she already did to the community in their life.

I will try to sum up what i understand as non-violent communication after this lecture and he visited of several projects who are working with these ideas and model. But I don’t believe that I will be able to manage to give you enough input and practical knowledge on that few pages so you can use it. I want to inspire you to get more into the topic! :-)


The violence behind language – the wolf is speaking from you!

The model of non-violent communication assumes that we are using violence in our language all the time without being even aware of it. Many of us speak in a way that hurts others in their feelings and needs, without even realising that this level of language exists. We just know what we want to say – why should should the others not understand as well?

A woman says to her husband: „I don’t want you to work so much“. What is violent about that sentence?

Unconsciously we start circles of violence and counter violence – conflicts arise, often for no reason. We are reproducing spirals of violence all the time. Who does not know these stupid arguments with people you love, for absolutely no obvious reason?

We can avoid this, if we get aware where the violence is hidden, and then learn new ways of expressing our thoughts and of listening and reacting to others. Rosenberg talks about „wolf language“ and „giraffe language“, and when he does a workshop for kids also uses hand puppets to visualize those two kinds of speaking and listening.

So, how does his model explain conflicts? Everything we say is connected with feelings. And behind the feelings there is needs, which trigger those feelings.

For instance I feel good when I tell to somebody that I painted a picture (fulfilling my need for creativity) and the other person listens with sympathy and shares my joy (meeting my need for empathy). On the other hand I feel really bad when I tell to someone that it troubled me how he speeded with my car (not supplying my need for security). And when he starts telling me in a reproachful way that am not grateful enough for him driving (not meeting my need for empathy) I feel even worse. And I will insult him more and more, not responding to him and his own needs for empathy, because I am pissed off.

According to Rosenberg there is 9 different basic human needs, which all people share: The needs for substantial aliment (incl. food, water, living, warmth, etc), the needs for creativity, love/intimacy, security, play, relaxation, self-determination/autonomy, and sense/appreciation.

Each feeling that occurs can be broke down to joy and pain: if a need is fulfilled you feel joy, if not pain. Whenever you are missing the right words to describe a feeling, a least you can tell if it is a joyful or painful feeling – often that’s enough for the others to understand.

So: Behind each feeling, painful or joyful, hides a need, a fulfilled one or a unfulfilled one. Often we aren’t aware of that need and don’t articulate it. It seems we take for granted that the other one understands this need anyhow, and don’t express the most important parts of what we want to say.

The tricky part about it is: Every person fulfills his/her needs in another way. For example, one girl supplies her need for food by a toasted bread and is happy, whereas her friend feels threatened in his physical existence if he cannot have an organic 3 course menu for dinner.

So the needs are the same, but actions people take are different – and so needs are the only level of communication that really can make us understand others! Not to communicate about them leads to conflicts. Imagine 2 friends, one is cooking for the other and wants to do her good. He makes a nice steak and wonders that she is really in a bad mood when he brings the food to the table. It turns out that she is vegetarian and really stressed by his approach to meet her need for relaxation. She feels a bit hurt, that he forgot that she is vegetarian – what did not fulfill her need for empathy and self-determinaion.

I don’t think that this situation would lead to a serious conflict (vegetarians are used to those kind of situations), but it symbolises how one situation can look totally different for two different people and illustrates the potential for conflicts. One person thinks he/she is doing good to the other, and does the opposite without realising. People tend to think that others fulfill their needs in the same or a similar way like they themselves do. But they don’t and as the example above shows, none of the two sides can help it and guilt is totally out of question.

Yes, „I don’t want you to work so much“ is a violent sentence. The husband only understands that he is doing something wrong, that she doesn’t like something he is doing. He does not automatically understand what he could do better or what exactly his wife wants him to do. But of course she’ll be angry if he doesn’t do what she wants – even though she did not tell him! He does not necessarily understand her needs. Maybe he is a good listener and knows what she wants, but this is something she cannot expect as a matter of course. She should know what she wants and needs. She can’t expect him to know better than herself, and she should express it, instead of telling him what NOT to do.

In day-to-day speaking we seldomly find down to the level of basic needs and we don’t learn how to communicate about them – but in conflict situations this skill can help us a lot!

We all know how it is to have the need for something and see it unfulfilled – we know it can mean pain. But sometimes we are not able to understand why people feel pain because of something we did, because we don’t know their strategies to meet their own needs. We end up with accusations: „You are so crazy! This isn’t normal!“.

We are starting to use a language which Rosenberg calls „static language“ – a language consisting of judgements like good/bad, right/wrong, normal/not normal – all words that will not get us further at all in a conflict situation. Non-violent communication is a „process language“, a dynamic language that tries to avoid all judgemens and leave the situation as open as possible. „Are you angry?“ instead of „You are such an angry person!“ (stating the person is always like that). There is also a big difference if I say that something doesn’t work, or if I say that I don’t know how it can work.

There is analysists who found out, that in cultures using more process language and less static language the physical violence is much less than in ones who use a lot of static language.

We have to learn how to express our own feelings and needs, instead of accusing others in a static way. We have to learn to explain our strategies of how we are meeting our needs to other people. We have to stop attacking people (with static language) for not understanding what we feel, and learn how to express exactly what we want and feel.

What if that woman would ask: „Would you spend one evening in a week with me, and one with the children?“ Maybe he will say „No“. Maybe he doens’t have the time. Or has other needs. But at least it is clear what she wants and not only what she doesn’t want. And she doesn’t give him the feeling of doing something wrong. It is almost impossible to understand this question as an accusation.

If he says „no“ there is still the option of expressing her needs behind that demand and of finding another solution, that does meet her needs.

Become a giraffe! – one way to self-awareness in conflicts.

To communicate in a non-violent way, we constantly have to ask ourselves: „What is alive inside of me? What do I feel?“ and „What would enrich my life? What would improve my mood?“. This is the basis of self-awareness, the basis of knowing what we actually want from the other person.

Someone who is not sure what he/she wants him/herself, doesn’t even give the others a chance to do them something good and find a solution for a problem together.

Rosenberg often meets people in his work, who think that if you „love“ someone you always know exactly what the partner wants, without him/her having to tell. He often meets people who are sure that the other one doesn’t love them. And when he digs deeper he finds out, that the people don’t even know themselves what they expect from the partner and why. Then how should the partner know??? How can we expect from somebody to know better how to meet our needs than we know ourselves?

So he coaches them to become more clear in their own minds: what do you want? Here is an easy instruction, that you can try to internalize and call back to your mind when you are in a conflict situation:

Step 1: observation.

Watch yourself. What did the other person do, that lowers your life quality? What caused the conflict?

Step 2: feelings

How do you feel when the other person acts like this?

Step 3: needs

What is the needs that is hidden behind your pain? What could the other person do to add to your life?

Step 4: demand Phrase a clear demand, and concrete options of acting.

In the beginning it can happen that people still interpret your approaches to break the circle of violence as accusations. We are really used to violent communication and it takes a while until others understand we are trying to do it a different way now. Very helpful: the question „how can I express that so you don’t understand an accusation?“

We have to learn furthermore to not only speak giraffe language, but also listen with the ears of a giraffe. Rosenberg suggests to pay attention to the way you react on others: it is very important to take the time and express empathy for what the others said before hopping to the next points and expressing the own point of view.

People start to listen better to what you say, if they feel understood. This takes some time and energy, but it can save long arguments that cost a lot more time and energy in the end.

A „ I understand you“ is not enough. Repeat what the other person said in your own words and ask if you got it right.

So, after showing my flatmate that I really understand his need for a room where he can spread things on the floor in a self-determined, free way, I can tell him that my need of self-determination is of another kind and that I need more clean space. Listen first, don’t just counterfire!

Give empathy!

More information Here a conversation from the book I read: a child that doesn’t want to go to school, and the mother who was called by a teacher and takes the kid to task. If you also NOT feel reminded of your own school time, like me, be happy with me: every once in a while things seem to change in this world :-)

... m: „What did you do when you did not go to school?“ c: „I was lying in bed until 2 o’clock.“ m: „ And you don’t feel like going to school at all, do you?“ c: „They only teach us about nonsense there, what good is that for?" m: „So, you want to learn things better, that you can gain from in life?“ c: „Yeah, it is so boring there!“

... m: „So it isn’t interesting to you what you are supposed to learn. And also you don’t want the teachers to imply that you are lazy?“ c: „Yes, it totally annoys me how they speak to us“ m: So you want them to take you more seriously?“ c: „They talk to us like we’re the scum of the earth, just because we forgot our homework. And then they boss us around like in prison.“ m: „Would you like to decide more on your own what you want to do and when?“ c: „Yeah, I don’t know. I even know that I should do more for school. Do you think I don’t realise how you are worrying all the time? I don’t want you to be stressed because of me.“

... m: „So that means, you are up for learning, but not in the way they expect it from you in school?“ c: „Yes, but I have to learn that stuff, otherwise i never get out of there. And then there is some things there that I just don’t get the hang of.“ m: “That sounds as if a lot of doubts would be troubling you. And if you’d be really at a loss. Is it like that?“ c: „Yeah, somehow, yes… And then I always think that you are totally disappointed of me. My brother didn’t fail so much like me. He just made his exams and even had good marks.“

m: „So, you are depressed because you’d like to be more successful?“ c: „Yes, but I’m the loser of the family and you always have to worry about me. And then I don’t know how I can change that and then I’m even less motivated to go to school.“ m: „That sounds like you’re stuck in a vicious circle?“ c: „Yes“ m: „And you don’t know how to get out of it?“ c: „Yes“ m: „And you would need more self-confidence and reliance to go to school more unburdened?“ c: „Yes“

The mother always stays close to the kid’s feelings in the very moment. And avoids all proposals for solutions, all know-all-manner, all trips to the past or future. She reflects the kid’s feelings and needs, but not the actions, waiting until the kid feels her empathy and asks for her help.

Isn’t this a better basis for finding solutions together?