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Readings in Nonviolence

'Readings in Nonviolence' features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence and related areas, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome)

We are all pretty used to violent communication happening all around us – through a tone of voice, a phrase used, an attitude displayed, aside altogether from any violent action as such. So what would or should 'nonviolent communication' look like? Here's a piece by Ann Kristin Sivertsen exploring the latter.

Nonviolent communication: NVC at a glance

Written by Ann Kristin Sivertsen

Non Violent Communication (NVC, also referred to as Compassionate Communication) is a theory and practice developed by the American psychologist Marshal B Rosenberg. It is developed based on his own life experiences, growing up Jewish in a highly racially segregated USA, as well as his work as a psychologist.

NVC is a way of communicating and connecting with ourselves and others through empathy. Rosenberg thinks that we all have an innate capacity to exist and connect empathically. However, our society has become a place of great disconnection and we find ourselves in structures that replicate a model in which we are against each other- be it in international or domestic politics, hierarchal structures in a workplace, or even in family structures.

Through NVC Rosenberg proposes an effective way of taking responsibility toward a society where we can work with each other, for common growth and prosperity.

Rosenberg uses two different animals to show different ways of how we think, listen and express ourselves (our mindsets): the Jackal and the Giraffe.

The Jackal mindset is the one who centres around negativity and domination; we criticise others, we use judgement when talking and thinking, we base our understandings of other people, situations and things on assumptions. This is the mindset which our world of competition, comparison and quick information often breeds.

The Giraffe's mindset reflects a different intention. The same topics and ideas can be expressed through our communication, but with an intention of supporting others, understanding the depth of people and aspects, and keeping to the facts we already know instead of adding lots of assumptions. This mindset is based on the idea that we will all be better off and able to prosper more if we work with each other, if we share our power with others and if we see giving from the heart as a way to build truer relationships.

These mindsets create the base of NVC, as the theory and practices aim to transfer our understanding and behaviour from that of the Jackal to that of the Giraffe. Only if we do this very conscious shift will we be able to reach a personal and collective state of true nonviolence.
NVC is both inwards and outwards reaching. While it is easy to think of communication as the words that are coming out of our mouth, NVC focuses mostly on the pre-mouth stage of communication: what happens in our minds. This is because the mind is the place where all our evaluations, judgements and ideas of competition and 'power over' exist.
It is very challenging to change the way we communicate. We find ourselves replicating patterns of communication, despite realizing they are not effective. Rosenberg developed a very practical approach focusing on making NVC accessible to all and practically doable. This consists of four main steps that can work as mental tick-boxes to use in our everyday life as they are easy to remember.

1st step: Observation versus Judgement/Evaluation
We evaluate and filter impressions all the time; it would be rather robotic not to do so. The goal of this step is not to eradicate all evaluation, but to become more aware of when and how we use it. We are all different; the filters and understandings we have are unique to ourselves and we therefore see the world in different ways. Cultural differences are more obvious reasons of course, although we are also different from our neighbour, our partner, our children, or colleagues. And all this comes out through our evaluations.

Something as little as a hello, or a missed hello, could cause our evaluation machine to start, especially with those whom we are having some tension, or simply if we are having a bad day. We can interpret a greeting as 'cold' or 'short'. Or we can miss hearing a hello at all, and add our own interpretations to the apparent lack of a greeting. We add our own evaluations often without knowing or understanding why the other person(s) acted this or that way. What we interpret as negativity towards us could be due to very different reasons; the person(s) could have a bad day, s/he could be preoccupied with thoughts (of work, family, economy), s/he could have recently received some bad news, etc.

It is especially in conflict situations that it is beneficial to be conscious of our evaluations. And it is in conflicts that it is the hardest to avoid them; in the heat of the moment, we are aggravated, stressed and defensive.

2nd step: Feelings versus Blame
Looking at and giving attention to our feelings is often not given great attention in our societies. Feelings are often connected to 'weakness'. In NVC it is understood as quite the contrary; the key to understanding ourselves and others lies in identifying our feelings.

Feelings are basically what we feel, and they have 'nothing to do with' others. This means that, in NVC, one can say 'I feel sad', but not 'you made me sad'. The second statement indicates blame as it includes the action of others. Another example is 'I feel excluded'. Excluded is not a feeling, but rather an action of other people. And we often have no idea if others have intentionally excluded us or not. We think we know, but usually it is our mind evaluating the action of others. One way of expressing hurt without blame would be to add the observation of what happened to the feelings and say something like 'when I was not invited to lunch, I felt sad'.

3rd step: Needs versus Strategies
As with the feelings above, talking about our needs is also often frowned upon in our society. 'Having needs' is often understood as 'being needy'. And no one really wants to be needy, right? So we often do not think or speak of needs. But we all have them! And our needs make up the base of our existence, and our happiness/unhappiness. If we are able to identify our needs in various situations, we will be better equipped to understand what we can do in these given situations in order to feel happy, satisfied and at peace with ourselves and those around us.

For instance, in a work situation a person can have the need for 'respect', 'contribution', 'safety' and 'consistency'. This varies from person to person, and everyone's feelings are as valid as anyone else's. If safety and consistency are among my needs, working in, for example, a start-up business where the future would be insecure would not be ideal. In such a situation, I would most likely experience high levels of stress and anxiety, which would contribute to a negative life experience also outside of the work place. Since we are not used to identifying our own needs we tend to go with the flow of others, thinking that it is just 'the way it is'.

Instead of identifying our personal needs we often strategise on how to solve the symptoms of an issue or a problem. We can feel utterly stressed in our everyday life, so we book a holiday in order to relax and recharge. While relaxing holidays are good for both body and mind, the same stressful everyday life will be there when we get back and the issues will be the same. By identifying the needs we have in our everyday life we can become aware of which changes are needed in our lives, in order to create long-term solutions to problems.

4th step: Request versus Demand
The last step of the practical side of NVC focuses on how we can make requests from other people, rather than demanding. We often find ourselves asking people for this or that and we have a clear idea which answer will be satisfying to us in that situation. If we get an answer which we don't like we can get angry, upset or sad. And that is OK, because these are valid feelings. On the other hand, if we do not accept the answer we got and react in a way which blames the other person(s) for our dissatisfaction with it, we were really not asking a question in the first place, but rather demanding them to do as we wanted.

The practices of NVC are developed to create lasting transformation, within people and within communities. Truly incorporating NVC in our mindsets and communication can take years, although the practices are valuable and beneficial from the very minute we start using them. Imagine how much tension that would disappear out of the start of an argument if we did not add our personal evaluations to other people's actions. Or better yet, try it out!

NVC is highly useful in conflict situations, both when we are in the middle of one and as steps to how to prevent it from arising in the first place. It is also useful in everyday life where it can help us better understand our life, based on our personal needs, so we can plan and live a life which is more in tuned with our happiness and peacefulness.

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Ann Kristin Sivertsen is a personal development and conflict prevention trainer focusing on aspects such as NVC and mediation. If you wish to learn more about NVC and how it can be a positive change in your life, contact her on She offers group training, family sessions and 1-1 sessions.

Copyright INNATE 2016