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What Is “Nonviolent Communication” and Why Does It Matter

You may have come to one of my presentations and discussions about what is known as “nonviolent communication,” but whether you have or not, a quick review about what that means could be helpful.

Nonviolent communication, whether it is in the form of silence, speech, inaction, or action, is communication that originates from a place of kindness and connection with self and with other. It expresses what is really important to us as human beings, and is likely to help us and others simultaneously get what we want and need.

In relationships, nonviolent communication stimulates empathy, and a willingness to listen to and care about the other person. It is the kind of communication that strengthens relationships and makes them more enjoyable.

The opposite, also known as “violent communication,” is any communication that is based on separation, and defense of the illusory self, resulting in communication that tries to shame or blame others. Phrases that may occur include “You always…”, “Why are you so…”, and “You made me…”

The founder of the framework of nonviolent communication, Marshall Rosenberg, called all violence in words or actions “a tragic expression of unmet needs.”

Whether it is a statement such as “You always do the same dumb thing!” or a military invasion of a peaceful neighbor’s country, all forms of violence fail to accomplish what they were intended to accomplish, and potentially increase the level of pain for the individuals involved and for the surrounding society. That is why violence is tragic even if it is purely verbal.

So what is the alternative?

The first step when you are about to speak (or take a nonverbal action such as approaching or walking away) is to check in with yourself and make sure you understand what you are feeling and what you are trying to accomplish. In that way, you can find the words and actions that match your “best self”, and use those.

And if someone uses what you perceive as violent communication towards you or in your surroundings, check yourself and see whether you are responding to them with anger or other enemy images as a result. Having enemy images of others turns them into objects of your own dislike and rejection.

Human beings should never be turned, mentally or by behaviors, into objects. When, for example, you see a political leader causing pain and chaos, if you can see the sadness inherent in a person making such a mess of his or her life, then you will not have the mental space to disdain them, but can focus on the underlying pain causing that person’s actions while also regretting the results of those actions.

After ensuring your own purpose is relatively clear to you and positive, choose the words, silence, action, or inaction, or a combination of these, that will best bring the humanity of the moment back into focus. For example, it is fine to say things such as “I disagree with that” or to ask “Can you moderate your tone of voice, please?” If the intention is to connect and bring more life into the moment, then many different kinds of expression can be appropriate and considered as “nonviolent.”

Being nonviolent does not imply being a doormat to other peoples’ misguided words and actions.

If you are in a relationship, and your spouse or partner says “You are a lousy cook” or “You will never be successful in supporting us financially!”, you could respond with irritation or anger; it is easy to think of such responses to that “hurtful” speech.

However, if your goal is to improve the relationship and stay centered in a good place, it may be better to say something like “You seem to be upset with me. But I am trying hard, and want us to have a good life. Can you tell me what makes you say something like that to me?” Of course, the individual circumstances and history should be considered when deciding how to respond in a challenging conversation.

The original speaker could have said, instead, “I would like to have more variety in our meals.” or “There is more sugar and processed foods in our diet than I prefer. Can we change that pattern so we can be healthier?” Or, the financial comment could have been “I am worried about our future finances. Can we discuss how to improve our financial success? When is a good time to talk about that?”

If a person has a history in life, especially during childhood, of being ignored or punished for expressing what is real to them, then as adults they may feel a need to speak and act more aggressively with the assumption that otherwise they will be ignored or attacked.

But we can let go of our reactions that are based on the past and based on a false sense of self-protection, once we start to have awareness of our patterns. There is always a way to express what is important to you, and to hear what is important to other people, without shaming or blaming them! The result of nonviolent communication is a win / win.

At times, that kind of communication can be challenging to figure out and act on, but as we change old habits and old feelings of not getting what we want and need, we can succeed in connecting with other, enriching our current and future relationships, and creating a more enjoyable and joyful life for ourselves and for others.

The quality, and even survival, of our relationships depends on our ability to listen and express in a nonviolent, empathic way. That brings out the best of human nature in ourselves and in others.

Try to think of a recent conversation where you could have expressed in a more open and inviting way, or where you could have listened and responded better. You may or may not want to discuss that past incident with the person or persons involved, but for sure you can learn from your experiences, and can express what is closer to your best self the next time you are in a similar situation!