issue 20 summer 03
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The day of the giraffe

Marshall Rosenberg is the originator of Nonviolent Communication, a creative approach that is used in education, conflict resolution and mediation. He spoke to Dharma Life about his efforts to promote tolerance and understanding worldwide.

Marshall Rosenberg's experience as a psychiatrist, activist and mediator led him to formulate the Nonviolent Communication (NVC) process. Based on a simple model of respectful, kindly communication, its purpose is to encourage dialogue and understanding. It can be applied in everyday difficulties, and has been used by mediators dealing with strife and misunderstanding in situations ranging from marriage guidance to ethnic conflicts. NVC emphasises the role of empathy in resolving disputes. It involves listening without making assumptions, as well as choosing one's own words and tone with care. In this way, Rosenberg suggests, peaceful solutions can be found that meet everyone's needs.

Dharma Life: The NVC model seems simple in principle but difficult in practice.

Marshall Rosenberg:What could be simpler than being honest? Everyone asks each other, 'How are you?' and 'What do you want?' All human beings are ever really saying is what is 'alive' in them and what they want. But our education makes this hard. The core of NVC is identifying feelings and needs. I went to school for 21 years and I don't recall once being asked what I was feeling or needing. I got a Doctor's degree in psychology without having to examine my own consciousness. I was just good at analysing people in the way the professors taught. So yes, learning NVC for most of us takes quite a bit of practice.

The first step is to separate evaluation from factual observation. Why do we find this so hard?

The social structures we've been living under for 8,000 years require obedience to authority, so educated think that things are right or wrong and arbiters of this people in power. But who really knows? A school teacher, example, got his position by knowing what teacher considered wrong. you don't learn confuse fact opinion. We aren't suggesting evaluate nor they have no biases prejudices; just need identify them as such. NVC process enables say, 'Given these observable phenomena, here is how I choose look at it.' become more factual, learning say: 'It raining', rather than 'It's miserable day', which would be our own interpretation.

Why is it important to identify feelings?

Feelings are important, but not as important as the needs that are always at their root. Feelings alert us to our needs. A flashing light on a car dashboard is useful because it indicates that something isn't working; but without knowing what the system needs you won't know what to do.

Often we don't reach the root – don't identify the underlying need – so what we feel is influenced by the way we think. We may think someone is an idiot. That means we have a need that isn't being met and have responded to it by asking, 'what's wrong with them (or me)?' If I think I'm wrong I feel guilty, ashamed, depressed. If I think the other person is wrong I get angry. That way our feelings turn into punitive energy.

Alternatively we can use anger, shame and so on to realise, firstly, that we have a need that is unmet, and secondly that we're thinking in a way that hides the need. As soon as we identify the thinking and translate it into the underlying need, our feelings change. Anger, shame and depression happen when we are disconnected from our needs, and therefore from life.

What is the difference between saying, 'I need security' and 'I want security?'

In that case there's no difference as the word there can be used either way. Usually I use 'want' to refer to a strategy through which a need is met.

Why should my need to be happy be important to you?

That isn't a need, it's a feeling. Happiness is a reflection of the fact that all my needs are being met – which won't always happen. Feelings are temporary, but we have static language that asks, 'Are you a happy or an unhappy person?' and so on. The fact is that sometimes you feel happy, but life changes moment by moment. Needs change too. You need food, you eat, and your need for food has been met. But pretty soon you're hungry again. Because needs as defined by NVC are universal, they are things that others can relate to. So they can empathise with your need for fairness or for peace in the home.

Can you transcend needs?

No. You can deny them, but that cuts out your enjoyment of life. Needs are part of life.

What do you consider are fundamental needs?

What you really need to live a fulfilling life is not that complicated. There are three basic categories: sustenance needs, for food, shelter and so on; social needs for connection; and spiritual needs, or the need for meaning. Other needs derive from these, so, for example, out of the need for connection come the needs for honesty, respect, understanding and love.

The world has plenty of resources to meet everybody's needs, but if people become aware of their actual needs they don't make good consumers. Our economy requires people to think they need a Rolex watch, a Lexus car, or a McDonald's burger. But those aren't needs, they are strategies, and the lifestyle they produce leaves many genuine needs unmet. We need connection, but the average American family sits watching television in separate rooms – not even talking to one another.

I think we'd be much happier with a simpler life. During the Vietnam War I didn't want to pay taxes that would be used to bomb villages, so I gave money to charity and lived on a poverty income. That was one of the best things I ever did. There were some months I worried about paying the rent, so I drove a cab to earn some extra money, but I was no less happy.

The Scope of NVC

It is easy to despair at the prospect of alleviating the world's problems. With your experience of mediating in situations of conflict, how have you retained your faith in humanity?

I work all over the planet with people so poor they don't know where their next meal is coming from, and among people with more money than they could ever spend. Wherever I go, I find that when people are in what I would call 'their natural state' there is nothing they enjoy more than contributing to others' well-being.

The last time I was in Ramallah in Palestine my host wanted the Hamas people to know I wasn't an enemy. So he brought a couple over to me and they brought coffee and some rolls. They knew I was an American and a Jew yet they were very hospitable. Another time, when I was in Sierra Leone in Africa among very poor people, we ate cassava leaves every day – morning, noon and night. One day someone found a little chicken, which was a great luxury, and they insisted on putting the biggest piece of chicken on my plate. For them this would have been a big treat, and I didn't need it. Yet they watched with glee as I ate it.

Is your model of Nonviolent Communication something that skilled communicators naturally do?

I'm sure people naturally communicate this way. I developed it through watching people I respected and asking how they were effective when others get caught up in all the craziness. When you really look at the process, everyone knows it already. It takes understanding and honesty. It's nothing new. I've just tried to be concrete about how to learn to do it well.

I was in a village in Palestine, and at the end of the day a young man said, 'I like what you are offering us, but it's applied Islam.' I smiled and said, 'Yesterday a Rabbi told me it's applied Judaism.' My colleagues who are priests in Burundi tell me it's Christianity. I'm just trying to remind people of teachings that have been there throughout history.

If people have this altruistic and creative side, why are there so many problems?

I would say because of 'evolutionary ignorance'. We have had to learn complicated matters, such as how to distribute responsibility and power. I agree with Teilhard de Chardin who, as well as a theologian, was a palaeontologist. He saw a rapid evolution over the centuries in our ability to deal with each other and a movement towards what he calls a 'Christ-consciousness'. As a palaeontologist he has more patience than me, but even over my career I've seen this evolution and I'm convinced we don't have to wait thousands of years to improve our collective communication.

How realistic is that?

It can happen when you reach the critical mass of a population. Research shows that about 30 percent of the population have the consciousness that can master this enormous task. But these people each think they are alone, because 70 percent of those they encounter have a different way of thinking. Our NVC network brings together such people – then it's amazing what can happen.

When I started out 30 years ago I had to look hard to find people with the ability to imagine the way the world could be, and the energy and skills to create the social change it would involve. Nowadays it's much easier. We go to one country and then quickly get invited into others.

We're going to get there – I'm confident of that – and we can speed it up if we use the media. Historically education most happened by elders passing on the wisdom. Then in the 19th century we started this oxymoron called 'compulsory education'. But now power lies in the media. American children watch television many hours a day, being pumped with thousands of commercials and other messages. That's a powerful educational tool, which could be used so differently.

Meanwhile NVC is spreading – by finding people in each country and training them to train others. This happening rapidly, but for every 1,000 people we reach, millions are indoctrinated in the old way.

How can we change the way people are educated?

For 30 years I've been involved in trying to transform educational systems by creating structures that serve life rather than dominate people. At the outset I developed an approach called 'mutual education'; we started schools that were highly successful by educational measurements, and in a short time they were gone.

Our experience followed that of educational reformers throughout history. The mistake reformers make is that they haven't understood that conventional education does just what it was set up to do: teaching obedience to authority. The purpose of education in the US is grooming children to work in industry, to work for extrinsic rewards (such as salaries), and to maintain a caste system while making it look like democracy.

So, to sustain change, you need a broad base of people in the community who support an alternative education. Now, about 1000 Israeli schools have been introduced to 'life-serving education', and those that have embraced it show a significant decrease in violence. There are also such schools in Palestine, Serbia, Italy, Sweden and the US.


'When we use NVC in our interactions – with ourselves, with one another or in a group – we become grounded in our natural state of compassion. It is therefore an approach that can be effectively applied at all levels of communication and in diverse situations É Worldwide, NVC now serves as a valuable resource for communities facing violent conflicts or political tensions.'

How do you see the relation between transforming oneself, for example through Buddhism, and transforming the world?

Without spirituality in the best sense we'll replicate the problem. And yet some of the most violent people have followed a false spirituality. So, on the one hand I see one kind of 'spirituality', which gets us comfortable with the situation, and I consider that reactionary because it helps oppressive structures to maintain themselves. On the other hand there is what I call 'transformative spirituality' in which as well as changing ourselves we change the structures that cause 38,000 people a day to starve to death even though there is plenty of food. Spirituality that enables us to sit by while that happens is something I'm afraid of.

The first level of NVC training is transforming the inner world in which we've internalised so much violence. But we must do this while transforming personal relationships, and transforming the structures that are distributing resources and determining what is justice.

Sometimes that creates problems for people like Buddhists who might say, 'But don't you think there will be a ripple-effect if I change myself and have a different energy?' Maybe. But it will be several incarnations before you change things that way. You have to use the energy of personal change to transform the world and, conversely, real political change needs to come from that powerful new energy. So in April we are organising a meeting with people who have both dimensions. Like the Czech leader Vaclev Havel who said, 'We need people who can look up the stairs, but we also need to climb them.'

Can activism be a transformative practice?

Does NVC offer a language for this activism?

I hope so. I ask people in my workshops for activists to identify gangs who are doing things they dislike. I say: now some gangs call themselves street gangs, but other gangs call themselves multi-national corporations, or school-systems, or world trade organisations. So let's identify which gang at the moment is doing something that isn't in harmony with your values, and let's wake up to the enormous power each of us has for transforming these gangs.

How do you practise Nonviolent Communication with people who aren't present?

The people you are personally angry with may be absent or even dead. And it's similar in relating to politicians or systems. Let's take the dead ones first. In our training this is 'healing work'. Often when I work with someone, the person they have a problem with is dead. So I bring them back to life: I play the role of the other person, only speaking NVC. We do the NVC 'dance', and after an hour they often say they have made more progress than in years of psychotherapy. It's similar with my restorative justice work, where we bring together the victim and the perpetrator. Here, using NVC, I play the person who created the pain, and the understanding we develop can lead to tremendous healing.

In our approach to social change getting access to the people with whom we want dialogue is much of the challenge. But we first need to get rid of any images of them as enemy – those images will prevent anything positive happening when we do get access. For example, the first school we created was in Rockford, Illinois, but it was far more radical than the very conservative community could tolerate. So four adults got themselves elected to the school board with the purpose of getting rid of it. I wanted to have dialogue with those people, but they didn't want to talk to me.

Now, if you use guns to effect social change you just find where the people live and shoot them! But to do it differently you need access. It took 10 months; eventually we found a woman in their social circle who liked what we were doing and we trained her in how to communicate with them at least to get me a meeting.

Are these methods being put into effect in the world's conflicts?

There are people in Israel trying hard in these ways. You know ahead of time that the kind of talks Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat are having won't be successful, they are political harangues. Shimon Peres would love nothing more than to get these guys to agree to a different kind of negotiation, and I'm confident that, even after decades of hostility, if we could do that we could resolve their differences. Everyone knows already how it is going to end – and they've known it for 40 years. There's going to be a Palestinian State and the settlers have to get out. It's difficult, but it can be done, only not by the usual people.

Getting the access is not easy. George Bush can't get access to Saddam Hussein nor to Osama Bin Laden, even to kill them. But I think we'll get access faster than the state does because our approach inspires masses of people to work hard to help us.

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion by Marshall Rosenberg is published by Puddle Dancer Press, ISBN: 1892005026. Further information: www.cnvc.org