Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Nonviolent communication...shhhhh....

"Silence intersects with language in some important ways for us. First, we rarely have all the language at hand to capture how we feel in something as often personally and emotionally charged as a conflict. Second, sometimes we know that any language we do choose is charged with relational and even cultural politics....Third, sometimes all we have is silence because we do not know how to talk about something that is out of our realm of experience....Fourth, sometimes we do not know what to say because we do not know exactly how we feel..."
--Peter M. Kellett, Conflict Dialogue (2007, p. 77)

The most important component of a nonviolent strategy is communication. This is true for the use of nonviolence with regard to deëscalation, civil resistance, interposition, lobbying, accompaniment, civil society uprising, or demonstrations.

Listening is the most important communication tool. Not just being quiet, but actually hearing and trying to understand the other party or parties. Active listening is not jumping in to respond, but rather to clearly show that you are listening by appearing attentive, appearing receptive if not in agreement, and by indicating that you are listening for what follows rather than coiling yourself for the pounceback.

Last night we offered a deëscalation training to staff at the wonderful Sisters of the Road Cafe. These first-rate folks are at the front lines of nonviolent work in Portland and model the kind of conflict management that we say we want if we are pacifists, that is, they show that they value even the roughcut, damaged, bent people who can occasionally lose all sense of civil behavior. They learn how to show that care and compassion even as they protect that safety of all in the Cafe by asking belligerents to leave--or they leave with them, helping to calm everyone.

Most bellicose people simmer down once you convince them you are listening, you are hearing, and you are thinking about their message. "Perception is at the core of all conflict analysis," write Joyce Hocker and William Wilmot in the seventh edition of their classic in the field, Interpersonal conflict (p. 9). Create the perception that you are already listening and the conflict parties realize they don't necessarily have to punch you in the nose to help you start.

The challenges faced every day by the Sisters staff and volunteers are made manageable by three factors, all of which require upkeeping.

One, they support each other. The managers take floor shifts alongside the frontline staff. Information and backup encouragement is shared routinely.

Two, the policies of Sisters are grounded in what the community has expressed they need, want, and prefer. That is how Genny Nelson founded the Cafe in 1979 and the match between community need and Sisters policies continues.

Three, they train constantly, keeping skills sharp and learning the theoretical codes that make those tough moments so memorable.

Nonviolence is at the heart of Sisters and at the core of the most respectful communication. The dialectical relationship amongst these components produces a learning model that is deceptively quiet and attentive, but says a lot.

Kellett, Peter M. (2007). Conflict dialogue: Working with layers of meaning for productive relationships. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Wilmot, William W. & Hocker, Joyce L. (2007, original 1978). Interpersonal conflict (7th ed). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies.

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