Sunday, October 02, 2011

Conflict skill #9: NVC

 "I see all anger as a result of life-alienating, violence-provocative thinking. At the core of all anger is a need that is not being fulfilled."
--Marshall Rosenberg (1999, p. 138 in 1st ed.)

Nonviolent Communication is a school of conflict management developed by Marshall B. Rosenberg, author of Nonviolent Communication: A language of life. One may reasonably conclude that he is mostly about self-promotion from the look of the book (no scholarly book would have the Ph.D. after the author's name on the cover and the pages of encomia splashed from the inside cover all the way to the title page, a gauche and impressive display of hype). Still, his little self-helper is full of valuable information worthy of the sort of NVC cult he has engendered.

His model is in its essentials a process of observation, feeling, needs and requests. It works to develop honesty and empathy in every human transaction. For those of us trained to assume the worst in whatever anyone says (Other: "Hello." Me: "What do you mean by THAT?), Rosenberg offers a better approach, one that Bill Ury might call "going to the balcony." Step back, retune your inner receiver, and be sure the signal you are getting is a good one.

This is valuable in the suites and the streets, in the negotiating room at the table and in the middle of a nonviolent street action. It is vital for those assigned the role of Peacekeeper, Vibeswatcher, Monitor, or whatever nom d'paix is assigned to those who function as de-escalation helpers.

Hearing others with the empathy they deserve is often viewed by some as soft, accommodating, and weak. Why should I have to bend around that person's issues when I have enough problems? Well, because making a little arc will in fact prevent your problem list from lengthening. Mr. Potential Conflict will  become Mr. Good Buddy quite often and the difference between loads of negativity directed toward you and your organization or a fair amount of friendly interaction and possibly even help is the small minute it takes to ask about context or to listen, even if your response is ultimately going to be, OK, I hear you and that is valid, so hear my context to help you understand why I can't bend any more.

Part of what Rosenberg does is to give us tools to transform aggression into assertion. This is often unclear to people, who believe all assertion to be aggression and who feel that the only way to get power over our own lives is to be able to exert it over others--and so they often bide their time until they can get away with aggression, just sucking up grievances along the way until they explode when they think they can get away with it--or when they are too pent-up and are convinced they will never be able to exert any power unless they become some sort of suicide bomber. Usually it is a metaphorical bomb, but the principle is the same for the real bombers. This is passive-aggressive, of course, and NVC is meant to eliminate that cycle.

Rosenberg wants us to own our response and then to share it in the form of a request. If we are angered by something, we need to acknowledge to ourselves and others that we are at some level choosing anger. We should then frame a request humbly to the person who can most help us in our effort to meet our basic needs and avoid feeling hurt or angry. We should never impinge on their basic needs and in fact help them obtain them.

The principles of nonviolent communication are a good challenge to all of us who think we are nonviolent actionists and who still use objectifying or dehumanizing language. It is not only a failure to come from a place of nonviolence, it is quite ineffective. Nonviolent communication is a different way to practice win-win negotiation by increasing the chances that we offer a path toward mutual victory with every interaction. Rosenberg directly connects nonviolent communication to nonviolent resistance when he says we choose all our actions, even when we are told we have no real choice. That is the heart of nonviolent power. To carve out choices from a place where the dominators have told us we have no choice. Using NVC helps us de-escalate ourselves and others, even as it expands our actual menu of options. It is a basic nonviolent conflict skill.


Rosenberg, M. B. (2003). Nonviolent communication: A language of life (2nd ed.). Encinitas CA: PuddleDancer Press. First ed. 1999.


Fran Sky said...

Hi Tom. I agree w/ Rosenbergs quote that anger comes from a need not being met. I feel usually behind anger is hurt or a sadness.

One question: in owning our response to anger, do you think one first feels the anger & then decides to react from that emotion or do you feel we simply "choose anger?"

Also would you mind sharing an example of how to make a humble request when an anger response is triggered. Thanks.

Tom H. Hastings said...

Hi Fran. I think it's individual. My father taught me like his father and grandfather taught him; get mad when they insult you. Guys are supposed to. So I have a lifelong impairment that I can overcome if I focus, but I meet people who seem to eventually choose anger. But even with someone like me, after the first second or few seconds, I make a choice. I stick with my gut or I turn to my better training.

I think a humble request might be if someone says something that triggers anger to ask for an explanation, possibly noting that you don't mean to misconstrue intention and you need help understanding correctly. This assumes responsibility and allows someone to modify intent based on their perception that, after all, you are not only human, you are a decent person. I don't know if Rosenberg would agree with me, but this is what my training and experience suggest. I only wish I could practice my own higher awareness all the time!

Fran Sky said...

Thanks Tom. That example helps!