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    Nonviolent Communication, Part 1

    By Tom Moon, MFT

    One of the many bad effects of the current regime in Washington is that it has accelerated an already alarming national trend toward political hate speech, in which name-calling and ridicule replace civil discussion. That same style has also infected interpersonal communication, especially on social media. We seem to be a society that is forgetting how to discuss differences in any way that might help to resolve them. Instead, we just yell.

    That is one of the reasons why I find the work of clinical psychologist Marshall Rosenberg (1934–2015) so timely. Rosenberg grew up in Detroit, surrounded by anti-Semitism, racism, and violence, and early in life made a commitment to find a better way. He wrote that he was preoccupied, from an early age, to discover: “What happens to disconnect us from our compassionate nature, leading us to behave violently and exploitatively?” The answers he found led him to develop a communication process called Nonviolent Communication (NVC).

    He argued that we have all been socialized into styles of life-alienating communication, such as making moralistic judgments of others. He saw an important difference between value judgments and moralistic judgments. We all make value judgments about the qualities we desire in life, but when we make moralistic judgments, our attention is focused on classifying, analyzing, and determining the levels of wrongness in others. Our attention is diverted from what we and others need, and focuses instead on blaming and attacking. When we do this, we communicate in an impersonal and defensive way that doesn’t really reveal what’s going on inside of ourselves.

    So, for example, if my partner wants more affection than I’m giving him, he’s “needy and dependent.” But if I want more affection than he’s giving me, then he’s “aloof and insensitive.” When I communicate in this way, any potentially productive discussion of how we might have a more mutually fulfilling relationship gets lost in the distraction of dueling judgments. Rosenberg cited evidence that suggests there is considerably less violence in cultures where people think in terms of human needs than in cultures where people label one another as “good” and “bad” and believe that the “bad” ones deserve to be punished.

    NVC is based on three core values: self-empathy, honest self-expression, and empathy for others. It offers a four-step model for self-expression that brings discussions out of the realm of judgments and re-focuses them on communicating needs and feelings. This model is very simple to understand, but requires sustained commitment to learn to practice. The four steps are:

    1. Make observations uncontaminated by judgment, analysis, or blame, of the concrete actions that are affecting our well-being.
    2. Describe how we feel in response to what we are observing.
    3. Identify the needs, connected to these feelings, and evaluate which needs aren’t being met (yet) instead of evaluating actions as “right” or “wrong.”
    4. Express requests clearly, in positive language, as to how the other person could enrich one’s life. Essential in NVC is that the other person is to be left free to honor or deny the request.

    The most common criticism of this form of communication is that it’s hopelessly unrealistic and unsuited for the harsh world in which we all actually live. Many people fear that practicing it would leave them vulnerable and exposed to attack. In fact, however, the process has been tested and found practical in some of the most violent environments on the planet.

    Through his Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC), Rosenberg initiated peace programs in Rwanda, Burundi, Nigeria, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Middle East, Serbia, Croatia, and Ireland. NVC has also been found to be effective in prisons, schools, and corporations, as well as in couples counseling. The CNVC ( has grown into an international nonprofit organization that provides training in 30 countries.

    Most of us are probably prone, when in conflict, to revert to tribalism—to divide the world between the good “us” and the evil “others.” But NVC shows that we also have some choice in the matter. It is possible for us to practice another way of dealing with conflict, in which the delusional division between “us” and “them” dissolves in the understanding that we’re all “us.” For those who would like to learn more about NVC, Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, is an excellent introduction.

    Next time: Nonviolent Communication and Anger

    Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. For more information, please visit his website