“Become the change you wish to see in the world” – Mahatma Ghandi.
As the train pulled up on that gentle Sunday morning, five young men entered and positioned themselves in the space in front of the carriage doors. Once underway they lit up and smoked freely, each emboldened by the group. With air in the half-full carriage becoming steadily polluted, intimidated occupants chose to breathe less deeply and raise their Sunday papers, rather than risk a provocative request.
Smelling and feeling the oppression in the air, I connected to what mattered to me: consideration of this as a shared space and my preference for fresh air. From this clarity, I had the courage and inner confidence to speak.
‘Do you guys mind not smoking in here?’
‘And who do you think YOU are?’ came the quick retort.
‘No different to you’ I said, moved as I was by my further needs for respect and for empathy.
Needs, I soon discovered, shared by my other passengers. On cue, a page crumpled over and an affirmative glance was passed from a seat nearby. The men seemed to connect with the intent of my request also, and with little to no protest extinguished their cigarettes. My few words had reflected the collective needs for clean air and respect, and my speech requested a present action rather than offering judgement or criticism. Speech offered from a level of inner peace for the cause of outer peace. Simply seeing and speaking to the present need brought calm to my fear instinct, whilst curbing self-righteousness.
Ten years after the above intuitive connection with ‘Nonviolent Communication’ (NVC), my continuing, structured practice of NVC arises from the recognition that life’s challenging interactions, daily relationships and even the honouring of my own needs, requires my mind, body and heart to be integrated with each experience. NVC is a precise process, which in the midst of potential conflict or when feeling discontent or disconnected, allows me the space to observe myself, the situation and from self-observation to communicate with more awareness.
The founder of NVC, Marshall Rosenberg, identifies Nonviolent Communication as speaking from ‘what’s alive in us’. We can call that life, spirit, being, or presence, Rosenberg is simply referring to the shared consciousness that enlivens and connects all, but as it manifests through the particular needs of each individual. True communication originates from this shared life source and appears as recognizable needs, rather than focusing on our apparent differences. NVC supports communication that enhances our ability to remain human and life-centered, even under trying conditions.(1) The practice, however, is more than a process of communication. Through ever deepening awareness, NVC fosters respect, attentiveness, and empathy.(2) An empathy that originates in the awareness of our own essential needs.
Life serving communication begins with the awareness of our present, core feeling as a reflection of the deeper underlying need. In the NVC process, essential human needs (e.g. physical nurturance, autonomy, interdependence) embody what is alive or resonating within us. Through awareness and empathy in regards to our present need, we may then share this need with another, and hear and respond to any needs alive in them. The subtlety of NVC lies in its fundamental intention, not simply to get my way in the situation, but to remain connected with self and other, and trust the outcome of this bond will be for the good of all.
NVC’s intention is to set aside habitual judgments and reactivity, thereby to honour the potential resolution, wholeness or peace inherent in each moment. Responding out of heated reaction or unconnected opinion, I would have likely judged the five smokers as selfish delinquents and unconsciously acted as such, thereby disrupting or stifling my actual intent and its accompanying useful message. On reflection, my unconscious intent was to serve the life of that moment in the carriage. Ostensibly, the need was simply to breathe clean air.
A foundation for nonviolent or compassionate communication is observation. Initially to allow the mind to observe feelings and events, as opposed to evaluating and judging them. According to Eckhart Tolle, such observation begins by watching the mind. Awareness and conscious energy are then withdrawn from ‘mind forms’ (i.e. forms of potential judgment, fear, preference or prejudice) about oneself, the other person or situation. With sincere practise, our connection with the observer, ‘pure consciousness beyond form’ is strengthened, and ‘mental formations become weaker’.(3) Staying present in everyday details of life can be a gym for conscious awareness and communication.
‘Violence’ begins with our disconnection from self and our spiritual, emotional, and physical needs. A useful practice therefore is to have some attention resting in the aliveness or inner energy field of our body. So, in the day to day rituals of brushing teeth or washing dishes, a useful focus is to feel the body’s energy from within, as well as the dish and cloth in hand. Such body awareness keeps you present. It anchors you in the potential of the present moment, what Tolle calls ‘the Now’.(4) From the Now, the connection to NVC, that is the awareness of the feeling presently alive in us, becomes a living and practical reference for inner rest, empathy and for communication.
‘Love You’, I said to acknowledge my partner and conclude our phone call. In that moment however, she had simply hung up. ‘Alive in me’ at that time was a feeling of hurt, as my spoken offering was not reciprocated. That afternoon, during our next conversation, I resolved to share my feeling and the need for returned acknowledgment. Setting aside my habitual and defensive ‘why?’ question, and bringing to mind the four NVC steps: Observation, Feeling, the Need, and a clear and present Request. In our subsequent conversation, I took a moment to step back, observe my vulnerability, and connect with the underling feeling, before launching into NVC:
Observation: ‘I remember, this morning at the end of our phone call my words of love for you were not reciprocated’.
Feeling: ‘I feel hurt when you don’t reciprocate my words of love for you.’
Need: ‘It is important to me that you to respond to my expressions of love for you, because I* value our connection and the reassurance that the love I have is reciprocated.’
(*Note: ‘because I…’ rather than ‘because you…’ This emphasis underscores my commitment to clarifying and resolving my need for connection. Furthermore, I am giving expression to my feeling without shifting blame onto the other person).
Request(s): ‘Would you be willing to tell me how you are feeling about me?’ and/or ‘Do you have an intention to share back what you are feeling next time I say that I love you?’
Form and speak your offering as one succinct, swift and felt statement, flowing from the instigating observation, through to sharing your arising feeling and need, to concluding with a present and practical request.
The essence of NVC is empathy or empatheia in the original Greek (from em- ‘in’ + pathos ‘feeling’). This heartfelt connection with self further calls us ‘to empty our mind and to listen to others with our whole being’.(5) In recognising the one life alive in us all, the intention of NVC is to make that one life ‘more wonderful’ by allowing it’s participants to be more aware of feelings, connected to present needs, and compassionate in making requests. The spirit of Nonviolent Communication is the spirit of compassionate communion. Marshall Rosenberg’s personal vision is for a life of compassion, ‘a flow between myself and others based on mutual giving from the heart.’(6)
Thank you to Linda Rysenbry, accredited NVC trainer and peace practitioner, for bringing my piece to fuller life. Thanks also to Katerina Cosgrove for her keen eye in extracting the dead bits.
1 Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication – A Language of Life, PuddleDancer Press, 2005, USA. Page 3.
2 Ibid. Page 4.
3 Eckart Tolle, Practicing The Power of Now – Essential Teachings, Meditations, and Exercises for Living the Liberated Life. Hodder Books, 2002, Sydney. Page 58.
4 Ibid. Page 59.
5 Op. cit., Rosenberg, page 104.
6 Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg as quoted by John Cunningham, Compassionate Communication and Empathy’s Awaking. Self Published Booklet, 2008, California. Page 15.