Guest Post: Non-Violent Communication (part 1)

This is a guest post from Ian Peatey, a Non-Violent Communication Trainer, on a system of communication based on empathy rather than competition. I’m not qualified to write on this topic myself, though I have seen that it works and fosters real conversations instead of shouting matches. Environmental issues are complex, and many of us are deeply emotionally invested in our perspectives on them. Listening and responding empathetically are not instinctive, but they can be taught. I hope that non-violent communication will help us to listen better and find solutions.

Is there a better way to communicate? Image credit: Akuppa

I turn 50 next year (gulp!) and I can point to maybe a small handful of events so far that triggered really huge changes. One of those transforming moments was coming across Nonviolent Communication (NVC) in 2001.

On the face of it NVC is simple and obvious – deceptively so. Scratching away its layers and patiently learning how to integrate it revealed a rich, practical approach to myself, relationships and social structures. It also turned upside down some of the things I’d taken for granted all my life about basic concepts such as honesty and co-operation.

At its core is a positive and compassionate view of the human race. Yes, of course, there are plenty of people I could label selfish, aggressive, violent or mean – in fact, I might even use those words to describe myself from time to time.

NVC takes the view we are all doing the best we can to meet our needs and we all enjoy giving when we are free to do so. It maintains that how we’ve been educated to think, communicate and act sometimes interferes with this positive, compassionate orientation. And by re-learning some of this education we can choose modes of living that help us connect with others, resolve our differences constructively and seek peaceful ways of living.

Me and NVC (or NVC and I)

My introduction to NVC was pure chance combined with laziness.

I was sitting in the main hall at a very large conference, trying to decide which workshop to go to next. A guy came and sat on the edge of the stage, talked a bit, pulled out a guitar and started singing in a rather tuneless voice. I can relate to ‘tuneless’ but didn’t want to listen to 2 hours of it. I glanced at the programme and saw it was the beginning of ‘Nonviolent Communication’ presented by Marshall Rosenberg. It didn’t sound really appealing but I was just too lazy to move and by way of justification, told myself there might be more to it than crap songs.

So I stayed.

Fast forward and today my life pretty much revolves around NVC. I run workshops on it, write about it and do my very best to integrate it into how I relate to myself and those around me. I’m even married to it – my wife is also an NVC trainer. There are many different aspects of NVC that changed how I live and I’d like to touch on 4 elements that had the biggest impact on me.

1. Needs

Needs are central to NVC – not as a consumer driven or egotistical concept but as the very real things enabling us to survive and thrive.

Needs are what underpins everything we do and include basic physical needs (like protection, food and water) and more complex needs (such as belonging, meaning, understanding, beauty, emotional safety). They are also one way we can bridge the differences between us and find that  place where we meet as human beings. By finding the needs we’re trying to meet (my needs and your needs) we’re much more likely to find sustainable solutions than if we stick only with ideas and opinions.

This was quite a different way of looking at needs than the one I grew up with. I believe needs are often misrepresented. I mean, who wants to be seen as ‘needy’ or ‘selfish’ (only looking after their own needs).

I was brought up to put my own needs to one side and do things for other people out of duty and obligation – in other words, to be obedient. Obedience was promoted as a virtue – to parents, teachers, bosses and any other authority figure. I’d also bought into the notion of needs promoted by the mass media which got me to think I ‘need’ certain products, brands or services in order to fit in, be successful or get the girl!

From a certain perspective it’s not so hard to see why needs get misrepresented. People who are clear and assertive about their own needs tend to be quite difficult to control and don’t make compliant consumers!

Quick Exercise – think of something someone does that drives you crazy.

  • Which needs of yours are not met when they do this?
  • Which needs of theirs might they be trying to meet by doing this?
  • Are there other ways they could meet their needs while also valuing yours?

For me it’s people throwing litter in the playground where my kids play. My needs are for care, safety and health and I guess the needs of those throwing the trash are about ease and (possibly) being noticed/getting attention. Just getting to this step I find helpful and I feel calmer. I no longer see these (usually faceless) people as moronic louts who don’t care about anybody. I start to get a tiny glimmer of them as people, just like me, doing the best they can – albeit, it in a way I really don’t like.

Overflowing bin with doomed recyclables. Image credit: Ecstatic Mark

Jennifer: I get so angry when I see recyclables in the trash. Despite the fact that we have super-easy single-stream recycling, people still throw away their trash without sorting it, and their big white trash bags contain highly recyclable glass, aluminum, and plastic. I think it makes me even angrier that it often comes from families — Enfamil containers, other kiddie items — because surely they have the highest stake in the future? If their recyclables are easy to reach, I fish them out, but it’s really gross and gets my back up.

My needs that are not being met: the need to respect limited resources, for thoughtful behavior, and a planet-centered worldview. Their needs: convenience or to save time (I’m sure they are busy and sleep deprived). I don’t know what a compromise would look like — I can’t talk to them because I don’t know who they are, and I never see them doing it. Thoughts, Ian?

I’d love for you to try this thought experiment, even if, like me, the solutions aren’t immediately obvious. When it comes to environmental issues, what makes you angry, and what needs of yours aren’t being met?

Go on to part 2: Honesty

About the Author

Ian Peatey is a Certified Trainer of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) living in Romania where he runs and writes for NVC World and does a bit of business training. Together with his wife, he runs
the Romanian Association for NVC delivering workshops and training courses aimed at supporting parents and couples as well as organisations involved with children. His main contributions to the environment are refusing to eat meat, walking a lot (and not owning a car) and buying local, natural wherever possible. On the other hand he does have 3 kids but he’s not willing to give any of them up.

He can be contacted here.

9 responses to this post.

  1. […] PR « Guest Post: Non-Violent Communication (part 1) […]

    Reply

  2. Jennifer, first of all a huge thank you for the chance to share NVC on your blog. I’m enjoying the examples you’ve added to the series.

    Anger is an interesting case when it comes to feelings because the feeling is usually mixed up with a whole lot of analysis and judgements. For example, when you see recyclables in the trash I’m guessing you’re thinking the people doing this ‘shouldn’t be doing it’ and probably a few choice adjectives about them thrown in? I find it helpful to stick with what I notice, acknowledge the other stuff going on for me and then find the emotion lurkign under the anger.

    I guess you’re feeling afraid when you see these recyclables – wondering about the impact on our future? Maybe also sadness when you think of everything we’ve stripped from the planet without replacing or perhaps really appreciating? And also some helplessness when you see it over and over again and wanting to meet the people doing it so you can be heard how painful it is to see this waste on your own doorstep? Perhaps also feeling alone and wanting more co-operation and shared view of the state of the world?

    Not sure if I’m close with any of this .. the point is by clearing out some of the cloud of anger we can often find a place of sadness or fear which is much easier for us and others to relate to …. and then work on a solution.

    What to do when you have no outlet, no chance to communicate with those you would love to hear what you want to say? Sadly it may be a case of mourning – recognising this particular way of meeting your needs is not open right now – short of standing by the trash waiting for people to dump their garbage and then hoping they’ve got time to listen to you!

    As a slight digression – about a year ago a homeless guy took up residence at our communal trash point. He sorts through the garbage bags, salvaging anything of value to him (food, clothes, things he can sell such as metal items) and puts aside all the plastic containers which are then collected once a week by a recycling company who pay him a few dollars for his efforts. Seems to work for all.

    Ian

    Reply

    • Hi Ian,

      Thanks for putting so much time and effort into these guest posts. You’re spot on when you guess that my frustration with the non-recycling behavior stems from a lot of different emotional issues. I think one of the biggest ones is my feeling that behaving like a responsible citizen of the planet is an ethical obligation. It is for me — seeing that it isn’t for many other people is kind of akin to the moral umbrage we feel when we see other people doing things that are more classically unethical. There’s also a strong element of isolated and indignation (why am I going to all this effort when the people around me drive their gas guzzing trucks to the laundry room 50 feet away?).

      Mostly I’ve made my peace with the latter (I put in the effort because it’s the right thing to do). The former still bothers me a lot.

      And I should add that we do have people who come by and pick out recyclables for money. They don’t get everything (these bins fill up quickly and I’m sure many recyclables still don’t make it to the recycle bin), but they help, and I’m grateful.

      Reply

  3. […] series and will consider applying it to how you communicate. If you missed them, please check out part 1 and part 2 in the series! Empathy and asking for what we want. Image credit: US Fish & Wildlife […]

    Reply

  4. “My introduction to NVC was pure chance combined with laziness.” That line made me laugh out loud. It describes almost all the good changes in my life…
    Very interesting post, Ian. Happily, I stumbled across this site and will now read your posts 2&3. As for anger – do you find that underneath most incidences there is fear? Fear of losing what we have, fear of being seen as inadequate?

    Reply

    • Hi Abbs. Thanks for the comment!

      I find anger really interesting and could write a very long answer to the question.

      The short version – I often find fear underneath anger, and often sadness too. Sad about what happened (wishing something different had happened) and fear about the consequences (worrying it will be repeated or will continue to cause loss and pain).

      Both the fear and sadness become obscured by a whole mixture of emotional, physical and mental responses to what’s happening that tend to fuel the underlying fear and/or sadness into anger or rage and a violent response.

      If I can transform the anger by looking at what’s underneath then I’m less likely to respond violently.

      Ian

      PS My family used to holiday in West Wittering too!

      Reply

      • Imagine – if you’re in your mid-50s we might have shared a beach and never known it…

        I’ve been more aware recently of how much aggression and suppressed violence there is in business communication; the whole approach seems to be fixed in the culture of warfare, at least in the UK and America. It’s as though the rise in the number of people keen to work in a co-operative, generous business culture is forcing the testosterone-driven (including women) people to show eve more aggression.

        Reply

  5. […] series and will consider applying it to how you communicate. If you missed them, please check out part 1 and part 2 in the […]

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