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.
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.
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.
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?
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.