Rosenberg, Marshall B. — Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life

Rosenberg, Marshall B.  Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.  2nd Edition.  Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press, 2003.  Print.

Rosenberg offers a schematic for NVC, or Nonviolent Communication, which he asserts “can be effectively applied at all levels of communication an in diverse situations,” including schools, organizations, diplomatic and business negotiations, and “disputes and conflicts of any nature” (8).  He begins by defining nonviolence as “our natural state of compassion when violence has subsided from the heart” (2), and he asks us to understand that “[b]ehind intimidating messages are merely people appealing to us to meet their needs” (99).  Once we adopt a perspective of NVC, Rosenberg suggests, “messages previously seen as critical or blaming begin to be seen for the gifts they are: opportunities to give to people who are in pain” (100).

In the first phase of the NVC process, he says, “we observe what is actually happening in a situation: what are we observing others saying or doing that is either enriching or not enriching our lives?  The trick is to be able to articulate this observation without introducing any judgment or evaluation–to simply say what other people are doing the we either like or don’t like” (6).  Rosenberg notes that these observations need to be “specific to time and context” (26) and identify “specific behaviors” that bother us (29).   Next, he writes, “we state how we feel when we observe this action: are we hurt, scared, joyful, amused, irritated?” (6).  Rosenberg notes that this very difficult for most people to do because “Our repertoire of words for calling people names is often larger than our vocabulary of words to clearly describe our emotional states” (37).  But by “developing a vocabulary of feelings that allows us to clearly and specifically name our emotions,” he suggests, “we can connect more easily with one another” (46).  In the third phase of NVC, according to Rosenberg, “we say what needs of ours are connected to the feelings we have identified” (6).  Again, this is very difficult because we are far “more skilled in analyzing the perceived wrongness of others than in clearly expressing our own needs” (53).  He notes that “most of us have never been taught to think in terms of needs.  We are accustomed to thinking about what’s wrong with other people when our needs aren’t being fulfilled” (53).  Nonetheless, Rosenberg maintains, “Judgments, criticisms, diagnoses, and interpretations of others are all alienated expressions of our [own unmet] needs.  If someone says, ‘You never understand me,’ they are really telling us that their need to be understood is not being fulfilled” (52).  Obviously, he notes, “If we express our needs, we have a better chance of getting them met” (53): “the moment people begin talking about what they need rather than what’s wrong with one another, the possibility of finding ways to meet everyone’s needs is greatly increased” (54).  Finally, in the fourth phase of NVC, we make very specific requests of “what we are wanting from the other person that would enrich our lives” (6).  In sum, as Rosenberg puts it,  “When our needs are not being fulfilled, we follow the expression of what we are observing, feeling, and needing with a specific request: we ask for actions that might fulfill our needs,” and and we do all this “in a way likely to inspire compassion” (67).

Empathy is a critical concept in NVC, and Rosenberg spends considerable time discussing it.  “Empathy is a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing,” he writes, a matter of “emptying our mind and listening with our whole being.”  Moreover, Rosenberg contends, “Empathy with others occurs only when we have successfully shed all preconceived ideas and judgments about them” (91).  And he notes that “The presence that empathy demands is not easy to maintain.”  It requires us to “give to others the time and space they need to express themselves fully and to feel understood” (92).  In sum, Rosenberg suggests, when we have empathized with others, we have “touched their humanness and realized the common qualities we share” (115): “When we settle our attention on other people’s feelings and needs, we experience our common humanity [. . .] When my consciousness is focused on another human being’s feelings and needs, I see the universality of our experience” (151).

Finally, Rosenberg makes a clear distinction between NVC and discourse we might usually consider stereotypically rhetorical: “If our objective is only to change people and their behavior or to get our way, then NVC is not an appropriate tool.”  The objective of NVC is not to persuade people to think or act in a certain way, but “to establish a relationship based on honesty and empathy,” and “our primary commitment is to the quality of the relationship” (81).  Nonetheless, by asserting that “NVC is not a set formula, but something that adapts to various situations as well as personal and cultural styles” (7), he nonetheless construes NVC as rhetorical in that it endlessly adapts to audience and occasion.

Rosenberg presents NVC as a fully elaborated system, and while it does provide a structural schematic upon which pedagogical practices could be built, his discussion of NVC raises a number of important questions.  For instance, is compassion a “natural” state?  If so, how so?  Compassion, like patience and sharing (and a host of other “civilized” behaviors) would seem to go against some basic biology, against protecting my DNA at the expense of yours.  But perhaps compassion is not anti-biology if we take the larger perspective that we are herd animals and in our collective best interests.  If compassion is natural, then what would be the implications?  If compassion is natural, need it be taught?  If it is natural, can it be taught?  Rosenberg suggests that we do engage in all the elements of NVC “in a way likely to inspire compassion” (67).  Again, this points out the need to interrogate the nature of compassion?  What is it?  Where does it come from?  Is it, in fact, “inspired”?  Breathed into us from someone/something else?  Is it inherent and only needs to be drawn out?  How might we teach it?  In short, an elaborated theory of compassion is essential for any approach to nonviolence and communication.

Empathy is equally critical in Rosenberg’s scheme and equally ill-defined.  Empathy, he writes, a matter of “emptying our mind and listening with our whole being” (91), suggesting that empathy is something beyond merely cognitive, that it involves physical, emotional, and perhaps even spiritual natures.  In discussing empathy as presence, Rosenberg makes me think of Corder’s ideas about emergence, suggesting that listeners, too, have to emerge toward the other, and his suggestion that empathizing requires us to shed our preconceptions of the other suggests that mindfulness is a necessary prerequisite.  Mindfulness, is thus essential both for observing and for empathy in NVC: we need to learn to be fully present to the moment, dropping our internal dialogue, clearing the mind, so we can be fully present to another person.  Mindfulness, too, then, is something we would need to teach and practice in NVC.  Both Rosenberg and Corder contend that people need time and attention in order to emerge, need time and an audience in order to emerge, that we can’t really emerge without the necessary time and without someone to emerge toward.  If this is so, empathy is not something that one person gives or offers another; it is something that people can only do together.  Both parties have to emerge and be fully present to each other and give each other time.  Furthermore, Rosenberg suggests that when we have empathized with others, we have “touched their humanness and realized the common qualities we share” (115).  What then, is the relationship between empathy and identification?  They would seem to be practically the same experience.  How do Burke’s ideas fit in here?  Is nonviolent communication, then, the search for empathy/identification, the very essence of New Rhetoric, the means of overcoming our biological separateness?  In short, we need a fully elaborated theory of empathy to inform nonviolent communication, one that integrates concepts of compassion and identification, among others.

Rosenberg’s emphasis on the need for observation without evaluation makes me think of Elbow’s ideas about rendering (as well as Buddhist ideas about mindfulness), about discourse that renders reality without analyzing it.  That’s a kind of discourse we don’t usually teach, but certainly could.  How might we practice that kind of writing?  What models might we emulate?

I concur that identifying feelings is hard for us, and one of the main reasons it is hard is academic discourse is entirely about logos.  We have no practice in talking about emotions in any concerted or systematic way, and since we have no common discourse for dealing with emotions, we have nothing to internalize as reflective thought about it.  What he is calling for is something I would call “emotional or pathetic literacy.”  But how do we teach it?  Surely, simply providing lists of vocabulary for students to memorize won’t do it.  We need to start having specific, detailed, elaborated conversations about emotional states so that students can begin to internalize this discourse as reflective thought.  There needs to be regular, communal talk that provides grammar of emotions, that embodies and enacts the quality, terms, range, goals, conventions, and rhetorical structures of conversations about the emotions which students can become fluent in and internalize.  Beyond that, there could/should be daily exercises to help them become fluent in expressing emotions, daily opportunities where they are asked to describe their actual emotional states.

In like manner, we have no vocabulary or discourse about needs we can internalize either.  What are our needs?  How can we teach people to identify which need is operating at a given moment, driving them?  How can we help people, teach people to express these needs?  What taxonomies of needs would be most helpful in this regard?

Rosenberg glosses the entire NVC process as follows: “When our needs are not being fulfilled, we follow the expression of what we are observing, feeling, and needing with a specific request: we ask for actions that might fulfill our needs” (67).  These are all skills that can and ought to be taught: how to render experience, how to identify and express feelings, how to identify and express needs, and how to request specific actions.  That’s a whole writing curriculum right there.

When Rosenberg notes that judgments, criticisms, diagnoses, interpretations are all expressions of unmet needs, all I can think is that academic discourse, then, is all about our unmet needs, since it is nothing but a litany of judgments, criticisms, diagnoses, and interpretations.  So what unmet needs lie behind it?  Our needs for certainty, security, control, and foundational knowledge are obviously places to start.

Finally, it would be good to investigate O. J. Harvey’s research at the University of Colorado that is supposed to show that the frequency of words that classify and judge people in a culture strongly correlates with the number of violent incidents in a culture.  Should it prove to be persuasive research, it would be a powerful perspective to bring to conversations about language and (non)violence.

— Paul Heilker

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