Nonviolent communication

by Anna Finlayson and Daren DeWitt

Nonviolent communication in action

The following excerpts are taken from Nonviolent Communication: a Language of Life, by Marshall Rosenberg. They illustrate the power of empathy and how it can diffuse even extremely violent situations. Notice in the third extract how the empathiser switches from guessing what is alive in the heart of her assailant (his feelings and needs) to expressing what is alive in her heart (her own feelings and needs).

Extract 1

Night shift at a detox centre

A young woman used empathy to bypass violence during her night shift at a drug detoxification centre in Toronto. At 11pm one night, a few weeks after her first NVC training, a man who’d obviously been taking drugs walked in off the street and demanded a room. The young woman started to explain to him that all the rooms had been filled for the night. She was about to hand the man the address of another detox centre when he hurled her to the ground. ‘The next thing I knew, he was sitting across my chest holding a knife to my throat and shouting, ‘You bitch, don’t lie to me! You do too have a room!’’

She then proceeded to apply her training by listening for his feelings and needs.

‘You know, Marshall,’ she added, ‘that joke you told in the workshop really helped me. In fact, I think it saved my life.’

‘What joke?’

‘Remember when you said never to put your ‘but’ in the face of an angry person? I was all ready to start arguing with him; I was about to say, “But I don’t have a room!” when I remembered your joke. It had really stayed with me because only the week before, I was arguing with my mother and she’d said to me. “I could kill you when you answer ‘but’ to everything I say!” Imagine if my own mother was angry enough to kill me for using that word, what would this man have done? If I’d said, “But I don’t have a room!” when he was screaming at me, I have no doubt he would have slit my throat.

So instead, I took a deep breath and said, “It sounds like you’re really angry and you want to be given a room.” He yelled back, “I may be an addict, but by God. I deserve respect. I’m tired of nobody giving me respect. My parents don’t give me respect. I’m gonna get respect!” I just focused on his feelings and needs and said,

“Are you fed up, not getting the respect that you want?’’ ’

‘How long did this go on?’ I asked.

‘Oh, about another 35 minutes,’ she replied.

‘That must have been terrifying.’

‘No, not after the first couple of interchanges, because then something else we’d learned here became apparent. When I concentrated on listening for his feelings and needs, I stopped seeing him as a monster. I could see, just as you said, how people who seem like monsters are simply human being whose language and behaviour sometimes keep us from seeing their humanness. The more I was able to focus my attention on his feelings and needs, the more I saw him as a person full of despair whose needs weren’t being met. I became confident that if I held my attention there, I wouldn’t be hurt. After he’d received the empathy he needed, he got off me, put the knife away, and I helped him find a room at another centre.’

Extract 2

Police officer

A metropolitan police officer attending a follow-up training in NVC once greeted me with this account:

‘I’m sure glad you had us practicing empathy with angry people that last time. Just a few days after our session, I went to arrest someone in a public housing project. When I brought him out, my car was surrounded by about 60 people screaming things at me like, “Let him go! He didn’t do anything! You police are a bunch of racist pigs!” Although I was sceptical that empathy would help, I didn’t have many other options. So I reflected back the feelings that were coming at me; I said things like, “So you don’t trust my reasons for arresting this man? You think it has to do with race?” After several minutes of my continuing to reflect their feelings, the group became less hostile. In the end they opened a path so I could get to my car.’

Extract 3

Attempted rape

A teacher in the inner city of St Louis related an incident where she had conscientiously stayed after school to help a student, even though teachers were warned to leave the building for their own safety after classes were dismissed. A stranger entered her classroom, where the following exchange took place:

Young man: ‘Take off your clothes.’

Teacher (noticing that he was shaking): ‘I’m sensing this is very scary for you.’

Young man: ‘Did you hear me? God damn it, take off your clothes!’

Teacher: ‘I’m sensing you’re really pissed off right now and you want me to do what you’re telling me.’

Young Man: ‘You’re damn right and you’re going to get hurt if you don’t.’

Teacher: ‘I’d like you to tell me if there’s some other way of meeting your needs that wouldn’t hurt me.’

Young man: ‘I said take them off.’

Teacher: ‘I can hear how much you want this. At the same time, I want you to know how scared and horrible I feel, and how grateful I’d be if you’d leave without hurting me.’

Young man: ‘Give me your purse.’

The teacher handed the stranger her purse, relieved not to be raped. She later described how, each time she empathised with the young man, she could sense his becoming less adamant in his intention to follow through with the rape.

Extract 4

Showing vulnerability with street gangs

Once I showed my vulnerability with some members of a street gang in Cleveland by acknowledging the hurt I was feeling and my need to be treated with more respect. ‘Oh look,’ one of them remarked, ‘he’s feeling hurt; isn’t that too bad!’ at which point all his friends chimed in laughing. Here again, I could interpret them as taking advantage of my vulnerability or I could empathise with the feelings and needs behind their behaviour...

As I listened closely to the gang members remarks, ‘Oh look, he’s feeling hurt; isn’t that too bad?’ and the laughter that followed, I sensed that he and his friends were annoyed and not wanting to be subjected to guilt trips and manipulation. They may have been reacting to people in their pasts who used phrases like, ‘That hurts me!’ to imply disapproval. Since I didn’t check this with them out loud, I have no way of knowing if my guess was in fact accurate. Just focusing my attention there, however, kept me from either taking it personally or getting angry. Instead of judging them for ridiculing or treating me disrespectfully, I concentrated on hearing the pain and needs behind such behaviour.

‘Hey,’ one of them burst out, ‘this is a bunch of crap you’re offering us! Suppose there are members of another gang here and they have guns and you don’t. And you say just stand there and talk to them? Crap!’

Then everybody was laughing again, and again I directed my attention to their feelings and needs: ‘So, it sounds like you’re really fed up with learning something that has no relevance in those situations?’

‘Yeah. And if you lived in this neighbourhood you’d know this is a bunch of crap.’

‘So you need to trust that someone teaching you something has some knowledge of your neighbourhood?’

‘Damn right! Some of these dudes would blast you away before you got two words out of your mouth!’

‘And you need to trust that someone trying to teach you something understands the dangers around here?’ I continued to listen in this way, sometimes verbalising what I heard and sometimes not. This continued for 45 minutes and then I sensed a shift: they felt that I was truly understanding them. A counsellor in the programme noticed the shift and asked them out loud, ‘What do you think of this man?’ The gentleman who had been giving me the roughest time replied: ‘He’s the best speaker we’ve ever had.’

Astonished, the counsellor turned to me and whispered, ‘But you haven’t said anything!’ In fact, I had said a lot by demonstrating that there was nothing they could throw at me that couldn’t be translated into universal human feelings and needs.