Language, Meaning, and Consciousness Transformation

There is no question that my love of language is an inherited trait. My father was a lay linguist, in addition to being a teacher, writer, and public intellectual. In the last few years of his life, in his fifties, he went back to school to get a Ph.D. in linguistics, a project he didn’t complete due to illness. Not having a degree didn’t stop him from writing and continuing to perfect a book about common errors in usage of Hebrew until he got sick and had the book finally released for publication. My mother also wrote a book about language, explaining in detail a unique method she developed for teaching Hebrew, both to native speakers and as a second language. I hope she gets to publish it in her lifetime. Our family culture was suffused with intellectually stimulating conversations about politics, society, Judaism, psychology, social critique, and deep engagement with all of our daily experiences. In among these topics, we always had extensive discussions about language and meaning, about the source of words, and about how changing words, even word order, can change meaning. It’s no wonder to me that I landed on a language-based practice as a primary passion and my calling.

I continue to carry in me the deep reverence for precision and clarity in use of words that unites our family. Which words we choose to say is not “just semantics,” as so many often say. Rather, I see each word that we choose as carrying a specific field of meaning. If we change the words we use, we change the message we send – both to the person who hears it as well as to our own brain. I have a distinct experience that a language-based practice such a Nonviolent Communication (NVC) can most literally change the wiring within our nervous system.

Form and Meaning

Marshall Rosenberg, who created the practice of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), kept developing and refining it for decades. Eventually, he reached a succinct and precise template of speech that captures within it an astonishing amount of subtlety in very simple steps. To give an example of the level of depth that this formula points to, both the self-expression and empathy side of it end with a question mark. Ending with a question points to the commitment to dialogue and interdependence through a direct and explicit interest in the experience and wishes of the other person.

I am deeply grateful to Marshall for his gifts to the world and to me. Personally, I found a new frame for understanding human nature, indefinitely growing freedom to be myself, a path for living out the love that was always there and often hidden, and a clear way to make it possible to collaborate with people in almost all circumstances. These gifts came along with a community of people all over the world that I love deeply. Beyond my own personal life, I am dedicating myself to sharing these gifts with others because I see the framework as carving a path into a livable future through reclaiming our collective capacity to collaborate, through changing the stories we tell and transmit about who we are and what’s possible, and through building relationships and structures designed to attend to human needs. Reaching these possibilities requires fundamental changes both in our thinking and experience and in the institutions and social norms within which we live.

Within this overwhelming gratitude, I am also specifically appreciative of the power of the simple template he has created. I see it as an amazing practice tool that can help us integrate the habits of love, truth, and courage that are the foundation of nonviolence. I see it as a powerful scaffolding that can help us navigate the inner and outer minefields we can enter in times of conflict, since it’s bound to slow us down to a more mindful speech.

Still, when I share NVC with others I don’t ordinarily focus much on the practice template, nor do I follow these steps in my own speech, either with people in my life or when I facilitate groups. How can it be that I don’t teach something that I believe has such high value?

Two related reasons combine to make this decision. One is that I want people to have choice. I find that whenever anyone uses the NVC template, especially if they are not fully integrated with it conceptually and only use the words, they are in effect imposing it on another human being. I deeply want to honor people’s dignity and choice; these are two of the needs I most want to see others have access to fulfilling. The other reason is that the depth of our prior training is such that too many people are too prone to taking the practice tool and converting its meaning to “this is how we should speak.” As hard as it may seem, I would rather rely on spontaneous forms of speech, even if they don’t carry out collaborative intentions, than on adherence to a form of speech, however ingenious, that is not fully integrated and therefore leaves a gap of authenticity that almost always interferes with the connection.

I want to lead with authenticity and care, and let the language follow the intention rather than being superimposed. I want the practice to happen in those contexts where it is mutually agreed upon. Such agreement exists, for example, when a group of people come together with the specific intention of practicing NVC. It also exists in many families, relationships, and even some work teams, as a tool for navigating conflict or emotional triggers.

What about when such an agreement is not in place? Then I hope to remember to ask for the other person’s willingness to use a form of speech rather simply using it without asking. Here are some examples of how such a temporary agreement can be established:

“While it may seem odd or awkward, I would like to reflect what I heard from you before responding, to know whether I understood you as you intended. Are you open to me doing it?“

In the above example, the agreement, if given, is only for one moment, and ends as soon as my attempts to reflect end successfully. I can also see establishing a longer lasting agreement. This might look like this:

“We’ve been at this kind of fight so many times. I’d like to try using a form of speech that may help us talk about this without getting as angry as we usually do. Would you be up for doing it with me for a few minutes to see if it will help us?”

As soon as the agreement is in place, it provides a context for the other person to make sense of the awkwardness or hesitancy that often accompany the early phases of learning NVC. There’s a reason for the awkwardness, and it’s not just about using different words. It’s about the fact that the different words have a different meaning, and thus there is tension between the meaning the words carry and the habitual thoughts that we still carry.

Here’s just one example. One of the core principles of NVC is about taking responsibility for our experience by recognizing that others don’t cause our feelings. Instead, we learn to understand that we continually assign meaning to what others do, and that we have feelings in response to what they do based on the meaning that we assign to it. If we still believe that the person in front of us is the cause of our upset and our words indicate that it is our own needs that are giving rise to the feelings through our interpretations of the other person’s actions, that gap creates tension. If I say “I am upset because I have a deep need for connection and dignity” and internally I think “I can’t believe how selfish you are,” there is a gap, and this gap would be picked up by the other person and likely seen as dishonesty or aggression.

This is why whenever the specific forms of NVC arise when I share it with others, I repeatedly link them back to the underlying principle that they exemplify, so that people can practice and learn, and keep their awareness again and again on the new thought form they are trying to integrate.

I believe that as humans we are creatures of practice. For most of us, setting an intention to shift our consciousness without having a concrete practice for how to do it is not sustainable. The forces of habit, both within us and the ongoing reinforcements from others and the culture at large, are simply too strong without the support provided by practice.

The practice, in this sense, has the same power that I tend to ascribe to a meditation practice: they both train the mind, and are not the life itself. Meditating allows us to be more mindful in how we navigate life even though I wouldn’t want anyone to start meditating while going through the daily activities of life. Similarly, using a certain set of linguistic forms in a practice setting trains our minds and hearts in responding to life with more compassion, authenticity, and choice without being the actual way I would want us to speak with people.

Starting with Love and Truth

What I hope for, instead of using certain words whether or not we are fully integrated, whether or not the other person is willing to join us in the vulnerability of the exploration, is for all of us who adopt the principles of NVC as guidelines for living to be able to get anchored in our intention, and to let the words emerge, spontaneously, from there. The intention could usually be really simple: essentially it is some combination of love and truth done with courage. These are the core building blocks of nonviolence, whether in a civil resistance campaign or at home with our family. If we stay grounded in the principles, and have enough practice under our belt, I am confident we can adapt the language to the circumstances.

What to do when we are, indeed, caught up in a place of fear, protection, closed heart, or emotional upset? What I aim for is to strive to acknowledge what is happening while relying on and articulating what I know that I know in principle even if I don’t have emotional access to it in the moment. Here are some examples:

“Despite the animosity between us in this moment, I believe sincerely that you care, I just don’t know what to do to get us to reconnect. Can you help?”

“Although I am now full of resentment, I know we will work through this. I want to start by trying to hear what you have to say. Are you open to telling me?”

“Right now my heart is closed and it’s hard for me to trust you. I still know we love each other, so I want to tell you what’s going on for me despite how scary it is. Is there any way you can be with me while I speak before you respond? That might help me regain trust.”

I was picking, deliberately, moments that are particularly difficult in a conversation. Those are the moments that are most likely to result either in hiding behind stilted expressions of feelings and needs, or in pretend empathy without heart connection. By speaking what is happening in us while recognizing the larger perspective, we create togetherness. It’s a way of bringing our heart and struggle back into the equation. In that way, it’s a small step towards resolution.

It’s about putting our heart where we want it to be even when it feels “impossible,” finding a message that is both true and caring, and only then looking for the words. It’s almost as if the words then find us on their own. I have seen people think that there is some kind of Big Truth that they have to express in certain moments, and if they can’t express it then they don’t know what to do. My own experience is that more often than not there is a small truth that we can express that opens the door to more.

Our culture is full of conditioning against being authentic about our feelings, so there is no surprise for me that learning the tool of NVC, if we don’t address the conditioning directly, can fold the tool right back into the conditioning.

I keep coming back to combining honesty and care. For those who have been learning NVC, the very distinction between expressing my own feelings and needs and orienting myself empathically towards the other person’s feelings and needs can start to dissolve when we do that. At the heart level, I want to be attentive to both sets of needs at the same time. Even when I’m expressing my own experience, I still want to hold awareness of the other person. I want us to express what is in our hearts for the purpose of connecting instead of what often happens, which is slipping into expressing myself being some kind of a carte blanch license to dump whatever is in us and expecting the other person to be able to hear us well. I want to learn more and more how to express myself in ways that are completely authentic and require the least amount of effort for the other person to hear me.

I want so much to have the capacity to choose how to relate to people based on what would support mutual understanding and whatever the purpose of the interaction is. I want this for myself and everyone else who has chosen the path of NVC. For me, this capacity itself is central to all I want to bring to the world by making NVC the core of what I offer. When I can choose to relate to people, I am exercising choice instead of habit or obligation. I want my choice to be based on care and respect for the other person at the same time as holding tenderly my own vulnerability and caring for my needs. When I am able to do that, then even the most faltering moments of confusion become opportunities to transform my consciousness and align it with living into a future possibility.

Posted October 23, 2013

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2 thoughts on “Language, Meaning, and Consciousness Transformation

  1. Barb van Kerkhove

    I have read the section "Starting with Love and Truth" three times so far; it is helping me understand more fully two areas, speaking from intention and speaking with authenticity and care. And I am just now beginning to have some sense that they are very interrelated. Thank you, Miki!


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