The Hebrew Bible tells us that “death and life come through the power of the tongue.” My father, who was a (mostly) lay linguist, raised all three of his daughters to be in awe of the power of words to create effects. It’s no wonder that I have dedicated my life to a methodology and a practice that put so much emphasis on choice of words to convey meaning and to create inner and outer transformation.
Ever since I started teaching Nonviolent Communication (NVC) I have been exposed to a dual stream of responses. Most people who come in contact with the training report a growing sense of freedom, finding ways of living more in harmony with how they want to be, more connection in their life, and a host of other benefits.
I also hear from people a deep concern about the sense of a forced way of speaking, and concern about manipulation and inauthenticity. Many people tell me that others don’t seem to be happy when they use NVC in communicating with them.
How to make sense of this apparent contradiction?
Having reflected on this for some years now, I have reached a lot of clarity about what is at play here. I see several issues that intertwine to create this challenge for many people who want to learn NVC.
Practice and Life
I like to look at the particular set of words that are used in NVC settings as an incredibly powerful practice to prepare us for life. Just as much as we are unlikely to meditate in the midst of a conversation unless we both agree that we want to take some time to meditate, I want us to be in the habit of using the NVC phrases when we are in a practice setting, or when another person explicitly agrees to us experimenting with our newly acquired capacities, and for the rest of the time let life happen.
Consciousness and Language
What I am fundamentally aiming for is to live the values that speak to me about the NVC consciousness. The words used in practice are in support of this consciousness, not a substitute for it. I want my words to arise from the truth that lives in me. I aim for more and more fluidity in my holding of NVC consciousness, to stay grounded in principles of NVC and adapt the language to the circumstances.
I am aware of a lot of conditioning in the culture to not be authentic about our inner experience. I can totally see that unless we consciously work on this conditioning to be “nice”, we can easily fold the tool of NVC into the conditioning. With enough practice, unfortunately, it’s possible even to use NVC to mask the truth of our experience. A Naturalizing the NVC language comes from aligning ourselves with the truth and expressing from that place. 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.
Combining Truth and Care
One of the reasons why the conditioning to be inauthentic is in place is because of the widespread perception that truth and care are incompatible. I challenge that assumption deeply, and have come to believe that any truth can be combined with sufficient care to maintain connection while delivering it. Even a painful truth can be connected. We cannot protect ourselves or each other from pain. We can speak in ways that provide care even during pain. Before speaking I reflect on the truth, I look for and find the care inside, even when that’s an effort. I take an extra breath, if necessary, to ensure that they are united inside me, and I let the words emerge from that.
A Teenager Story – Finding the Truth in the Moment
Parents who attempt to use NVC with their children are especially challenged. For example, someone told me that every time she tries to use NVC with her teenage son he tells her to shut up. She was at a loss about how to communicate with her son. I was not surprised. One of the nice things about teenagers is that they have extremely well-honed bullshit detectors. What they are detecting is authenticity. Is it for real? If her son doesn’t want to hear her speech, that means he knows there’s something going on and she is not saying it. That’s when we discovered that she was nervous about using NVC, and never told him. She could immediately see that the nervous would leak. As Marshall Rosenberg, originator of NVC, has said, unacknowledged fear looks like aggression. We can’t use NVC language as a substitute for real connection.
Sadly, often enough we think that there is some kind of big truth that we have to express and if we can’t express it then we don’t know what to do. In my experience, more often than not there is a small truth that we can express. In this example, it’s not the nervousness that disconnects this person from her son. It’s having the nervousness and trying to pretend its not there. The simplicity of telling her son that she is nervous simply didn’t occur to her.
Ah, there is so much more to say about this topic. I feel very passionate about wanting the practice of NVC to nourish life and connection; wanting people who learn NVC to treat each other and everyone else with love instead of correcting each other’s speech; and wanting the consciousness of nonviolence at its purest form to permeate life so we can turn the tide of destruction we have been on for so long.
Because of this passion, I am dedicating six days to working with people who want to strengthen their ability to plant themselves deeply in the consciousness of love, courage, and truth-telling that nonviolence is for me, and to live, communicate, and work toward inner and outer transformation from within that consciousness while making their language use more and more natural and flowing. It’s called In Your Own Words, and it’s on August 5-10 . For once, it’s on the East Coast, so all those who live there who don’t want to travel to California can find me closer to home. Maybe I will see you there.
Originally posted July 8, 2011