Have you heard of Non-Violent Communication before? If you have, you probably think about it as a way to communicate effectively with other people. That is true. And to my mind, much more importantly, it is also a very practical teaching about the nature of violence itself.
When most of us think of violence, we think of fighting, wars, yelling. The key book on NVC, by Marshall Rosenberg, starts out by asking us to expand our idea of what it is to be violent. In fact, the foreword was written by Ghandi’s grandson. Ghandi asked his grandson to keep track of all of the “violent” things that happened over the course of a week or so. He asked him to track not just physical violence, but what he called “passive violence” as well. Passive violence were those mundane acts that generated anger in the other person, which of course is the root of physical acts of aggression. Before long, the grandson began to see how violence was everywhere around him, all the time.
What is passive violence? This is where the book takes another eye-opening turn. Passive violence is basically our subtle desire to control other people. The desire to control may come from care (I want my dad to stop smoking), insecurity (I just want him to appreciate me), or any one of the other hundreds of reasons. The basic formula is always the same: I need you to do X so I can stop suffering. When we think people hold the key to our happiness, then we don’t fully grant them the freedom to act. That is violence–not yelling, or threats. Violence is the subtle and pervasive desire to manipulate others so that we can be happy.
So how do we move away from this violent approach to life? By understanding one single truth: no one else is responsible for how you feel. You are 100% responsible for your own feelings and needs.
Some of you might think that this sounds like some hippy shit. You might think: wait a second, others do cause me to feel things. When my boss yells at me, I feel bad. When my friend calls me, I feel good. When someone steals my parking spot, they are a dick and caused me to be angry. Are you telling me to be a doormat so that the world can be a more peaceful place? No way! Other people need to be accountable for their actions!
NVC is not a bunch of hippy shit. It is simply (and radically) asking you to understand your feelings in a totally different way.
Usually, we think EXTERNAL ACT — REACTION/FEELING. NVC teaches us that things actually work like this: EXTERNAL ACT— TRIGGER BASED ON INTERNAL NEED— REACTION/FEELING. What does this mean? It means that external acts are neutral. They do not “cause” your feelings–they trigger your feelings based on your internal needs. Your boss yelling at you makes you feel bad because you have a need for approval and love in the workplace. Another person who didn’t have those same needs might not be bothered at all by their boss’ aggressive behavior. Someone stealing your parking spot pissed you off because you have a need to feel like you live in a world of nice people, or because you need to feel like you are “winning” at the game of life. The external act has no inherent impact without your own triggers (although, because many of us have similar triggers, it will produce similar reactions in many people). It is like how people and dogs are with chocolate. What is delicious for people is poison to dogs. The chocolate itself is neutral.
Once you truly accept that NO ONE else causes your feelings (for most of us, a life-long task), you naturally begin to approach interactions with others from a non-aggressive place. The rest is just technique and practice.
But there is an even better way to say this, which leads me into the second awesome part about NVC. Because no one else is responsible for how you feel…
You can choose how you react to situations, rather than be at the mercy of others. You don’t have to fight anyone to be happy (other than yourself, of course). You discover true power.
Not only does your emotional center of balance change, but you can take care of yourself much more effectively. Actually, I think this is the true definition of growing up–you learn to provide for yourself, instead of asking (demanding) that others take care of our needs. If we have a need for peace and cooperation, it is your job to connect with that need and meet it. And of course, the best way to take care of a need is to GIVE (to yourself, to others) what you were initially seeking to get from outside. Now you can start living from a place of thinking about what you DO want (connection, love, respect), rather than what you don’t (e.g., I want this person to stop hurting me). The thing you were so desperately fighting the other person to give you is always available to you . . . if you are willing to let it in.
So what about the practical situation at hand with the other person? Do we just walk away? Not necessarily. Once you understand your feelings and needs, you may choose to communicate them to the other person (using a whole system of communication that is taught in the book). And they may choose to modify their behavior, or not. And if they don’t, you have the choice to continue the relationship, or not. But you respect and honor their decision no matter what. NVC does not promise solutions, but it does promise that you will stop exhausting yourself mistakenly trying to get someone else to change so that you can be happy.
(this is not all talk…put this into action and see how it feels!)
First, think of a difficult situation with another person (or practice this while in the midst of a difficult situation!). Choose a judgment sentence about the other person. For example, “This person is selfish and only thinks about his or herself.”)
Next, run this sentence over and over in your mind for about 20 seconds. Notice what happens in your body. Do you feel tired? Does your breath go shallow? Do you feel tight?