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Living with the Other Half of America #1: Empathy through Nonviolent Communication

I chose the picture above to pay tribute to Marshal Rosenberg, who formulated Nonviolent Communication and revealed to me how the language (vocabulary) I use brings violence to my life. He gave me a way to find peace within myself and with others by changing the words in my head and in my speech.

When talking politics, the word "fight" appears in just about every conversation and every online post. What sense does it make to say, "Fight for justice, fairness, equal rights or peace"? “Fight” denotes conflict and aggression. Doesn't it sound more appealing and less combative when we use words like "strive, work, or endeavor"?

Words expressing violence pervade our usual daily speech. Some of them are expletives. Mine are usually directed at my computer. Others are divisive, "them" or "those," while others represent judgment, "better/poorer, good/bad, intelligent/stupid, skilled/unskilled, loved/hated, respected/disrespected." We use words that blame or express our complaint against people or the way things are.

We live in a culture of violence that came with English and European migration to North America. The cruel class system of these cultures allowed English and European explorers and settlers arriving in what became this country holding attitudes of religious and cultural superiority to take the land, possessions and lives of the native inhabitants. As immigrants poured in, slaves were imported, mainly from Africa. Violence against non-Anglo-European Caucasians perpetrated by those of English and European descent became established in American culture. It permeates not just our actions, but how we think and speak, even to each other and to ourselves.

We see this heritage of violence expressed in hateful speech and physical violence directed at African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Muslim Americans and occasionally at Jewish Americans. We see violence directed at competitors, employees, the poor, the unemployed and the mentally ill or physically handicapped. We see violence in our homes directed at spouses, children and elderly parents. Finally, we see violence directed at the environment in the sportful hunting of animals, extraction and collection of natural resources, and in the pollution of the environment. Yes, violence permeates our entire culture.

Rosenberg taught that we can let go of violence by embracing empathy, which means seeking connection with others or at least developing understanding of others. To develop understanding and connection, we must learn to recognize the needs that underlie and motivate any person's speech and behavior. The list of human needs is long. Certain needs are universal, though not always apparent: food, water, shelter, safety and connection with other human beings comprise the most basic human needs.

Our strategies for meeting our needs often fail us, fail to fulfill our needs and frequently result in pain to ourselves and to others. Our strategies often involve violence — aggressive or self-destructive speech and behaviors. We may rant, complain, denounce, criticize, curse or lie. We may cheat, rob, steal or swindle. And we may attack, incarcerate, isolate, banish or murder all in the name of fulfilling our needs.

Rosenberg used a phrase that I truly love to describe such dysfunctional speech and behaviors: "tragic expressions of unmet needs." The tragedy is simply that these aggressive and self-destructive behaviors produce the opposite of connection and don't meet the underlying needs.

When we find ourselves in situations of conflict, we may need to start by giving ourselves empathy. We do this by recognizing when we are judging, blaming and complaining about ourselves. Without beating up on ourselves for doing these things, we try to switch to making impartial, objective observations.

For example, if we find ourselves in a heated conversation with Uncle Ned, we pause (it’s okay to excuse yourself and go to the restroom to do this) and reflect on the quality of our speech. Are we telling Uncle Ned that he’s wrong or bigoted for what he believes? Are we blaming him for the outcome of the election? When we recognize our judgment and complaining, we can ask ourselves, “What is going on?” The answer we seek is descriptive, without judgment words. In this example, we might say to ourselves, “Uncle Ned said ______ and I said ______.

Once we make nonjudgmental observations, we can ask, “What am I feeling and what is Uncle Ned feeling?” We might conclude that Uncle Ned is feeling threatened by my accusations and I’m feeling angry because he believes ______. The next step is to recognize the needs underlying the behaviors. We might guess that Uncle Ned needs security (safety) while my need is for equality and justice. Now, we can empathize with ourselves for getting angry in defense of equality and justice. We might say to ourselves, “I’m not a bad person. I’m okay. I just want to defend equality and justice.”

When we find peace within ourselves by accepting that our behavior is not creating harmony with Uncle Ned, we are ready to find peace with Uncle Ned by recognizing that he’s a person who is threatened by changes in society and by people like me telling him that he’s wrong and a bad person. We also have to change the way we speak about Uncle Ned… inside our head, to others and to his face. No more complaining; no more blaming him or accusing him of being a bad person for what he believes. We choose to accept that Uncle Ned believes what he does and recognize that his statements and actions are motivated by what he believes to be true and by his underlying needs.

With our newfound understanding of our own needs and Uncle Ned’s needs, we can speak to those needs and, in doing so, establish connection. We might say to Uncle Ned, “I wonder if you are speaking the way you do because you feel threatened when people like me tell you that we believe you are a bad person?” Framing your observation as a question opens the door to discussion. Uncle Ned might respond, perhaps angrily, that “everyone should feel threatened by what’s happening out there.” In this case, acknowledging Uncle Ned’s feelings without judgment may further the discussion, “I see that this is really important to you.” It’s generally best not to say, “I see that this upsets you,” because that kind of comment usually is interpreted as a judgment that threatens their safety, and, as a result, a person becomes even more defensive, which isn’t helpful. When Uncle Ned feels heard and accepted, he will relax and open to further connection with you. Both you and he, and anyone listening in on your conversation, will breathe easier and speak more softly.

The goal of this nonviolent communication — speaking peace — is the creation of greater connection. When you speak without violence and give empathy by acknowledging both your own and others’ needs, you naturally decrease the defensiveness and increase the connection. You can get to a place of mutual respect where you truly can dialogue. This does not mean that you will agree. True respect accepts differences. What will happen is that you leave the conversation with Uncle Ned feeling good about him as a person and holding a deeper understanding of why he believes what he does. He’ll feel the same towards you too.

Practicing nonviolent communication isn’t difficult, but it usually takes time to habituate pausing, reflecting, becoming objective, recognizing feelings and needs, and finally developing strategies that meet everyone’s needs.

Here is the list of topics on the theme of Living with the Other Half of America:

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