Nonviolent communication is the foundation of practicing ahimsa in the way we communicate, and it certainly takes some practice!
This practice is transformation in diffusing and resolving conflict in interpersonal and romantic relationships.
In this post, I'll tell you what nonviolent communication is, as well as how it relates to ahimsa and the Buddhist philosophy of "right speech." At the end, I present the four steps to nonviolent communication.
What Is Nonviolent Communication?
Nonviolent communication is a specific process of using language, and an overall way of living, developed by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, PhD. Before his death in 2015, he started a nonprofit, The Center for Nonviolent Communication, that offers international trainings.
The process of nonviolent communication aims to communicate in a way to meet the needs of everyone involved. Rosenberg says in his book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life:
"We can't win at somebody else's expense. We can only fully be satisfied when the other person's needs are fulfilled as well as our own."
This quote demonstrates the way that the process of nonviolent communication considers a deeper spiritual foundation -- that we are all one humanity with more commonalities than differences.
Nonviolent communication is a way to connect to that deeper understanding through the language we use and how we present our observations, feelings, needs, and desires.
Nonviolent communication is composed of two parts: honestly expressing where you are at, as well as receiving where someone else is at with empathy.
Ahimsa and Right Speech
As we know, ahimsa is non-harming or nonviolence. I think it is the first of the yamas because our entire spiritual practice grows from this place of peacefulness.
It is easy to see how killing or name-calling is violent, but we often do not consider how the language we use that seems "normal" can contain hidden aggressions.
When we cloak our comments in passive aggression, we are not communicating consciously.
Nonviolent communication can be used to express anger and other challenging emotions while still observing ahimsa.
Denying feelings of anger is not ahimsa.
I have witnessed in some yoga and spiritual communities a denial of anger and "shadow" emotions in favor of "light" and joy.
There is a way to practice ahimsa, while honoring your experience - the dark and the light.
The Buddhist Eightfold Path presents "right speech" as the absence from communicating in a way that is untrue, divisive, abusive, needlessly talkative, or gossipy.
Nonviolent communication teaches us how to speak purposefully, honestly, respectfully, and with the intention of creating harmony and cohesiveness with others.
Through effective nonviolent communication, you are able to liberate yourself and others from the old programming of the mind that causes communication that does not serve us.
How to Practice Nonviolent Communication
Nonviolent communication as developed by Marshall Rosenberg, PhD, follows a process comprising of four components:
1. Observing Without Evaluating
This is a skill that many people find they need to develop given our common tendency to make evaluations and judgments. Believe me, it is challenging at first!
If you listen carefully, you'll notice that our speech is filled with vague and evaluating language. When we use words like "often" or "never" we are typically making an evaluation rather than a direct or concrete observation.
For example, "She never cleans her room" is not an observation. "She has not cleaned her room in the one year that I have lived here," is a concrete observation.
There is also a common tendency to say things with certainty that are actually opinions.
For example, "They are going to be late," is an evaluative comment. To transform this into an observation, it could be said "I think they are going to be late," which is an observation of the speaker's own thoughts.
2. Identifying and Expressing Feelings
This stage is challenging as well... actually, the whole process is! However, identifying feelings is a crucial step to getting in touch with what ourselves and others are feeling.
It is vital to resolving conflicts.
One important distinction to be made is between feelings and thoughts.
Anytime you use the phrase "I feel ______ (like/it/I/she/he...)" you are actually describing a thought, not a feeling.
To express a feeling, you say "I feel (an emotion) without a word in front of it.
This step is also tricky because of the way the English language works. It also requires developing your dictionary of emotion words.
Rosenberg's book offers almost three full pages of feeling words to help develop this vocabulary.
Some examples of feelings when your needs are being met include: affectionate, confident, loving, mellow, and secure.
Some examples of feelings when needs are not being met include: afraid, ashamed, disappointed, helpless, overwhelmed, and resentful.
Even more confusingly, the book teaches that some words that we think are describing a feeling we are having are in fact not. These words include: abandoned, ignored, used, or bullied. This is because these words describe the action of another person, rather than your own unique feelings.
3. Taking Responsibility for Our Feelings By Identifying Our Needs
In this step, you connect your feeling to a need that is met or unmet. Through this, you take responsibility for your feeling.
No one can make you feel any way. This is important to remember.
Your feelings are an internal reaction to an internal process because of the meaning you assign to any given situation.
The stimulus may be external, but the cause of your emotions is actually coming from your own internal evaluation. The way we make sense of what is happening absolutely affects how we react, more so than what is actually happening.
In this step we aim to sense the feelings and needs of ourselves and others. Common basic needs that humans share include: autonomy, integrity, celebration, interdependence, play, and physical nurturance.
4. Requesting Desires to Enrich Life
In this step you make a direct request to address a desire that would enrich the life of yourself and others based on the needs and feelings that have been uncovered. It is important to be specific and use positive language.
Using the whole process to express what is going on for you could sounds something like this:
1. When I see/(hear).... ie. you come home from work after dinnertime without calling me when I had planned to make us both dinner, and you do not hug me when you say hello...
2. I feel... sad, disappointed, and mad...
3. Because I need... interdependency and physical nurturance.
4. Would you be willing...? to hug me when you come home and call when you will not make it for our dinner plans?
The last step gives the other person an opportunity to say yes or no based on their own needs and feelings on the situation. This process can keep going back and forth if needed until all parties feel their needs are met.
"Imagine All The People, Living Life In Peace..."
In Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, Marshall Rosenberg writes:
"Our survival as a species depends on our ability to recognize that our well-being and the well-being of others are in fact one and the same."
To live peacefully with others, we must understand that working together is the only answer.
The way we communicate and the language we use is a means of creating harmony.