The way of compassion

“We come closer to the truth when we connect with what’s alive in people than when we just listen to what they think.”

– NVC pioneer Marshall Rosenberg

“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,” Marshall Rosenberg declared earlier this year in an interview with author D. Killian in The Sun (February 2003). “The problem is that we are taught behaviors that disconnect us from this natural awareness. It’s not that we have to learn how to be compassionate; we have to unlearn what we’ve been taught and get back to compassion.”

Compassion is one of those words that’s usually associated with the likes of Jesus, the Buddha and other spiritual luminaries. Rosenberg, however, isn’t talking about compassion as merely a nice idea, but as an actual part of everyday life as experienced by ordinary folks. And Nonviolent Communication, his four-step program for resolving conflict of whatever sort, is aimed at anyone who’d like to deepen their communication skills and get to know themself and others better.

Growing up Jewish in Detroit during the 1920s and ’30s, Rosenberg witnessed race riots and prejudice firsthand. He went on to study psychology, hoping to gain an understanding of why some people disengage from compassion while others remain empathetic despite their struggles.

After completing a doctorate in clinical psychology, Rosenberg began working with young people in reform schools. Those experiences led him to conclude that because conventional psychology tends to categorize patients by their disorder, it can actually distance people from one another — thus contributing more to the conditions that cause violence than helping foster a sense of mutual understanding. As Killian puts it, Rosenberg “decided that violence did not arise from pathology … but from the ways in which we communicate.”

Enter NVC, in which practitioners first observe what’s happening in a given situation; recognize what they’re feeling; identify their needs; and then, based on those needs, ask for what they’d like to see happen.

“This is a form of talking with each other in relationships,” explains Asheville-based counselor David Hildebrand. Interest in NVC, he reports, “has been growing — slowly at first and now rapidly.”

Accordingly, Hildebrand and his associate Art Mandler are now bringing the first Nonviolent Communication workshop to Asheville.

“It’s also called Compassionate Communication,” notes Hildebrand. “We don’t want people to hear ‘nonviolent’ and think, ‘Well, I’m not beating my wife.’”

In fact, both the workshop and an introductory lecture are aimed at a broad audience: parents, teachers, counselors, managers and people seeking social change. Rosenberg himself uses the method to work with individuals and families caught in conflict, but he’s also taken NVC to Palestinian refugees, drug addicts in Bogota, sex offenders in prisons, and pretty much anyone who could benefit from learning to express themself and connect with others more successfully (which probably covers just about everybody).”I heard about [NVC] in grad school and used it in my social-work training a little,” Hildebrand recalls. “Once I got out of school and had the time to read the books, I thought, wow, this is much more valuable than anything I learned in school.” (Rosenberg’s published works include Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion and When Students Love to Learn and Teachers Love to Teach, both from PuddleDancer Press.)

“This past winter,” continues Hildebrand, “I read a couple of magazine articles on NVC. At the same time, I met other people who were interested in starting a group to use that [method of] communication.”

Both the introductory lecture (scheduled for Sept. 12) and the workshop (Sept. 13) will be held in Warren Wilson College’s Gladfelter Student Center. Together, says Hildebrand, they represent the first step toward establishing a Compassionate Communication group in Asheville.

So what exactly does NVC mean to those of us who, unlike Rosenberg, probably won’t find ourselves in front of an angry group of Muslim refugees anytime soon?

“We see this as useful in personal relationships, in marriage, with families, and in business,” notes Hildebrand. “It also integrates into peace-and-justice movements. [When you're] anti-war, for instance, you have judgments against the other group, and you’re not really doing anything different than Bush or Rumsfeld are doing. [The NVC] process helps to get away from forming judgments and placing blame. Not to get away from value judgments, but from moral judgments.” At that point, he concludes, “You’re no longer anti-war: You’re pro-peace.”

For Rosenberg, it all comes down to truly connecting with the person you’re in conflict with. In the Sun interview, Rosenberg told Killian: “Imagine what the conversation could be like if we learned to hear what’s alive behind the words and ideas, and to connect at that level. Central to NVC training is that all moralistic judgments, whether positive or negative, are tragic expressions of needs. … We come closer to the truth when we connect with what’s alive in people than when we just listen to what they think.”

Hildebrand muses: “This process has to do with looking inside yourself, not looking at what the other person is doing. How do you know how to be peaceful yourself and know what your needs are? By being clear on what your values are and understanding that your needs are basically no different from anyone else’s needs.”

But while Hildebrand would encourage anyone who’s interested in these ideas to try them out at home, he cautions, “Like anything, it’s easy to lay out the basic steps, but you have to realize that there’s a lot of deeper stuff to work out under the basic steps.”

He adds: “From doing this myself for the past couple of years, I’m amazed. The process required me to really know what I was feeling. It took a lot of practice to home in on those feelings.”

Gregg Kendrick, founder of the Charlottesville Center for Compassionate Communication in Virginia, will facilitate the Warren Wilson events. In NVC parlance, Kendrick is what’s known as a “local support” — a trainer who’s in the process of completing the rigorous certification program.

Unlike many other professional organizations, Rosenberg’s Center for Nonviolent Communication doesn’t require practitioners to hold a degree or certificate before they begin using or even teaching the method. In Rosenberg’s view, traditional psychotherapy is limited, because the doctor/patient relationship inevitably creates a power differential. But in order to truly help someone, both parties need to be on equal ground, he believes. Accordingly, practitioners are encouraged to start working with NVC even before completing their training and becoming certified.

The Saturday workshop will address such topics as: Recognizing life-alienating language and thoughts, making observations without evaluations, identifying and expressing feelings, connecting feelings to our own needs, asking for what would meet those needs, honestly expressing needs and feelings, and listening empathically to others’ feelings and needs.

After the workshop, participants will have a chance to indicate if they’d like to continue exploring NVC. “Eventually, I’d like to bring Marshall Rosenberg here,” Hildebrand reveals. The creator of NVC, now in his 70s, still maintains an exhausting lecture schedule, traveling the world for months at a time.

“I’ve seen videos of his workshops,” says Hildebrand. “They’re a lot of fun; he even uses puppets.”

And while some may see Compassionate Communication as a newfangled concept, Rosenberg believes it’s not only a natural human trait but our greatest hope for the future. “Our only option is communication of a radically different sort,” he proclaims in the Sun interview. “We’re getting to a point where our best protection is to communicate with the people we’re most afraid of. Nothing else will work.”

Speaking your peace

The lecture An Introduction to Life-Serving Communication happens Friday, Sept. 12, 7-9 p.m. Refreshments will be provided, and a $5 donation is suggested. On Saturday, Sept. 13, the workshop Connecting With What’s Alive in Ourselves and Others runs from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The cost is $75 (lunch is included). Both events will be held in Warren Wilson College’s Gladfelter Student Center. Scholarships and special student rates are available. For more information, call 298-1786 or 225-4294.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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