Have you ever persevered through a challenging situation with a friend and come out the other side with more respect for one another? Or worked out a disagreement with a loved one, finding that you feel even closer, with more care and affection?
Intimacy is born in conflict. Difference can bring us together and help us know one another. Friction can be creative and synergistic, leading to new ideas and perspectives. These kinds of conversations are characterized by very different intentions than our unconscious communication behavior.
What if there were a way to identify and support the conditions that lead to this kind of experience? A way to shift out of our habitual responses to conflict to a more helpful approach? This is one of the central questions behind Marshall Rosenberg’s development of Nonviolent Communication. In the beginning of his seminal book, he writes:
Believing that it is our nature to enjoy giving and receiving in a compassionate manner, I have been preoccupied most of my life with two questions. What happens to disconnect us from our compassionate nature, leading us to behave violently and exploitatively?
And conversely, what allows some people to stay connected to their compassionate nature under even the most trying circumstances?
Rosenberg grew up in Detroit in the 1940s. During that time, he witnessed the race riots in which dozens of people lost their lives. These events, and his experiences of anti-Semitism as a youngster, seeded in him a passion for understanding the roots of violence. He discovered that our thoughts and speech play a huge role in our ability to stay connected to compassion. His method of NVC comprises a systematic training of our attention—relearning how to think, speak, and listen in ways that are more conducive to peace and harmony.
Instead of getting caught in habitual narratives of blame and judgment, in NVC we learn to identify the specific observations we want to discuss, our feelings about those events, the deeper human needs from which those feelings arise, and our requests for how to move forward together. We learn to listen in the same way, sensing what’s beneath others’ words. The entire system rests upon one core theme: creating a quality of connection sufficient to meet needs.
This isn’t about what we say but rather where we’re coming from. It’s about our intention.
WHEN DARYL DAVIS MET THE KKK
Daryl Davis is an African American musician and author who spent the first years of his life abroad. It wasn’t until age ten, in 1968, that he discovered people could hate him for his skin color. While marching with his all-white Cub Scout troop in Massachusetts, people threw rocks and bottles at him. The incident sparked a lifelong curiosity about human attitudes. “How can you hate me when you don’t know me?” he wondered.
Years later, after playing a gig in an all-white bar in Maryland, Davis was approached by a white man who said it was the first time he’d “heard a black man play as well as Jerry Lee Lewis.” Davis shared that Jerry Lee Lewis was a friend of his and that Lewis had learned to play from black musicians. The two continued their conversation and over time became friends. The man eventually shared the names of local KKK leaders, whom Davis contacted and interviewed for a book he was writing.
Davis asked them about their views on various subjects and listened. At first, the Klansmen never asked Davis for his thoughts, believing he was “inferior.” However, with patient, friendly conversation and through Davis’s continual effort to create a real connection, they gradually became interested in his side of things. It was as if Davis’s own warmth and respect slowly drew forth those very qualities in them.
In the end, he formed friendships with many Klansmen whose beliefs shifted after getting to know Davis. Many left the Klan and even gave Davis their robes and hoods. Over the course of his work, Davis has convinced—through dialogue and friendship—more than two hundred members of the KKK to leave the organization. Daryl Davis may have never taken an NVC class, but he understands the power of intention. When we create genuine human connection, radical transformation is possible.
Intention is the single most powerful and transformative ingredient in dialogue. It shapes our verbal and nonverbal communication, directing the course of a conversation. If you take nothing else from this whole book, I hope you will take with you the importance the intention to understand, to come from curiosity and care, has in your interactions.
This intention to understand represents a fundamental, radical shift at the basis of our orientation to a dialogue. It involves weeding from our consciousness any blame, defensiveness, control, or manipulation and instead focusing on creating a quality of connection that is conducive to collaboration. Everything I share with you in this book is designed toward this end: creating more connection and understanding.
To make this shift, we need to see the limits of our habitual responses and the value of the intention to understand—its potential for transformation, creativity, and wholeness. There are two key principles that support this. The first runs through this entire book: the less blame and criticism in our words, the easier it will be for others to hear us. When someone trusts that we’re actually interested in understanding them—that we’re not manipulating things to get our way, that we’re not trying to win or prove them wrong—they can stop defending themselves and just hear what we’re saying.
Principle: The less blame and criticism, the easier it is for others to hear us.
From this perspective, it’s in our best interest to come from curiosity and care. If we’re rooted in this intention, our verbal and nonverbal communication sends the message that we’re genuinely interested, which ultimately helps create the space to hear each other and work together.
This leads to the next principle: the more mutual understanding, the easier it is to work together and find creative solutions. This seems self-evident, yet we often lose sight of this simple fact. When we comprehend the deeper reasons behind what each of us wants, we can start to collaborate.
Principle: The more mutual understanding, the easier it is to work together and find creative solutions.
We’re wired to feel joy when we give and to feel empathy in the face of suffering. Contributing to others is one of the most rewarding experiences we can have. This natural impulse is like an inexhaustible well of goodwill deep within the human spirit.
Because we feel joy in giving and compassion with suffering, when we fully understand one another we want to help instinctively. If I truly understand what’s in your heart, why you want what you want, I am moved to find a way to work together. When I can help you see why something is important to me, priorities shift and there’s more space and willingness to collaborate. (Just think of a time when you initially said no to a request, only to agree later when you better understood the situation.)
This approach to conflict is at the heart of nonviolent resistance. We have more power and integrity when appealing to the humanity of our fellow beings. This was the principle underlying Gandhi’s work, the civil rights movement, and why Rosenberg named his method Nonviolent Communication. Taking this approach doesn’t mean that we are passive, that we don’t assert ourselves or take a stand for what we believe in. Cultivating the intention to understand makes us more effective by leveraging our connection to one another’s humanity.
From Say What You Mean by Oren Jay Sofer © 2018 by Oren Jay Sofer. Reprinted in arrangement by Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.
Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash