NonViolent Communication as an Evolutionary Imperative- The InnerView of Marshall Rosenberg By Peter Moore
Marshall Rosenberg has for decades been on the forefront of developing nonviolent communication (NVC) as an essential language to get things done in the world. He is the founder of the Center of Nonviolent Communication (CNVC), and his efforts over the past 40 years have taken him to the most troubled, war-torn places in the world. About NVC, Marshall Rosenberg has said, “ . . . even if people practice this as a mechanical technique, they begin to see it’s more than a communication process, and realize it’s an attempt to manifest a certain spirituality.” Alternatives editor Peter Moore spoke with Marshall in Portland, Oregon.
Alternatives: You say that society has institutionalized violence to deal with human problems for about 8,000 years now. What makes you certain that violence as a social institution really got going at that time?
Marshall: Socially institutionalized violence came about partly as a result of a change in lifestyle—not only with the advent of agriculture, but with an accompanying creation myth that evolved, we think, in Mesopotamia. In this creation myth, a virtuous male god crushed to smithereens an evil female goddess. The energy from this crushing of an evil force is what created our world. In effect, the switch from nomadic life to agriculture occurred in conjunction with the idea of “good” transcending “evil”, of good people ruling over evil people. The emergent ruling class put themselves in the role of being closer to God, and they controlled the land, which was now necessary to feed people. With all of this came a language—a way of judging who were the good people and who were the bad ones. This language glorified violence. It was used as a way to justify and control things by saying some people “deserve” to suffer for what they do.
An underlying assumption of this myth is that it is human nature to behave in evil ways. That’s not true, but to get people to believe it, our society educates people in a way that disconnects them from life. I really do think we’ve been educated to be as obedient as dogs, and I don’t see that as serving life.
Alternatives: Do you think this is a global story, applicable to all cultures?
Marshall: No. There are anthropological studies of many cultures that have escaped this. They have their own creation stories. That’s why I like reading the works of Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict who helped me deepen my conviction that violence is not the dominant trait of our true nature.
Alternatives: You say nonviolence is emerging as a far more effective cultural institution to deal with social affairs. What convinces you that we’re moving into a more mature, nonviolent phase of human development?
Marshall: There are many signs, though you might not notice if you get your news from the media. But even the New York Times called the vast international peace marches of February 2003 “the other super power”. People are tired of war. There are countless individuals, organizations and institutions dedicated to peaceful resolution of disputes, everywhere around the world. In the history of society, it’s an unprecedented evolution.
When I started out about 40 years ago, finding people I wanted to work with in spreading the concepts and practices of nonviolent communication was difficult. I really had to hunt for them. Now I meet them everywhere. We call them Cultural Creatives. All of these developments feed my hope.
Alternatives: Could you give a working definition—your definition—for Cultural Creatives?
Marshall: What is my definition? Cultural Creatives have two characteristics—they are Prayers and they are Players. They have integrated those two dimensions. They have a transformative spirituality, and this moves them forward so they can get things done in the world.
Alternatives: Transformative spirituality and social activism?
Marshall: Integration of those two. I see lots of people in the peace movement who are great activists, but they are operating out of the practices and spirituality of the present, inherited system. They’re strident about “down with…” and “let’s get rid of…” This is not the language or the strategy of nonviolence. In the social change work of my organization, Center for Nonviolent Communication, we work with gangs, we work with corporations, with ethnic groups that are sworn enemies of each other—we work with all kinds of groups, but we view the people within these groups as potential allies regardless of the violent structure of the organization. We’re not disappointed in this expectation. Once most people know how nonviolent communication works and what it can achieve, they go for it.
The next step now is the media. That is the piece we really need. Once we can get them, then it’s really going to go fast because people worldwide are ready.
Alternatives: The media can certainly contribute to a change in public awareness. But that raises the question: how to liberate the media from corporate dominance?
Marshall: Jesus taught us to demonstrate our high ideals not by prayers at midnight, but by how we treat the least among us. I think the least among us are the corporate players. When you spend your life as they do, I think you experience less spiritual sustenance. In that world, it’s all about how much you can accumulate. You live by the economic principle of profit, striving always to receive more than you give. Compare this to the generosity of the very poor people in Rwanda and Sierra Leone, who had so little yet showered me with mangoes and casabas to eat when I visited in those places.
Alternatives: If you’re suggesting replacing market capitalism with an economy based on generosity and meeting needs, you can get jeered at. How would you counsel the peacemaker who is rejected and ignored by the establishment for raising such issues as economics based on peace, justice and generosity?
Marshall: Here again, I would warn people not to focus on images like “ignored,” “rejected.” You see, if you have that image, it’s already going to put you at a disadvantage. When you think “ignored,” that’s like a nasty thing to do to somebody. What I’m saying is to focus your attention on what need that person is trying to meet. We all have the same needs. So what need are they meeting by not doing what we want?
Alternatives: A cynical response would be that the “need” being met in this case is perpetuation of greed and power. A more charitable response would be that the need being met stems from insecurity, fear of change. What choices leading to what strategy would you advise?
Marshall: I was recently in Oakland, California, where I met with a gathering of some of the most amazing Cultural Creatives that I know. We were looking at how to create a global educational system, economic system, and judicial system that would be transformative. That their work goes unrecognized by the media and politicians is irrelevant right now; they are focused on needs, locally and internationally.
We mustn’t look to “leaders” or the current media for acknowledgement and support, we must work where we can make a difference, in our own spheres of influence, knowing that millions of people worldwide are involved in similar activities. Sooner or later, the media, politicians and the other institutions of society will notice and adapt to the changes. It is our job to help them to notice and adapt. History may be on the side of violence to resolve disputes, but the future is on the side of nonviolent communication.
Alternatives: We’ve all seen “saints” in our organizations burn out. How do we sustain ourselves for this quality of work?
Marshall: Burnout is a serious issue. With social change groups it’s probably the number one thing that determines the success or failure of the group. We need to have a constant remembering of the purpose of the group—and celebrate that! It’s easy to get so caught up in what needs to be done that we squeeze out this celebration part, if it’s in there at all. We all have need for gratitude and celebration, and the fact is that, collectively, we are far more successful than we give ourselves credit for. We can also take time out of our demanding schedules and spend time alone or go into nature. Too much worrying and burnout aren’t sustainable. I’ve got a granddaughter. When I get into the frame of mind of worrying that there won’t be food for my granddaughter unless there are radical changes on the planet, I scare myself and everyone else. That fear leads to burnout.
Alternatives: In teaching Nonviolent Communication, how do you get someone to stop doing an action that you don’t like?
Marshall: You don’t. That would be telling someone not to do something. Any time you set out to get another person to stop doing something, you create problems. So I don’t try to get people to stop. I suggest an alternative that is more likely to get their needs met.
For example, some teachers I worked with in Rockford, Illinois, were concerned about broken windows in the school. I said, “What would you like the students to do differently?” They said, “Obviously, we want them to stop breaking windows.” “You make my job as a consultant easy.” I said. They said, “Well, what should we do?” “Kill them”, I said. “Research conclusively demonstrates that dead children break no windows. Whenever you want to stop something, killing is a pretty effective means. Just look in a newspaper and see how world leaders act.”
Alternatives: Did this discussion lead to an effective solution?
Marshall: Sure. I suggested instead of getting students to STOP breaking windows, be clear on what you want them to DO that might make their life better, and be less costly. It took a long time for those teachers to answer my question “What do you want the students to do?” Finally, one of the teachers said, “I got it, Marshall. I know exactly what it is. It’s pretty obvious that some students are expressing a lot of anger. So what I would like them to do is, if they are angry, I would like them to talk with us about it.”
So they decided to experiment. For twenty minutes a day they stopped and had kind of an evaluation period—“how do you feel at this moment?” These sessions gave people an opportunity to express how they felt and to look for ways to meet needs. The teachers’ objective wasn’t to get students to stop breaking windows, it was to have them express their feelings and fears about the school through words. One of the outcomes of the process was no more broken windows.
Alternatives: So let’s see. Nonviolent Communication begins with communication about needs and leaves the specifics of the outcome to human creativity? It joins people into a creative process where no one knows how it will end up. Is that it?
Marshall: That’s right. You don’t know where it will end, but it will meet everybody’s needs. That’s why it’s important not to be addicted to your original request. That may be the best for both parties, but not necessarily. If you have a quality of connection, the solutions find you.
Alternatives: As we speak, the news reports from Baghdad are “good”, the US Army has “liberated” Iraq and we’ve captured Saddam. There are a lot of promises being made that this violence is actually the safest route to peace and democracy in the Middle East. We are promised that this war and the imposed peace will create a Palestinian and Israeli rapprochement, that people understand such overwhelming use of force to find solutions. Care to comment?
Marshall: I think it’s going to breed a nightmare. What this is going to do (and already has done) is to make life frightening for Americans. I wouldn’t recommend any American to travel far outside of the United States right now. Ruling by force doesn’t solve the problem of escalating violence in the world. You win nothing if what you create is the foundation for another cycle of violence lasting years, generations.
Alternatives: Although violence is a very effective means of promoting an agenda…
Marshall: And for people who believe this, I have two questions. If you ask yourself these two questions, you’ll see that violence never pays. Question #1—what do you want the other person to do differently? “Well, I want my child to do this, or I want these other people to do that.” Now if I ask only that question, people can give me a good case for violence. We can all think of how the threat or practice of punishment—making people suffer if they don’t do as we want—can influence behavior.
But here comes the second question, which unfortunately we have not been educated to ask: “What do you want the other person’s reasons to be for doing what you want them to do?” I suggest that any time a person does what we want without their motive being to serve life (and in no way fearing punishment or feeling guilt, shame, duty or obligation)—you will pay for it.
Alternatives: So, forms of persuasion other than punishment, violence or the threat of violence are more effective in the long run.
Marshall: Yes. These nonviolent, non-coercive strategies are much more powerful, much more effective. The first thing I would do is to show the person (child, “enemy”, whoever) sincerely that everything he’s doing is absolutely the most wonderful thing he could have done. I believe he’s doing the same thing that every human being is doing—trying to meet some needs to fulfill his life the best way he knows at the time.
If there’s a problem, it arises in the thinking that leads to the choices for how to fulfill the needs of life, because these choices determine strategies.
So for example, if Mr. bin Laden and others in Saudi Arabia see the Americans deploying forces on land they consider to be sacred, and they tell themselves that the people doing this are oppressors, then it’s easy for them to retaliate. The problem is how he’s been educated to have an enemy image of people who do what we’re doing. We didn’t set out to desecrate sacred grounds by putting an Army base there. Of course he’s not going to be able to empathically connect with this. His problem is that he’s been educated like I was educated—to think in terms of enemy images.
Alternatives: That may very well be true. But if he had attempted to discuss Muslim sacred land with Americans building bases and managing US oil interests in the Middle East, he would have been met with a threat, like: “We’re pursuing national and economic interests here. If you oppose us . . .”
Marshall: I’m confident I could assure Mr. bin Laden there are effective ways of dealing with that. We could have gotten his and the Americans’ needs met. For all the money invested into weapons to retaliate, all the personnel and power that had to be gathered to do it the way he did, I could have gathered a task force of Cultural Creatives who could have solved the problem another way. Solved it, not made a wider war of it through violence.
Alternatives: Well, then the onus would be upon you and other Cultural Creatives to begin to solve these problems of economic, political and military dominance NOW. Right?
Alternatives: But it’s difficult isn’t it? Progressive causes have many organizations and strategies, but there isn’t a broad, disciplined, effective coalition working together. As often as not, progressive workers and Cultural Creatives are working in isolation or against one another because they see themselves in competition with each other.
Marshall: Yes. And competing within each group with each other. On the subject of Nonviolent Communication there is complete infighting, it’s like Iraq and the US. No surprise—because we were educated in this system that normalizes violence.
Alternatives: You’re saying we bring our learned conflict behaviors with us into our well-intended work?
Marshall: Yes. It’s not easy to learn how to create an organization based on the understanding and practice of Nonviolent Communication, given the cultural norms we’re educated in.
Alternatives: Much less to be effective in terms of results in the world.
Marshall: Well, I think that we’re having some good world results even while we’re struggling. It’s not that we have to get it perfect before we go out. We do both at the same time.
Alternatives: So you’re an optimist! I gather that you view human nature and human social evolution not as some circle of “it’s always been this way, so it’ll always be this way”, with violence and retribution—but rather that those kinds of circles are side eddies, and the flow of human evolution is towards consciousness and nonviolent resolution of disputes.
Marshall: Exactly. I share Teilhard de Chardin’s theory that it’s inevitable and that we’re moving rapidly towards what he calls “Christ Consciousness.” Speaking as a paleontologist, he said “I see only temporary setbacks in this evolutionary progress.” Of course, as a paleontologist he could afford to be patient. But I have a granddaughter. I’m not patient because I want to see this in our lifetimes. But I am optimistic. It’s inevitable that we’re moving in that direction, because it’s a more natural way for us to be.
Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg is Founder of the Center for Nonviolent Communication. Growing up in a turbulent Detroit neighborhood, he developed a keen interest in conflict resolution and new forms of communication that would provide peaceful alternatives to the violence he encountered. A Ph.D. clinical psychologist, he was dissatisfied with the focus on pathology he witnessed and became convinced that humans are not inherently violent. This realization motivated Dr. Rosenberg to develop the process he calls Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and which he teaches throughout the world.
Together with Dr. Mark Umbreit, Founder and Director of the Center for Restorative Justice, Marshall Rosenberg will participate in a community conversation on the use of compassionate language in justice and corrections, in Salem, Oregon, May 5, 2004. The event is co-sponsored by ORNCC (Oregon Network for Compassionate Communication), Willamette University, and Neighbor-to-Neighbor Community Mediation Services. Information is available at www.orncc.net.