In an otherwise polarized world, many Ashevilleans are embracing an alternative: compassionate, or nonviolent, communication, which fosters slower, more mindful conversation dedicated to fostering unity.
Jerry Donoghue, founder of Asheville Compassionate Communication Center, didn’t grow up well-versed in the principles of nonviolent communication. But over time, he became aware of how different it is from his learned communication style: “I noticed how much I communicated with judgments, intellectual analysis, [and how I] was not connected with my feelings —kind of a habit I picked up from my family upbringing and the larger culture. As I deeply studied compassionate communication, I discovered how it gives us an alternative way to express what we want without judging the other.”
Typical communication, Donoghue explains, falls into two categories, starting with “communication that blocks the flow of compassion, [such as] someone sharing something deeply vulnerable and the other giving advice.” The other type “emanates out of the right/wrong framework. An example of that is when we are in conflict and say things that are trying to prove yourself right and the other wrong.”
NVC, in contrast, encourages identifying one’s feelings, naming them and making a request — unlike common day-to-day negotiations of conflict, Donoghue says.
Pioneered by psychologist, author and teacher Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s, nonviolent communication offers an alternative to the aggressive discourse dominating much of contemporary society. Born of a turbulent sociopolitical era in our nation’s history, NVC seeks to foster connection and dissolve conflict in interpersonal relationships, organizations and society. Central to NVC are three principles: empathy for self, empathy for others and honest self-expression. The overarching ethos of the practice suggests that there are no unhealthy needs — only unhealthy (and unsuccessful) ways to go about meeting those needs (nonviolentcommunication.com/aboutnvc/4partprocess.htm).
Most powerfully, NVC provides the tools with which to bridge the seemingly insurmountable divide between self and “other” — whether partner, friend or nation. The magic tool? Empathy. (cultureofempathy.com/References/Experts/Marshall-Rosenberg.htm)
If you’re like most people, your habitual response to conflict is one of three alternatives — fight, flight or freeze. But at what cost?
Certified HeartMath and Connection Practice coach Cathy Holt says such common responses lead to faulty communication. “I saw how when I didn’t acknowledge a feeling, it would generally come out sideways — it would show up in my body language, tone of voice — it would leak out, in a way,” she says. “It would come out as judgments of other people. You see the world differently when you’re judging all the time.”
It is this very lack of awareness, Holt says, that is the source of violence. “Marshall Rosenberg used to say,” she adds, “A tragic suicidal expression of a need is when we make an attacking, blaming statement to another person.”
Roberta Wall, certified NVC trainer, agrees. “I think most of the violence in the world is happening when people aren’t even aware that they have anger. They think they’re under a duty or they’re protecting something — they think, ‘That’s why I’m fighting, as a pirate or a soldier or a so-called terrorist.’
“Marshall Rosenberg invited us to discover the ‘surprising purpose’ of anger,” she continues. “I think what he meant by that is that when we look at our anger, it’s pointing us to [ask] what is so important to me that in this moment I am willing to put this relationship on the line? What is so important to me that in this moment I’m willing to do violence? So the surprising purpose of anger is to awaken me to what is so important to me.”
Wall continues, “We sometimes call NVC ‘a language of the heart’ because it’s a language and a way of hearing language that connects my heart to your heart.”
And, perhaps in no relationship is the power of NVC more evident than in romantic partnerships.
“We have a no-blame household,” says Gina Mashburn Heath. She and her husband, Coy Heath, say their relationship has been revolutionized by the tools NVC provides. “Because we have a practice of using NVC, I can just talk about my feelings — I’m not making [someone else] responsible. If I come in the door and Coy is really angry, I don’t imagine, as I would have in the past, that that’s my fault, or that I need to take that on. In the past, I would have felt an attack was coming and started putting up my defenses. Now, I can keep my heart open. I can just go with him and be with him with what’s going on for him without personalizing it.”
Coy agrees. “The shift for me is dropping those old models of blame and shame.” He notes that the practice involves saying, for example, “‘When the dishes are left in the sink, I feel really upset because my need for cleanliness isn’t being met,’ as opposed to saying, ‘You always do this.’ [The practice entails] talking about specific issues as opposed to making a blanket statement and then airing all of my grievances that I’ve been bottling up inside for months and blowing up.”
Yet the effects of the practice are not limited to their interpersonal relationship. Exploring uncharted territory, both Gina and Coy have been utilizing the practice to raise their elementary-school-aged child.
Gina says she is supporting her child in cultivating empathy and an intrinsically motivated way of moving about the world. “It’s good to be a few years into it now and to see her having empathy for others, her having consideration, and it’s not because she should,” she says. “It’s because she’s generating that herself, and it feels good to do that.”
Referring to picky eating, a challenge faced by many parents, Gina says, “I used to work with kids that had distended bellies. Instead of saying, ‘Don’t be a spoiled brat — just eat it,’ you get in touch with your own feelings. This is the reason I have this strong value of not just throwing away a plate of food. I have to be able to articulate it, and then I can share that with you, and then perhaps you have an honest shift — that’s something talked about in NVC — that by hearing someone else’s feelings and needs about something, you might genuinely shift to where you’d like to contribute to their life by doing something different.”
So although the practice does not always work in certain cases, such as getting a child to eat food, parenting guided by compassionate communication is a long-term investment, Gina says. “[Our child] was two when I started learning from Jerry. So, we don’t guilt people and shame people and blame people. What do we do instead? What’s my intrinsic value that I want to share with my child versus ‘I need to get you to do what I want you to do?’”
Imagine an all-too-common parenting quandary, Wall suggests: You’re late, your child is dawdling, the minutes are ticking away. “What do I want my child’s reason to be for hurrying up right now?” she asks. “Do I want them to hurry up because they’re afraid of me? Do I want them to hurry up because love will be withdrawn if they don’t? Do I want them to hurry up because I want them to take care of my emotional life? Or do I want them to hurry up because I want them to find enjoyment supporting our family functioning in a sustainable way?”
Parenting from this paradigm, Heath acknowledges, is not without its challenges. “I want to put it out there to other parents who may be utilizing NVC to not be discouraged, because it’s long-term parenting. In the moment, it won’t work if working means getting somebody else to do what you want them to do. It’s not behavior modification; it’s not controlling your child’s behavior. But if your goal is to teach them about your values — that’s the empathy.”
Donoghue underscores the long-term value of NVC, saying, “The right/wrong way of communicating takes so much emotional energy, and nothing gets resolved. I think compassionate communication changes relationships because it helps people connect to themselves in a deeper, more vulnerable way, which then gets naturally transferred to connecting to loved ones in deeper, more vulnerable ways.”