What You Say Next Will Change Your World

by Marshall B. Rosenberg (Encinitas, CA:  PuddleDancer Press, 2005)

Book Review by Kevin L. Ogle, D.Min

Political polarization in our culture mirrors global polarizations in a world where the resort to violence and threats thereof continue to dominant the daily news and cut short the lives of far too many on a daily basis.  In today’s Washington Post (4/8/2010), I see the latest outbreak is in Kyrgyzstan, where dozens were killed in rioting and the president of that country has fled.

In this still timely recent book, Marshall Rosenberg advocates very different strategies for individuals, groups and even nations to get their legitimate needs met — through the cultivation of respectful and empathic relationships.  In the violent culture of our times I realize this may sound simplistic or naïve, but Rosenberg’s long experience practicing Nonviolent Communication with victims and perpetrators of real and physical violence – some of which is shared in this work — suggests otherwise.

As a therapist trained in the practice of Imago Relationship Therapy for couples, I approached this book with an awareness of the debt owed Rosenberg by my preferred couple therapy modality.  I also have some clear memories of a powerful workshop

Rosenberg presented for resident assistants in my undergraduate college 25 years ago.  Reading his ideas about Nonviolent Communication (NVC) afresh (and freshly restated) left me re-inspired and hopeful that approaches like his can really help bring a more peacable and humane world into being, starting with individual transformation (you and me).

At the same time, his invitation to be more fully conscious about my own tendencies to violent thinking toward myself and others gives me a practical place to focus my own efforts, even as I am invited to consider the hopeful possibility of communities of persons embracing such work.

Rosenberg describes his NVC model as a way to embody a spirituality “to keep us connected to the life within our self and the life that’s going on in other people.” (p. 15).  A combination of thinking, language, and a way of using power, NVC intends “to create the quality of connection with other people and oneself that allows compassionate giving to take place.” (p. 16).  Rosenberg sees human violence as an educational problem, not a fundamental flaw of human nature.  Accordingly, his book is a primer in nonviolent thinking, feeling, and action which is filled with exercises inviting the reader to practice the skills and mechanics of speaking peace as one reads and reflects.

Part I focuses on the mechanics of speaking peace, starting from “The Two Questions” (What’s alive in us? and What can we do to make life more wonderful?) and first explicating “How Can We Express What’s Alive in Us?”  Since most of us have learned the language of moralistic judgment and criticism, remedial learning is required to be able to express what’s alive in ourselves (observations, feelings, needs) while respecting what’s alive others (their likely experience, feelings and needs).

A basic tool for making life more wonderful via NVC is learning to make specific, positive requests using action language.  Developing self- awareness and the vocabulary to express one’s own needs is important to this process.  Also important is making requests that people can trust as requests, not demands (demands are made from a position of “power over” or threat rather than “power with” and do not really include permission to say no).

In the second part of the book, Applying NVC, three chapters focus on internal self-change, “Connecting with Others Empathically”, and “Seeing the Beauty in Others”.   While the goal of NVC is to “create a connection that allows compassionate giving to take place” (p. 59), the starting point is learning to maintain connection with our selves, especially when we regret our actions. Instead of evaluating our selves with negative judgments about who we are (e.g., stupid, lazy, a bad parent, etc), Rosenberg advises looking behind those judgments to the needs we are trying to fulfill, to learn to mourn the actions we regret without going to self-blame and shame.  It’s easier to choose wiser strategies to meet our needs next time if we haven’t lost self respect when we’ve made mistakes.

This learning to maintain empathic connection to self becomes the basis through which we can extend empathy with others.  Healing happens by talking about what’s happening now, in the language of observations, feelings and needs — rather than judgment, criticism, and “shoulds.”

Rosenberg describes empathic connection as “an understanding of the heart in which we see the beauty in the other person, the divine energy…the life that’s alive in them now.” (p. 80.).  He suggests learning “to connect empathically with any message coming at us from other people” as a primary tool in healing relationships and resolving conflict. (pp. 82-85).  In practice, this means responding non-violently, and with empathy, to even those that express themselves with moralistic judgments and attacking, shaming messages.

Three more chapters move the focus of NVC’s application from interpersonal relationships (What Do You Want to Change?) to larger systems (Gangs and Other Domination Structures) and severe violence (Transforming Enemy Images and Connecting).  Again, empathy and ways of meeting common needs without violence remain focal.  Where structure is the problem, individuals caught up in the structures need empathy and respect.  Dehumanizing the other as the enemy to be punished is part of the dominant culture of violence, not the solution.   In addressing those structures and situations Rosenberg calls for a transition from the dominant culture’s retributive justice philosophy to one of restorative justice.

Rosenberg closes with a call for joining forces with others to bring peaceful social change and strategies for engaging conflict and confrontation.  Devoting a full chapter to gratitude, Rosenberg explains why he sees “praise and complements as damaging judgments.” (p. 164).  Instead he suggests frequent and specific expressions of what we appreciate about those enrich who enrich our lives.

Rosenberg includes a helpful Bibliography for those interested in the perspective on human life and transformation sketched in this 198 page primer.  Also helpful are a handy list of feelings and basic human needs and a one page “cheat sheet” for using the NVC Process.  I would recommend this book to any who are interested in more enriching self and interpersonal relationships and deepening their spiritual connection to life.  For more information on NVC go to www.CNVC.org.

Rev. Kevin Ogle is a Disciples of Christ minister, and he is a Fellow with the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, and an Advanced Clinician in Imago Relationship Therapy.   Dr. Ogle sees couples, individuals and families at CPC’s Arlington and Falls Church Centers, and can be reached at (703) 903-9696 ext 239.