Across the United States, friends, families, and complete strangers are having long overdue conversations about racism and privilege. For some, it’s the first time they’re engaging in this discourse and beginning to come to terms with how deep racism truly runs. And for many, these aren’t easy conversations: defenses flare; emotions are triggered; reacting drowns out understanding. Things can escalate quickly, and before you know it, we’re angry, hurt, hardened, and haven’t made any steps toward progress.
Nonviolent communication strategies can serve as powerful tools to refocus the conversation and find a path forward. Nonviolent communication (NVC) is “a consciousness,” says Roxy Manning, a trainer and organizer with Nonviolent Leadership for Social Justice. “It’s a way of thinking about the world, and how we relate to life—not just human life, but to all life. It’s a consciousness that’s really steeped in this idea that every[thing] is motivated by meeting needs.”
Jihan McDonald, a transitional trainer with the organization and a colleague of Manning’s, agrees. “It’s similar to the way that you train your mind through meditation to find stillness,” McDonald says. “And by training yourself to listen and hear and speak in certain ways, [NVC] becomes more of your first resort. The changing of consciousness allows you to see situations with more creativity and more clarity because you are practicing clear observation of being with what is, and that’s fundamentally transformative.”
Here, Manning and McDonald provide tips for accessing a nonviolent communication framework for your conversations with family, friends, and community.
1. Get to know the ABCs of NVC.
In nonviolent communication, we express ourselves and listen to others through observations, feelings, needs, and requests, or what Manning calls NVC training wheels, where newcomers can start to familiarize themselves with the communication method. But, she says, understanding these components and how to communicate through that lens is only the beginning. “That’s a structure that helps connect us to consciousness, but it is not the consciousness,” she says. “If we can move past a lot of the ways that we make sense of the world that have been given to us by the domination structure—a framing that says there’s you versus me, us versus them, right versus wrong—and we can move instead to this understanding that there are things that serve needs and there are things that don’t serve needs, then we can find a way to connect with each other and to find ways to heal to to make our whole world function better.” In truly internalizing that, our mindset shifts toward not only identifying the need but also looking for ways to address needs in a way that doesn’t privilege one person or group over another.
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2. Move from personal growth to mass growth.
Nonviolent communication is not intended to be a tool for personal growth, says McDonald. This type of consciousness, and any transformation that comes with it, connects to the larger transformation of society: “It’s not something that stands alone. You grow because you are part of the whole. Your growth is part of the whole. It’s part of the responsibility of showing up in the world as a mature and beneficial human. When you [make that connection], that’s when [NVC] really transcends being just a personal growth tool and becomes something that is a direct action because it’s shifting culture. And culture is everything about being human in many ways.”
When NVC is used solely as a tool for personal growth, it itself can become another form of oppression, says Manning, and in that way, NVC has been a source of pain for communities of color. For instance, if we’re only using this tool to calm ourselves down, to feel OK with our position in life and our relation to what’s going on in the world, then we become complicit in what’s happening to others. If our narrative to everyone else is, “If you could only shift your thinking in this way, you’ll feel at peace,” without acknowledging that there are systems in place that impact how we get to move through the world, and that those system impact us differently, then that thinking can be used to silence any challenges to those systems that have not been working for all. “It’s really, really important that we don’t let [NVC] just be something that helps us feel comfortable, something that brings us peace, but something that is part of changing the larger systems that have not been working for so many,” Manning says.
3. Acknowledge pain.
“One of the things I see happen very often—and it’s a really powerful moment for people of all different identities—is the breaking of the binary between people who cause harm and people who experience harm, and the understanding that everybody is hurting,” McDonald says. It’s not easy to do, particularly when we are also hurting, but identifying pain rather than jumping into reaction helps open up the pathway to nonviolent communication. “It’s not a passive thing,” they add. “It takes a lot of work to regulate your own nervous system. But it opens up a really different set of options that in and of itself is radically subversive. One of the things that’s often identified as the arms of the dominant culture that we live in is a lack of imagination. It’s so hard for people to actually imagine anything else. And so how do you do anything else when you can’t envision that for yourself first?” Being able to step back and see that pain in others clarifies the dynamics of a situation, and in that clarity, different forms of creative strategizing are able to come forward because we can apply empathy.
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4. Get (and stay) curious.
“Curiosity actually uses the same neurological channels as aggression,” McDonald says. When you a question, you actually de-escalate the moment “and directly contribute to the likelihood of there being a less harmful outcome.” The key here is to be genuine in your curiosity. When you’re rooted in trying to connect with another person, even if you’re in disagreement, you open up the possibility of understanding where the other person is coming from, which creates intimacy. Asking questions also changes the other person’s function, McDonald says. It shifts them away from action-oriented anger—a physiological response triggered when something important to your survival is threatened, such as a sense of belonging—into a state that’s more inquisitive, reflective, and open. “You almost always learn something about yourself or the other person,” McDonald says.
Getting genuinely curious about yourself and other people also results naturally in deep listening—and in that, there’s a well of healing, both in creating understanding and allowing others to be seen. It’s important to let people show up and express themselves however they feel moved to and not demand that they meet you in your comfort zone, says Manning. In letting someone show themself, we have an opportunity to witness their pain, to derive empathy from it, and to use that to move away from the back and forth of an argument and take a real step toward solution.
In asking questions, we also uncover what’s important to a person at their core, something we can strive to discover about ourselves as well. Once we’re clear on that, we can begin to build bridges and relate to others. Manning practices this by asking questions to herself, taking stock of why she feels a certain way. Using George Floyd’s murder as an example, she checks in with herself, peeling back the layers of her own needs to get to their root: “What am I needing?” she asks herself. “I need some recognition, maybe even some outrage in the world that this is not OK. Why do I need that? How does that help me? Well, what I’m also needing is some hope that we will finally stand up and put an end to the violence happening to black and brown bodies. I can keep asking myself layer after layer, and eventually I will get to what is supportive to me: I’m wanting to live in a world where everyone’s worth is held and valued and matters and is not impacted by [race].”