Tearing Down the Walls Between Us

building understanding through communication

One of the greatest ironies out there is that while anarchists claim to value cooperation, mutual aid, sharing, individual responsibility and respecting autonomy, all too often one finds incredible in-fighting, contention, controversy, ideological sectarianism, splits, name-calling, poor group dynamics, denial of responsibility and distrust within the anarchist scene. Anarchists claim to want a sweeping global social revolution based in local grass-roots organizing, yet it is well-known that anarchism as a coherent body of thought largely stays within a narrow sub-culture of activists, theorists and punks. I believe that there is a way out of these problems, and I believe that Compassionate Communication (also known as “Nonviolent Communication,” or “NVC” for short, I use all three terms interchangeably) can serve a vital role in us getting out of this mess. NVC is not a new way of policing how we speak, nor does it require two or more people practicing it in order for it to work. I’ve seen people use NVC to help themselves get really honest and vulnerable with other people, to help facilitate great compassion, caring and understanding among people, and I would really like to see anarchists and anti-authoritarians engage in this way of relating as well.

Compassionate Communication can be explained as series of tools, understandings and a framework that helps us focus our attention on whatever is really important and fundamental to others or ourselves in a given moment. One of the things that initially drew me to NVC was the many obvious similarities between it and anarchism. For example, NVC literature and materials repeatedly speak of eliminating relationships of domination, hierarchy and power over people. NVC emphasizes the importance of autonomy, cooperation, individual responsibility and interdependence, and many NVC proponents express a desire for a global social change to where a critical mass of people are living their lives based on voluntary cooperation, mutual aid, real democracy, and respecting one another’s autonomy.

NVC also appealed to me because I saw the cross-overs between it and my appreciation of the writings of the 19th century anarchist philosopher Max Stirner, what with NVC’s exhortations to not act out of guilt, shame, fear, duty or obligation but because you clearly see how it can meet your own needs or because you see how you can enjoy contributing to the well-being of others. While cross-overs with anarchism initially piqued my interest I soon discovered that there is a lot more to NVC as well.

I see NVC in many ways picking up where anarchism leaves off. I see anarchism as providing a broad social framework, envisioning a world without capitalism, patriarchy, the State or other forms of hierarchy and domination while also providing a coherent set of positive principles through which to live and organize by. I see NVC, in turn, as both providing a useful guide in how to apply anarchist principles to our lives and organizing as well as how to reach out to and genuinely connect with other people who are not anarchists or radicals. This can help us to both live our values, as well as to grow and spread our movement to social revolutionary proportions.

NVC itself can be described in two ways, the NVC model and the NVC consciousness. The NVC model is but a mere guide, a useful framework, that will hopefully aid in one achieving the NVC consciousness. The NVC model is broken down into four parts: observations, feelings, needs and requests.

Observations are clear, factual things that we experience in some way. It could be something that we see, hear, touch, etc., or it could even be a specific thought or memory that goes through your head. NVC makes sure to not mix observation with any form of evaluation, judgment, or interpretation. It seeks to keep the observation as pure and factual as possible. The observation is just something that happened, not what we or others think about something that happened.

Feelings are a clear physical or emotional thing that one experiences. NVC makes sure to not mix feelings with evaluation or judgment and only keep it in the realm of what one is directly experiencing. For example, some feelings would be “excited”, “overwhelmed”, “confident”, or “irritated” as opposed to “cheated”, “patronized”, “unwanted” or “ridiculed” which are feelings mixed with evaluations or judgments.

Needs are the fundamental motivating reasons for why we do the things that we do. Needs are universal, everyone has the same fundamental needs, and they exist independently of a certain person doing a certain thing. Needs are not just physical, psychological, or social. What NVC considers to be needs are things that are needed for a human being to have a really meaningful, enjoyable and fulfilling life, as opposed to just physically surviving. NVC makes a clear distinction between needs and strategies to meet needs. For example, “money” and “status” are considered to be just strategies to meet needs, whereas food, safety, autonomy, and appreciation are considered to be fundamental needs. Needs being met or not met are the cause of ones feelings, whereas the observation that one experiences is the stimulus for the feelings.

Requests are clear and doable things that we can ask to meet our needs. Requests are distinctly different from demands, things that one is asked to do and will be punished for if one does not carry them out. NVC strives to have people ask requests and carry them out not out of a hope for a reward, nor out of fear of punishment. NVC hopes to have people fulfill the requests of others purely out of a desire to contribute to the well-being of others or one’s self.

So, to put these steps into the NVC model with the intention of expressing one’s own state of being, one would say something like: “When I see you get high” I feel “conflicted” because I am needing “to stay away from drugs right now”, would you be willing to “refrain from using in front of me?” Likewise, if one is to use the NVC model to guess at what someone else might be experiencing, one would say something like: “When you see your house mates argue” do you feel “upset” because you are needing “to feel safe”, and would you like me to “talk to them for you or schedule a house meeting where we can talk about this?”

A lot of people see the NVC model as being the entirety of NVC, and as a result come to a conclusion that NVC is just some kind of stilted formula for how to speak with people. It is for this reason why I consider it to be very important to be mindful of the NVC consciousness, which is the end goal that the NVC model is supposed to aid in one achieving.

The NVC consciousness is a certain mindset, a certain way that one views and approaches both one’s self and others. This includes staying aware of the four components of the NVC model in one’s dealings with others and with the thought processes that pass through ones own mind as well. However, unlike the NVC model, the consciousness of NVC is by no means sequential or formulaic, it is an awareness, a focus that one keeps in mind. The NVC consciousness also keeps in mind other things as well, like that one is not the “cause” of another persons emotions – peoples needs are the cause, that people are responsible for their own actions and choices that they make, that it makes more sense to connect with the needs behind what people do rather than punishing or rewarding them, that we are all human beings rather than labels, roles or enemy images, that in the long run it meets our needs in a more authentic and sustainable way to find solutions that meet the needs of all involved rather than just meeting our needs at the expense of others.

Miki Kashtan, coordinator of the NVC Social Change Project, elaborates on this last point: “When we use force, blame and self-righteousness instead
, even if we manage to create the outcome we want in the short run, we distance ourselves from those whose actions we want to change. Success in the short run does not lead to the transformation we so wish for, neither in ourselves nor in those we are trying to change. Sooner or later, those with more power will prevail, and we are left bitter and defeated. This cycle is a major cause of ’burn-out’ among activists.”

This brings me back to the application of NVC to anarchism and activism. I see a lot of in-fighting, controversies, splits, and general contention within the anarchist/activist scene, and I think that a lot of this stems from how we view and relate to one another and ourselves. For example, when we call people “selfish”, “reactionary”, “authoritarian”, “sexist”, “lazy”, “close-minded”, or “bourgeois”, we are not referring to a clear observation that we are reacting to, nor are we referring to what we are personally feeling, needing or what actions we would like to see. Labels such as these serve to project enemy images on those we are referring to, it is the automatic drawing up of “sides” with the implication being that the side that is labeled such is the “bad” side that deserves to be punished somehow.

I would like to see instead of this, an empathic interplay. When someone says or does something that you are triggered by, first you can check in with yourself, see what you are reacting to, see what you are feeling and needing, and what specific action you would like to see the other person do. Then you can express this to the other person, and if they respond by saying something that triggers you, you can repeat this process with this new stimulus. Another option is to empathize with the other person who is doing something that you do not enjoy. What is this other person feeling and what are their underlying needs behind what they are doing? You can guess at this and ask the other person for clarification on whether this is true. This can in turn be another kind of dialogue that you can have to help resolve this situation.

I tend to find it the most useful to engage in a mix of these two processes, both checking in with myself to see what is going on within myself as well as empathizing with the other person to try to discover what is going on within them and why they are doing what they are doing. It does not help to jump into a situation with an immediate goal in mind that one wants to see come about, I find it far more useful to make sure that a clear mutual understanding is established. Only once I am certain that we are all very much aware of which feelings and needs are active for everyone involved do I go about a process of creatively strategizing to find ways to meet the needs of all those involved.

NVC has great potential to be used in community outreach and organizing. Often, anarchists and radical activists exist in a very unique and marginal sub-culture, which makes it hard for us to truly understand those we regard as “mainstream” or “non-political”. NVC can be used to help us dissect what exactly is going on with those whom we do not understand, with those that we are alienated from for various cultural reasons. “Mainstream” and “non-political” people all have feelings and needs as well, and it is through the use of NVC that we can bridge the gaps between us and help us bring about clear mutual understanding while simultaneously allowing them to understand us.

When I first started seriously looking into Compassionate Communication, it took me a while to really get it and apply it to myself. For me, it was just such a different paradigm than what I was used to. I was used to labeling, judging and evaluating myself and other people. I was very stuck in my own head, part of which was because of the anarchist arguing culture that I came from. Soon I started understanding it more and more, until one night I had an epiphany that a lot of the conflicts, problems and unhappiness within the anarchist scene that I had experienced, I had actively contributed to myself. I realized that failed projects and friendships in my life could have developed differently if I knew and practiced NVC back then.

NVC has helped me connect with my own humanity and the humanity of those around me. I was able to stop viewing other anarchists as “reactionary”, “authoritarian”, “incompetent” or any other negating label, and instead was able to see them as actual human beings, striving to meet various needs of theirs in the best way they know how. The same goes for apolitical people. I stopped seeing them as “clueless”, “consumerist” and “short-sighted” and was able to see them as the fragile, scared and fallible human beings that they are, trying to get by in this world. Sure, all too often I lose the NVC consciousness and go off on labeling and judging myself or others, but at least now I know that a deeper understanding and way of authentically relating to other people without domination and hierarchy is indeed possible right now.

I would like to invite you to learn more about Nonviolent Communication. I suggest that you check out these books/pamphlets:

“Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life” by Marshall Rosenberg, a pretty thorough introduction to NVC.

“Don’t Be Nice, Be Real” by Kelly Bryson, an introduction to NVC with some broader social analysis thrown in as well.

“The Heart of Social Change” by Marshall Rosenberg, a pamphlet on applying NVC to social change activism.

“Punished By Rewards” by Alfie Kohn, an explanation how motivation and systems based on rewards and punishment does not help us in the long run.

Or you can check out these NVC web-sites:



www.baynvc.org for NVC events that take place in the Bay Area.

I would also like to invite you to join me and NVC trainer, Miki Kashtan, for a free introduction to NVC at the Long Haul infoshop Sunday March 7th, 7-9PM.