The methodology of Compassion – non-violent communication for radicals

By I Steve

Non-violent communication (NVC) is a technique for communicating feelings and needs directly without dressing them as opinions and judgments. We learn that so much of what we’ve come to think of as normal communication is emotionally violent, even when well intentioned. NVC calls this “life-alienated” communication.

In American street activism, a conflict between two forces has dominated the energy; these factions are the Non-Violence movement and the Diversity of Tactics contingents. The Diversity of Tactics people feel that our oppression justifies militant, even illegal methods. The name means that they’re not against non-violence; all kinds of tactics have their place. The non-violence affiliates have a range of views, from religious to legalistic, radical to liberal, pacifist to practical. In an attack on standard English usage, the corporate media uses “non-violent” to mean law-abiding.

People who distrust the Non-Violence movement or could care less about the whole thing might not expect something called Non-Violent Communication to interest them. But NVC is for everyone. While Non-Violence can be an ideology, NVC is a methodology. One can choose to use it whenever one has compassion. If you can’t or won’t have compassion, it doesn’t make sense to use NVC. However, learning NVC will make compassion more convenient.

Of course, the name isn’t the only reason for the image; misconceptions and stereotypes about NVC itself abound. One common falacy: NVC is about hiding your feelings. No, NVC is about setting aside your opinion. “You’re an asshole” is an opinion, life-alienated communication. “I hate you” expresses a feeling, part of NVC. Especially if you say “I hate you because my need for ___ is not met.”

To quote NVC founder Marshall Rosenberg, “NVC is not nice.”

The idea that NVC is about tone-policing is so common that tone-policing is becoming an alternate definition of non-violent communication. While some people who study NVC do engage in tone-policing, the NVC methodology says nothing about responding to people who are angry with you with on-the-spot lectures about NVC. Instead, it teaches how to listen to someone spouting life-alienated rage, and look for what’s alive in the person — what do they need? And responding with self-expression, sharing what’s alive in oneself, rather than an opinion of the other person.


How does someone who finds Non-Violence culture life-alienated use NVC?

Even our well-defended, isolated, perfect communities of resistance are subject to internal strife. We approach personal conflicts like the other person is one of our non-violence rivals, if not a harbinger of the state. Rather than merely offer an option to talk to enemies, NVC focuses more on people we clearly want to get along with if only we could: our friends, our allies, our lovers, our parents, our children.

You can use NVC to steer clear of emotional or political violence. You can also use it to pick your battles; conflict may be part of life, but then there’s stupid conflict, stupid conflict that destroys communities and movements. We waste too much energy arguing without connecting with the feelings and needs of people we care about, people on our side.

We’ve inherited a Hegelian/Marxist idea that our revolution must be based on a “scientific” analysis, that rigid logic will allow us to succeed through correct perception. Thus we spend endless energy on “objective” debates. But, not only are most of the activists in the scene acting on emotions rooted in unconscious needs, the analysis erected as a front for this internal process are usually sheer nonsense! However, the solution is not necessarily to avoid most activists. Functional movements can emerge from empathy, connecting to and honoring our comrades real motives.

How do I learn NVC?

A sensible first step is to read Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Non-Violent Communication. A sprawling on-line community around the subject exists, I’m told. In many places public classes and workshops are available, as well as groups on In the Bay Area, check out for a plethora of resources, especially the “Foundations” class.

You will likely meet people who are really attached to the standard non-violence model of reality. It is a really good thing that these people are studying NVC, because the non-violence community is notorious for its emotional violence. Yet I don’t think this will dominate your experience for two reasons:

(1) You can do this. You’ve sat through gun safety classes sitting next to right-wingers, learning all you could. You’ve listened politely to food stamp employment classes. You can do this.

(2) Very little of what you’ll see will be politics. When I went to a Foundations class, the majority of people had careers in education, and wanted to relate to students better. Many came because of family and personal relations. You will find people very different from you, but you’ll see yourself in most of them.

We all have a lot to learn about how to be human, and NVC has a lot to offer all of us.