Nonviolent Communication skills help people connect with empathy
"Nonviolent Communication" practitioners Mark Hamlin and Susan Burns find that people attending workshops and practice groups learn how to have a "valuable connection" with each other, one of empathy, support and clarity.
It's a shift from the typical approaches to "convince" people of an opinion or behavior through blame, shame or demonizing. It's about listening to discern common needs and values.
Susan said her view has progressed from "a narrow sense of right and wrong." She was drawn to nonviolent communication, which does not use filters of good-bad, but looks for connections with others that honor their needs.
"Realizing everyone comes out of their needs helps me understand and connect with them," she said. "It frees me from our culture of judgment."
"Empathy is key," said Susan. "It's being able to give and receive without one feeling sorry for another or trying to fix the other. We don't learn it in our culture.
"It is important to feel heard. It works in politics. Listening is what we need in politics," she said. "I used to think that people were like me and just needed more information, so I just needed to explain clearly what I meant. I now realize that in order to connect, I want to listen for met and unmet needs, not change their minds."
Mark believes Nonviolent Communication also means not being reactive to fear or anger.
"To hear the underlying needs is important," he said.
"We want to create a world that works for everyone," said Susan, who believes nonviolent communication will do that by helping people know they are heard and matter.
"One concept of the Nonviolent Communication (NVC) program is that everyone is trying to do the best they can," said Mark.
Instead of demonizing others, he suggests understanding their needs and realizing the commonality of needs.
For example, Susan said she realizes that with the gun rights issue, many believe everyone should have guns and others believe differently. Both may come from a common need for safety, but each has different strategies for how to meet the needs.
Too often we tend to believe that resources are scarce, and that if others get what they want, we will get less," she said.
Underlying premises of nonviolent communication are:
• All actions are attempts to meet needs.
• Human needs are universal.
• Everyone's needs matter equally.
• Feelings result from needs being met or unmet.
• Human beings inherently enjoy giving to others.
• We have the capacity to choose how we think, communicate and act.
• In a world of abundance—not scarcity—there are many strategies to fulfill needs.
Intentions of Nonviolent Communication include taking responsibility for one's feelings and actions, focusing on connection, concern for everyone's needs, speaking from the heart, hearing with empathy and using force only to protect.
Susan, who earned a bachelor's degree in education from Eastern Washington University in 1971, taught elementary school and District 81's Alternative Parent Participation Learning Experience (APPLE) program for 34 years before retiring. She still likes to teach, does encaustic art—with beeswax and oils—and teaches Nonviolent Communication.
She said that a year before the last Presidential election, she and some women friends were talking.
"It became a heated discussion about what was going on politically," she said. "I was shocked because we seemed to agree about politics in the past."
She remembered taking a Nonviolent Communication workshop—now seven years ago—at the Unitarian Universalist Church and realized it might help her and her friends. Now they meet in an intentional NVC practice group.
"As we looked at our values and needs, we realized we had different strategies for meeting our needs," Susan said. "We don't have to agree with a person's behaviors or opinions."
For her, the process not only is about relationships with others but also helps her clarify why she does what she does.
"When I am happy, frustrated or anxious, I ask what is going on. I am getting something I need or I need something I'm not getting. It gives me personal power to look at my needs and what is behind them," Susan said.
Valuing diversity and equity, nonviolent communication challenges her to look at her values.
"I value being able to trust that people are speaking their truth," said Susan, whose mother, now 92, instilled that value in Susan as she grew up in Spokane.
Mark's roots are also in Spokane, but his parents met at Gonzaga University, and then moved around the world, living in Asia, Europe and on both U.S. coasts before he graduated from high school in Memphis, Tenn., where he experienced racial integration of the school for his senior year. He has also traveled to many countries since moving to Spokane in 1971 to attend Gonzaga University.
He studied psychology, sociology, computer programming and engineering, and five years ago completed an online degree in applied behavioral science.
Over the 30 years between his early studies and today, he worked as a computer technician and consultant, in architecture and construction—25 years as a general contractor building sustainable custom homes in his business, Sustainable Structures, which he closed last year.
Now he, Susan and two others have started a nonprofit, The Language of Connection, to "build bridges" with Nonviolent Communication.
For nearly four years, he has also worked with Susan's sister, Kathy Ducrest, to teach Nonviolent Communication at the Airway Heights Correction Center and with the Spokane County Juvenile Detention Center.
Mark became involved in the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center. He served on the steering committee for several years before deciding to find other ways to contribute, choosing a way to teach nonviolence before deciding about six years ago to pursue learning and teaching Nonviolent Communication.
He read Marshall Rosenberg's book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, and other related books, finding them aligned with his values and philosophy.
"Nonviolence is a peaceful, kind way of living that has positive impact on other people and the environment," he said. "It fits with my commitment to sustainable building practices and connecting with people of other cultures and walks of life.
"Through travel, I have had a taste of other cultures and believe we are much alike all over. I value diversity. I like to hear other's perspectives," he said. "Nonviolent Communication helps me develop my beliefs and be challenged."
In the prison, participation of inmates in groups is voluntary. About 20 men attend Friday nights for introductory sessions and about 10 to 15 attend on Saturday mornings for intermediate sessions like practice groups.
"It's inspiring to see how well the men respond to finding out things they did not know about nonviolent communication and learning a vocabulary of feelings and needs," he said.
"It affirms that people can change," Mark said. "It helps people live more peaceful, functioning lives in prison and after they are released. It has been found to contribute to reducing recidivism."
While the program is not specifically religious, he said it fits with all religions. Certified trainers around the world come from many religious backgrounds.
Mark's study of religion as a teen led him to realize he was spiritual in a broader sense. While in high school, a priest friend reinforced his journey to understand life rather than just follow a doctrine.
Mark and Susan facilitate workshops and practice groups.
"We need support and practice to communicate with those we love," Susan said.
Now as parents and grandparents, Mark and Susan plan to bring certified trainers to lead workshops in schools to support teachers, administrators and parents.
"Society's future and future life on this planet depend on nonviolent communication," he said. "We want educators to learn the process and skills, so we plan to offer workshops to teachers who need continuing education credits, and can use more tools to help them communicate and deal with conflicts productively to provide a safe space for students."
"There will always be conflicts in schools. Nonviolent Communication skills can help make conflict productive," he said.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, October, 2018