We know a lot about war talk. We speak of fighting crime, obesity, drugs, and climate change. I am currently “fighting” depression. But if Quakers seek alternatives to violence, we need to develop a practical language for building peace. It’s not enough to “smite the enemies” of the problems in our lives. We need to develop tools that will let us “peace together” all that we’ve broken in war. I have found the framework of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) provides me with everyday language and practices that can help me increase my compassion towards myself and towards others.
For many years now, I have been seeking “successful” methods of conflict resolution. About eight years ago, I joined a group that began studying and practicing the methods found in Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication. We read one chapter per week, and then we met to share with each other our new and shifting perspectives and experiences with words – and the power of words to damage and to heal.
Nonviolent Communication (among other techniques) has provided me with a strategy to structure my approach to language in a way that resonates with my heart’s desire to resolve conflicts. Through practice, Nonviolent Communication allows me to respond to conflicts in ways that tend towards resolving them, rather than inflaming them. One core strength of our Quaker practice is our intention to seek alternatives to violence. Nonviolent Communication can provide us with methods for matching our honest intentions with practical mechanics of language that are crafted to enhance life.
The four components of Nonviolent Communication are: 1) Observation, 2) Feeling, 3) Needs, and 4) Requests. My hope is that more Quakers will come to understand how strongly this framework resonates with our historic faith and practice, and will come to embrace it. My hope is that this framework will strengthen our Quaker callings to seek truth and build peace in the rapidly changing and challenging times we live in today.
Observation: In worship, Quakers wait in silence, ready to observe the stirrings of spirit within ourselves and in others. The NVC component of observation challenges us to make observations without making judgments. It teaches that judgments very quickly spin into mistruths, and that we typically leap to judgment as a way to protect our own vulnerability. I can certainly admit to making some unfair judgments during meeting for worship, finding messages that Friends speak out of the silence to be disagreeable to me. By practicing methods of expressing observations without expressing judgments, I am learning to enter into conflicts with other people by setting the conversation on a level playing field. For example, if I found a Friend’s repeated verbosity during worship to be excessive, I might feel tempted to say, “You talk on and on so much in meeting that nobody else has an opportunity to share the spirit’s calling.” However, following the practices of NVC, I might say instead, “I’ve noticed that during the last month you have spoken at least once during every meeting for worship.” The first statement is a judgment. The second is an observation. The second is also less likely to trigger a defensive response.
Feeling: The NVC component of feeling involves the use of empathy, which creates a pause, a space of silence, before or in place of judgment. It is all too easy to react to someone’s words without really hearing them, or without letting them know that you have heard them. NVC teaches us to respond to agitating language with questions. It teaches us to try to default to a perspective of true curiosity, to guess the feelings of the other person, to acknowledge those feelings, and to ask questions that encourage the other person to delve into a deeper truth.
Walking through a marginalized Muslim neighborhood in India many years ago, I was approached by an angry man who demanded to know why I was there. He was angry about the news of what the United States was doing to Muslims around the world. He made many demands of me while he was expressing his anger. At that time, his requests seemed feasible – to write my president and such – and I found myself agreeing with him almost reflexively, as a way to get him to stop yelling at me. I felt vulnerable and scared; I was alone in a strange place. Also, I felt powerless because I didn’t know how to make a significant connection with him. This event has stuck with me for years. Now I understand some of what I needed to understand then. I have learned about empathy – how to use it to draw out another person’s story, to really feel their emotions, to let them know that I feel emotions, too, and to let them know that I am trying to understand them.
Needs: I have studied various hierarchies of needs, like Maslow’s hierarchy shaped like a tree root and a Native American circle of needs that centers on spirit. I have wondered what a Quaker hierarchy of needs would look like. It could express what we need to create an ideal space for worship, business, and caring for one another. Certainly our needs for unity and integrity would be included.
NVC teaches us that a conflict can only truly be resolved if all parties to the conflict become clear about each other’s fundamental values, and if they respect each other’s need to protect those values. It’s not always possible to fully meet all the needs that people express in a conflict, but it’s important for everyone to respect those needs and to support each other’s right to meet them.
In my own case, in my own Quaker meeting, I feel a deep tension between the value of unity and the value of integrity. I feel a strong need for group identity, and I value unity deeply. At the same time, my experience as a person of color provides me with a minority experience that is different from most Quakers. To avoid conflict, I might simply echo the perspectives of that mass majority, claiming that I am expressing my testimony of unity. Yet my testimony of integrity calls me to witness something different from the larger group, and I sometimes feel like I drag that burden of integrity with me, slowing down the process of seeking unity in meeting. However, real unity can embrace a wide range of needs, as long as all parties are willing to dialogue with each other until they understand each other’s needs, and are willing to wait in love with each other for the spirit to bring them insight.
Request: The process of Nonviolent Communication teaches us that specific conflicts can reach some degree of resolution and that the parties can feel some relief when they decide upon some concrete action to take. The trick here is for this action to be requested and not to be demanded. Both parties need absolute freedom to agree to the action; no coercion can be involved.
One request that a person can make of a Quaker meeting, and that a Quaker meeting can make of an attender, is the request for membership. I believe that the steps of Nonviolent Communication can help our meetings to better recognize when newcomers are ready to explore the question of membership and to better support individuals through that exploration. NVC can help our meetings to help newcomers become more clear about the feelings that brought them to meeting. It can help us support individuals in becoming stronger, by helping them identify their needs and helping them find ways to satisfy them. Stronger members will, in turn, strengthen our meetings.
My involvement in the NVC community has allowed me to see the Light in a new way. It is like NVC has given me new tools to see through the dark, cold, mysterious tunnels of life that are full of conflict. I know I have much more to learn. I hope I have much more to teach. I am learning to speak, but more importantly to listen, in a very different way. I am learning to clearly express how I am, without blaming or criticizing. I am learning to empathetically hear how you are, without hearing blame or criticism. But this language is still new to me. I seek others, especially Quakers, to join me in this training, to further develop our powers of compassion and empathy. I do see hope for the future. Quakers can enter a new daily practice of walking in the Light. We can enter a process of walking the talk and talking the walk of peace. ~~~
Anthony Noble is a member of Multnomah Monthly Meeting (NPYM). He has worked as an engineer, urban planner, facilitator, chef, and teacher, He is passionate about the connection of food and urban design and the forces that can be brought together to create robust culture. He also plays blues slide guitar.