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Compassionate Conflict Resolution

Written by MJ Ryan, SheEO Development Guide

I am a pack rat for transformative mindset tools and techniques. Whenever I read about something I think would help us be wiser and loving, I immediately try to use it for myself and my clients. That’s why I was intrigued when Marshall Rosenberg published a book in 1999 called Nonviolent Communication that was a compassionate approach to conflict resolution. I read it and found it quite inspiring—Marshall even used NVC to help Palestinians and Israelis express feelings regarding the highly contested issues of the occupied territories–but couldn’t see how to use it without formal training. Until his death in 2015, Rosenberg collaborated with educators, trainers and colleagues all over the world, and its reach extended from conflict resolution into fields such as personal growth, therapy, education, social work, business management and social change. I remained very interested.

Then recently, I came across an article by Katy Butler in a 2002 edition of Tricycle magazine. She did what I could not—explain the steps in an easy-to-understand way that I feel compelled to share. These are crucial learnings for us all in these charged times, and I can’t recommend the book or trainings more highly, especially for anyone trying to build bridges across differences. Here are, in Butler’s words, the steps:  

“Nonviolent Communication—called `a language of compassion’ by its creator, Marshall Rosenberg—is a method for resolving conflict by expressing needs without blame or criticism, then listening and responding empathically. The basic steps are these:

  • “Observe the situation upsetting you and describe it in language free of judgment. Avoid labeling of yourself or others. (`What’s wrong with her?” might be, in NVC parlance, `Five minutes after I rang the bell for meditation, my mother began slapping at the fly.’)
  • “Understand that external events are only a trigger for, not the cause of, your inner reactions. Take responsibility for your emotions. Instead of saying `You made me so mad,’ try `After you said that, I felt irritated and sad.’ Identify your precise feeling. NVC characterizes feelings as emotional states plus physical sensation. `Eager,’ `angry,’ and `satisfied,’ for example, fit that definition. `Betrayed,’ `ignored,’ and `misunderstood’ do not; they mix emotion, description, and assumption, and include a judgment about another’s intentions.
  • “Connect your feelings with the needs that were unfulfilled in the situation. (`I felt irritated when I heard the TV because I need silence.’) NVC acknowledges not only universal human needs like air, food, and exercise, but also complex needs like creative expression, respect, and love.
  • “Follow up with a specific do-able request. (`Would you be willing to turn off Jeopardy!?’) Avoid vague generalities, as the other person will have no way of knowing exactly what new behavior will satisfy you. To avoid sounding reproachful, ask for what you want, not what you don’t want.
  • “Listen carefully to the other person’s response and to the feelings and needs their words are expressing, even indirectly. (`But Jeopardy! is my favorite show. It’s how I unwind after work.’)
  • “Empathize with the other person’s feelings and needs. Repeat back what you think is being said, without sounding patronizing or all-knowing. (`I’m guessing that you might be annoyed at my request to turn off Jeopardy! because you need a way to unwind.’)
  • “Differentiate between universal human needs and pet strategies for meeting them. The need for love and reassurance is universal, but wanting a particular person to say `I love you’ right this minute is a strategy and may meet with opposition.
  • “Brainstorm strategies that meet everyone’s needs. NVC assumes that needs are never in conflict but that the strategies for meeting them often are. (I came up with four strategies: I could wear earplugs or meditate in my room while Jeopardy! is on; I could watch Jeopardy! with Ned; Ned could use headphones; we could extend the cable service to the TV set in Ned’s room.)
  • “Be willing to take no for an answer. The difference between a request and a demand lies not in the sweetness of your speech but in whether or not you subtly punish anyone who says no.”

To learn more about the training, check out the Center for Nonviolent Communication. And I am also sharing some great language for conflict resolution from @the.foreword.

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