Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

We have included in this area some of the questions that Marshall has fielded over the years, questions that might occur to you as you learn more about NVC. Marshall's answers are his own words, responses that have been excerpted from talks, interviews, workshops, speeches, and published works.

What is your definition of violence?
I'm not violent. How will I benefit from using Nonviolent Communication?
When did you discover this connection between language and violence?
What does NVC teach us compared to what I do now when I communicate?
What are some frequent mistakes you and others make when trying to use the process of NVC?

What do you see as the main issues behind violent conflicts, say, in the Middle East?

Q: What is your definition of violence?
MBR: Most people refer to violence as physically trying to hurt another. In NVC we also consider violence to be any use of power over people, trying to coerce people into doing things. That would include any use of punishment and reward, any use of guilt, shame, duty, or obligation. Violence in this larger sense is any use of force to coerce people to do things. Violence is also any system that discriminates against people and prevents equal access to resources and justice to all people.

John Holt wrote a book about education, How Children Fail. I got to know John during his lifetime and we worked together at times. He said, “If we taught children how to speak, they’d never learn.” We don’t use punishment and reward to teach children to speak. Why do they learn to speak? Because it enriches their life, it opens up possibilities. Why would we ever want to teach anybody anything except for that reason? And if it does enrich life, you do not need punishments and rewards.

At the time we met I had written a book called Diagnostic Teaching. I was in private practice and was seeing lots of children who didn’t want to go to school, who weren’t enjoying school, who weren’t learning very well. John helped me to see that the learning environment, the structure itself, was set up in a way that prevented the majority of children from doing well. He helped me see that the structure was the problem, not the children.

For more on this topic please consider the publication: Life-Enriching Education.

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Q: I'm not violent. How will I benefit from using Nonviolent Communication?
MBR: Nonviolent Communication is a process that enables us to give to other people, and to give to other people for reasons that we enjoy. That is, we’re not being forced into it. Nonviolent Communication identifies where we need to keep our attention focused to get our own needs met and to give to one another in a humane way. We give willingly because of the joy that we feel as human beings enriching life. It helps us to just stay human even in the face of conflict. NVC makes it easy for people to both give and receive willingly, and that makes life more wonderful for everyone.

For more on this topic please consider the publication: Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.

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Q: When did you discover this connection between language and violence?
MBR: While I was still in graduate school I saw the limitations of a field that was based in psychopathology, especially when the field was so mixed up with value judgments. Two qualities seemed to be present when people were acting like real human beings. People were honest without criticizing or insulting. Their honesty came from the heart. And there was a certain quality of understanding. Not a mental understanding, but an understanding that involved presence, fully being with another person through empathy. Those two things were very important: honesty and empathy. But how do we manifest this? That’s where I learned about the importance of language.

If our head is filled with certain kinds of language and a certain way of thinking, it becomes very hard to be honest, very hard to be empathic, understanding of the other person. I started to identify those language patterns and communication patterns that got in the way of this quality of connection.

For more on this topic please consider the publication: We Can Work It Out.

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Q: What does NVC teach us compared to what I do now when I communicate?
MBR: Nonviolent Communication identifies where we need to keep our attention focused in order to give to one another in a humane way. We give willingly because of the joy that we feel as human beings enriching life. This is in stark contrast to what most people grow up with. Other forms of communication, which often direct our attention to how bad people are, can make violence seem very attractive. This is very apparent in the conflict resolution work we do. For example, I was once in a city in a little village in Africa working with two tribes that were at war, and there had been about a hundred murders between these two tribes in the previous year. I asked the chiefs of both tribes that I was with, “Can you tell me what your needs are that aren’t getting met, and what you’re wanting from each other?” This is the heart of Nonviolent Communication, to identify human needs and what can be done to meet those needs. So, I asked this question to the chiefs and one chief looks over at the other and says, “You people are murderers.” You see, I ask, “What are your needs?” and he makes a diagnosis.

I was recently involved in a family quarrel between a husband and wife who were having serious conflicts. I asked them the same question, “What do you need from one another that you’re not getting, and what would you like the other person to do about it?” And he looks at her says, “You’re totally insensitive to my needs.” So, any language that identifies wrongness on the part of others, that sounds like a criticism, judgment, analysis, diagnosis, is tragic communication in my experience, but that’s what most of us grew up with.

For more on this topic please consider the publication: Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.

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Q: What are some frequent mistakes you and others make when trying to use the process of NVC?
MBR: I find myself in that situation very often, especially with the people that I want to connect with the most--namely myself, my family, my friends, and my associates. An example is the difficulty in giving and receiving criticism. In either case the mistake that we make in offering or receiving criticism is thinking in terms of what we or other people are. My experience is that people respond very negatively to anybody telling them what they are.

Another example of a mistake I make is in offering help. I offer chicken soup without checking to see if the person wants chicken soup. What I mean is that we give help that we think the person wants without first getting their permission to do it. I think very often when somebody is in pain, we’re in such pain to help them that we can’t rest until we’ve done something that will help them. For example, one of my daughters was once looking in the mirror and she says, “I’m as ugly as a pig.” And I said, “You’re the most wonderful, beautiful creature that ever lived on the face of the earth.” And she says, “Daddy!” and she storms out of the room. I had offered her some help that she didn’t want at that moment. I offered it out of my desire to make her feel better. In our publications and workshops we show some skills that enable you to check out with people in pain, to help them easily tell you what it is they want so that you’re protected against this awkward situation of offering something that might please you to help the other person, but isn’t what they need.

One more mistake we make--especially when we’re new to NVC--is to think that Nonviolent Communication is the goal. I’ve altered a Buddhist parable that relates to this issue. Imagine a beautiful, whole, and sacred place. And imagine that you could really know God when you are in that place. But let’s say that there is a river between you and that place and you’d like to get to that place but you’ve got to get over this river to do it. So you get a raft, and this raft is a real handy tool to get you over the river. Once you’re across the river you can walk the rest of the several miles to this beautiful place. But the Buddhist parable ends by saying that, “One is a fool who continues on to the sacred place carrying the raft on their back.”

Nonviolent Communication is a tool to get me over my cultural training so I can get to the place. It’s not the place itself. If we get addicted to the raft, attached to the raft, it makes it harder to get to the place. People just learning the process of Nonviolent Communication sometimes forget all about the place. If they get too locked into the raft, the process becomes mechanical.

Nonviolent Communication is one of the most powerful tools that I’ve found for connecting with people in a way that helps me get to the place where we are connected to the Divine, where what we do toward one another comes out of Divine Energy. That’s the place I want to get to.

For more on this topic please consider our publication: Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.

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Q: What do you see are the main issues behind violent conflicts, say, in the Middle East?
MBR: If you really look at the conflicts themselves, the kinds of issues that lead nations to war where hundreds of thousands of people get killed are issues that most teenagers or even grade school children could solve. They’re not that complicated. What’s complicated is that people are thinking of each other in enemy images. They don’t see the humanness in one another. If you get beyond the posturing and defensiveness, if you can just get people to see the humanness in one another--even for a moment--it’s amazing what miracles happen.

For more on this topic please consider the publication: Getting Past the Pain Between Us.

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Used by permission of PuddleDancer Press.