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Conflict management through nonviolent communication

How do you react when someone raises their voice at you? What do you do when they are aggressive and hurtful?

Take a parent whose teen daughter (or son) refuses to help with the house chores for example. The typical scene is the parent shouting and punishing their child with restriction of the activities they enjoy (internet, mobile, videogame, tv, going out with friends). The parent screams “You are an ungrateful brat, you never help me!” Why is the shouting occurring? Wouldn’t it be better to speak in a normal tone? A different phrasing? Wouldn’t it help in their child’s listening and complying?

Conflict exists wherever there are human beings. It’s a very present and active part of our nature, because we are always very entrapped in ourselves, with our strong sense of individuality, while being also very social creatures. When different views collide, conflict is born. And our culture teaches us conflict is a bad thing. That you must either concede or persuade, but avoid conflict at all costs. Conflict reveals your lack of interacting abilities, communication skills and interpersonal intelligence.

However, during a nonviolent communication workshop offered by Dominic Barter, I was recently introduced to the idea that dialogue, as defined by Martin Buber, is “a conversation whose result is unknown, because it has not been predefined or imposed by a single source of power. Rather, in dialogue power is shared.” And that was groundbreaking for me.

I had had contact with nonviolent communication before, but it is one thing to try and apply the concepts you’ve read in a book and another to experience and exchange with other people with similar needs. The idea behind nonviolent communication has nothing to do with being passive, but instead to find the hidden truth eclipsed by all the rhetoric construct that derives from us not being able to express our values and needs in a direct way.

During the workshop, Barter showed us through dynamics how every time a person is aggressively upset, it relates to the perceived rupture of one of these person’s values and needs. Ideas like freedom, autonomy, justice, respect, love and purpose are at the core of everybody’s necessities. However, when something upsets us, we are culturally trained to point out that something or someone else caused that to us. We place ourselves as powerless receivers of offense, and counter-attack by laying blame. And we raise our voice to make up for the distance we feel between who is listening and ourselves, driven by lack of understanding.

In the case of the parent, you can help identifying what is really going on by practicing empathetic listening: “So you are enraged because you need to be respected and loved, and that happens through caring and helping?”. At that point, we will see this physical phenomenon, the enraged part says “Yes!” and starts relaxing their muscles. Knowing you are understood comes as an impact and results in a decrease of the feeling that is, in fact, nothing but a symptom for a perceived attack on that person’s values. Alternatively, the enraged part can also say “No!” and clarify what you got wrong, which is even more valuable, because they’ll have to look within to explain what’s going on.

After reaching the core need that’s not being met, you can show we are all alike in our needs and can nurture that person. If you feel their need and believe you should change your behavior, ok. But it is also possible that you are not able or don’t want to comply. In this case, with empathy established, you can work on an arrangement that satisfies both parties: “I understand it is important that you are appreciated for all the effort you make. A token of this appreciation would be for me to do my chores. But I don’t feel comfortable doing the chores you picked. Can I do something else instead? Can I walk the dog, would that help?”

If you ever panic, try using this model as an exercise. It’s amazing. 😀

As the enraged/upset person — and for me this was quite a breakthrough — , being angry doesn’t mean you lack control or have an unbalanced psyche. As a very intense person, I always felt the judgement of others very painfully, and nonviolent communication has shown me that feeling intensely is not a fault. It means you are in deep connection with your values, and in need of receiving empathy over a value that you feel is under attack. And you can even resort to self-empathy while investigating yourself: “I feel angry because my need for #value# is not being met”. If you can identify the need, you can try to communicate that need to others, instead of blaming them for the way you feel. This will help in creating consensus and in using conflict to achieve dialogue instead of submission.


Nonviolent Communication, by Marshall B. Rosenberg (check this video out too)

Restorative circles open dialogue and healing between Brazilian institutions and gangs, by Molly Slothower

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