Q & A Session with Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D.
Q: Is spirituality important in Nonviolent Communication?
I think it is important. People see how spirituality is at the base of NVC, and they learn the mechanics of the process with this in mind. NVC is really a spiritual practice I try to show as a way of life.
Even though we rarely mention this, people get “seduced” by the practice. Even if they practice NVC as a mechanical technique, they start experiencing things between themselves and other people they weren’t able to experience before.
Eventually, they come to the intimacy of the process. They begin to see NVC is more than a communication process. They realize it’s really an attempt to manifest a certain spirituality. So I have tried to integrate spirituality into the training in a way that meets my need. I try not to destroy its beauty of it with abstract philosophizing.
Q: What does God mean to you?
I need a way to think of God workable for me; my name for this beauty, the powerful energy, God, is “Beloved Divine Energy.”
For a while, I used just “Divine Energy.” Then I was reading some of the Eastern religions and Eastern poets, and I loved how they had this personal, loving connection with this Energy. I found it added to call it “Beloved” Divine Energy. To me, this Beloved Divine Energy is life, connection to life.
Q: What is your favorite way of knowing Beloved Divine Energy?
Practicing NVC is how I connect with human beings. I know Beloved Divine Energy by connecting with human beings in an intimate way. I not only see Divine Energy, but I also taste Divine Energy, I feel Divine Energy, and I am Divine Energy. I’m connected with Beloved Divine Energy when I connect with human beings in this certain way. Then God is very alive to me.
Some of my other favorite ways? Talking with trees, talking with dogs and pigs.
Q: What’s your approach to conveying NVC competency to co-learners?
My approach evolved from my attempt to be more conscious of this Beloved Divine Energy and how to connect with it.
I was very dissatisfied with academic and clinical psychology. It was pathology-based, and I didn’t like its language. It didn’t enhance my view of the beauty in human beings. So, after I got my degree, I decided to go more in the direction of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow.
I challenged myself with a scary question, “What are we, and what are we meant to be?” I found there was very little written on this in conventional psychology. I saw comparative religion talk more about this question, so I took a crash course. The word “love” kept coming up in each system.
I used to hear the word love as many people use it in a religious sense, like, “You should love everybody.” I used to get really annoyed at the word love. “Oh yeah? I’m supposed to love Hitler?” The phrase “New Age woo-woo” didn’t exist yet, so I used an equivalent back then.
I wanted to understand better what love means. I could see it had so much meaning for millions of people in these religions. What is it, and how do you “do love”? Nonviolent Communication came out of my attempt to understand the concept of love and, how to manifest it, how to do it.
I concluded that love is not simply something you feel; rather, it is something we manifest, do, and have. How do we manifest love? By giving of ourselves in certain ways.
Q: What do you mean, “giving of ourselves”?
To me, giving of ourselves means honestly expressing what’s alive in us at this moment. It intrigues me why every culture asks upon greeting each other, “How are you?” It’s such an important question. What a gift it is to be able to connect at any given moment with what is alive in my partner.
To give a gift of one’s self manifests love. This occurs when you reveal yourself nakedly and honestly, at any given moment, for no other purpose than as a gift of what’s alive in you. Not to blame, criticize, or punish. Just “Here I am, and here is what I would like.” This is my vulnerability at this moment. To me, this is a way of manifesting love.
The other way we give of ourselves is in how we receive another person’s message. To receive it empathically, connecting with what’s alive in them, making no judgment. Just to hear what is alive in the other person and what they would like.
So Nonviolent Communication is just a manifestation of what I understand love to be.
Q: How did NVC come out of your desire to manifest love?
I was also helped by empirical research in psychology defining characteristics of healthy relationships and studying people frequently manifesting loving expressions. From these sources, I pulled together this process which helped me to connect with people in what I could understand in loving ways.
So Nonviolent Communication helps me stay connected with beautiful Divine Energy, within myself and in others. When I connect to Divine Energy within myself, with the Divine Energy in others, what happens then is the closest I know of how it is to be connected to God.
Q: How do you prevent Ego from interfering with your connection with God?
I’m aware my culture has trained me to think and trained me to communicate as if the self-centered “ego” is primary and mandatory. The culture I grew up in trained me to meet my needs in certain ways, to get my needs mixed up with the strategies used to meet my needs.
My culture programmed me to function more from Ego than from my connection with Divine Energy. I try to remain conscious of these ways I’m programmed against my own best self. I remain hungry to learn ways to re-train myself to connect with Divine Energy. I love incorporating these into how I facilitate learning in others.
Q: Our language prevents us from connecting with our own Divine Energy more intimately?
Oh yes, definitely, really challenging, especially language given to us in academic and conventional scientific circles. For example, the associations “God” brings up for people are “judgmental,” “right~wrong,” and win~lose.” Over the years, this mental habit has been one of the most challenging obstacles for co-learners in my trainings to overcome. People I work with have all gone to schools and churches. If they like Nonviolent Communication, it’s natural for them to think and say, this is the “right way” to communicate. It’s very easy to imagine NVC is good and other forms of communication are bad. I don’t teach this; still, it’s part of the process co-learners go thru.
I’ve altered a Buddhist parable relating to this question. Imagine a beautiful, whole, and sacred place. Imagine you could really know God when you are in this place. Let’s say there is also a river between you and this place. You’d like to get to the place, and you’ve got to get over the river. So you get a raft, which is a handy tool to get you over the river. Once you’re across the river, you can walk the rest of the way to this beautiful place. The Buddhist parable ends by saying, “One is a fool who continues on to the sacred place carrying the raft on their back.”
Nonviolent Communication is a “raft” that gets me over my cultural training, so I can get to a place of greater self-connection and greater connection with others. NVC is not the place; “connection” is the place. If we get addicted to the raft attached to the raft, it makes it harder to get to the place.
If they get too locked into the raft and forget the goal of connection, people new to NVC can forget all about the bigger, more secure inner life NVC leads to. We do not wish the NVC process to become mechanical.
Nonviolent Communication is one of the most powerful tools I’ve found for connecting with people in a way supportive of me getting connected with the Divine, where what I do toward myself and others comes out of Divine Energy. This is the place I want to get to.
Q: Is this the spiritual basis of NVC?
I’ll let you decide this. I’m trying to connect with the Divine Energy in myself and others and support others in connecting with the Divine in their own way. I believe when we are really connected with Divinity within each other and ourselves, people naturally enjoy contributing to one another’s well-being more than anything else. So for me, if we’re connected with the Divine in others and ourselves, we are going to enjoy what happens, and to me, this is spiritual. In this place, violence is impossible.
Q: Is lack of connection responsible for violence in the world?
I would say it this way. We have been given the gift of choice to create a world of our choosing. We’ve been given this great and abundant world for creating a world of joy and nurturing. To me, the violence in the world comes about when we get alienated or disconnected from this Energy.
How do we get connected when we are educated to be disconnected? I believe it’s our obligation to re-educate ourselves into new thought and language patterns, so we can re-connect with ourselves and each other more often than we disconnect.
Walter Wink writes about how male-domination cultures use certain teachings about God to maintain oppression. This is why Bishops and Kings have often been closely related. The Kings needed the Bishops to justify the oppression, to interpret the holy books in ways justifying punishment, domination, and so forth.
Q: How do we overcome our old conditioning?
I’m often in between two people in a lot of pain. I remember working with twenty Serbians and twenty Croatians. Some of the people there had family members killed by the other side, and they all had generations of poison pumped into their heads about the other side. They spent three days expressing their rage and pain to each other. Fortunately, we were there for about seven days.
One word I haven’t used in speaking about this is “inevitability.” So many times, I have seen no matter what has happened, if people connect in this certain way, they will inevitably end up enjoying giving to one another. It is inevitable. For me, my work is like watching a magic show. It’s too beautiful for words.
But sometimes, this Divine Energy doesn’t work as fast as I think it should. I remember sitting there in the middle of all this rage and pain and thinking, “Divine Energy, if you can heal all this stuff, why are you taking so long, why are you putting these people through this?” And the Energy spoke to me, and it said, “You just do what you can to connect. Bring your energy in. Connect and help the other people connect, and let me take care of the rest.” But even though this was going on in one part of my brain, I knew joy was inevitable. If we could keep getting connected to our own Divine Energy and each other.
And it happened. It happened with great beauty. On the last day, everybody was talking about joy. And many of them said, “You know, I thought I was never going to feel joy again after what we’ve been through.” This was the theme on everybody’s lips. So that evening, the twenty Serbians and twenty Croatians, who seven days earlier had only unimaginable pain in relation to one another, celebrated the joy of life together.
Here again, I want to stay away from intellectualizing about God. If by “knowing God” we mean this intimate connection with Beloved Divine Energy, then we gain every second as experiencing heaven.
The heaven I gain from knowing God is this inevitability, to know it is inevitable, no matter what the hell is going on, if we get to this level of connection with each other, if we get in touch with each other’s Divine Energy, it’s inevitable we will enjoy giving, and we’ll give back to life. I’ve been through such ugly stuff with people I don’t get worried about anymore; it’s inevitable. If we get a quality connection, we’ll like where it gets us.
It amazes me how effective it is. I could tell you similar examples between the extremist Israelis, both politically and religiously, and the same on the Palestinian side, and between the Hutus, the Tutsis, and the Christian tribe in Nigeria. With all of them it amazes me how easy it is to bring about this reconciliation and healing. Once again, we must get both sides connected to the other person’s needs. To me, the needs are the quickest, closest way to getting in connection with Divine Energy. Everyone has the same needs. The needs come because we’re alive.
Q: How do you get enemies to recognize they need to give to each other?
When you get people authentically connected, it’s hard to maintain those “enemy” images. Nonviolent Communication, in its purity, is the most powerful, quickest way I’ve found to get people to go from life alienated ways of thinking where they want to hurt each other to enjoying giving to each other.
When you have a couple of people facing each other, Hutu and Tutsi, and their families have been killed by each other, it’s amazing how in two or three hours, we can get them nurturing each other. It’s inevitable. Inevitable. That’s why I use this approach.
It amazes me how simple it is, given the amount of suffering which has gone on and how quickly it can happen. Nonviolent Communication really quickly heals when people have experienced a lot of pain. This motivates me to want to make it happen even more quickly because the way we’re doing it now still takes a while.
How do we get this done more quickly with the other 800,000 Hutus, Tutsis, and the rest of the planet? I would like to explore what would happen if we could make movies or television shows about this process because I’ve seen when two people go through the process with other people watching, vicarious learning occurs, and healing and reconciliations happen. So I would like to explore ways to use the media to get masses of people through this process quickly together.
Have you encountered any cultural or language barriers to this process?
This amazes me how few and how little they are. When I first started to teach this process in another language I really doubted it could be done. I remember the first time I was in Europe, I was going to go first to Munich and then to Geneva. My colleague and I both doubted we could get this through in another language. She was going to do it in French, and I would be there for her to ask me questions if something came up. I was going to at least try to see if we could go through translators. But it worked so well without any problems, and I find the same thing everywhere. So I just don’t worry about it; I’ll do it in English; you translate it, and it works very well. I can’t think of any culture we’ve had any problem with, other than little things, but not with the essence of it.
Not only have we had no problem, but also, there are repeated variations of people saying this is essentially what their religion says. It’s old stuff, they know this stuff, and they’re grateful for this manifestation; still, it’s nothing new.
Q: Do you believe a spiritual practice is important for practicing nonviolence?
I recommend in all workshops people take time to ask themselves this question, “How do I choose to connect with other human beings?” and to be as conscious as they can about this. To make sure it’s their choice and not the way they’ve been programmed to choose. Really, what is the way you would choose to connect with other human beings?
Gratitude also plays a big role for me. If I express gratitude when I am conscious of the human act I want to express it for, the consciousness of how I feel when the act occurs, whether it’s my act or someone else’s, and what needs of mine it fulfills, then expressing gratitude fills me with the consciousness of the power we human beings have to enrich lives. It makes me aware we are Divine Energy; we have such power to make life wonderful. There is nothing we like better than to do just that. This is why part of my spiritual practice is being more conscious of gratitude.
Q: How basic is this need to give to one another?
I think the need to enrich life is one of the most basic and powerful needs we all have. Another way to say this is that we need to act from the Divine Energy within us. I think when we “are” this Divine Energy, there is nothing we like more, nothing in which we find more joy than enriching life, than using our immense power to enrich life.
But when we are trying to meet this need of ours to “live” this Divine Energy, trying to contribute to life, there is a request which goes with it. We have a request for feedback from whichever creature whose life we are trying to enrich. We want to know, in fact, “Is my intention and my action being fulfilled?” Was there fulfillment?
In our culture, this request gets distorted into thinking we have a “need” for the other person to love us for what we’ve done, to appreciate what we’ve done, and to approve of us for what we’ve done. This distorts and screws up the beauty of the whole process. It wasn’t their approval we needed. Our very intent was to use our energy to enrich life. But we need the feedback. How do I know my effort was successful unless I get feedback?
I can use this feedback to help me know if I am coming out of Divine Energy. I know I am coming out of Divine Energy when I value criticism as much as a thank you.
— Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D.