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NVC: Gandhian Principles for Everyday Living (Part 5 of 7)
By Miki Kashtan

This is the 5th of a 7-part series that looks at the roots of NVC within Gandhi's explorations of nonviolence. The previous parts examined: (1) why the word nonviolence has a "negative" in it; (2) how love and courage are essential for nonviolence; (3) seeing the humanity in others, and (4) appealing to our shared humanity.


The Fifth Principle: Solutions that Work for Everyone

One of Gandhi's core methods was noncooperation . Although noncooperation may appear on the surface as adversarial, Gandhi always maintained that "my noncooperation has its roots not in hatred but in love." (Gandhi the Man, p. 56). He was deeply rooted in the Hindu tradition which holds that all people are one.
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The Value of Taking a Step Back
Keys to having a fight to the “life” instead of to the “death”
By Kelly Bryson, MA, MFT, CNVC certified trainer

Have you ever gotten a fishing line all tangled up? You got so frustrated you just started yanking on the different loops of line, which of course made the knots and tangles even tighter and more difficult to untangle.

Wouldn't it be great if you could notice the minute you were starting to tangle things up in a discussion with your loved one? To be able to stop and take a step back — a time out — before the frustrated yanking occurs?
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NVC Academy Theme of the Month - Empathy


"We can make life miserable or wonderful for ourselves and others depending upon how we think and communicate."

- Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D.

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World-renowned author, peacemaker, and conflict resolution expert, Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D. talks about the keys to prevent all forms of conflict and violence in this 10-minute video.


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Touch The Future video interview with Marshall Rosenberg
Watch this video of Marshall being interviewed about NVC that includes a compilation of clips of various introductory workshops.

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Solutions for Everyone... continued

How did he resolve the apparent contradiction? Even though the British were resisting his efforts, he never wavered in his conviction that what the British were doing in India was not to their benefit.

"We will not submit to this injustice – not merely because it is destroying us but because it is destroying you as well." (Gandhi the Man, p. 74)

Gandhi maintained that both the goal of his campaigns as well as the method of working towards them were to contribute to everyone's benefit.

" Satyagraha is an all-sided sword… it blesses him who uses it and him against whom it is used." (Hind Swaraj , p. 74).

"I do not seek to harm [the British]. I want to serve them even as I want to serve my own. I believe that I have always served them. I served them up to 1919 blindly. But when my eyes were opened and I conceived non-cooperation, the object still was to serve them." (Young India, Dec 3rd, 1930.)

Gandhi especially insisted that the terms of eventual agreement would need to consider the position of others, so that they are livable. Indeed, when the terms of surrender are too restrictive (such as in the case of the WWI Versailles agreements), the level of resentment and powerlessness experienced by the losing side are likely to erupt later. (Hitler's rise has been in part explained by this national experience of humiliation.)

"A Satyagrahi never yields to panic or hesitancy, neither does she/he think of humiliating the other party, or reducing it to an abject surrender. She/he may not swerve from the path of justice and may not dictate impossible terms. She/he may not pitch them too low." ( Young India, Mar 19th, 1931)

Embracing the dialogue practice of NVC means that in every situation we consider the needs and well-being of others, even in times of conflict, and strive to reach solutions that maintain everyone's dignity. Even when wanting something with great passion, the deep practice of NVC entails an active unwillingness to accept a solution that would be at the expense of others.

What happens when dialogue breaks down? What do we do when the stakes are high and we are facing active or potential harm? Can dialogue always be used, or are there times when force is absolutely necessary in order to protect life?

The Protective Use of Force

As part of his explorations that led to the creation of the practice of NVC, Marshall Rosenberg set out to investigate such extreme situations, and to consider under which conditions the use of force is consistent with a nonviolent stance. My understanding of these conditions is as follows:

  • When the risk of harm, mostly of a physical kind, is imminent. It takes great discipline when we are worried about potential harm to remain calm enough to discern when the risk is truly imminent or unavoidable if not attended to immediately, and when dialogue remains an option to continue to explore. Some classic examples include a child running into the street; a company about to begin logging in an endangered area; a person with repeating episodes of violent behavior.

  • When all options for dialogue have been exhausted . This condition is quite exacting. It's only about the other party's willingness to engage in dialogue. Even when danger is imminent, if dialogue is still an option, we would prefer to approach the other party through connection rather than through force. Maintaining our commitment to nonviolence means a readiness to show up for dialogue for as long as the other party is willing. (Exploring how to address those moments in which we are beyond our own capacity and resources is beyond the scope of this article.)

  • When the intention of any forceful action is to protect from harm. It takes a deep spiritual practice to attain a state in which we can exercise force and remain entirely connected to another's humanity, so that there is no ounce of subtle punitive energy behind the action. At times the clarity of focus on protecting rather than punishing may result in different forms of force being used, or more minimal force, only what's absolutely necessary to protect. At other times the specific use of force may be identical, and the only difference is the intent behind the action. Either way, the intention to use only the force necessary to protect supports the possibility of maintaining human connection with the person against whom we use the force.

Using force in these situations goes beyond preventing harm. If our hearts remain open, we continue to aim for sufficient connection to arrive at a solution that works for everyone. We are more likely to get there if we are successful at maintaining a clear, unwavering commitment to upholding the dignity and humanity of those against whom we are using force. This will help us remember, when we come back to dialogue, the experience of others, and especially that of being forced.

Through this lens, Gandhi's noncooperation can be seen as a form of protective use of force and may well have been the inspiration for Marshall Rosenberg's understanding.

The Relationship Between Force and Nonviolence

The question of the relationship between force and nonviolence is not easily resolved. For example, Gandhi said: "I can only teach you not to bow your heads before any one even at the cost of your life." Clearly he was willing to die for what he was working towards. Does this mean he wouldn't put up an arm to shield himself from a blow if personally attacked? Does force ever cross over into violence even when used to protect? It seems to me that these are questions to continue to grapple with rather than try to resolve once and for all. It is my belief that Gandhi himself continued to wrestle with questions about nonviolence throughout his life and work.

Did Gandhi use force to work towards his goals? Force looks different depending on how much power we have in a situation. Gandhi didn't have a lot of political power in relation to the British, and could not directly "force" them to do anything. Knowing this, Gandhi opted for different forms of power based on different resources. He cultivated a level of personal power, already apparent by the late 1920s, through the incredible personal appeal he had, to both sides.

He also mobilized a mass of people willing to endure anything. I see a group of people with that level of commitment as an enormously powerful force. Used strategically, these two forces - his personal power and the mobilized group - did dictate outcomes without harming the British rulers. Such use of force is consistent with my understanding of nonviolence.

The next segment of this 7-part series explores the 6th principle that NVC shares with Ghandian nonviolence: the clear focus on vision, on what we want to create, instead of acting only to protest and oppose what we don't like.

The complete bibliography for the series can be found online at NVC Gandhian Principles Bibliography . Part 3 of this series contained a link to the worksheet:
Practice: Transforming Judgments and Enemy Images

The complete bibliography for the series can be found online at NVC Gandhian Principles Bibliography.

(1*) The issue of why acting on these needs would take the form of such unimaginable actions is beyond the scope of this article. I believe anyone interested in exploring further the roots of violence could benefit enormously from James Gilligan's book Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes . Gilligan discusses, in particular, the role of shame in leading to violence and cruelty.

Miki Kashtan is a co-founder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication. She leads workshops and intensive retreats in Nonviolent Communication throughout the United States and in Japan, Europe, Brazil, and Africa, and offers mediation, meeting facilitation, coaching, and training for organizations. Miki hosts the Conflict Hotline, a monthly live call-in TV show, and blogs regularly at The Fearless Heart . She holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from UC Berkeley and her articles have appeared in Tikkun magazine and elsewhere.

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Taking a Step Back... continued

If your time out could be taken before the intense anger and frustration surfaces, the tangles would be far easier to unravel, wouldn't they? Instead, what I sometimes do is to take space with a “huff,” implying with my body language and tone that “she is impossible, it’s hopeless, I can’t take anymore of this,” etc. 

  • In such a moment, I'm often afraid that I have only two choices:
  • To hang in there and yank and struggle and fight until we get through this mess, or
  • To take space and feel unresolved, disconnected, lonely, worried, unsettled for hours on end until we come back and finish the argument. 

I am excited about a new option.  We can take time out in love as an expression of caring for the relationship. Our hope is to get back into connection all the sooner and to protect us from making the tangles all the worse. The key is to create a shared understanding with your loved one that the time out is in the service of reconnecting with yourself, rather than to flee the conversation. 

During that “taking space” time here are 6 things you can do:

  1. Think about my part of the tangle to gain clarity about what my reaction was about.
  2. Don't think at all about the distressing discussing but enjoy the break from the struggle trusting that with rest, new energy and clarity will come organically.
  3. Translate my Jackals first.
  4. Translate her Jackals.
  5. Enjoy music, nature, sports, something totally involving of the mind (reading might be difficult).
  6. Journal.

"I like that idea, but how do I get there?"

Many of the couples I work with struggle to use a time out or “taking space,” because the inner jackals of guilt and self-judgment are simply too rampant for them to hear their needs. Here’s a common example of the pain I see couples in:

The woman is hurt, discouraged, hopeless, and lonely while the man is angry, frustrated, exhausted and scared. The woman’s unmet need is for empathy, closeness and a higher quality of intimate conversation. The man’s need is for respect, rest, validation of his worth as he is, and to unhook himself from his inner sense of guilt and inadequacy about his partner’s pain.

This issue is related to the old freedom/closeness dance — the struggle so many couples have between intimacy and independence or autonomy. Couples can get too dependent on the idea that their partner is the only person who can meet his/her needs, so much so that they keep the fight going long after it's contributing to either of them.

Don’t listen to one more word than you want to hear

I wish that both men and women would refuse to listen to each other unless they were sure it was a compassionate contribution to the other’s need to be heard instead of a caving-in-concession. May we only “give to” each other and never “give in” to each other lest we breed the slimy serpents of resentment. Taking a time out can often be the best method to “give to” each other when the lines are about to be tangled.

[Of course this dynamic frequently occurs with the genders reversed.  But for the sake of simplicity I will continue to describe this yin/yang dynamic in terms of male and female.]

The pain and the emptiness and the loneliness can become so intense for women that they truly become either desperate or hopeless. They get into aggressive demanding, or pleading, or moping around in self-hate/pity, both of which are hard not to interpret as demands.

Meeting your needs is not dependent on your partner!

If they could just get some high quality listening/empathy somewhere it would take some of the charge and intensity off their pain and make it easier to open a dialogue with their mate.

Some women are afraid to do this because they interpret this as infidelity or disloyalty. Others think of it as inappropriately airing the family’s dirty laundry. Still others are afraid of having their vulnerability trampled upon.

The corresponding frustration, irritation and resentment gets so built up in the men that the slightest request triggers the unleashing of the backlog until their partners are walking around on eggshells.

Their resentment comes due to their own self-abandonment. It comes because they have listened when they needed to be heard. It comes because they were trying to be strong and not need to take space and rest and recharge when they needed it. The resentment is there because they didn't know they had a choice not to listen when it didn't fit for them to listen.

Listening to someone when you are really needing to be heard or to rest is violence to the both of you. You violate your responsibility to yourself and begin to hate yourself whenever you don’t take care of your own needs. Also you begin to hate and resent the other and hold the illusion that they are oppressing you.

Somewhere along the line in the relationship the man grows to dread seeing the woman's pain for several reasons:

  • He interprets it as accusation. (I hear your pain, and I add it to my list of inadequacies).
  • He interprets it as proof of his inadequacy. (If she is still in pain, I must not be adequately providing for her, therefore I must be inadequate).
  • He thinks he has no choice but to sit and listen. (We all know we hate whatever we have no choice about; lectures from our Dad, finishing our broccoli, paying taxes.)
  • It triggers fear that the relationship is ending, which he wants to avoid.

Because he has such fear of his own anger about his powerlessness, and shame about thinking he is somehow inadequate, sophisticated men learn to go up to their heads to hide behind sophisticated projective, politically, and spiritually correct analytical labels of their partners.

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • “She’s just playing victim.” Translation: “I am pissed off that I am choosing to take on responsibility and feel guilty about the pain she is in.”
  • “She’s so neeeedy.” Translation: “I am scared to tell her that I have different needs than she does right now partly because of the shame I have about having needs at all, but also because I am afraid I will be abandoned if I don’t meet her needs.”
  • “She’s overly dependent.” Translation: “I am confused about how to assert my needs for independence and I am tempted to plead with her to please give me permission to be independent.”

Fight to the life, not to the death

Taking a time out to give yourself empathy, and to connect to the needs behind your jackals or anger can help you transform these unproductive and disconnecting ways of thinking. Think of it as your relationship’s preventive medicine. The next time you sense that the lines are getting tangled, try taking a time out in love, but remember to clarify to your partner your intention for doing so — to contribute to a more loving and productive connection later.

Kelly Bryson MA, MFT, is a CNVC certified trainer and the author of Don’t be Nice, Be Real: Balancing Passion for Self with Compassion for Others. He has been featured in Elle and Shape magazines, appeared on many TV and radio shows, lived in an ashram many years, is a humorist, singer and licensed therapist in private practice. 

An inspirational speaker, he keynotes conventions and has trained thousands in NVC in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East. He trains, presents and consults with groups, corporations (Tony Robbins, Paul Mitchell Salons), churches (all flavors), schools (U.Cal.L.B, Body/Mind College), clubs and all types of organizations.

He also studied with E. Stanley Jones, Gandhi’s concierge and friend. To learn more about his work or information about his private or phone-based sessions, and to purchase his book, visit his website at www.LanguageOfCompassion.com or contact him directly at kelly@languageofcompassion.com or 831-462-EARS (3277) (most insurance accepted).

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