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

This is the last installment 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, ( 4 ) appealing to our shared humanity, ( 5 ) finding solutions that work for everyone, and ( 6 ) moving from opposition to shared vision.


The Seventh Principle: Nonviolence Begins with Inner Practice

As big and ambitious as Gandhi's campaigns were, he regularly reminded everyone of the very individual nature of his practice. He wrote extensively about his own personal journey as being integral to his work, and likened nonviolence to a search for truth, starting from the inside out.
Keep reading this article below >>


NEW! The Companion Guidebook for
Humanizing Health Care
Using Therapeutic Communication With Patients
By Melanie Sears, MBA, RN

A longer version of this article originally appeared in Home Healthcare Nurse ~ volume 14 ~ number 8 ~ 1996

Learning How to Choose Your Words

I was taught in Nursing School that when someone expressed a feeling to reflect it back. I tried this technique in the room of a patient who had just received a diagnosis of cancer. He was obviously angry, so I said, "You sound angry." He replied, "Hell yes, I'm mad and you nurses and doctors don't give a damn." I felt scared to have this anger directed at me and confused about what to say next, so I mumbled an excuse and slipped out of the room leaving his angry words hanging heavily in the air. Keep reading this article below >>


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"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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Nonviolence Begins with Inner Practice ... continued

Gandhi's Personal Goals

"What I want to achieve – what I have been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years – is self-realization." (Gandhi's life in his own words, p. 1)

"The very first step in non-violence is that we cultivate in our daily life, as between ourselves, truthfulness, humility, tolerance, loving kindness." (Golden Treasury, p. 41)

Gandhi saw at least three intertwined reasons for the centrality of a personal practice: increasing strength and effectiveness, cultivating acceptance, and finding meaning. As he saw it, the strength and confidence necessary to maintain a loving presence in the face of opposition, oppression, and ridicule could only come from an exacting inner practice.

"Love and ahimsa… presuppose self-confidence which in its turn presupposes self-purification." (Young India 18-02-1926, Non Violent Resistance, p. 345)

Inner practice in the form of a great deal of honesty and humility also served as the reference point for sustaining his commitment to non-judgment.

"It is not for us to sit in judgment over anyone, so long as we notice a single fault in ourselves and wish our friends not to forsake us in spite of such fault. Being myself full of blemishes, and therefore in need of charity of fellow beings, I have learnt not to judge anyone harshly, and to make allowance for defects that I might detect". (Harijan, 11-3-1939, p. 47)

The Unexpected Gifts of Nonviolence

The practice of nonviolence also provided Gandhi with unexpected gifts in terms of his own well-being. Gandhi believed in nonviolence for its own sake, whether or not the desired results could be attained. The depth at which he practiced opened up avenues for inner peace and wonder that no doubt sustained him in times of great anguish at the pace of his campaign and at the conflicts within his movement.

"Whatever may be the result, there is always in me conscious struggle for following the law of nonviolence deliberately and ceaselessly. Such struggle leaves one stronger for it. The more I work at this law, the more I feel the delight in my life, the delight in the scheme of the universe. It gives me a peace and a meaning of the mysteries of nature that I have no power to describe." (Search for a Nonviolent Future, p. 101)

Here, again, the practice of NVC follows in the footsteps of Gandhi's own practice. I have already alluded to how essential it is, for practicing NVC, to know intimately our inner landscape and recognize what we need. As simple as this may sound, it can be enormously challenging in moments when we are unhappy with others' or our own actions.

I want to illustrate this with two specific aspects of NVC. The first is about learning to live with and tolerate the experience of unmet needs without getting so agitated that we jump to action. Nonviolence is born of inner peace. If we are out of balance, we are much more likely to be reactive and unable to maintain the strength and clarity necessary for the love and openness that are such a hallmark of nonviolence.

This particular aspect of the practice calls for developing a level of non-attachment by remaining in close connection with the needs without focusing on the strategies to get the needs met. In addition to inner peace this practice support self-connection and creativity in finding alternate strategies for the unmet needs.

The second aspect of the practice of NVC I want to highlight is working on self-acceptance. Just as Gandhi recognized that being honest about his own flaws could be a way to develop compassion for others, so practicing NVC supports non-judgment of others by recognizing and connecting with the needs that lead to any action or thought we don't like in ourselves. Shifting focus from judgment to needs in regard to ourselves increases the chances we may do the same with others.

Moreover, the specific focus on needs increases our capacity to see and hear needs, in anyone, even when they are not expressed directly, which for most people is almost all the time. Connecting with needs, our own and others', is surprisingly effective at increasing acceptance and a sense of continuity of humanity between us and others whose actions may be very different from our own.

Parting Words

With such strong ties to Gandhi's legacy, I am happy to continue to use and embrace the term he himself used to describe this form of love. I feel such delight and honor to be associated with this tradition that embraces so many aspects of love: compassion, fierceness, courage, and an uncompromising willingness to stand for truth.

For the past 15 years, I have been dedicating my life to the quest for full nonviolent living. I want to keep learning and exploring what nonviolence means. I want to live this intense love; model it as best I know how, and more; expose and seek support for the places where I falter; and support others who want the same, who want to grow their capacity to love everyone, including themselves.

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

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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Therapeutic Communication ... continued

For the next few years, I avoided angry patients as much as possible. I performed my duties as a nurse cheerfully and efficiently and thought I was doing a great job. I was puzzled as to why I wasn't receiving more appreciation. After all, I constantly sacrificed my own needs to meet the needs of patients and the administration, and I was efficient, tireless, strong, and had excellent nursing skills.

I worked much of the time in intensive care units where I was free to apply my skills and knowledge to keep patients alive, and where I didn't have to communicate much because the patients were often unconscious or intubated. I often felt distressed because I wanted more respect and acknowledgment, but no matter how hard I tried, these needs remained unfulfilled.

First, Empathy for Myself

It was not until I began taking workshops in Nonviolent Communication that I began enjoying working with the "whole" patient. I soon discovered that before I could deal effectively with angry patients, I had to first receive accurate understanding (empathy) for what caused the fear reaction in me that led me to avoid their anger.

While learning Nonviolent Communication my own childhood pain in relation to my angry parents was heard accurately and clearly for the first time in my life. I was not told, as I had been in the past, to forgive my parents or that I should not have these feelings because my parents did the best they could. Instead, I learned how to empathize with my own feelings and needs, and how to identify ways I might have these needs met.

Then, Empathy for the Patient

Next, I learned communication techniques for listening to what occurs inside a person and for expressing what was going on inside me. I had never learned how to deal with feelings because my family avoided expressing them until they built up and then exploded with anger.

Giving and receiving empathy became my passion. A whole new world opened up to me, and my view of the world changed. Thought patterns that kept me stuck in a state of depression began to shift. My relationships changed drastically and I began enjoying my work as a nurse.

After learning these skills I began to empathize with my patients and I noticed how much they appreciated me and how much calmer they felt after having someone listen to them express how they feel and to guess what they might need. I realized how in the past I had blocked communication by offering advice or trying to fix the problem when I heard someone express a feeling.

It was a relief to me to know that I didn't need to do anything when someone expressed feelings, and I became aware of how therapeutic it was for the patient when I was just present to share whatever was going on inside them.

When Empathy is Lacking

The way we are taught to communicate in our society seems to be harmful to esteem and destroys intimacy. I saw an example of this type of non-therapeutic communication on national television recently. A woman was in the emergency room with her baby who had been injured when the car overturned.

Woman: I only took her out of her car seat because she was choking.

Nurse: You should never take a baby out of a car seat while the car is moving.

Woman: When your baby is choking you just don’t stop and think.

Nurse: You should pull the car over and stop first.

Woman (crying and sobbing): But she was choking.

Nurse: Now, you need to calm down, you need to be calm for your baby because babies can sense when their mothers are upset.

I felt embarrassed for the nurse when I watched this and sad that the woman didn't get the empathy she needed. If the nurse had used empathy instead of judgment and advice, she would have learned what really was happening with this woman and could have offered the appropriate intervention to prevent such a tragedy from recurring.

When Empathy is Applied

If therapeutic communication had been used, the following dialogue may have occurred:

Women: I only took her out of her car seat because she was choking.

Nurse: Are you feeling scared that you are being judged for what you did?

Woman: Ever since this happened people have been acting like the whole thing is my fault.

Nurse: Are you angry about that and need some understanding about all the factors involved in making this happen?

Woman (sobbing): Yes, I feel so guilty already that when everyone is putting all the blame on me and I just feel horrible.

Nurse: When you see what happened to your baby and hear people’s reaction to it, I wonder if you feel ashamed?

Woman: Yes, I'm scared I'm not a good mother. It was so stupid of me to take her out of her car seat.

Nurse: You really regret taking her out of the car seat while the car was moving and wish you had done something else.

Woman (calmer now): Yes, I wish I knew how to be a better mother. I would do anything for my baby. I love her so much.

Nurse: Would you like information about community resources available to help you and your baby?

Woman: Yes, that would be helpful.

In the first example, the woman remained defensive and scared throughout the communication. This type of communication created such a defensive reaction in the woman that it is doubtful she would have been receptive to hearing about community resources that could help her. She may have lacked the tools she needed to be an effective parent, and without help, her baby may have ended up back in the emergency room.

To be an effective communicator we must be willing to let go of judgment, accept our own imperfection, and have a desire to connect with others' feelings and needs.

The trick to learning empathy is to practice. Stick your neck out and try using this empathy the next time you come across a patient who is in distress. You may find that your whole experience of nursing changes for the better.

Melanie Sears, MBA, RN is the author of Humanizing Health Care Humanizing Health Care and its companion workbook, Choose Your Words, a Registered Nurse with 30 years experience working within the health care industry, and is an official trainer for The Center for Nonviolent Communication. Melanie has worked in most areas of health care and has used NVC to connect with her patients and to transform the medical system's Command and Control culture to one of Partnership and Accountability. She is an active member of Northwest Nonviolent Communication in Seattle, Washington. You can contact her through her website at: www.DNADialogues.com

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New This Month

This month we're pleased to announce
the addition of the Choose Your Words eBook, the Companion Guidebook for Humanizing Health Care, by Melanie Sears.

Through the examples are presented in the highly charged health care environment, you'll find that these skills can easily be applied to any area of your life.

eBook Packages
Intro Special on Titles by
Melanie Sears, MBA, RN
Save 40% off list prices
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Choose Your Words eBook
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Humanizing Health Care
: $9.95

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