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Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life

by Marshall Rosenberg

Reviewed by Ann Carlin

Marshall Rosenberg has written a deeply spiritual and practical book about the practice of nonviolent communication: communication with others and also with oneself. It is a gem of a book. Dr. Rosenberg carefully takes the reader through all the intricacies of working on what to say and how to say it so that one’s words lead to peace, not bitterness or violence. The surprising aspect of the book is that it also speaks to the essential need for developing compassionate communication with oneself.

This is a man who knows a thing or two about peace. He has made it his life’s work. Thousands of people practice nonviolent communication in all walks of life. So what’s the big deal here? Why all the buzz, all the interest?

Dr. Rosenberg always wanted to help people. He was born in 1934, a Jew, and became a psychologist. In the course of his practice, he found the pathology-based understanding of human beings in which he had been trained both limiting and burdensome: the search for what was wrong, the hidden defect in the person that somehow needed to be righted or cured. Dr. Rosenberg, instead, began simply to listen to the needs and feelings of his patients. He didn’t pretend to have all the answers, to be the supreme authority; he only began to listen with his heart, with a deep desire to appease their suffering. Through years of hard work and devotion, Dr. Rosenberg developed a system of nonviolent communication, the subject of this book. It is a book which is philosophical and practical, profound yet simple.

This book contains the treasure of Marshall Rosenberg’s deep inner work, developed as a result of a lifelong quest, indeed mission, to help others. Simply stated, there are two parts to nonviolent communication:

  • Expressing honestly
  • Receiving empathically

Expressing honestly and receiving empathically are goals accomplished through the following four components: observation, feeling, needs and request. These are of utmost importance, and form the core of Dr. Rosenberg’s system.

When we are communicating with others, here are the steps of nonviolent communication through which we express ourselves:

  1. State, quite objectively, the concrete actions which you observe that are affecting your well-being.
  2. State how you feel in relation to what you are observing
  3. State the needs, values, desires, etc. that are creating your feelings
  4. Request concrete actions that may enrich your life

Rosenberg provides a concrete example of expressing oneself honestly. A mother is faced with communicating with her teenage son about an issue in the house. She tells him that when she sees soiled socks under the coffee table and next to the TV, she feels irritated “because I am needing more order in the rooms that we share in common. Would you be willing to put your socks in your room or in the washing machine?”

The second part of nonviolent communication is “receiving empathically,” whereby we receive from others the information they convey through their observation, feeling, needs and request. Dr. Rosenberg defines empathy as emptying one’s mind and listening with the whole of one’s being. Empathy is respectful understanding of what others are experiencing. There is a profound difference between true empathy and intellectual understanding. Once again, Marshall Rosenberg underscores, it is listening for the feelings and needs of those who come to speak with us that defines true empathy. He writes that behind the intimidating messages and formidable fronts some people may have, they are simply people appealing to us to meet their needs.

Empathy itself, in Dr. Rosenberg’s experience, is a wonderful elixir: staying with empathy, we allow speakers to touch deeper levels of themselves.

The book’s design enables the reader to transform reading about nonviolent communication into practicing it. Each chapter is studded with out-quotes in shaded boxes, highlighting essential points. The chapters on observation, feelings, needs, and requests have concrete exercises designed to help the reader learn the skills of nonviolent communication.

However, it is not only the work that we do for the sake of others which helps bring peace. There is also the work of connecting compassionately with ourselves. Indeed, Marshall Rosenberg devotes much thought to this topic. He writes, most interestingly, that the most important use of nonviolent communication may be in developing self-compassion. “When critical self-concepts prevent us from seeing the beauty in ourselves, we lose connection with the divine energy that is our source. Conditioned to view ourselves as objects—objects full of shortcomings—is it any wonder that many of us end up relating violently with ourselves?”

Marshall Rosenberg then writes that in the moment-to-moment evaluation of ourselves, we replace violence with compassion. Work on ourselves is to be stimulated by a clear desire to enrich life for ourselves and for others, rather than by destructive energies such as shame or guilt.

There are nuances and nuances in this book: how to express and receive appreciation in nonviolent communication and how to express anger are just two examples.

In writing Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, Dr. Rosenberg has made an important contribution to world peace. What is just as important, he has made a contribution to your peace and unfolding. Read this book; practice its tenets; and then talk to your family, your co-workers, your neighbors. See what a difference nonviolent communication makes in your life. Bullet

For the interested reader, here is Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s website for nonviolent communication: www.NonviolentCommunication.com