The first time I encountered Marshall on an old DVD. Slouching heavily on a chair, he wore a jumper that must have been outdated before it was made. His movements were relaxed and nonchalant. He spoke slowly and assertively, and his self-deprecating humour gave glimpses of an effortless wisdom.
His face seemed to want to hold on to a latent grump, but his voice unveiled great warmth. He would wave about with a wolf and a giraffe hand puppet, symbolising violent versus non-violent communication. He’d tell stories about helping people connect – from irritated schoolteachers, to furious, slaughtering African tribes. No matter how hopeless the situation seemed, he’d apply the same principles of his Non-Violent Communication approach, paving the way for empathy and honesty.
Once in a while, he’d grab his old, out of tune guitar, and sing one of his songs with a gravelly, out of tune voice. But being in tune wasn’t the point. He enjoyed playing: “Anything worth doing well, is worth doing badly”. He gave off a sense of being at home within, which made his presence comforting.
With this first encounter I became drawn to his work. I had studied communication approaches for many years, but this felt different. I was excited by how it cut straight to the core of human relationships with simplicity and honesty.
“Life’s purpose is to become perpetually less stupid”
Rosenberg taught me, how to separate observation from evaluation, to notice feelings and see their underlying needs. To make clear requests, while acknowledging the other person’s power to choose. I also learned to embrace my own, and hence others imperfections more. To me, NVC meant a way to be present, to be in flow, to get closer to what Martin Buber referred to as direct encounter; a meeting of the thou, the other person, untarnished by existing pre-conceptions.
Rosenberg once said, that our purpose in life is to become perpetually less stupid, and NVC began to prevent me from my own stupidity more and more often. Sometimes it was just in the phrasing of an email (replacing “you should” with “it’s important to me”), or calming down an angry man’s nerves on a London night bus with a bit of empathy, so he didn’t get himself arrested.
More significantly, I hadn’t seen my dad in over fifteen years. He had just vanished one day when I was fourteen, and we only learned later that he had decided to leave everything behind, to move to Malaysia. In traditional thinking he did the wrong thing, and we had every right to be angry with him, to blame and shame him and to judge him as irresponsible and selfish.
On my NVC journey I learned to look beyond this right vs. wrong thinking. The grip of it began to loosen when I tuned into what really mattered to me: my needs and feelings – I needed support, trust and love and was shocked, sad and disappointed that his leaving didn’t meet these needs. My dad, so I guessed, wanted more autonomy, freedom and adventure.
In 2013, I was ready to travel to Malaysia and meet dad for the first time in fifteen years. It was an imperfect but moving meeting of two people, who had dealt with life in great and not so great ways. We talked, connected, had fun. No apologies were necessary. We made peace. At the end of my two-week trip, we sat by the beach, and for the first time, shared a beer with each other. I came back home to London with a deep sense of closure and a nice tan.
This is the world NVC can open the door to. And Marshall relentlessly pointed out this door to anyone who was prepared to listen.
Unfortunately, we are taught to ignore this door, to be obedient first, and authentic second. We learn early on that it’s important to be right, and equally important to avoid being wrong. We are rewarded and punished accordingly. It engrains us with a thinking that stifles our aliveness, robs our natural self-esteem and confidence, dulls our relationships and creates anger, depression, guilt and shame.
With NVC, Marshall Rosenberg developed a methodology that hasn’t only helped thousands of people to communicate openly and compassionately with each other, but also with oneself. It is a practice that helps us unlearn those destructive patterns, and relearn a language of life. I found that by looking at the needs that are hiding behind the noise of my thoughts, I get to a more joyous, assertive, effective and cooperative place.
Apart from bringing more peace to my family, it also gave me the clarity (and guts) to make some difficult business decisions. Someone once said to me: “You get what you tolerate”, and there were a few things greying my hair prematurely. So I clumsily, but confidently parted ways with a business partner, after having invested two years of hard work into the cooperation.
Another time, I stepped away from a very lucrative but soul-destroying project. It was scary and there were negative consequences, such as a significant loss of earnings, but it made space for new, better-suited opportunities and allowed for a more congruent, enjoyable life.
Dogmatic right vs. wrong thinking ignites our anger, and fuels our desire to see those deemed wrong suffer. This is what jumpstarts and maintains cycles of violence – in our families, at work and on a global, political scale. Rosenberg once worked with a prison inmate, who commented “If I had known to communicate this way, I wouldn’t have had to kill my friend.”
A quick glance at the news tells us, that we have a lot of work to do. The recent cheers of bystanders, watching their enemies burn alive in cages, is the epitome of violence and de-humanisation that right vs. wrong thinking creates.
Luckily, we also live in a time where access to inspiration such as Rosenberg’s teachings, is easier than ever. I am hopeful that over time, it will continue to accelerate an evolution of thought that gets us beyond enemy images, and lets us recognise the ultimate driving force of all life: Needs.
Then we can begin to see the thou and I more clearly, and hopefully we will discover how to use our power as a means to contribute to life. We’ll have more honesty, connection, joy, better performing, more sustainable businesses and more loving relationships. That’s Marshall Rosenberg’s legacy, and he has passed the baton on to us.
A heartfelt thank you Marshall. I hope you had smooth winds when passing over.
© Ragnar Speicher