The art of engaging in calm, honest dialogue while avoiding landmines

Don’t be put off by the name: Nonviolent Communication could change your life

Yoram Mosenzon is a trainer in Nonviolent Communication. Photograph Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

Yoram Mosenzon is a trainer in Nonviolent Communication. Photograph Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

 

“Hello,” says Yoram Mosenzon, with a firm handshake, “I want to pee”. It’s hardly a conventional greeting but entirely apt from an advocate of effective communication based on awareness of personal needs.

He goes off to attend to a physical need which otherwise, he adds, would stop him concentrating on the few words we are due to exchange. And I am left in no doubt why our conversation has ended – albeit temporarily – even before it began.

Mosenzon (45) is in Greystones, Co Wicklow, to lead a weekend workshop on Nonviolent Communication (NVC) in intimate relationships. He has invited me to participate “as a human” before I sit down with him in interviewer mode the following Monday morning.

For those who have never heard of NVC, it is perhaps an unfortunate title for the workshop as it conjures up images of a remedial programme for perpetrators of domestic abuse. But it’s nothing like that.

It could be comically summed up as talking to your nearest and dearest without pissing them off – and really listening to them, without getting pissed off yourself. But of course it’s a whole lot deeper than that.

US psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, who devised NVC, did regret the name he had given it, says Mosenzon. The term was intended to reference Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Other names used, such as “compassion communication” or, translated from Mosenzon’s native Hebrew, “communication that brings closeness”, seem more helpful for portraying what it’s about.

It was the moment when I thought: ‘What is going on between people?’
 

However, he continues: “I myself like ‘non violent communication’ because I have a different image in my head.” For him, it refers to “the subtle violence that is happening between us”.

It’s surely a paradox that communicating honestly with loved ones who know us best – be they partners, parents, children, friends or siblings – can sometimes be so difficult. And it was one such personal conflict that was a “lightbulb” moment for Mosenzon, who left Israel in 1999 to pursue a career in choreography in the Netherlands.

Some years later, he and a girlfriend ended up having a blazing row in a field. He loved her deeply but felt a powerlessness in reaching any sense of understanding.

“It was the moment when I thought: ‘What is going on between people?’ It really felt crazy; everything I say she takes completely different from what I mean. That was a scary moment. I felt it in my body. I want to hit her,” he recalls.

Mosenzon co-founded founded an NVC school for children in northern Amsterdam. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
Mosenzon co-founded founded an NVC school for children in northern Amsterdam. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

If two people are speaking and they don’t understand each other, they tend to raise their voices. It’s not that they can’t hear each other, he points out, rather “shouting is an attempt to bridge the huge gap in understanding”. If you can’t bridge the gap with the shouting, the next step may be to throw something.

“Violence is a moment of desperation,” he says. It is one person trying to get their needs met by another, striving to win their co-operation.

It was soon after this monumental row that his girlfriend discovered NVC and introduced it to Mosenzon, for whom it was a revelation. In disputes, people are often advised not to “take it personally”, he points, but how do you do that?

“This for me is what I love so much about NVC, it is a complete how-to.” In 2008 he decided to put all his time and energy into “living and sharing NVC”. A co-founder of an NVC school in Amsterdam for children aged four to 16, he is a certified trainer with the US-based Center for Nonviolent Communication, working as a mediator and leading workshops all over Europe.

Such is his reputation, one third of the 40 participants at the Greystones event have come from abroad. Some have done NVC sessions before, others are new to it.

Conflict

Mosenzon is a commanding figure, his slender, 6ft 3in frame looking every inch the former dancer he is, but he is also clearly adept at engaging a group with humour and observations of human nature that all can identify with.

“It’s very easy to create a conflict – just stop hiding yourself and people freak out,” he tells the group. The art of NVC is engaging in honest dialogue, both with yourself and others, that circumvents landmines by calmly exploring the needs being expressed through behaviour and comments.

A jackal puppet is used throughout the weekend in role-plays to demonstrate judgmental thoughts and expressions that are likely to spark conflict and block communication, while a giraffe puppet rises above what’s happening on the surface to listen to the human needs behind it.

Mosenzon is fond of repeating Rosenberg’s observation that “every judgment is a tragic expression of an unmet need”.

Take for instance a couple disagreeing over whether to stay in or go out with friends on a Friday night. They trade allegations of “you’re so selfish” about each other wanting their own way. Stalemate at best; an escalation into expressions of all other sorts of perceived shortcomings of each other at worst.

Mosenzon was in Greystones, conducting an adult NVC workshop. Photograph Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
Mosenzon was in Greystones, conducting an adult NVC workshop. Photograph Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

Taking an NVC perspective, both are trying to have needs met, be they for rest, connection to others or each other, fun, choice . . . There’s a long list of “universal basic needs” on a card handed out by Mosenzon, grouped under the headings: physical well-being; harmony; connection; meaning; freedom; honesty and play.

If the rowing couple could both stand back and be “giraffes”, discussing what each of them needs at that moment in time, solving the situation is likely to be the easy side-effect of the honest dialogue, he contends. It only takes one giraffe to bring a different awareness to the conversation and break the deadlock – but it would be easier if there were two.

If you compromise, you are starting to build an accumulation of frustration, which will explode
 

Simply caving in to another’s will is not the answer. “It’s a temporary solution,” he says, “but in the long term you will pay with the most expensive coin, which is how we are together”. Clearly, he doesn’t support the notion that constant compromise is an essential part of marriage.

“If you compromise, you are starting to build an accumulation of frustration, which will explode. Compromise is to say: ‘I will die a little bit for you – and I expect you to kill yourself as well.’ For me life is much more beautiful than that. I don’t have to kill a part of myself in order to be together.”

To spouses who take conformity of the other as a sign of love, the warning from Mosenzon is that “if I become the person you want me to be, there is no one left to love you”.

People pair off for exercises at the workshop but even within the large group, there is candid sharing about stumbling blocks in relationships, be they between sexual partners, mothers and sons, best friends etc. Many participants are strangers to each other but the connections are palpable, presumably because of their like-mindedness. It’s hard to think that 40 people randomly assembled would respond in the same way.

However, talking about human nature “creates a very special safety, vulnerability and honesty”, says Mosenzon when we sit down together the following Monday morning. “When people are feeling safe to speak honestly, then everyone feels more honest and that creates a special bonding.”

Again, there is an unorthodox opening to our one-on-one interview, when he asks that both of us take a turn to talk uninterrupted for two (timed) minutes about our feelings at that moment. What would have been a total cringe for me before the workshop is now, at least, recognised as an aid to connection. It prefaces an exploration of how NVC applies in relationships between adults and children.

I am the most selfish human being you ever met – but not in the negative way
 

“For me parenthood is such a sacred and delicate job, so vulnerable, I so want to bring tons of compassion to parents,” he says. Acknowledging how much judgment there is on raising children, he wants to support parents in finding their own, intuitive way of parenting.

“It was a real shock when I grew up to realise how much weird actions of parents are coming from the fear of being judged by fellow adults,” he remarks.

Parents expend great energy in trying to get children to co-operate, he says. But they need to ask themselves how and why. He believes that “punishment never works”.

He takes the example of wanting a boy to share toys with his sister. “What would you like the motivation of the child to be, to do what you want him to do?” The answer, he suggests, is to learn that sharing is good, in preparing him to grow up to be a kind, co-operative adult.

But if you get your son to do what you want out of fear, “what the child learns is I will share toy with my sister because my father will not love me or will punish me”, says Mosenzon. “At a deeper level punishment never works; it is not teaching the child what you want to teach them.”

In the Life (Learning in a Free Environment) school, which he co-founded in north Amsterdam, “there is no ‘have to’,” he explains. When children come to the school there is usually about two months of what they call “deschooling”.

“They come from a certain system and there is a cultural shock, ‘we don’t have to?’ and they don’t do anything in the first few weeks. Then you see a new motivation and they are motivated to do things you would never imagine.

“When a child is doing something out of intrinsic motivation, their capacity to focus is multiplied by 10. It is a miracle to see what they can learn in such a short time.”

Rebel or submit

In all relationships – at home, at school, at work – “whenever there is a demand, as a human being you have two options: either you rebel or you submit. Both of them are painful. If I rebel, I lose connection, with my parents for example, and if I submit, I lose myself. I become a nice polite person.”

Submissive children may be nice little girls and boys but, he argues, if you ask them later as adults “what do you want?”, they don’t know. In learning how to please others, they have lost touch with their own spirituality and their own body.

You lose touch with your own needs at your – and everybody else’s – peril, which is why he strongly advocates parents’ self-care. Using the analogy of fixing your own airplane oxygen mask before going to help others, he stresses that children don’t benefit if parents put their own needs aside.

“Part of the challenge of parenting is how to care for your needs and their needs the whole day long – constantly. It’s an art. For me it is the most gracious job I know.”

What about the sacrifices parents inevitably have to make to raise children? Regarding them as willing sacrifices rather than demands, that is the key, he responds.

He repeats an illustration Rosenberg used about going to bed after a hard day’s work and just as he was falling asleep, he heard his baby cry. With an initial expletive, he caught himself in the feeling that he had to go to attend to the child but then turned it around to hearing a little human being needing help.

“That touched him, and he went to the baby with completely different energy. Each time you do something with the energy of ‘have to . . .’ somebody will pay for it. You don’t want anybody to give to you from the energy of ‘have to’.”

For the jackals amongst us, NVC’s encouragement of constant talk about feelings and needs can seem rather self-indulgent.

“I feel very sad about this judgment,” Mosenzon replies. “We are all programmed to care for our needs. I am the most selfish human being you ever met – but not in the negative way.”

Acknowledging that many people believe caring for your own needs is to ignore those of others, he adds: “One of my deepest needs is connection with others, so the more I am allowing myself to be selfish, the more I care for people.”

NVC Ireland

“Life-changing,” is how Selene Aswell sums up her discovery of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) 10 years ago when doing a BA in Community Studies.

Living in Kilcoole, Co Wicklow, she is working towards certification as an NVC trainer and uses the process in her work with clients, such as parents, and hosts a fortnightly NVC practice group.

She is one of a number of professionals who have set up NVC Ireland (www.nvc.ie) to raise awareness of this approach to conflict resolution, be it in relationships within homes, workplaces or communities, and also highlight its value as a tool for more harmonious living in general.

For Glenn Treacy, another member of NVC Ireland, being introduced to Marshall Rosenberg’s methods was also a turning point. Although a management trainer by profession, Treacy had never heard of NVC until a friend gave him an audio version of Rosenberg’s book because she thought it might help him during a crisis in a personal relationship.

“When you open that box, you can’t go back,” he says simply. While he is proud that they were running an event in Ireland that people thought worth travelling from overseas to attend, he admits he regrets that this meant fewer people living here got the opportunity to learn from Yoram Mosenzon about NVC.

For anyone wanting to know more, Aswell suggests watching YouTube tutorials by Rosenberg, or reading one of his books on the subject. Mosenzon (http://www.connecting2life.net/) can also be found on YouTube. NVC Ireland organises meet ups and runs a private Facebook group.

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