by Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD
Over the last thirty years I’ve had a wealth of experience speaking NVC [nonviolent communication] with people who harbor strong beliefs about specific races and ethnic groups. Early one morning I was picked up by a cab at an airport to take me into town. A message from the dispatcher came over the loud speaker for the cabbie: “Pick up Mr. Fishman at the synagogue on Main Street.” The man next to me in the cab muttered, “These kikes get up early in the morning so they can screw everybody out of their money.”
For twenty seconds, there was smoke coming out of my ears. In earlier years, my first reaction would have been to want to physically hurt such a person. Now I took a few deep breaths and then gave myself some empathy for the hurt, fear, and rage that were stirring inside me. I attended to my feelings. I stayed conscious that my anger wasn’t coming from my fellow passenger nor the statement he had just made. His comment triggered off a volcano inside of me, but I knew that my anger and profound fear came from a far deeper source than those words he had just uttered. I sat back and simply allowed the violent thoughts to play themselves out. I even enjoyed the image of actually grabbing his head and smashing it.
Giving myself this empathy enabled me to then focus my attention on the humanness behind his message, after which the first words out of my mouth were, “Are you feeling…?” I tried to empathize with him, to hear his pain. Why? Because I wanted to see the beauty in him and for him to fully apprehend what I had experienced when he made his remark. I knew I wouldn’t receive that kind of understanding if there were a storm brewing inside of him. My intention was to connect with him and to show a respectful empathy for the life energy in him that was behind the comment. My experience told me that if I were able to empathize, then he would be able to hear me in return. It would not be easy, but he would be able to.
“Are you feeling frustrated?” I asked. “It appears that you might have had some bad experiences with Jewish people.”
He eyed me for a moment, “Yeah! These people are disgusting, they’ll do anything for money.”
“You feel distrust and the need to protect yourself when you’re involved in financial affairs with them?”
“That’s right! he exclaimed, continuing to release more judgments, as I listened for the feeling and need behind each one. When we settle our attention on other people’s feelings and needs, we experience our common humanity. When I hear that he’s scared and wants to protect himself, I recognize how I also have a need to protect myself and I to know what it’s like to be scared. When my consciousness is focused on another human being’s feelings and needs, I see the universality of our experience. I had a major conflict with what went on in his head, but I’ve learned that I enjoy human beings more if I don’t hear what they think. Especially with folks who have his kind of thoughts, I’ve learned to savor life much more by only hearing what’s going on in their hearts and not getting caught up with the stuff in their heads.
This man kept on pouring out his sadness and frustration. Before I knew it, he’d finished with Jews and moved on to Blacks. He was charged with pain around a number of subjects. After nearly ten minutes of my just listening, he stopped: he had felt understood.
Then I let him know what was going on in me:
MBR [Marshall B. Rosenberg]: “You know, when you first started to talk, I felt a lot of anger, a lot of frustration, sadness and discouragement, because I’ve had very different experiences with Jews than you’ve had, and I was wanting you to have much more the kind of experiences I’ve had. Can you tell me what you heard me say?”
Man: “Oh, I’m not saying they’re all…”
MBR: “Excuse me, hold on, hold it. Can you tell me what you heard me say?”
Man: “What are you talking about?”
MBR: “Let me repeat what I’m trying to say. I really want you to just hear the pain I felt when I heard your words. It’s really important to me that you hear that. I was saying I felt a real sense of sadness because my experiences with Jewish people have been very different. I was just wishing that you had had some experiences that were different from the ones you were describing. Can you tell me what you heard me say?”
Man: “You’re saying I have no right to talk the way I did.”
MBR: “No, I would like to you to hear me differently.I really don’t want to blame you. I have no desire to blame you.”
I intended to slow down the conversation, because in my experience, to whatever degree people hear blame, they have failed to hear our pain. If this man said, “Those were terrible things for me to say; those were racist remarks I made,” he would not have heard my pain. As soon as people think that they have done something wrong, they will not be fully apprehending our pain.
I didn’t want him to hear blame, because I wanted him to know what had gone on in my heart when he uttered his remark. Blaming is easy. People are used to hearing blame; sometimes they agree with it and hate themselves—which doesn’t stop them from behaving the same way—and sometimes they hate us for calling them racists or whatever—which also doesn’t stop their behavior. If we sense blame entering their mind, as I did in the cab, we may need to slow down, go back and hear their pain for a while more.
Nonviolent Communication: a language of life
Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD
Puddle Dancer Press
Encinitas, CA © 2003
One realm we have never conquered--the pure present. One great mystery of time is terra incognita to us--the instant. The most superb mystery we have hardly recognized--the immediate, instant self.
I am Myohye Do'an, a bhikṣu (fully ordained Chán Buddhist monk) and Chán Master. Here I share my thoughts and observations about living a life of compassion, attention and gratitude.