The news reached me on February 11th at the end of a singing class that my beloved teacher and mentor Marshall Rosenberg had died on February 7th. The news had been made public that morning through the trainer network and the Center of Nonviolent Communication that Rosenberg had founded. Reading the words on my phone catapulted me into the land of tears. Meeting Marshall changed my life. In 2000, I read his book cover to cover in a few days Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. I was engrossed from the first few pages .. I recognized the deep truth of what Rosenberg was saying, "While we may not consider the way we talk to be 'violent', words often lead to hurt and pain, whether for others or ourselves." Yes I knew this one all too well. A well intended exchange could all too suddenly run off course and into verbal and emotional mayhem. How does one prevent this from happening? Rosenberg says in the next paragraph, "All that has been integrated into NVC has been known for centuries. The intent is to remind us about what we already know—about how we humans were meant to relate to one another—and to assist us in living in a way that concretely manifests this knowledge." This struck me as essential. I'd long been under the impression that the drive for success in a progress oriented society distributed power unevenly and compromised our relational nature. Might Nonviolent Communication support us to stay more consistently in touch with our humanity?
I was 42 years old at the time when I read Rosenberg's book, married with two children .. meaning I'd been through enough to recognize that the way I communicated when I was struggling or dissatisfied didn't draw me any closer to the outcomes I wished for .. in fact it pushed those very things further away and made matters worse! And while my tendency was to be open, enquiring and fair and in worse case scenarios to err on the side of being overly compromising, I knew there was a great deal of room for improvement. All too often I'd stood in a stupor before my husband or my children .. filled with burning frustration and absolutely no ability to communicate my way towards meaningful connection and mutual ground. I knew there had to an outcome that would work for all of us and yet I didn't know how to get us there. Reading Rosenberg's book and then training with him was enormously powerful.
I will never forget the first time I met Marshall. I arrived at the workshop venue early so I could find a good seat .. which happened to be in the front row. Marshall arrived about 20 minutes before the start time taking a seat on the stool provided for him beside a table where he place his briefcase. He pulled out a note pad and began writing. I watched .. I wondered .. who is this man who speaks these things that resonate so deeply within me? And what will he say? When 9o'clock arrived, one of the organizers called our attention to the front of the room and introduced Marshall .. describing how his own life had been so favourably touched by Nonviolent Communication .. he then handed the microphone over to Marshall .. Marshall took the microphone and sat quietly, very relaxed .. he gazed around the room with his deep penetrating eyes .. there were about 80 of us gathered .. he took his time .. and finally spoke these words .. What can I do to make life more wonderful for you?
Tears rose to my eyes. It was as if I'd been staggering through the desert for years in search of water and had suddenly come across a fellow traveller generously holding a full flask out to me. The sincerity of his words was palpable. Several people responded with things like .. I want to learn how to talk to my partner when I'm angry .. I want to know how to engage with difficult people .. I want my kids to listen to me .. I want to speak to authority figures .. I want to talk to a family member who I've been estranged from for several years .. I want to learn to speak up instead of freezing up .. and so began the workshop.
For me the mark of revolutionary work is how difficult it is .. how much it asks me to reconsider existing beliefs whether they be mine or those decided upon by the dominant culture .. how much it pushes me to an edge where my identity seems about to be swallowed up by that consideration .. how much it asks me to step into a larger possibility of what it means to be human .. how much it asks me to take personal responsibility for my life, those close to me and the world at large. Without that kind of clout, it's merely technique. And yes technique serves a purpose but I'm wanting to have a hand in changing the world. This world needs midwives. This world needs people who are deeply attuned to the web of relating .. who recognize that we are inextricably entangled in a web of shimmering strands that reach into every forest canopy and floor, into every tiny crack and crevice, over every mountain peak and ocean, into every flower blossom and bird's nest, into every boardroom and bedroom .. every grocery store and protest rally, every school and nursery.
Those two days with Marshall convinced me that this was the work I wanted to roll up my sleeves for. I wanted to learn what that man had learned and speak the way he spoke. I thought to myself .. Just imagine if we could all learn to speak like that! What a different world this would be! And as I sat before Marshall, I made a vow to myself that I would not resist anything he said .. I would let it all in. Whether my vow had anything to do with what followed or not, I experienced a profound and beautiful "shattering" while taking in Marshall's words .. I literally heard the glass break into a million pieces inside my chest and then fly out into the day catching the sunlight. It was profound and literally changed how I "saw" the world. Marshall provided me with a lens infinitely more faithful to what was actually before my eyes than the one I'd been taught to see with. The world and everything in it was suddenly illuminated .. something I'd never experienced before.
When my husband who had been doing the good and noble work of caring for our children all day long so I could attend the workshop asked me how things had gone, I smiled at him and chirped, "It was wonderful!" I then broke down in tears .. because something I had been seeking for so long had at last come into my life. I was no longer in the desert. I'd had a good drink. I felt a combination of awe, reverence, love and compassion for all of humankind. And I knew I could do no other than to continue to learn from this man .. which I did .. scrounging and working odd jobs while caring for my children in order to raise the money to attend trainings. I became a modern day disciple so to speak .. listening to Marshall's every word, taking notes .. reading the books he referenced .. becoming involved with the local NVC network where I lived .. building their first website .. writing newsletters .. organizing trainings .. learning from other certified trainers .. and eventually becoming certified myself. It was made clear to me in that first workshop that to be able to speak clearly, directly and responsibly with one's eyes firmly affixed to the larger landscape of what is essentially enriching to life .. and to be able to hear the suffering of others and place it tenderly within that same landscape .. was to alter one's course for the better .. as well as the course of one's family and even possibly one's community.
Nonviolent Communication℠ remains the most effective approach to navigating conflict that I know of. With laser point precision, it breaks down and identifies each base element of communication .. helping people to sort through the often chaotic stew that is cooked up in the coming together of people's various beliefs, attitudes and desires. "Our repertoire of words for calling people names is often larger than our vocabulary of words that allow us to clearly describe our emotional states" says Rosenberg. Emotions typically run high in conflict situations and when people don't have the language to articulate their feelings and what fuels them with accuracy and precision, which they often don't, it's like being on a stormy sea with no one at the helm; people get tossed about on the waves, sails get ripped and the relation-ship runs aground in a hurtful place that is a long shot from where it might have landed.
Once people have developed the skill of clearly articulating their experience rooted in a consciousness that holds reverence for all of life .. while at the same time maintaining a vigilant alertness to the modes of thinking and speaking that create roadblocks to honest and fruitful dialogue, conflict becomes much easier and more satisfying to navigate. In fact when conflict is well handled, it transports people to a more robust and reliable topography .. where trust, generosity and goodwill become the very ground from which people speak and act. Conflict in fact is not a problem any more than hunger is a problem. Both hunger and conflict come with the territory of being a living organism .. the challenge is in knowing how to respond effectively and creatively to the impulse. Nonviolent Communication provides a sound recipe and once a person knows the key ingredients, they can become ingenious with it and feed people on a deeply human scale.
Marshall Rosenberg's legacy will no doubt continue to do its fine work in the world .. challenging relational and organizational structures that ultimately threaten life and well being .. opening hearts and minds to the deepening capacity to be human .. and helping people discover more consistently rewarding ways of speaking with each other, especially when the waves get rough and the impulse to let go of another's hand becomes overwhelming.
Dominic Barter, leader of Restorative Circles in Brazil, spoke eloquently of Marshall at a special memorial service commemorating Marshall's life. He spoke about Marshall's audacious sense of humour and moving songs .. how they were a means for him to say radical and thought provoking things that no one else would dare to speak. He then spoke of a conversation where he'd once asked Marshall how he did it .. how he was able to accomplish this so skillfully .. Marshall responded, "You stick to the principles and after a while a kind of grace sets in." Indeed it's how Marshall Rosenberg lived .. whether teaching, driving taxis, being a global gypsy, playing guitar, talking to puppets, writing books or penning journal entries that sometimes questioned the merits of what he was so compelled to offer this world .. he was and shall remain a magnificent bolt of lighting, an enduring flame, an abiding generosity .. remembered for his courage, tenacity, beautiful vision, deep coherent thought and enormous bandwidth of love and care for humanity.