Saturday, March 13, 2010

What Is “Nonviolent” about Nonviolent Communication?

One of the most frequent questions I hear when I talk about Nonviolent Communication is “Why Nonviolent?” People feel uneasy. They hear the word nonviolent as a combination of two words, as a negation of violence. They don’t think of themselves as violent, and find it hard to embrace the name.

For some time I felt similarly. I was happier when I heard people talk about Compassionate Communication instead of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), because it felt more positive. After all, isn’t the practice of about focusing on what we want, where we are going, instead of looking at what’s not working? Why would the name be any different?

Like others, I was unaware of the long-standing tradition of nonviolence to which Nonviolent Communication (NVC) traces its origins. Then I learned more about Gandhi. I became more acquainted with the story of the Civil Rights movement. Then I fell in love with the name Marshall Rosenberg gave to this practice, and more so over the years. Here’s why.

Nonviolence as Love
The word nonviolence is the closest literal translation that Gandhi found to the Sanskrit word ahimsa. Although in English this word appears as a negation, in Sanskrit naming a concept or quality through negation instead of directly is sometimes a way of suggesting it is too great to be named. Indeed, avera, the word for love in Sanskrit, literally translates into “non-hatred.”

Hinduism is not the only tradition that honors the unnamable. As a friend pointed out to me when talking about this, Judaism has a similar practice. The name of God is unsayable in Hebrew, being letters without vowels, without instructions for how to read them. Some things are beyond words. And nonviolence is one of them.

Gandhi said: “ahimsa … is more than just the absence of violence; it is intense love.” (Gandhi the Man p. 53)

What is this kind of love? It appears to me that Jesus and Gandhi and those of us following their tradition through the practice of NVC think of love as the full radical acceptance of the humanity of every person, regardless of how unhappy we are with the results of their actions. This love is a commitment to act in ways that uphold that humanity; to care for the wellbeing of the other person even when we are in opposing positions; even when all that we value is at stake.

For the past 15 years I have been dedicating my life to this quest. I want to keep learning and exploring what nonviolence means. I want to live this intense love; model it as best I know how, and more; expose and seek support for the places where I falter; and support others who want the same, who want to grow their capacity to love everyone, including themselves. This blog is, at heart, an attempt to do just that.


  1. Beautifully said, Miki. Behaving in a nonviolent way is an investment in breaking down the barriers between people and getting to the connections that exist. Peacebuilding is a technology, a science, and a myriad of practical approaches to the conflicts that will always exist in the world. NVC is one of the most practical approaches I've ever been made aware of -- imminently accessible and completely practical. This kind of tool is integrally a part of the work that The Peace Alliance engages in, to make peacebuilding a policy priority and bring it to the center of our national discourse. I've long been grateful for your expertise and willingness to share.

  2. Thank you for posting this. I have been struggling with this idea of negation as opposed to a positive. After all, when someone tells you not to picture a pink elephant, what is the first thing you do? But translation being what it is, this makes perfect sense, and I think it will really help me as I begin teaching yoga and try to convey these sanskrit concepts to others. Thank you!

  3. I LOVE THIS! this makes sense to me and will certainly help share why I am so passionate about NVC. Full radical acceptance of the humanity every person in spite of their actions squeezes me closer and closer to self connection, self empathy, empathy guess of other, and expression with care. It makes it truly a spiritual practice. The Maui NVC community is blessed to take this work of NVC deep within alongside the essence of Aloha and these enchanting islands. I have genuine gratitude for your quest, your transparency , your actions, and mostly for your heart. It touches mine dearly. warm aloha

  4. Great! I know the word, nonviolent's meaning more clearly. it's full radical acceptance of humanity and therefore intense love. Thank you for this post.