Friday, July 8, 2011

Truth, Care, and Words

by Miki Kashtan

The Hebrew Bible tells us that "death and life come through the power of the tongue." My father, who was a (mostly) lay linguist, raised all three of his daughters to be in awe of the power of words to create effects. It’s no wonder that I have dedicated my life to a methodology and a practice that put so much emphasis on choice of words to convey meaning and to create inner and outer transformation.
Ever since I started teaching Nonviolent Communication (NVC) I have been exposed to a dual stream of responses. Most people who come in contact with the training report a growing sense of freedom, finding ways of living more in harmony with how they want to be, more connection in their life, and a host of other benefits.
I also hear from people a deep concern about the sense of a forced way of speaking, and concern about manipulation and inauthenticity. Many people tell me that others don’t seem to be happy when they use NVC in communicating with them.
How to make sense of this apparent contradiction?
Having reflected on this for some years now, I have reached a lot of clarity about what is at play here. I see several issues that intertwine to create this challenge for many people who want to learn NVC.
Practice and Life
I like to look at the particular set of words that are used in NVC settings as an incredibly powerful practice to prepare us for life. Just as much as we are unlikely to meditate in the midst of a conversation unless we both agree that we want to take some time to meditate, I want us to be in the habit of using the NVC phrases when we are in a practice setting, or when another person explicitly agrees to us experimenting with our newly acquired capacities, and for the rest of the time let life happen.
Consciousness and Language
What I am fundamentally aiming for is to live the values that speak to me about the NVC consciousness. The words used in practice are in support of this consciousness, not a substitute for it. I want my words to arise from the truth that lives in me. I aim for more and more fluidity in my holding of NVC consciousness, to stay grounded in principles of NVC and adapt the language to the circumstances.
Full Authenticity
I am aware of a lot of conditioning in the culture to not be authentic about our inner experience. I can totally see that unless we consciously work on this conditioning to be “nice”, we can easily fold the tool of NVC into the conditioning. With enough practice, unfortunately, it’s possible even to use NVC to mask the truth of our experience. A Naturalizing the NVC language comes from aligning ourselves with the truth and expressing from that place. I want to learn more and more how to express myself in ways that are completely authentic and require the least amount of effort for the other person to hear me.
Combining Truth and Care
One of the reasons why the conditioning to be inauthentic is in place is because of the widespread perception that truth and care are incompatible. I challenge that assumption deeply, and have come to believe that any truth can be combined with sufficient care to maintain connection while delivering it. Even a painful truth can be connected. We cannot protect ourselves or each other from pain. We can speak in ways that provide care even during pain. Before speaking I reflect on the truth, I look for and find the care inside, even when that’s an effort. I take an extra breath, if necessary, to ensure that they are united inside me, and I let the words emerge from that.
A Teenager Story – Finding the Truth in the Moment
Parents who attempt to use NVC with their children are especially challenged. For example, someone told me that every time she tries to use NVC with her teenage son he tells her to shut up. She was at a loss about how to communicate with her son. I was not surprised. One of the nice things about teenagers is that they have extremely well-honed bullshit detectors.  What they are detecting is authenticity.  Is it for real? If her son doesn’t want to hear her speech, that means he knows there’s something going on and she is not saying it. That’s when we discovered that she was nervous about using NVC, and never told him. She could immediately see that the nervous would leak. As Marshall Rosenberg, originator of NVC, has said, unacknowledged fear looks like aggression. We can’t use NVC language as a substitute for real connection.
Sadly, often enough we think that there is some kind of big truth that we have to express and if we can’t express it then we don’t know what to do. In my experience, more often than not there is a small truth that we can express. In this example, it’s not the nervousness that disconnects this person from her son. It’s having the nervousness and trying to pretend its not there. The simplicity of telling her son that she is nervous simply didn’t occur to her.
Ah, there is so much more to say about this topic. I feel very passionate about wanting the practice of NVC to nourish life and connection; wanting people who learn NVC to treat each other and everyone else with love instead of correcting each other’s speech; and wanting the consciousness of nonviolence at its purest form to permeate life so we can turn the tide of destruction we have been on for so long.
Because of this passion, I am dedicating six days to working with people who want to strengthen their ability to plant themselves deeply in the consciousness of love, courage, and truth-telling that nonviolence is for me, and to live, communicate, and work toward inner and outer transformation from within that consciousness while making their language use more and more natural and flowing. It’s called In Your Own Words, and it’s on August 5-10. For once, it’s on the East Coast, so all those who live there who don’t want to travel to California can find me closer to home. Maybe I will see you there.


  1. Miki,

    Your post calls to mind a saying attributed to Jesus: "out of the mouth the heart speaks." I resonate deeply with the idea of letting inner transformation guide our speech and our presentation of self; it's the same idea I try to get across in my writing about dialogue.

    I can't believe you'll be conducting this session 25 minutes from my house--and prior commitments will keep me from attending! If you'd like some good old-fashioned Albany hospitality while you're in the area, let me know.

  2. Miki,

    I'm reading this post some time after you've written it. I came to it by because you used the tag "language" to mark it, and I'm always interested in the topic of how colloquial language and NVC as a kind of idiom get together. The post turned out to be just what I had hoped to find.

    I found myself wishing that there was more than one post tagged "language," and that made me think to leave you a comment to tell you as much. I hope you'll write more about the problem of the clumsy giraffe, of stealth compassion, silent NVC, idiomatic empathy and all the ways that a love of language and a passion for connection can be said to inform each other.

    I know you have addressed how NVC finds its way into everyday non-workshop life in passing, and it seems to me you have a lot of wisdom in your heart on this one.

  3. The truth of NVC-wording: It's a big blah blah.

  4. "I also hear from people a deep concern about the sense of a forced way of speaking, and concern about manipulation and inauthenticity. Many people tell me that others don’t seem to be happy when they use NVC in communicating with them.

    How to make sense of this apparent contradiction?"

    Yes, that's the key NVC question, IMO.

    My psycho-linguistics coaching practice is founded on the following idea: Exchange of I-statements of the form "I have 'X emotion' now" (IHXEN, where we limit 'X emotion' to honest selection of a noun phrase) provides us -- in moments when we are feeling a potentially overwhelming challenge in a serious problem-solving conversation -- with the simplest means, accessible to anyone having basic proficiency in English, of experiencing both the relief of verbalizing something and the best each of us can in that challenging moment contribute of our authentic selves without risk of letting out something that might be mistaken as hostility, deception, or lacking in empathy.

    Indeed, relying on this finding, I have proved that I can lead my clients to follow my example of resorting, in just such 'moments of truth', to an IHXEN and that this shift in behaviour facilities a remarkable increase in my clients' capacities for ensuring that their problem-solving observations and self-revelations are extraordinarily accurate (which, by contrast with the word 'precise', I take to mean, more 'empathicly on target or relevant'). These increases in capacity lead to astonishingly positive results in the solution of intractable issues in a wide variety of subject areas in which I myself may have no technical expertise although my clients will have some. A narrative of one example of this happening, one accompanied by a lengthy testimonial and an accounting of its results, is available at this URL:

    I therefore believe that we can go beyond OFNR to add recognizable authenticity to our skills, experience and commitment to nvc principles by becoming proficient in IHXENs, and invite anyone to explore this with me over Skype at (416) 406-0082.