peaceful communication – problems and solutions

people talking peace

in the last few months, i have had much occasion to think about the concept of nonviolent or peaceful communication.

there is the general idea of nonviolent communication, and then there is nonviolent communication as it has been much talked about lately, created by marshal rosenberg. in his definition, NVC is

a way of relating to ourselves and others, moment to moment, free of past reactions. by learning to identify your needs and express them powerfully, as well as to bring understanding to the needs of others, you can stay connected to what is alive in you and create a life that it is more fulfilling.

while the concept of nonviolent communication is well developed, i like the idea of “peaceful communication” better. the UK peace party describes it like this:

peaceful communication is positive, co-operative, constructive, life-enhancing and creative.

i also asked some of my twitter friends about their definition of peaceful communication. they said this:

  • LISTENING before speaking
  • calm quiet clear authentic
  • civilized and professional
  • label-less, acknowledges a higher purpose for finding a common place to start. open to greyness, not B&W, yes/no.

one of them pointed to suzette hadin elgin who uses these words: “establish and maintain a language environment in which hostile language is very rare … deal with hostile language effectively and efficiently when it truly cannot be avoided.”

the idea of dialogue is important here, too. there is a good overview of the art of dialogue here which was given to me at a workshop by the e-net people. one of the principles is that each participant has rights and responsibilities, and needs skills. for example

each person has the right to express his or her beliefs, ideas and feelings

each person must allow others the same right of self-expression that s/he expects for him/herself.

each person should learn how to temporarily set aside his/her own views and feelings in order to be more sensitive to what the other is saying.

finally, the principles of right speech and appreciative communication are interesting, too – i’ve blogged about them before, and they are part of my commenting guidelines.

so this sets the stage a bit.

what i want to share with you today is a very interesting conversation i had last week with a friend, who is currently advocating for her differently abled son, and the going is a bit rough right now.

let’s stop right here.

“differently abled son”.

our tongues still trip over that one, don’t they? it used to be “disabled”, before that “handicapped”, before that words like “idiot” or “moronic”.

“differently abled”, we might say, is politically correct, and that, well, sounds good but it just doesn’t sit right.

so there seems to be an inverse relationship between ease of use of language and how peaceful it is. the language of peaceful/appreciative communication feels a bit odd, a bit uncomfortable. is it because we’re not used to it?

using language that feels uncomfortable takes effort; hearing language with which the speaker is not entirely comfortable is a challenge, too, and may create tension.

the obvious solution to this dilemma is to use “peace talk” more often: practice, practice, practice. however, most of us don’t do that. when things go well, why bother using this language that feels so clumsy and weird? it’s like in a marriage – if everything goes well, we get lazy, and so spouses don’t do things like buying flowers or going out on a date “just because”.

because of this the next thing happens: the tool of peaceful language is hauled out only when the going gets rough, when conflict sparks all over the place. so then peaceful language is once more associated with conflict and discomfort. to use the marriage metaphor again – it’s a bit like the wife who knows something’s wrong when the husband shows up with a bunch of roses.

another thing that happens in “peace talk” is that we speak more deliberately, more slowly, and there are more hesitations and pauses. the person who hears this, who may already not feel that positive towards the speaker to begin with (remember, the language is typically used in conflict situations) may misinterpret these pauses. is the speaker pausing because she has something to hide? we associate honesty with spontaneity. is the speaker looking for the best lie?

just as we are uncomfortable with peaceful language, we are uncomfortable with the moments of silence that come with reflection. a dissection of an obama interview illustrates that.

to top it all off, we may have learned the rudiments of peaceful communication but – probably because of the discomfort and conflict associated with it – i’ve never seen anyone teach the body language of peaceful communication.

words don’t comprise nearly as much “bulk” to our commincation as we think. mehrabian is frequently cited as stating that they only make up 7% of our communication. he tends to be misquoted but what seems to be true is that words make up less than half of our communication. the rest is nonverbal: tone of voice, body language, how we use personal space, etc.

if we only learn about peaceful communication with words, we miss out on a hugely important part.

none of this deters me from striving to become ever more peaceful in my communications. but i, and we all, need to keep learning.

we could ask questions like

  1. what are non-conflict situations in which i can practice peace talk?
  2. who could give me feedback on how my nonverbal communication supports my verbal peace talk?
  3. how can i use pauses and silence in ways that don’t leave my conversation partner and myself uncomfortable?
  4. how do i personally define peaceful communication?

image by ervega

(this post appeared in phylameana’s carnival of healing)


  1. Very interesting and well put together.

    I’m a big fan of Rosenberg’s approach as it’s simple (though difficult to put in practice). I’ve been working in the area of peaceful communication for some years. I’ve come to the conclusion that how we listen to people is more important than how we express ourselves.

    Listening for what sits under the words of others (and not the words themsleves) takes me into authentic connection no matter what I hear.

    Getting our expression to be peaceful is an important first step, but if everyone can listen peacefully then it doesn’t matter what people say.

    Ian | Quantum Learning’s last blog post..How are you?

  2. Want to take a crack at translating the following into Peace-Talk terms?

    198 Methods of Nonviolent Action.

    Practitioners of nonviolent struggle have an entire arsenal of “nonviolent weapons” at their disposal. Listed below are 198 of them, classified into three broad categories: nonviolent protest and persuasion, noncooperation (social, economic, and political), and nonviolent intervention. A description and historical examples of each can be found in volume two of “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” by Gene Sharp.

    The Methods of Nonviolent Protest and Persuasion

    Formal Statements
    1. Public Speeches
    2. Letters of opposition or support
    3. Declarations by organizations and institutions
    4. Signed public statements
    5. Declarations of indictment and intention
    6. Group or mass petitions

    Communications with a Wider Audience
    7. Slogans, caricatures, and symbols
    8. Banners, posters, and displayed communications
    9. Leaflets, pamphlets, and books
    10. Newspapers and journals
    11. Records, radio, and television
    12. Skywriting and earthwriting

    Group Representations
    13. Deputations
    14. Mock awards
    15. Group lobbying
    16. Picketing
    17. Mock elections

    Symbolic Public Acts
    18. Displays of flags and symbolic colors
    19. Wearing of symbols
    20. Prayer and worship
    21. Delivering symbolic objects
    22. Protest disrobings
    23. Destruction of own property
    24. Symbolic lights
    25. Displays of portraits
    26. Paint as protest
    27. New signs and names
    28. Symbolic sounds
    29. Symbolic reclamations
    30. Rude gestures

    Pressures on Individuals
    31. “Haunting” officials
    32. Taunting officials
    33. Fraternization
    34. Vigils

    Drama and Music
    35. Humorous skits and pranks
    36. Performances of plays and music
    37. Singing

    38. Marches
    39. Parades
    40. Religious processions
    41. Pilgrimages
    42. Motorcades

    Honoring the Dead
    43. Political mourning
    44. Mock funerals
    45. Demonstrative funerals
    46. Homage at burial places

    Public Assemblies
    47. Assemblies of protest or support
    48. Protest meetings
    49. Camouflaged meetings of protest
    50. Teach-ins

    Withdrawal and Renunciation
    51. Walk-outs
    52. Silence
    53. Renouncing honors
    54. Turning one’s back
    The Methods of Social Noncooperation

    Ostracism of Persons
    55. Social boycott
    56. Selective social boycott
    57. Lysistratic nonaction
    58. Excommunication
    59. Interdict

    Noncooperation with Social Events, Customs, and Institutions
    60. Suspension of social and sports activities
    61. Boycott of social affairs
    62. Student strike
    63. Social disobedience
    64. Withdrawal from social institutions

    Withdrawal from the Social System
    65. Stay-at-home
    66. Total personal noncooperation
    67. “Flight” of workers
    68. Sanctuary
    69. Collective disappearance
    70. Protest emigration (hijrat)
    The Methods of Economic Noncooperation: Economic Boycotts

    Actions by Consumers
    71. Consumers’ boycott
    72. Nonconsumption of boycotted goods
    73. Policy of austerity
    74. Rent withholding
    75. Refusal to rent
    76. National consumers’ boycott
    77. International consumers’ boycott

    Action by Workers and Producers
    78. Workmen’s boycott
    79. Producers’ boycott

    Action by Middlemen
    80. Suppliers’ and handlers’ boycott

    Action by Owners and Management
    81. Traders’ boycott
    82. Refusal to let or sell property
    83. Lockout
    84. Refusal of industrial assistance
    85. Merchants’ “general strike”

    Action by Holders of Financial Resources
    86. Withdrawal of bank deposits
    87. Refusal to pay fees, dues, and assessments
    88. Refusal to pay debts or interest
    89. Severance of funds and credit
    90. Revenue refusal
    91. Refusal of a government’s money

    Action by Governments
    92. Domestic embargo
    93. Blacklisting of traders
    94. International sellers’ embargo
    95. International buyers’ embargo
    96. International trade embargo
    The Methods of Economic Noncooperation: The Strike

    Symbolic Strikes
    97. Protest strike
    98. Quickie walkout (lightning strike)

    Agricultural Strikes
    99. Peasant strike
    100. Farm Workers’ strike

    Strikes by Special Groups
    101. Refusal of impressed labor
    102. Prisoners’ strike
    103. Craft strike
    104. Professional strike

    Ordinary Industrial Strikes
    105. Establishment strike
    106. Industry strike
    107. Sympathetic strike

    Restricted Strikes
    108. Detailed strike
    109. Bumper strike
    110. Slowdown strike
    111. Working-to-rule strike
    112. Reporting “sick” (sick-in)
    113. Strike by resignation
    114. Limited strike
    115. Selective strike

    Multi-Industry Strikes
    116. Generalized strike
    117. General strike

    Combination of Strikes and Economic Closures
    118. Hartal
    119. Economic shutdown
    The Methods of Political Noncooperation

    Rejection of Authority
    120. Withholding or withdrawal of allegiance
    121. Refusal of public support
    122. Literature and speeches advocating resistance

    Citizens’ Noncooperation with Government
    123. Boycott of legislative bodies
    124. Boycott of elections
    125. Boycott of government employment and positions
    126. Boycott of government departments, agencies, and other bodies
    127. Withdrawal from government educational institutions
    128. Boycott of government-supported organizations
    129. Refusal of assistance to enforcement agents
    130. Removal of own signs and placemarks
    131. Refusal to accept appointed officials
    132. Refusal to dissolve existing institutions

    Citizens’ Alternatives to Obedience
    133. Reluctant and slow compliance
    134. Nonobedience in absence of direct supervision
    135. Popular nonobedience
    136. Disguised disobedience
    137. Refusal of an assemblage or meeting to disperse
    138. Sitdown
    139. Noncooperation with conscription and deportation
    140. Hiding, escape, and false identities
    141. Civil disobedience of “illegitimate” laws

    Action by Government Personnel
    142. Selective refusal of assistance by government aides
    143. Blocking of lines of command and information
    144. Stalling and obstruction
    145. General administrative noncooperation
    146. Judicial noncooperation
    147. Deliberate inefficiency and selective noncooperation by
    enforcement agents
    148. Mutiny

    Domestic Governmental Action
    149. Quasi-legal evasions and delays
    150. Noncooperation by constituent governmental units

    International Governmental Action
    151. Changes in diplomatic and other representations
    152. Delay and cancellation of diplomatic events
    153. Withholding of diplomatic recognition
    154. Severance of diplomatic relations
    155. Withdrawal from international organizations
    156. Refusal of membership in international bodies
    157. Expulsion from international organizations
    The Methods of Nonviolent Intervention

    Psychological Intervention
    158. Self-exposure to the elements
    159. The fast
    a) Fast of moral pressure
    b) Hunger strike
    c) Satyagrahic fast
    160. Reverse trial
    161. Nonviolent harassment

    Physical Intervention
    162. Sit-in
    163. Stand-in
    164. Ride-in
    165. Wade-in
    166. Mill-in
    167. Pray-in
    168. Nonviolent raids
    169. Nonviolent air raids
    170. Nonviolent invasion
    171. Nonviolent interjection
    172. Nonviolent obstruction
    173. Nonviolent occupation

    Social Intervention
    174. Establishing new social patterns
    175. Overloading of facilities
    176. Stall-in
    177. Speak-in
    178. Guerrilla theater
    179. Alternative social institutions
    180. Alternative communication system

    Economic Intervention
    181. Reverse strike
    182. Stay-in strike
    183. Nonviolent land seizure
    184. Defiance of blockades
    185. Politically motivated counterfeiting
    186. Preclusive purchasing
    187. Seizure of assets
    188. Dumping
    189. Selective patronage
    190. Alternative markets
    191. Alternative transportation systems
    192. Alternative economic institutions

    Political Intervention
    193. Overloading of administrative systems
    194. Disclosing identities of secret agents
    195. Seeking imprisonment
    196. Civil disobedience of “neutral” laws
    197. Work-on without collaboration
    198. Dual sovereignty and parallel government

    Source: Sharp, Gene. The Politics of Nonviolent Action (3 Vols.), Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973. Provided courtesy of the Albert Einstein Institution.

    Alexander M Zoltai’s last blog post..We Really Are One Big Family

  3. Great article Isabella. I like the idea of bouncing ideas off a “peace” friend you can trust. For example, I have a co-worker who I seem to rub the wrong way. She has complained to the admin about me and it just floored me. I have another co-worker who really respects me and we get along great. I feel I can trust her advice. Before saying something important to the negative one I always “bounce it off” the other. That way she can tell me what to leave out, what to add, or if the communication is even really necessary. Great topic.

    Damien’s last blog post..Dual-Diagnosis in Mental Illness: an important distinction

  4. Hi, isabella – Dialogue and communication are big issues for me in my work life, and I agree that the language of any talk that really connects people can seem awkward at first. There are some techniques that have so many rules for creating a “safe” space that the whole thing feels artificial – and people don’t really get through to each other. One of my favorite books on this is Daniel Yankelovich’s The Magic of Dialogue. He puts the needed skills into a practical context for an audience that is often intolerant of many forms of structured discussion.

    I’ve started a new blog on public policy collaboration that goes into these issues in different ways than Storied Mind – but the basics hold true in both contexts.

    Thanks for another stimulating post.


    John Folk-Williams’s last blog post..Writing, Creativity and Healing

  5. @ian thank you for what you said about listening. so simple. so true. i am amazed at how after all these years of working in this profession, i can never hear and learn enough about listening.

    @alexander – wow, that’s quite the list. first i thought, why would you suggest a translation but then when i looked closer, i think i know what you mean. it is still using a language of war, no? i think this is material for another blog post …

    @damien thanks for your input! yes, i find that useful, too. talking to a friend who will not collude in any negative things that in a first impulse i may want to do or say. it sounds like it really works for you.

    @john that book looks really interesting. i just ordered it from my library.

    what’s your new site?

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