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)

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