How often do you find yourself judging others? Blaming others? Criticizing yourself? Name-calling? Or getting defensive when judging what’s right or wrong?

These are all signs that you may not be communicating as effectively as you could be. The art of nonviolent communication offers us a better way. It’s a means of communicating based on compassionate connection and a different way of looking at the world.

For today’s episode, we’re talking about Nonviolent Communication, an international bestseller which has been translated into over 30 languages.

The author of the book, Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, sadly passed away a few years ago, so our conversation today is with Thom Bond, founder of the New York Center for Nonviolent Communication.

Listen in to Thom to learn:

  • How to connect with others on a more human level
  • What to do when faced with conflict in your personal and professional relationships
  • Why our worldview may be increasing the amount of conflict in our lives

What sort of impact did Nonviolent Communication have on you when you first read it?

When I was 12 years old, I remember picking up Life Magazine. In that issue, there were photographs of what was known as the My Lai massacre. It was the first time in my life that I had seen the reality of war to that extent, what people were actually out there doing to one another. It was really a life changer for me. I was in shock that this was really happening and that people could do this to one another.

A US soldier stands next to the aftermath of the My Lai Massacre.

I thought, “This is crazy!” because this is not a necessity. This isn’t something that has to happen. There’s got to be another way for us to be living out our lives so this doesn’t happen.

I remember talking about those photographs with grown-ups and they all responded similarly, “No. No. This is what we do here. This is a part of life.”

That was a real moment for me because I really departed from that mentality. I refused to agree with that.

So here I was at 12 years old, not really understanding why humans did this to each other. Then, 30 years later, I read Nonviolent Communication, and I was like, “Whoa! There it is.”

Inside this book is an incredibly simple idea, but I really do consider it probably the greatest discovery of the 20th century. It’s an idea that Marshall Rosenberg came up with.

“Everybody is doing the best they can to get through life and to meet their needs. While we all share feelings and needs, we often (or we can) cause harm to others in the pursuit of those needs.”

What Marshall figured out is that we can pay attention to our needs in such a way that we’re able to reorganize and meet our needs without causing harm.

We have a natural tendency to make enemies out of the people who are causing us harm, and we break off communication when that happens.

When I read that basic idea I was like, “Whoa! This is it.” Marshall figured out a way to look at somebody, or a group of people that have done things that are absolutely horrible, with a sense of connection and compassion.

Not that it’s easy to do this, but he figured out a way for us to really focus our attention so that we’re more likely to be able to come up with solutions and less likely to see each other as enemies.

That was huge for me. I was like, “This is it. Thank you. I’ve been looking for this for so long.”

“In other words, here are a set of concepts, ideas, and practices that we can use to change how we go about being humans when we’re facing conflict to avoid violence. Here is a set of guiding principles that can make war obsolete.”

Did you ever get to meet Dr. Rosenberg?

After reading the book, I became very involved in learning all I could about Dr. Rosenberg’s work. Back in 2001 or 2002 there were maybe a handful of people in New York City that knew about it. It was mainly a West Coast phenomenon at that point.

But I made a great effort to learn all I could about Marshall’s work; in fact, a few months after I had read the book I found myself in a car next to him after picking him up at the airport.

I got in contact with Marshall through some folks in California and we got together when he ended up coming to New York. It was a pretty odd experience to read his book and next thing I know I’m picking him up from the airport.

We were fast friends as they say.

Before we left the airport I already had this amazing sense of friendship. We both have an odd sense of humor and we just hit it off.

How did your life change after you read Nonviolent Communication?

It would almost be easier to talk about the parts that didn’t change.

The first phase for me was a shift in how I viewed my needs.

A lot of us, myself included, do things because we think we should. We do this or that because it’s the right thing to do, we think it’s good and just and the right thing to do, so we do it.

But Marshall offered a slightly different perspective.

First, we should start looking at what it is that we desire. What are our needs? All humans share some pretty basic needs. Things like love, creativity, air, and water.

Next, we need to determine what it is that we value in life and what needs of ours are being met versus what needs aren’t being met fully.

“So, instead of doing something purely because we thing we should do it, or because it’s the “right” thing to do based on what society tells us we should be doing, we can start acting based on what we want our lives to look like and what we want the world to look like.”

We can then start asking ourselves, “What is it that I want to have to happen in my life and in the world? Do I want more creativity? Do I want more self-care? Do I want more consideration? Do I want to give more? Get more?”

Two hands meet to form the shape of a heart.

Marshall gave us this new framework to start looking at how we go about living life, and that’s what I did. I started looking at not what I should or shouldn’t do because those are inherited ideas that have nothing to do with me, or very little, potentially, and in fact could be harmful to me.

So much of the conflict that we experience comes from those very ideas of should and shouldn’t.

One particular area that I started to focus on was self-care. I thought, “Well, I think I might want to take better care of myself.” That became probably the first major campaign in my life that came about because of this shift in perspective.

What does better self-care look like to you?

Funny you should ask. I love how this world works.

I remember sitting there on my couch in my apartment in New York thinking, “I just don’t feel that great right now. I would just love some nurturing. It’s just been so long.” I wasn’t in a relationship at the time and I didn’t live with my parents anymore.

So I started thinking about what nurturing even looks like. What does self-care look like?

In my case, I looked around my apartment and noticed that it didn’t really look like my apartment. It didn’t feel like home to me. So, I redecorated. It looked like Thom getting a new apartment. At that moment, that simple act was what better self-care looked like to me.

The interior of an apartment.

How do we make war obsolete?

First, we have to ask, “What is it that we’re trying to accomplish with war?”

We’re all trying to meet our needs and that is the imperative of life. So, if we try to stop a group of people from meeting their needs, that’s going to create conflict and often violence.

“War isn’t caused by evil or religious fanaticism. War isn’t caused by sexism or racism. War is a by-product of two groups of people each trying to meet their own needs. But the truth is that we’re all human beings, all of us are trying to accomplish the same thing.”

If we can see each other as human beings then we might just be able to pause and say, “Okay. Well, maybe we don’t have to kill each actually. Maybe we can figure out what each of our needs are that we’re trying to meet by killing each other and think of a different way to meet those needs.”

I know that sounds crazy simple, and I can tell you that it is, but it’s also crazy difficult.

The second thing we have to do is recognize that there are no evil people in the world. There are only people and some of those people are in pain.

What Marshall did is he gave us a choice.

“I can choose to see you as somebody in pain who’s acting in ways that aren’t meeting your needs, or I can choose to see you as an evil person. I can choose to see you as a fanatic. I can choose to see you as somebody who’s out to get me, an enemy.”

That’s how we start the process of eliminating war, with this different way of thinking.

What can someone do this week to start shifting their mindset around conflict?

The first step is to read Marshall’s book. Go get a copy and read the book. You can do that right now.

But even if that’s too much, let’s just try a quick practice. There’s an online exercise that anybody can do. It can be found at TheExercise.org, and it will give you an experience of what’s at the core of Marshall’s book

That main message is that we get to choose what we focus our minds on. That’s the first thing to understand. If we realize that focusing on one thing produces a different effect than focusing on another thing we start to realize, “Wow! I’m empowered. I’m not given my thoughts. I can choose them!”

What can we do to avoid bringing conflict into our daily lives?

It’s all about having a greater awareness of what our needs are. Essentially, it’s about figuring out what’s driving our actions. We make a lot of decisions unconsciously, but if we bring a level of awareness surrounding our needs, we start to understand why we make certain decisions.

Get your needs glasses on, right? Once you can see why you’re making the decisions you’re making and feeling the emotions you’re feeling, in other words, once you have self-empathy we can start making that connection between the fact that I’m angry or I have a judgment, and what need I’m not meeting.

We can then ask ourselves, “What is it that I’m loving that has me so pissed off right now? What do I love? What is so important to me? What do I want so dearly in my life and on this planet that I feel this pissed off?”

“If I’m angry at somebody, I know I have an unmet need. I just have to figure out what it is so that I can address it in a different way than being angry at somebody.”

How has this book helped others transform their lives?

On example that pops right into my head is about a couple who were getting divorced. They had three children, and when I met them they were in intense conflict. The father had no visitation rights with the children and the mother was suffering financially. As far as they were concerned, they were ruining each other’s lives and couldn’t even look at each other.

A couple fighting.

When we met, I simply brought their focus right to Marshall’s work and asked them, “Is it that you both need safety?” “Yes.” “Is it that you both need security?” “Yes.” “Is it that you both need connection?” “Yes.”

We were able to identify the needs that were important to each individual. We identified which needs were causing so much upset and conflict.

Of course, no one complains about connection, love, or security, so once that happened, once they were able to name each other’s needs, they were able to come up with a plan so that they could both have their children in their lives and their sense of security back.

They figured out how to remove conflict from their relationship once they saw each other as humans with needs just like you, just like me, just like one another. To this day, there’s a family that’s way more functional than it would have been otherwise, and there’s a father who knows his children, who might not if it weren’t for this.

So to me, that was huge.

What would happen if journalists brought this way of thinking it to their work?

It’s only a matter of time.

Marshall’s work continues to grow and impact more and more people. It’s simply a matter of time before the president of the United States has been raised by parents who practice his work.

If journalists start approaching their work with this view then it’s going to change what we talk about and what we’re interested in. It would change the way we look at the world for the better.

Can you tell us the story behind the book? Why did Marshall Rosenberg write Nonviolent communication?

Marshall Rosenberg was raised in Detroit; he was a tough guy. He would get into fights. He was a hockey player, but he’s also a really bright, bright guy. He ended up going to college and becoming a therapist, a psychoanalyst actually.

After so many years of psychotherapy, he started hating the job because he didn’t really feel like he was accomplishing anything. Eventually, he was drawn to his life work, which was figuring out what brought people together.

What are the things that bring us together and what are the things that drive us apart?

That was the start of a journey that would eventually lead him to his ideas on the link between human needs and conflict. The result, of course, was Nonviolent Communication, which is now in its third edition and has sold millions of copies all over the world.