A program about feelings and needs isn’t what you’d expect in a prison for hardened criminals, but one has made all the difference in the lives of countless men. Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a yearlong class offered in San Quentin for about 16 years, helps people develop a personal awareness that can enrich their lives through effective communication.
Prison is one of the most difficult environments in which people must interact.
Prisoners adjust to an array of housing arrangements: cells smaller than a dog kennel and dorms that resemble flea markets. In these living accommodations, inmates have to co-exist with cellmates, or bunk buddies, who sometimes have complex personalities and mental health issues.
“This program has given me a voice. I didn’t know how to communicate because I couldn’t explain what I really needed,” said Jesus Perez, a student facilitator. “I really like learning to identify the needs behind a person’s request because sometimes emotional outbursts can seem overwhelming, but they hide a need.”
NVC teaches participants to recognize their emotions and to take personal accountability for them; participants learn that no one else can make them feel anything. The program also helps students to build and repair relationships by helping them understand the personal needs that motivate themselves and others. Through the program, students deepen their own understanding of how their personal backgrounds have contributed to their reactions and responses in life — and what the impact of those actions has been on others.
“NVC changed me. It has helped me deal with a lot of issues, especially my anger,” said Faheem, another inmate student facilitator. “I am not the same man I was a few years ago.”
Most people, according to the class philosophy, struggle to identify and understand the basic human needs that, if unmet, can fuel negative behavior and misunderstandings. Needs can be both emotional and physical; for instance, a kid in poverty who goes to school hungry is less likely to be able to concentrate in class and may be prone to bursts of irritability. Those feelings are symptoms of the need for sustenance.
The class teaches its students how to identify their emotions and the underlying needs behind them so that they can express themselves in a way that is both constructive and doable.
During group sessions, NVC participants are exposed to dramatizations of real-life scenarios that show how understanding a person’s heightened emotions can facilitate communication that enriches both parties.
Sharran Zeleke, the group coordinator for Nonviolent Communication, encourages her class to participate in “dyads,” in which students pair up to discuss a personal matter for a few minutes, to build connection and community.
The exercises prepare the participants when confronted daily with the uncertainties of life. Participants are taught three options for connection and response:
Participants can practice self-connection, which is grounding themselves in their needs and understanding their feelings.
Participants can express themselves considering the other person’s feelings or needs.
Participants can show empathy, validating their own and the other person’s needs.
The class challenges participants to come out of their comfort zone, ask questions that can clarify misunderstandings, and ultimately reach a point of empathy, which is the ideal way to find connection with oneself and others.
“It’s impossible to do a ‘don’t,’” said Sheila Menezes, who has sponsored the program for three years and has been living out the principles of nonviolent communication for eight. “‘Don’t be inconsiderate’ is impossible. Because you’re not telling me what being considerate means specifically to you.”
Participants learn to identify their own needs in order to communicate them effectively.
“I didn’t realize that people can’t give me what I don’t clearly ask for,” Perez said.
Students also develop critical thinking skills, like distinguishing between what is really happening and what they are telling themselves is happening.
“This program really helps you stop and think about what’s behind the other person’s words instead of getting caught up in your own thoughts,” said Timothy Holmes, a first-term life prisoner and NVC participant.
But for some men, exploring the dynamics of human connection through emotional intelligence can be an uncomfortable experience.
Earlier this year there was a class discussion around the need to extend the class from 4:30 to 5 p.m. It turned into a heated debate because some men were under the impression that it was another government attempt at control. Instead it was just a program need, so that participants would accumulate the necessary hours of rehabilitative-achievement credits to benefit from a two-week sentence reduction under Proposition 57.
“Our past has a way of distorting reality for us,” Sheila said. “We all have a personal point of reference through which we see the world. Sometimes that view hinders us from growing and connecting with the humanity of others because we hold on to the past and our pain.”
Carlos Moreno, a student in the program, said that prison forces you to shut down your emotions to survive. Feelings are seen as a sign of weakness.
“But now I understand the importance of allowing myself to feel,” he said. “It’s what makes me human.”