Violence is a tragic expression of unmet needs. Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a program which helps us look beyond violent actions in the world to address the root causes of the violence.
The founder of NVC refers to violence as the “tragic expression of unmet needs,” whether in the form of physical violence, substance abuse, domestic violence, or emotional abuse. Needs refer to what we all need for life–air, food, water, sleep, and also to our deepest values such as love, consideration, or to matter. If, for example, we believe that others do not care about us, we may turn to drugs, alcohol or violence to deal with our unmet need to matter. NVC gives us tools for working with life’s difficulties and what they bring up in us in ways that we do not end up regretting.
NVC concepts can be challenging to convey inside prison. At some point in the students’ first exposure to NVC, someone in the class will say, “We can’t talk like that here.” The “like that” being referred to is telling someone what is going on for them, using feelings and needs words and checking in with others about their feelings and needs. And yet these two components of the NVC model are very powerful gateways to recovering a nonviolent connection with ourselves and others.
As students continue to take the NVC classes, we see a deepening of their understanding of the model, increased ability to express feelings and needs, and changes in the way they engage with difficult circumstances and other people. Below are changes some of the students have experienced after taking NVC.
Prior to attending a class in NVC, the only tools for handling domestic disputes between my girlfriend and me came from my experience at home. When my parents had problems, they yelled, threw things and fought a lot. NVC has helped me see the destructive results of yelling and fighting when faced with a problem. I began to see that in relationships with women I was not respectful. My language toward them was attacking. My demeanor was violent when things did not go my way – never accepting responsibility for my actions, always blaming my girlfriend. I didn’t know how to communicate in the relationship because I didn’t consider my girlfriend’s needs to be as important as mine. No one likes to be talked to like a dog. NVC has given me tools to understand and acknowledge my needs, free myself from destructive cultural conditioning and break patterns of thinking that lead to arguments and anger. I know now that it is necessary to consider the needs of my partner, and NVC has given me tools to know how to do this. — Bobby Evans, Jr.
EMPATHY FOR ONESELF
Through taking NVC classes, I have learned how to have empathy for myself. I used to believe that everything I needed came from outside me, from someone other than myself. Once I starting taking care of myself and checking in with my feelings, needs, desires and wants, my need to be fulfilled by another diminished. This is my 16th year in prison. Finally I feel nearly fully healed and self-fulfilled. — Curtis Roberts
This class is making a difference. This week I remembered to use my tools, both my NVC tools and my spiritual tools. I work in P.I.A., and at the end of one day two tools were missing, a razor blade and a drill bit. The guards had all the guys who work in the shop standing in the yard a long time while they searched for the missing tools. In the past, I would have been really angry about that, but this time I thought to myself, “Remember to use your tools.” My NVC tool was to ask myself, “What do I need here?” I saw that what I needed was for them to find the missing tools. Then I used my spiritual tool to practice patience. I was much calmer than usual for a situation like this. I felt good about myself for remembering I can choose how to respond to what happens instead of just reacting. —Jon Cope
I started NVC Basics because it was recommended to me by one of my friends. I almost left after the third class when the giraffe and jackal puppets were introduced. My friend urged me to stick with it. I did and I was one of those guys who checked in with “I’m cool,” “Everything is okay.” I got away with it for half the semester until the teacher said, “You are not telling me anything. How does cool feel?” Then I was introduced to the empathy map, where I traveled the map on the floor as I told my story: from blame, self-criticism, deserve language, judgment to ending up (with the help of the instructors) in observation, feelings (what I was feeling and guessing what the other person might have been feeling), needs, and even eventually ending up with understanding, empathy and accountability for my thoughts, feelings and actions. I learned my boundaries were not universal, and when people acted in a way that I did not enjoy, it was not to annoy me or anger me; it was because they were meeting needs of their own.
What has NVC done for me? It has given me tools to accept myself, love myself, forgive myself, understand myself, connect with myself, communication with myself, to be aware of myself and to accept, love, forgive, understand, connect, communicate and be aware of others. —Henry Edward Frank
HOW TO GET STARTED
NVC Basics 1, Basics 2 and Next Step classes are taught on the Hill on Wednesdays, from 3-5pm in the Education Building. Sign-up sheets are posted in the Education Building and in North Block two weeks before a new series begins. The next series will start just after New Year’s.
NVC Basics and Next Step classes are taught in H-unit on Wednesday evenings, from 6:30–8:25p.m. Students can get information about and sign-up for classes in dorms 4 and 5 through Stand Up inmate program advocates. Students can also come to the registration evening the week before classes start and talk to NVC teacher(s). The next series will start just after New Year’s.
—Sharran Zeleke and John Porter are volunteers who teach non-violence classes at San Quentin.