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Healing the self and the world through empathy

Non-violent communication, which is increasingly finding takers in India and around the world, offers a balm for our troubled and tumultuous lives


When we transform shame to vulnerability, it will lead to the birth of empathy," Liv Larsson said on the first day of the six-day workshop on non-violent communication and mediation training she was conducting in Pune earlier this year.

In my workshop notebook, I have made a box around this sentence to make it stand out from the rest of my notes. It seemed like I had found the key to a door that had been locked for a while.

“We are born with a vulnerability that is a gift," Larsson continued. “The seed of empathy is in all of us as infants. When we are put down or judged for expressing our needs, shame and guilt take root. Our culture shames us for being vulnerable. We feel diminished.

“Is shame good or bad?" she asked rhetorically. “It is both. Shame can really stay in one’s system if one doesn’t deal with it. It is a place that stores a lot of energy and keeps our life force back. Once we have dealt with past shame, we can move on".

Non-violent communication (NVC) was first developed by the American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s as a process to resolve conflicts within oneself and mediate among people and groups in conflict. In an online video, Rosenberg shares that he was looking to find the answer to the growing malaise of cruelty and hatred among people. “Some people enjoy the suffering of other people…they find it heroic to punish people that they judge as bad."

He observed that there is quite a different language and consciousness in the people who behave in a violent way as opposed to the compassionate way. He developed NVC as a guide to reframe how we express ourselves, how we hear others and focus our consciousness on what we are feeling, needing and requesting.

“How do I step up for my own needs and also step up for yours?" said Larsson, encapsulating the goal of NVC in one line.

Organized by Reena Ginwala, an NVC trainer based in Pune, this training workshop had brought together people from different parts of India, as well as participants from Afghanistan, Nepal, Italy and France. In the group were teachers, trainers, entrepreneurs, development sector professionals, writers, NVC practitioners, couples and other individuals seeking personal growth.

Over the course of the week, through discussions, sharings, group and individual exercises, we learnt to name our needs and those of others and separate them from judgements and name-calling. Larsson introduced us to the mediator’s toolbox—empathy, deep listening, first-aid intervention and self-empathy. We practised formal and informal mediation and how to prepare oneself to be a mediator.

“Why do we hurt?" asked a participant, early one morning.

“Why are we hungry?" Larsson asked in response. “Emotional pain, feelings of humiliation, fear of punishment, withdrawal—all these are signals—to protect us, to tell us something we haven’t realized consciously. To guide us towards action. We feel guilt when we are unable to meet everyone’s needs. We need to self-empathize and acknowledge that we cannot meet all needs at all times."

I asked myself what had made me take this break and travel to Pune for this workshop with my husband. “Suppressed anger makes me very violent in my communication with those closest to me," I have written in my diary.

“What are your needs," we were asked. I have listed mine as:

1) Courage to be me

2) To be independent at work

3) Freedom to be happy

Among other learnings one absorbed from being in a safe, peaceful and respectful environment, I figured out why it is so hard for me to write. While there is enough evidence to convince me that I am born to write as I do, I have struggled to understand why it is so difficult for me to start an essay and why I cringe as painfully as I do when my words are published. It is akin to debilitating stage fright. I have judged myself in the same way that we are labelled as children when we don’t perform according to the expectations of others. Perhaps I am just indisciplined, lazy and disorganized. Perhaps I am not a “real writer" after all.

“Shame attacks," said Larsson, using an easy, handy phrase to simplify the phenomenon. “Shame attacks always kick in after episodes of openness. Every time we step outside the narrow boundaries of safe, normative behaviour, shame kicks in. Then we need to ask what unmet need we have that is asking for attention."

Almost every day, Larsson would write three words on the white board to encapsulate the three most basic, universal needs: Belonging, Dignity, Acceptance. In every situation we simulated, every conflict or memory we shared, she would ask us to identify which of these needs we were trying to meet.

My husband and I were sharing a flat with two young men in Pune and outside of workshop hours, we got enough time to practise living the ideas that had resonated with us. Maysam Habibi, a communications professional from Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, and Yogesh Parmar, a behavioural scientist from Bengaluru, made excellent flatmates. Habibi was visiting India for the first time outside of the Hindi films he had loved so well and Parmar assumed the role of an enthusiastic guide and host.

Parmar was also one of the few participants who had been engaging with NVC for a long time. He and I had read each other online before and began to talk as if we had been in the middle of a conversation we had started long ago.

“In NVC I was introduced to the concept of ‘enemy image’," Parmar shared with me. “To have an enemy image is to think that there is something wrong with the people whose actions or values we don’t agree with. To consistently consider some people as a threat and perceive the world as full of landmines—mostly in the form of other people.

“Something cracked inside me, immediately and intensely with deep resonance. In my growing up years, I have been fed and instilled with so much garbage—most of it, well meaning—that I lived in the grip of a fear psychosis."

Parmar said he realizes now that this is nothing but a colossal failure of the imagination. “For me, NVC is a gift that keeps giving. Most of all, I find that it’s vocabulary has given me access and has helped ‘name’ subliminal feeling and emotions within and locating them in others. To that end, it is synonymous with expanding self-awareness. NVC gives me—even if I may not use it with aplomb—all the tools that I need to speak my truth with the highest amount of care."

In many ways, getting introduced to NVC has had a calming effect on me too. It made me realize that a lot of my “well-meaning" jokes and “harmless" comments actually come in the way of forming trust and listening with care. I feel less tempted to sound smart and am more content to listen and understand.

“NVC is not about being nice; it’s about being real. It’s not about stifling intensity, but transforming it." In a world where aggression and speed seem to be disproportionately rewarded, these lines on the The Center for Nonviolent Communication’s website feel like a balm.

“Never do anything to avoid guilt, shame or punishment," Liv Larsson would often quote Marshall Rosenberg at the workshop in Pune. It was a relief to realize that not only is one not alone with these feelings but that naming them is an asset one can mine. If shame is going to visit so often, one might as well have tea together, or share a spot of winter sun, chatting with each other on a park bench.

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