Last spring, Roberta Wall found herself in a diverse roomful of women at a center called EcoMe, on the crossroads between Jerusalem and Jericho. The place buzzed with religious Jews, devout Muslim women with covered heads, secular left-wing Jewish women and secular Christian women in sleek modern clothes, and even a Christian nun from Germany. In this troubled region near the Dead Sea, Wall had come to teach Nonviolent Communication (NVC)—a practice that helps people to resolve conflict and find a place of connection beyond anger, blame, or shame. "We set up what we call fishbowls, or sharing circles, where participants could come and share whatever was on their minds in relation to anything," says Wall. "At least half of the Israelis and Palestinians had never sat with each other before."
It wasn't long before the room grew hot with stories of pain, grief, and fear. A Palestinian woman told of her forced marriage, in which she was enslaved and subjected to terrible violence from her husband—before she found refuge, astonishingly, with Israeli checkpoint soldiers who smuggled her to safety. An Israeli woman spoke through tears about her painful decision after the last Intifada to flee to the United States—a decision so troubled that it resulted in divorce from her husband and the shattering of her family. Using the tools of NVC, including reflective listening and empathy, the women were able to push past embattled politics to really hear one another. "It was astonishing," says Wall. "Some of the women are staying connected. It gives me so much hope thinking about it now."
Beyond Right and Wrong
Whether it's in a troubled hot spot of the Mideast, or at the kitchen table of a local family, NVC can trigger breakthroughs in communication and open the floodgates of a healing compassion. Created by American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, whose philosophies grew out of work he was doing with civil rights activists in the 1960s, NVC has taken root in pockets worldwide to form a small but growing movement. Now 79, Rosenberg lives in Albuquerque near The Center for Nonviolent Communication, which he founded—and his book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (PuddleDancer Press, 2003) is a bible for his empathic disciples. The appeal of NVC is broad: It works just as well in war-torn countries as it does with everyday skirmishes between husband and wife, parent and child, employee and employer. At its core, the practice is about creating connection through deep listening, expression, and empathy. Practitioners learn to delve beyond heat-of-the-moment judgment and blame, and instead explore—and express—the true feelings and needs that are bubbling beneath the surface. Eventually, what people think of as conflict turns into a shared dilemma—and creative solutions naturally arise.
Wall, a former litigator in the New York City court system who discovered NVC through a mindfulness teacher, was lucky to attend a rare Manhattan training with Rosenberg in 2002. "I went with my partner, my daughters, my Buddhist sangha from New York City and Woodstock," says Wall. Afterward, she and a few others formed an NVC practice group—and the deeper she got into it, the more she realized that she had to leave the legal profession behind. "NVC takes you out of the cycle of judgment, and it's hard to practice law without judgments of good and bad, right and wrong," says Wall, based in Saugerties, who now coaches couples, individuals, parents, and organizations in NVC at home and abroad. "There's a Rumi quote: 'Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there.' When I hear that," says Wall, "I think, yeah, I want to meet people there! I want to meet myself there."
Skills to Navigate a Life
It's the humbling quotidian battleground of parenting that often leads newcomers to NVC for the first time. Such was the case for Susan Reeves, who stumbled upon NVC 11 years ago, and clung to it like a lifeline, when she had two children under three years old. "I came from what I call the yelling model," says Reeves, a registered nurse and nursing teacher who offers free NVC practice sessions twice monthly in New Paltz. "I didn't want to repeat the model where the mom yelled and the children jumped. I needed another avenue." What really resonated for her was NVC's focus on human needs, the raw material behind everything we feel, think, say, and do. "As humans, we all have the same needs," says Reeves. "If you boil everything down to our needs—whether it's a need for safety, for support, for respect, to be heard—we're all on the same page. [Rosenberg's] work is like a mini-miracle, because it really helps you understand what's going on inside another person."