Non-violent communication (NVC) on Education

When I was drafting this post I started to question myself if education can exists without communication. Wouldn’t one thing be inherent to the other? The education exists only on the relationship with oneself, the other, and the world. And communication is the central figure on human capacity to relate. As well said by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, “no one educates anyone, no one educates himself, men educate one another, mediated by the world.”

So, my humble opinion is that no. There isn’t education without communication. Therefore, the way we communicate has a direct impact in the way we educate. (personal pause: wow! maybe now I can find some sense on my personal journey studying and working so many years on the communication field and now throwing myself so deep on education). That is, if we feel it is urgent to rethink the roads of our educational practices, it is urgent also to review our ways of communicating. 

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“Human needs” cards I have made myself to help me with my own needs. 🙂

Four months ago I had the chance to participate on a Non-violent Communication (NVC) workshop in Auroville, facilitated by L’aura Joy (a really special person). I had already read a lot about the top, gone through Marshall Rosenberg’s book, but I hadn’t still fallen in love by NVC the way I did during that weekend. Maybe because now I was looking with an educator eyes and I could see on that ‘tool’ a really powerful practice to our relationships with children.

NVC is already well known allover the globe and it takes you only a Google search to find a lot of videos, books, materials, workshops and circles to get involved. So, I will bring here only a quick and superficial context, to make the understanding of this post easier for the ones that are not familiar with it. The Non-Violent Communication is a proposal of communication – listening and speaking – studied by an American psychologist called Marshall Rosenberg, to support cooperative based relationships grounded on an empathic and effective communication. According to Marshall: “NVC fosters deep listening, respect, and empathy and engenders a mutual desire to give from the heart.”

The NVC process proposed by Marshall includes four steps: observe that is happening without judgments, identify what are your feelings in relation that has been observed, comprehend your needs that are connected to the feelings identified, express your request in a clear and concrete way.

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NVC four steps summary. Source: https://www.windhorseimh.org/mindfulness/nonviolent-communication/

During the workshop my first insight was: we are way more violent when we communicate than we are aware of. The second was: we are much more violent with children than we imagine to be. The third was: the violent way we communicate with children will unconsciously influence the comprehension they will develop about themselves, others and the world. And the fourth insight was: NVC should be part of ALL teacher trainings! (okay, I know that this is not the only way to think about it but remember that I was in love with NVC during that weekend! :p).

In his book, Marshall explores what are the communication practices that block our natural compassionate state. They are habits and patterns we have when we communicate, that deprive us from connection with each other from our heart, with empathy. Marshall call them ‘life-alienating communication”. Among them, some called my attention for its relation with education environments and the relationship between teachers and students:

1) Moralistic Judgments: when the communication is centered in defining “who IS what”, as one state of the other was responsible for a given situation. It is a communication full of guilt, labeling, criticism, and diagnosis elements. Examples: ‘he is lazy‘, ‘this is unacceptable‘, ‘she is selfish‘. By focusing on error and defect, this form of communication ignores the feelings and needs behind the acts, makes connection impossible and encourages violence.

In my experience, most of the time I found school and educational environments loaded with moralizing judgments. Reflections: What happens when a child lives hearing these judgments at school or at home? How much space will she/he find to investigate her/his feelings and needs? How will her/his empathic look at the feelings and needs of others develop? How will she/he understand that our transient states do not define who we are?

How these three ways of saying something actually transmit totally different broader messages: “stop being lazy and do the exercise.” OR “I am observing that you are standing still, what are you feeling? What do you need to continue the exercise?” OR “I’m noticing that you’re standing still, are you feeling unmotivated? Would you need more clarity about why we’re doing this exercise?“.

2) Comparisons: Also a form of judgment, Marshall comments on how comparative thinking and speaking have a great influence on our well-being, happiness, self-esteem, and all-things. Unfortunately it is also a very common practice in schools and in families.

Reflections: What happens to a child who lives listening to comparisons? What happens to children who strengthen external references as a guide of their own development and acceptance?

3) Responsibility denial: This is my favorite lesson from the NVC. According to Marshall, the life-alienating communications hinder our awareness that we are responsible for our own feelings, thoughts and deeds. We and no one else. Phrases that begin with “I had to…“, “I have to…” mask our free will and the needs behind our actions. And phrases such as “you made me feel…” or “it hurt me…” also stimulate the denial of self-responsibility.

This aspect is perhaps more subtle than the two I brought up before, but I think it is the most powerful of them. Maybe for the subtlety itself. I agree with Marshall when he states that “we become dangerous when we are not aware of our own responsibility for our behaviors, thoughts and feelings.” Denial of our responsibilities impacts a lot on how we relate to others, to the community, to consumption, to politics, to health, to time and to life. And transforming the language we use, in that sense, changes everything.

What’s different from saying “I had to cancel the doctor because of work” and “I chose to cancel the doctor to prioritize the work”? Which way feels easier to say? Which one do you feel most responsible for?

What difference does it make to justify that “I had to apply this test because it is the school policy” or to say that “I decided to apply the test to follow the school policy and not put my job at risk”? Which one do you feel most responsible for? What is the consequence of feeling responsible?

What difference does it make to say “children, the loud laughter is making me nervous” or “children, I am observe that there is a lot of noise and I am feeling nervous because I need silence and concentration to speak”?

It may sound like only a non-relevant detail, but a subtle change in the way you speak will present to children a posture of self-responsibility that will influence their own ways of expressing themselves and relating to the world. Reflections: What will happen to a child who comes to believe that others are responsible for their feelings? And with a child who comes to understand that she is responsible for the feelings and attitudes of others?

Being human requires responsible attention to the subtleties of communication. Communication is the foundation of our relationships. And relationships are the basis of our life. One can say that being a human educator is even more challenging: it requires a state of the art in communication.

Well, the idea here is not to exhaust the concept of NVC, but just to share a little of the passion I felt when I got to know better Marshall’s work the insight I had about the importance of that look in education.

For those of you who are more curious about it, he also wrote great books specifically for parents and educators, with many practical examples and activities (link here). And several schools around the world have been developed based on the principles of the NVC (if anyone has an interest, write me, I have a small list).

To finish I leave below a nice video of Dominique Barter talking about NVC and Education. Dominique is an international consultant on Nonviolent Communication and Restorative Practices. He has worked extensively with Marshall and is currently giving NVC lectures and workshops throughout Brazil. (You will have to turn on the English subtitles because the video is in Portuguese).

Let’s keep communicating – listening and speaking – from our hearts. ❤

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