Thursday, 11 August 2011

Q3: What can the riots teach me about my communication?

I was asked by Zhana, one of our readers, to comment on the riots this week, which inspired this posting. Zhana is herself an author and commentator, and a practitioner of Nonviolent Communication – and she posted a few more of my thoughts on her own blog: Transform Your Life: A Creative Response to the Riots.

In any difficult situation, it’s natural to take sides. On one hand there are those people who are causing the problem (‘them’), and on the other hand, the people who are suffering (‘us’).

This quickly leads us to think in terms of right and wrong. So, during the riots this week, we hear people condemning the rioters (people who have suffered or are fearful, people concerned for those involved); and we see the rioters condemning the people and institutions they riot against ('We're going to show the police!', said a masked and hooded youth from Manchester last night). Here, what’s called ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ depends on which side of the riot-shield you are standing.

Right and Wrong in communication
Whatever we believe about the rights and wrongs of a situation, a dialogue based upon who is right or wrong will never move forward. Talking in this way simply leads each side to become more entrenched in its own perspective. Conflict escalates as each side wants to prove who is more right, or more wrong, than the other.

Witnessing the tragic damage of riots this week, it’s easy to feel helpless. Yet we can make a difference. If we look carefully at our own communication, we may see the same seeds of conflict in our personal dialogues and relationships, as we see in society and nations at large. So we might reflect on how conflict affects us, and find fresh ways to repair or reduce its cost in our own lives.

Conflict check-list
Recall, perhaps, an interaction which has bothered you, or a person you find difficult. Then use this list to check whether conflict is taking root.

1.   Have judgements or labels sprung up in your conversation (or in your thoughts)? This usually means we blame someone; and blame implies wrongness. We believe somebody is wrong, or at fault, in some way. The more strongly we feel this, the more we need empathy ourselves for what has hurt or damaged us.

2.   Are you replaying or imagining conversations in your head, which justify or strengthen your position? This often means we feel attacked or undermined; it seems we have been ‘put in the wrong’, and need to defend ourselves.

3.   What are your feelings telling you? Uncomfortable feelings irritation, frustration, anger, dismissiveness – are signs we want to push something or someone away. This ‘No’-energy has important messages which need hearing; but is only part of the process.

4.   Are you shutting something or someone out? This takes energy, and puts us into opposition. What we shut out also has its own energy, and like anything excluded, may simply grow louder and more belligerent in protest.

5.   Do you have an underlying sense of ‘either-or’? In conflict, one person seems to get their way at another person’s expense; one person’s needs are met, but the other person’s needs are not.

6.   Do you feel bad about yourself – is your Inner Critic unusually active? Our Inner Critic is especially vociferous when it fears for our own (or other’s) safety or well-being. So it’s easy to believe we are at fault. In communication, our safety lies in our good connections with others, which are damaged when we are in conflict. 

If one or more of these are happening, the seeds of conflict are present. Happily, just knowing this is the first step to changing course.

Resolving conflict at root
One sure way towards harmony is to dissolve the language of right and wrong which in many subtle ways creeps into our communication. 

Here’s a three-tiered approach:

*   If you hear yourself making any sort of judgmental comment, take a moment to pause. See what lies beneath your comment, or below your difficult feelings. Look for the GOOD reasons which motivate your comment. Our deepest needs and values are ones which build our sense of inner strength and self-respect. (Here’s a list of human needs and values: Life At Work - Resources – Key Model 3.) Try to communicate your needs and values to the other person, rather than your judgements.

* See if you can imagine the other person’s underlying needs. Take time to explore. Once again, look for the GOOD reasons for their behaviour (see the list of needs and values, if you’re unsure.) The crucial thing is to distinguish what they do or say from their underlying needs and motivations as human beings. At root, all actions are attempts to support life and growth. Sadly, the behaviours people use may be distorted, harmful or unhelpful, squashing or denying other people’s needs in the process. See if you can relate to the other person’s needs and values, and express those in your communication, rather than your analysis or interpretation of what they are doing.

*   Finally, widen your perspective of the situation as a whole. Remember that every situation contains more than one set of needs. The key to resolving a conflict is to accept and acknowledge that both your needs and theirs are part of the whole picture. Both are present. Eventually, we can understand that a wise solution holds and includes both sets of needs, and finds a way to work with them all.

Human magic
As we do this, a curious and magical thing happens. When we affirm our own needs deeply in ourselves, we are able to affirm other people’s needs also. As we make space for ourselves, so we begin to resonate with, and understand, other people. Needs are universal, and we respond to them naturally once the barriers to communication are removed. When harmony emerges, we no longer simply want our own needs to be met – we genuinely want to find ways for other people to be happy and well too. And they want this for us. Then we are on the way to resolving conflict, and establishing peace.


  1. This is great stuff, Locana. I have been musing on the riots and inclined to come to the conclusion that the situation is beyond the range of NVC, being characterised more by essential darknesses in human nature (many of which I recognise in myself). Your post reminds me of the "other way" - I'm going to try reframing in the way you suggest. Will let you know how I get on! Sue

  2. I enjoyed this posting, thanks Locana!

  3. “We must fight for peace!!” say the politicians. Can they hear themselves?
    Yes, dwelling on any difference of opinion, right/wrong polarises and magnifies it.

    What are they going to do with the rioters they’ve caught? Stuff them into prisons that are already too full, and which have a dreadful track record of “curing” criminals. Is it 80+% who reoffend?

    Now there is restorative justice (RJ). I see that as a step in the “right” direction. Maybe what you are doing exceeds what RJ can achieve. I think it would, yet the authorities may not know about you and your skills. Is there some way in which you could bring your skills to their attention? Maybe if just one magistrate’s court took you on, and you resolved the issues between rioter and the rest (as I think you would) the whole movement could expand in the direction you are preaching.....


  4. Janette McCullough15 August 2011 at 11:10

    Lovely lovely posting Elizabeth, thank you, very timely.