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I first heard of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) at a time in my life when, unbeknownst to me, I greatly needed the peace, connection, and community it fosters. For the past ten years, I’ve studied and practiced, taught and written about this compassionate way of relating. Personally and professionally, my life has been transformed, by God’s Spirit, through NVC. So it is with that sweet mix of mourning and celebration that I share this tribute to its founder, Marshall Rosenberg, who died this past Sunday at the age of eighty-one.
Rosenberg spent more than half of his life developing and teaching Nonviolent Communication, which fosters connection and mutual understanding across the greatest of divides. Trained as a clinical psychologist, Rosenberg left his practice in the 1960s in order to support persons, families, and communities in living peacefully with one another. Over the next fifty years, Rosenberg mediated conflict between inner city gangs and police officers, among administrators, teachers, and students in troubled school systems, between Israelis and Palestinians, and between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda. He taught countless folks who longed to strengthen their marriages, to speak their own minds at work, and to create safe neighborhoods for their kids. Around him grew an international peace-making organization, the Center for Nonviolent Communication, which has certified trainers in over thirty countries around the world. Consequently NVC is practiced globally in prisons, community centers, preschools, universities and seminaries, businesses, and homes alike.
Rosenberg’s personal story, pieces of which are scattered throughout his writings, has a special timeliness to it today. And it is this personal story that motivated his lifelong work. In 1943, his family moved to Detroit, and within two weeks, they found themselves in the center of a deadly race riot instigated by job discrimination, housing segregation, police brutality, and the racial terrorism of the KKK. Over a three-day period, thirty-four people were killed; nearly seven hundred were injured; and approximately one thousand eight hundred were arrested—the vast majority of whom were African American. As Rosenberg explains in the opening pages of his international best-selling book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, this experience spurred his lifelong quest to understand how some people can find a way to live compassionately even in the most horrific circumstances.
Not surprisingly, Rosenberg’s model of Nonviolent Communication and his relentless work for peace have been inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. NVC helps us work for peace and justice with integrity—that is, by experiencing inner peace and communicating in ways that contribute to peace. One of the illuminating practices of NVC, along these lines, is transforming enemy images. Though not couched in Christian language, this practice can be seen as a practical process for actually living Dr. King’s admonition: “Upheaval after upheaval has reminded us that modern man [sic] is traveling along a road called hate, in a journey that will bring us to destruction and damnation. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world” (“Loving Your Enemies” in Strength to Love).
Marshall Rosenberg’s wisdom and his particular charism for mediating conflict by connecting with human needs (understood as qualities that contribute to the flourishing of life) live on in those of us who have studied his work, practiced it in community, interpreted it in light of our own religious traditions, and bring it to bear on our daily interactions with ourselves, others, and domination systems. Although Nonviolent Communication is not panacea (and although it cannot do what only God can do), Rosenberg has left an enduring legacy: a set of effectual practices for cultivating compassion and peace in ourselves and our communities, especially in these troubled times. I commend his work to you.