How to Communicate Peacefully on Tough Issues

Mar 24th, 2015 | By | Category: Other Resources

By Kimberly Absher, guest youth blogger,

You can have no influence over those for whom you have underlying contempt.

-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Many of us involved in efforts for a more just and sustainable world generally have strong opinions on issues that get people excited, such as climate change and reproductive rights. If you are like me, sometimes you forget how much people can disagree with seemingly basic viewpoints. That is, until you come into contact (often via the internet) with someone whose views differ so greatly from yours that the conversation feels ripe for conflict.

[Photo credit: jlray1523 / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0]

Often these people are not strangers, but folks who play some role in our lives. For me, it is several beloved family members. Half of my family has extremely conservative leanings, and the other half has very liberal ones. A strict no political emails rule has been implemented after supposedly innocuous “forwards” erupted in arguments. Now the discussions mainly take place on Facebook, where beliefs fill up our news feeds, and occasionally ruffle some feathers.

A divisive attitude is frequently attributed to socio-political issues, each group seeming to hold some sense that “we are right and others are wrong.” The practice of non-violent communication offers a different perspective, one in which everyone has similar needs attempting to be met. According to the Center for Non-Violent Communication (CNVC), founded by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg who passed away last month, our needs include autonomy, integrity, meaning, connection, physical well-being, and play/spiritual communion.

If we have the tools and empathy to ask what needs are being met by what we are observing (especially things we don’t like), and speak honestly about our own needs, we tap into limitless possibilities.

Moving from “I’m right” to “I’m present”

For a long time, my opinionated activist M.O. was to sternly push my viewpoint on to someone until they either disengaged or got really upset and we changed the subject. In either case, the dynamic between us had deteriorated in that moment.

When I eventually examined the motivation behind my actions, I realized I just couldn’t stand the idea of someone walking away from our discussion with their terribly wrong opinion unchanged. I felt my failure to convince them meant I was a bad world-changer. I also felt that their views hurt me and the people I care about by contributing to an unjust world. My frustration and anger at their “misunderstanding” was triggered by my need for validation, integrity, and sense of well-being. How about that!

My wrecking ball approach not only hurt the movements I was trying to promote, but also had serious effects on my relationships with others, not to mention my own health. When I shifted my values from “change their mind” to “practice being present and curious,” conversations not only became much more productive, but also a means of growing understanding and compassion.

Being harsh with others meant I was also harsh with myself, which hampered my ability to think critically and develop opinions that might differ from the groups in which I consider myself a member. When I’m being honest with myself, I can see ways in which I feel conflicted, too. I have found that areas in which I feel “hypocritical,” or in other words human, allow me to connect with others who have radically different viewpoints. By being vulnerable, I can help create a space where the other person feels comfortable exploring new ideas also.

Non-Violent Communication IS Social Change

Whether you care about animal rights, economic equality, sustainable farming, access to clean water, or myriad other issues, you are likely to see a presence of violence. How humans interact with the earth can be violent, as can our relationships with other humans, different species, and ourselves. Communicating in a non-violent manner is an act of tremendous power and value to the world.

The study of Non-Violent Communication (NVC) can be a lifelong process, but the following description from the CNVC summarizes its aim:

“Through its emphasis on deep listening—to ourselves as well as others—NVC helps us discover the depth of our own compassion. This language reveals the awareness that all human beings are only trying to honor universal values and needs, every minute, every day. Through the practice of NVC, we can learn to clarify what we are observing, what emotions we are feeling, what values we want to live by, and what we want to ask of ourselves and others. We will no longer need to use the language of blame, judgment or domination.”

The CNVC has wonderful resources to assist you in building your communication toolkit. Please see their list of “Ten Things We Can Do to Contribute to Internal, Interpersonal and Organizational Peace.

What have your experiences been with discussing “hot-button” topics with others? Have you found resources or ideas that have helped you have more peaceful conversations?

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