Believing that it is our nature to enjoy giving and receiving in a compassionate manner, I have been preoccupied most of my life with two questions. What happens to disconnect us from our compassionate nature, leading us to behave violently and exploitatively? And conversely, what allows some people to stay connected to their compassionate nature under even the most trying circumstances?
My preoccupation with these questions began in childhood, around the summer of 1943, when our family moved to Detroit, Michigan. The second week after we arrived, a race war erupted over an incident at a public park. More than forty people were killed in the next few days. Our neighbourhood was situated in the center of the violence, and we spent three days locked in the house.
When the race riot ended and school began, I discovered that a name could be as dangerous as any skin colour. When the teacher called my name during attendance, two boys glared at me and hissed, “Are you a kike?” I had never heard the word before and didn’t know it was used by some people in a derogatory way to refer to Jews. After school, the two were waiting for me: they threw me to the ground, kicked and beat me.
Since that summer in 1943, I have been examining the two questions I mentioned. While studying the factors that affect our ability to stay compassionate, I was struck by the crucial role of language and our use of words. I have since identified a specific approach to communicating—speaking and listening—that leads us to give from the heart, connecting us with ourselves and with each other in a way that allows our natural compassion to flourish. I call this approach Nonviolent Communication, using the term “nonviolence” as Gandhi used it—to refer to our natural state of compassion when violence has subsided from the heart. While we may not consider the way we talk to be “violent,” our words often lead to hurt and pain, whether for others or ourselves.
NVC is founded on language and communication skills that strengthen our ability to remain human, even under trying conditions. It contains nothing new; all that has been integrated into NVC has been known for centuries. The intent is to remind us about what we already know—about how we humans were meant to relate to one another—and to assist us in living in a way that concretely manifests this knowledge.