Psychology for Peace and Liberation
by Mark J. Goodman
Marshall Rosenberg, founder of the international nonprofit Center for Nonviolent Communication, has devoted the last 35 years of life to developing and teaching a new form of communication. From Rwanda and Burundi, Israel, Colombia, and Zagreb to American prisons and inner-city schools, Marshall travels the world responding to eager requests to learn this new "language of compassion."
Growing up Jewish in Detroit during the '40s, Marshall was the victim of intense anti-Semitism and violence. He learned to fight well, to hide his fear and to intimidate others so that no one would mess with him. Yet the very cruelty and violence he saw in himself and others led to a question that was to become his obsession, his mantra, and the seed of his life work: Why do people cause each other to suffer, and what can be done?
I see Marshall's work as an attempt to remake the world through the refashioning of language. He sees the DNA of violence embedded in our common language, which he metaphorically and playfully calls Jackal. Jackal is our native language if we are raised in a culture that values judging, criticizing, and assigning blame, all in the service of dividing the world into good and evil, black and white. To transform the roots of violence in our world, Marshall believes that we must alter our language.
Teaching with animal puppets, Marshall has chosen the giraffe to symbolize this new language. Giraffes have the largest heart of any land animal, and Nonviolent Communication is a language of the heart, of feelings and needs. When speaking Giraffe, a person realizes that all judgments are simply expressions of unmet needs, and thus learns to identify the unmet needs underneath his or her anger and judgments and to take responsibility for them.
Giraffe speakers also listen differently: they hear the feelings and needs behind another person's judgments and anger, and can therefore respond to the person in a much more compassionate and non-reactive way. If we can listen in this way translating Jackal into Giraffe (or, as Marshall puts it, "listening with our Giraffe ears on") then we no longer encounter jackals in the world at all, only "giraffes with a language problem." Giraffe language helps people connect at the heart level, where everything is possible: conflicts are resolved, and beautiful loving connections formed or renewed. This has happened in my own life.
My mom and I had a longstanding conflict about my move to Seattle six years ago, far away from my family in Boston. She often expressed her frustration with me, her failure to understand why I'd moved, and her desire for me to settle closer to home. I would always respond with anger, thinking she was trying to control and contain my life, not letting me grow up.
To transform the roots of violence in our world, we must alter our language.
One visit, after taking a Marshall Rosenberg workshop, I carried home my giraffe intention to connect from the heart. Sure enough, the very first night a potential conflict arose. I was telling Mom about how the community of people I was creating for myself in Seattle was just like a supportive family. My mom replied that the only family you could really count on was blood family.
I immediately felt my own blood begin to boil; I thought she was undercutting and dismissing what I was saying, and I heard prickliness and anger in her voice. Fortunately, I remembered to put on my giraffe ears, so instead of blowing up and recreating a familiar conflict, I gritted my teeth and spoke the language of feelings and needs: "So, Mom, are you feeling sad and scared because you are needing reassurance that even though I am finding support in Seattle there will still be room for you?"
Suddenly, the energy of the conversation shifted. My mom dropped her prickliness and anger. Even though I had not felt loving or compassionate toward her when I opened my mouth, the words themselves moved me into my heart. I realized that my mom was feeling pain because she loved me. I could hear her feelings now without being threatened or fearful that she was trying to change me.
Furthermore, once Mom felt understood by me, she was able to turn around and hear my feelings, concerns, and needs without defensiveness. By responding to my mom with giraffe ears and heart, I created a possibility for connection, for a different kind of emotional dance that was much more fulfilling and nurturing to both of us than our previous destructive interactions had been.
Rosenberg was trained as a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin under Carl Rogers and Michael Hakeem. Influenced by his professors and by writers like Thomas Szasz, he questioned many of the basic assumptions of psychology. Working one on one with clients in a conventional setting, he lamented the slowness of this way of practicing psychology, and was frustrated with the diagnosing, labeling, and "curing" of people that had constituted so much of his clinical training.
He remembered Szasz quoting Joseph Conrad: "Don't cure us, teach us how to live." Instead of viewing people through their "mental illness," Marshall approached them in terms of the skills they had or had not acquired. He saw how societal systems disempowered people, and he wanted to counter these effects. To Marshall, it wasn't enough to treat people one on one; society was screwing people up much faster than it was training new psychotherapists! It was like putting out small brushfires while the huge firestorm was spreading. True social change putting out that large, raging fire was going to take something different than working one on one with a few suffering individuals.
Thus, Marshall began to experiment with ways of distributing psychology differently. He left his private practice and all the security it entailed to undertake what he called "community psychology": working with many different groups and communities. Over and over again, he emphasizes that he is not just teaching a neat little communication technique. Instead, he is asking us to change ourselves to the very core of our being, to change our relationship to each other and to life. He is a man who is fomenting revolution, not a revolution of guns and hatred, but a revolution of love.
Marshall refers to Jackal as a "slave language" that prevents us from clearly articulating our own needs and thereby rendering us more compliant to the larger forces of corporation and state. In inviting us to speak Giraffe and to claim our feelings, needs, and wants, he is really inviting us to step courageously into our own freedom. Marshall practices the psychology of liberation.
This model of conscious, compassionate communication helps me value others' needs as much as my own; getting my needs met at the expense of another is no longer fulfilling. It helps me see win-win scenarios and to know that when love and heart are present, there is enough for everyone; there is abundance. I can let go of Jackal ideas such as scarcity, fear, and the need to compete, and begin to touch the truth that ultimately we are not separate beings, but interconnected parts of something much bigger; we are truly all one.
Marshall Rosenberg will be visiting Seattle in October. Introductory evenings will be offered on October 19 and 20; full-day workshops on October 20, 21, and 22. For registration and information, contact Janice at (206) 706-1895, box 3, or Lucy at (206) 842-2304.
Mark Goodman is a writer, poet, and Alternatives to Violence volunteer facilitator, presently pursuing his M.A. in psychology.