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Looking Back, Looking Ahead

On the second anniversary of the death of Marshall Rosenberg I find myself recalling times I spent with him and considering the enormous and ongoing impact our relationship has had on my life. I’ve also been speculating about how he might have viewed what’s been happening lately in our country and throughout the world, and what I and others can do to insure his legacy.

I worked closely with Marshall during the years I was the executive director of the Center for Nonviolent Communication (1998-2006). I am deeply grateful both for the many hours I spent with him in workshops and also for the many hours of informal time we had together.

The last time I was with Marshall was when he and his wife Valentina spent several days in Eugene in September of 2008. Marshall gave the keynote address at the ORNCC sponsored conference on Nonviolent Living and also led a workshop as part of the conference. While he was in town he also made a presentation in downtown Eugene and at the interfaith council breakfast and was the guest of honor at a dinner with a group from the Freedom Project, the program he and Lucy Leu created to offer NVC training in prison. He was moved to tears by the stories he heard of how NVC has been making a difference to those who are incarcerated and their families.

I later learned that during the several days he was in Eugene he was ill, suffering from a high fever. But that did not deter him from offering what he could. I don’t recall he ever cancelled a training because of illness, although I know there were times when he offered training while sick. In my capacity of director of CNVC I tried to get him to take time off from his full travel and training schedule, but he said there was nothing he enjoyed more than introducing people to NVC and that “vacation” time would not be enjoyable since he would just be thinking about how much he misses training.

I’m confident Marshall would have been troubled by Donald Trump’s campaign and electoral victory but I doubt he would have been shocked by Trump’s victory because he was aware of the unacknowledged pain of large numbers of Americans and the ways in which most of us have been educated about how to deal (or not deal) with that pain. I’m also confident Marshall would have admired Trump’s ability to connect with the feelings and needs of his supporters. This is something we who aspire to carry on Marshall’s work are now called to do. Of course this does not mean we have to agree with the ideas, policies or practices Trump and his followers support. Empathy is not about agreement. But it does require us to see people we don’t agree with as human beings with the same needs we all have, however much we may abhor their strategies for meeting those needs.

Trump’s rhetoric has often been filled with labels and moralistic judgments. We can see that expressing oneself in that way is merely a strategy for meeting some needs, a strategy we do not need to adopt. Labeling those who label us or others we wish to protect (e.g. calling them deplorables, racists, fascists, etc.) just prolongs a game in which we all lose connection with life. NVC offers an alternative: focus on the feelings and needs that are the root of such judgements. Although we may find this is not always easy to do, we do have a choice; and if we’ve grasped some key elements of NVC we understand that this approach harmonizes with our deepest values.

I am heartened by the nonviolent resistance I see developing to the Trump administration. I expect this may include, at certain points, the protective use of force. It may also include economic boycotts and various forms of civil disobedience. But to be sustainable in a way that will create a world in which the needs of all are honored will require those of us who have had the benefit of NVC training to do a lot of self-empathy and empathic listening to others—both those who agree with our views and those who seem to have wildly different views. If we seek connection beyond agreement and disagreement I’d guess that those we agree with will experience some degree of relief; and probably some of those we disagree with will come to adopt our viewpoint. But probably that will often not happen. Indeed, we may end up adopting some of their views, or at least aspects of them. Or we may find ways of looking at things that are new to both of us and better meet the needs of all concerned.

Marshall taught that to listen empathically requires listening without an agenda or expectation as to the outcome of the dialogue, never trying to steer the conversation toward a specific objective we have. Our aim is to seek connection at the level of feelings and needs by following the life energy and trusting that our life based connection will give rise to strategies we all can enjoy. Many people use NVC as a tool to improve relationships. But we can go further: we can strive to embody and thereby serve the life energy that NVC helps us connect with. This, in my experience, is what Marshall’s life was about and the gift he would most want for us to accept and to give to each other.

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