Why I do what I do
Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD, nonviolent communication expert

How do you communicate empathy and honesty? Follow the lead of Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD. The 69-year-old has spent most of his adult life teaching thousands of individuals from around the world a process called nonviolent communication (NVC), a powerful tool for peacefully resolving differences at personal, professional, and political levels. Author of more than ten books on the topic, includ- ing his latest, Nonviolent Communication (PuddleDancer Press, 2003), Rosenberg is also founder and director of educational services for the Center for Nonviolent Communication, an international nonprofit organization.

Q. How would you define nonviolent communication?

A. Nonviolent communication is a specific approach to speaking and listening. I use the term nonviolence as Gandhi used it—to refer to our natural state of compassion when violence has subsided from the heart. Although we may not consider the way we talk to be “violent,” our words often lead to hurt and pain.

Q. How did all of this begin for you? What sparked your interest in developing and teaching a more compassionate way of communication?

A. When I was 5 years old, my family and I moved to Detroit, Michigan. Soon after we arrived, a race war erupted over an incident at a public park. More than 40 people were killed in the city over the next few days. Our neighborhood was situated in the center of the violence, and we spent three days locked in the house. It was horrific. Then, once I started school, I found that my last name was a stimulus for violence. I was kicked and beaten simply because of my Jewish heritage. Both of these experiences were powerful influences on me. I wanted to know what happens to decent people to turn us into such violent creatures. I also observed people in my life who could remain compassionate in the face of violence. I wanted to find out how this was possible and what could be done to communicate in a way that promotes peace and compassion instead of violence.

Q. Is compassion something that can actually be taught?

A. Compassion is a natural human trait. The problem is that we are taught behaviors that disconnect us from this natural awareness. Our survival as a species depends on our ability to recognize that our well-being and the well-being of others are one and the same. It’s not that we have to learn how to be compassionate; we have to unlearn what we’ve been taught and get back to compassion. The principles behind nonviolent communication are not new, but given our current social structures, they are difficult to maintain.

Q. How has 40 years of teaching nonviolent communication affected you personally?

A. My life is full of rich connections with wonderful people all over the planet. When I remember back to my childhood in Detroit, it is quite a shift in one lifetime. I am profoundly grateful to have had this opportunity.

—Vonalda Utterback, C.N.