Sunday, September 12, 2010

Nonviolent Communication Workshop

"On this higher educational level justice is something truly spiritual; it tries to ensure that every child shall make the best of himself. Justice, here, is to give every human being the help he needs to bring about his fullest spiritual stature, and service of the spirit at every age means helping those energies that are at work to bring this about."
-Dr. Maria Montessori
"Your mind is like a piece of land planted with different kinds of seeds: seeds of joy, peace, mindfulness, understanding, and love; seeds of craving, hate, fear, anger, forgetfulness. These wholesome and unwholesome seeds are always there, sleeping in the soil of your mind. The quality of your life depends upon the seeds you water. If you plant tomato seeds in your garden, tomatoes will grow. Just so, if you water a seed of peace in your mind, peace will grow. When the seeds of happiness are watered, you will become happy. When the seed of anger in you is watered, you will become angry. The seeds that are watered frequently are those that grow strong."
-Thich Nhat Hanh

On Saturday, we spent the day attending professional development workshops at the Montessori Education Center of the Rockies. It is always a pleasure to attend workshops like these and to be in the company of so many committed, passionnate Montessorians. The assistant teachers had the opportunity to attend a great workshop specifically for Montessori assistants while I went to a very interesting workshop about Non-Violent Communication. The workshop I attended was "Language that Removes Obstacles," with David Shindoll and Kate Kendrick.

I thought I would share some of what I learned with you (hopefully my notes are reasonably coherent). If you would like more information, the books Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life and Teaching Children Compassionnately by Marshall Rosenberg are available for check-out at the school; additionally you can visit the Center for Nonviolent Communication at to learn more, and for a selection of parenting books which utilize the principles described here.

What is Non-Violent Communication?

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Non-Violent Communication, or NVC, it is a process developed by Marshall Rosenberg, a psychologists and frequent keynote speaker at Montessori conferences, which is designed to help people re-frame how they express themselves and how they hear others. It seeks to replace habitual, automatic, or reactionary reactions with words that are chosen consciously based on our awareness of what we are perceiving, feeling, and wanting. It helps us to simultaneously hear others without resistance and defensiveness, and to clearly identify and articulate what we want in a given situation.

What Does Rosenberg Mean By the Term "Nonviolence" As it Applies to Language?
Obviously when one speaks of violence, they normally mean the use of physical or verbal force. Generally, it also includes the elements of threats and manipulation, compelling a specific action on the threat of experiencing pain or being hurt. Rosenberg describes violence in communication as "words that lead to hurt or pain, either for ourselves or others" and states that he uses the term non-violence as Ghandi used it "to mean the state of compassion when violence has subsided from the heart".

However, it is easy to understand non-violent communication in a deeper sense as well. When we meet someone who is different from us, and it is hard to imagine someone too much more different from an adult than a young 2-3 year old child (research shows that their brain and the way that it operates is very different from ours- their manner of thinking is different, the connections they draw between things is different- animistic and magical thinking, the way they attribute causality to things, their limited experiences differ significantly from ours, their limited ability to express what they are thinking and feeling differs from ours, and their frontal lobe has less developed capacity for self-control and ability to foresee consequences than ours, and on top of all this there are differences in family structure, cultural differences, etc), in order to "understand" them, we take what is unique and individual (and unknown to us) about a person or an experience and try to render it knowable by identifying and labeling it (this is an "autistic," "middle class", "Caucasian" "child", from a "broken home", with "impulse control issues," throwing a "temper tantrum"). Although descriptions of this kind might sound objective, factual, even clinical, the myriad of labels and judgments convey very little actual information about the individual person we are interacting with (and, in fact, would probably quite seriously distort and prejudice our view of that individual). Nevertheless, we act as if all of these labels and identifications help us to "know" the child. When philosophers speak of the violence caused by language, this is the more radical statement that they are making- not that language can hurt someones feelings, but that language takes something singular, unknowable, indeterminate, and unique and simultaneously produces and reduces it to something already known. This violence prevents us from really ever experiencing difference or otherness and limits or pigeon-holes individuals by treating them as if they were pre-determined, producing trite stereotypes, lasting prejudices, and preventing people from fully expressing or embodying their true potential.

Power Over Others vs. Power With Others

In the Montessori environment, we want to use language to support the independence of children, liberate the human potential, and create the kind of communication where everyone can have their needs articulated and met. NVC identifies two types of consciousness: power over other and power with others; it is this second option which permits the child to simultaneously follow their own inner guide while also allowing them to benefit from the direction and support provided by the aware adult guide.

To achieve power with others, NVC posits that when we observe an "undesirable behavior," we remember that "at every moment, people are just doing their best to get their needs met." As a result, our goal as a guide to the child is to "connect with the unmet need that is motivating the behavior, and remember that it is a need that we all share."

Non-Violent Communication vs. Behaviorism

These two core concepts of NVC, that we want to share power with children and that we view behavior as being motivated by unmet needs which require our understanding, are very radical in the context of children. The leading "discipline" or "classroom management" techniques used and recommended to parents and educators in most venues of society (from television shows like Super Nanny, to many parenting books, to licensing and education classes which teach child care providers to set up "token economies" or sticker charts to address "undesirable" patterns of behavior, to school "reward" systems for managing behavior) are based on the opposite approach, Behaviorism. Behaviorism focuses upon behaviors, without considering any internal thoughts/feelings that might be motivating the behavior, as though only what is seen and measured is real. In the Behaviorist model, we merely identify the behavior that we want to change (we want Johnny to stop hitting his peers) and apply reinforcers (either positive reinforcers -Johnny gets a sticker every time he goes a day without hitting a peer; or avoidance conditioning-Johnny does not have to sit in time out if he stops hitting his peers). Behaviorist models are used frequently because they are so simplistic and they do not require any actual knowledge of the individual child (we do not need to understand Johnny's reasons for hitting, or even that he has reasons, or attempt to identify or address the needs that are unmet in his life, etc). To a Behaviorist, the individual is completely fungible (any child could be substituted in his place so long as the reinforcer was sufficiently tempting or detering); additionally, the same reinforcers (a sticker chart, time out, etc) can be used for any child in any situation. Behaviorism is generally efficient (it is faster to send Johnny to time out and not interrupt the story you are reading to the group than it is to stop and mediate the dispute) and Behaviorism is generally effective in getting temporary compliance. In the Behaviorist model, it is the adult who has power over the child- the adult establishes the token economy, the adult exacts the reward or punishment, and the adult decides what behavior is acceptable. All that is required on the part of the child is compliance.

One (of several) dark sides to Behaviorism, or having power over, is what it does to the relationship you are trying to create with the child. Rather than create a relationship in which the adult becomes a trusted guide that the child can approach when they have a problem or need advice, the adult becomes a mere enforcer, dolling out punishments and rewards.

The Four Components of Non-Violent Communication:

1) Observe without Evaluating

In the NVC approach, when we feel that there is conflict, or we see a behavior, or pattern of behaviors, that feel undesirable to us, we momentarily stop and consciously suspend judgment. Instead of reacting to the situation, we stop and try to observe the single act without evaluating.

Pausing vs. Reacting-
There are two important elements here (in fact, I daresay, if I were creating this method, I think I would have made them separate steps altogether because reacting out of habit without thinking can be so automatic). The first step is pausing. By pausing before responding to a situation, it prevents us from being reactionary and allows us to connect with ourselves, consider our response, and to experience choice. Pausing before acting allows us to remember that between stimulus and response there is a space (although our genetic, cultural, and biological inheritance may help this space to appear larger or smaller and may make it more or less likely that we are reactionary). In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In those choices lie our growth and our happiness. This choice is the essence of being human. We (and our responses to the circumstances that we encounter) are not a product of our genes, our moods, our past, how others treat us, or our facticity. These factors unquestionably influence us, but they do not determine us. We are self-determining through our choices, and in every moment we have the choice to respond differently and the power to reinvent ourselves or change our future.

As a result, the entire process of non-violent communication begins with our own self-control and the recognition that all people are self- determined (consciousness creates its own values and determines a meaning to her life).

Observing vs. Judging/Evaluating

The second step is observing without evaluating. Our mind is really conditioned to filter and assimilate data to its existing framework, so when we view an act it is very hard to see it for what it is (a single instance); it is far too easy to overgeneralize, catastrophize, stereotype, pigeon-hole, ("He is aggressive," "He is mean," "He doesn't get along well with others," "He can't control his actions") or judge others without really observing. Often times, we rush to judgement first and then look for examples and instances to corroborate what we already "knew."

Observing without judging is the one step in the process that should be easy for Montessorians as we are trained not to correct errors, but to make note of them, to observe the child carefully for more information, and attempt to address the error in a neutral moment in which it does not feel like a correction.

In general, if you find yourself using words like "always"or"never," if you find yourself labeling someone ("aggressive," "whiney," "passive aggressive," "manipulative," "needy," "clingy," etc), or if you find yourself unable to succinctly state what bothers you (or a specific instance of it), these are indications that you need to observe them more closely. To attempt to act at this stage (and change or address a behavior), without further observation, would be doing so without a clear understanding of what it is that you are trying to change. When people try to change something without being clear about what is bothering them, the situation is unlikely to be changed (and even if it did, you might be unable to notice or measure progress- maybe Johnny used to hit six times a week and now he is only hitting three times a week) as a result they are likely to feel that things are hopeless, intractable, or beyond their control.

To give a concrete early childhood example, instead of thinking "Johnny always hits his peers," or "Johnny has a lot of anger," or "Johnny is really aggressive and doesn't get along with his peers," one should simply factually state what is occurring "Johnny hit Susie with the shovel during recess" or "Johnny hits other children in the class an average of twice a week." These statements do not make a judgment about Johnny, they do not formulate an attitude toward him, and they do not attempt to predict his future behavior; as a result, when dealing with Johnny in this state of mind you are more likely to be level headed and constructive. After more observations, perhaps you might discover additional patterns ("Johnny hits others in some instances, but shows extremely good self-control in other instances"; perhaps you will discover that "Johnny hits others right before nap time when he is tired and it might be harder for him to control his impulses", etc). Even more important than over-generalizing behavior is that we do not form judgments about the child ("Johnny is mean to others)." These judgments are not constructive, they pigeon-hole Johnny and reify his behavior (treating Johnny as if he is nothing more than his past acts). Additionally, they prevent us from accurately seeing who he really is and they are often self-reinforcing (Johnny picks up on our attitude toward him and behaves in the way we expect).

One presenter summed it up this way: "It's not what you observe, but how you observe; clean the lenses."

2) Consider Your Feelings and Accept Responsibility For Them

After observing without evaluating, the NVC approach asks that we take a moment and become conscious of our feelings, not our thoughts, about what has happened. For example, "I am feeling worried about Johnny, concerned for the other students, and frustrated with myself as a teacher." This step can be difficult, both because it requires a certain amount of vulnerability and because many of us acting and thinking as if our behaviors and feelings are determined by our circumstances or by the actions of others. It is important not to link your observations with your feelings; what others say and do can be the stimulus, but not the cause of your feelings. Our feelings are not caused by the actions of others (we are not sad or angry because Johnny hit Susie, we feel sad or angry because we have the unmet need to feel that all of the students are safe from harm). Our feelings result from how we choose to receive what others say and do, as well as from our own particular expectations and needs in the moment. It is important to acknowledge that you have the choice to respond and feel differently.

3) Relate Your Feelings to Your Own Values

When we see/hear something we interpret as negative, there are four options four our response: we can blame ourselves ("If I were a better teacher this wouldn't happen."), blame others ("Johnny is a bad kid with a lot of anger management and behavioral problems" or "If Johnny's parents would have done more at home this wouldn't happen."), or we can "shine the light of consciousness" our own feelings and needs. This step involves linking the feelings we are experiencing with the values/needs which are being unmet. This step is important because it helps us to remember (in a society that is sometimes rife with victimization and blame) that other people are not the cause of our feelings. Once we see our feelings (especially hard ones- anger, sadness) as stemming from our needs, rather than the actions of others, we are better able to try to find solutions and strategies for meeting them. The litmus test for having successfully accomplished this work is being able to say, "I feel___ because I value/need ___ ," (in the case we are discussing, "I feel worried because I value harmony in the classroom and need to feel that all of the students are safe," or "I feel frustrated because I need to contribute to the happiness and growth of my students").

In the case of a conflict, there is a second task to be done here and that is attempting to relate to the needs of the other person through empathic listening (which could be a separate post, or a separate seminar in it's own right).

4) Express Your Request

Once you have fully put yourself in touch with your feelings, it is time to request that which would help you to have your needs met. "Johnny, I noticed that you hit Susie in the sandbox. I feel worried because it is important to me that we have a peaceful classroom and that all of the children feel safe here. Could you agree that you will use your words when you feel angry and come to me for help if you need it."

The request should be very specific, simple, and preferably stated as a positive (please do __, not please don't __). This last point is particularly important, to change a behavior we don't want to merely tell a child what they cannot do, we need to help children find other positive, growth promoting options. The ability to regulate one's behavior and control one's own impulses is a skill that has to be learned (as well as the result of a maturing frontal lobe); it is our task to help guide the child in this task of self-mastery and toward the acquisition of these skills.

Another important aspect of this approach is the recognition that it is only a request if the person has the authentic option of refusal (How do we know the difference between a request and a demand? based upon what happens when the person says "no"). The goal is to have reached a state of compassion in which we can be empathetic toward the person even if they do not agree to the request. If the person refuses the request, it may be necessary to consider other strategies, but the situation is still far from hopeless because although there can be a "crisis of creativity," as far as coming up with solutions goes, there is never a disagreement about needs or values (NVC posits that needs are universal, so conflict always occurs on the level of strategy).

What Should I Do If I Respond "Violently?"

Everyone has moments when they are frazzled, short-tempered, insensitive, reactive, or wished in hindsight that they had responded to a situation differently. In these situations, the speakers recommended that parents or early childhood educators consider journaling about these experiences. It is very important to be compassionnate with yourself (the point of journaling is not to beat yourself up, but that you can only change those things which you attend to/notice). The mere act of considering, in a neutral moment, how you could have responded differently, makes it easier to choose differently the next time; additionally, it helps you to increase the space between the stimulus and response (by reinforcing that you have the choice of responding differently).

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