Although Nonviolent Communication (NVC) has the word “communication” as part of its title, I agree with Kit Miller, friend and fellow on the path, who says that “NVC is an awareness discipline masquerading as a communication process.” On the path of transformation, both personal and societal, that I envision, I see a two-way street between our words and our consciousness. In one direction, it’s clear to me that we cannot truly change how we communicate unless we think differently. In the other direction, making a conscious choice about which words I do or don’t use, when and how, has had the astonishing effect of restructuring my thinking. In that way, language has become a primary spiritual path for me, continually bringing into greater and greater alignment my values and my way of being in the world.

The direction of change is always the same for me: moving towards a needs-based approach to inner process, interpersonal relationships, organizational structures, and social institutions. The practice itself has often seemed almost nit-picky. For example, I have been almost entirely successful in eliminating the phrase “I have to” from my speech, replacing it, instead, with explicit clarity about what needs I am focusing on attempting to meet by choosing to do what I might otherwise tell myself I have to do. This has been a liberating practice, in that I literally feel freer as a result, more aware of being an agent and owner of my life instead of driven by circumstances, obligations, and others’ expectations. I have similarly attended to “I don’t have time,” “I can’t,” “This makes me feel…” and the proliferation of terms that make something external to me the standard for evaluation (even something as innocuous as saying “She is generous,” which implies a standard of generosity external to me), with extraordinary results – more aliveness in me, more capacity to maintain calm and presence in difficult situations, more capacity to reach across differences and divides. I am confident I will come back to these examples and practices in some future piece.

Today, in this piece, I want to address an area where I am still learning, a collection of words and phrases I still don’t fully know how to translate seamlessly into the language of needs. This “family” includes notions dear to most of us, such as equality, fairness, justice, civil and human rights. Its fundamental notion, in my way of looking at it, is the concept of deserving, intimately tied to the reward and punishment frame of looking at the world.

The Language of Rights and the Language of Needs

When we talk about rights, for example, there is an implication that having a right gives us a claim on something, puts us in a position of being able to say, to someone, that we “deserve” to have what is our right. Having a right means we can make demands. Whoever would then deny us our rights can be prosecuted by law, morally shunned, or fought against, individually or collectively.

Understanding this brought me, several years ago, to the shocking realization that the language of rights and the language of needs are not the same. Instead of appealing to some abstract version of justice, the language of needs appeals to the compassion that is assumed to exist in everyone. Instead of demands and insistence on particular outcomes, it makes room for dialogue, for putting all the needs on the table and finding workable solutions for everyone.

Most significantly, when disagreements exist, the language of rights separates, and the language of needs connects. And when dialogue fails, the language of needs more easily lends itself to continuing to see the humanity of the person or people whose actions we aim to change through struggle. This changes the nature of the struggle, the form of the fight. Nonviolence has as one of its prerequisites the commitment to love no matter what. We can more easily love our opponent when we can see and connect with their human needs than when we see them only through the effect that their choices have on us, and therefore subtly or not so subtly believe they deserve some punishment for their actions. Even when we oppose people’s choices, even when we make it impossible for them to continue what they are doing through massive nonviolent resistance, we can, and have been known to, do so while seeing their humanity with love.

What, then, do I do with the notion of justice, the evocative appeal to human rights? How do I attend, effectively, to the desire in me to be of support to the countless people whose needs are repeatedly and systematically not met in our world, and whose frame for making sense of their plight is that of human rights? How do I associate with the many, many people who share this desire and whose language for speaking about it is the language of social justice? How do I remain true to my deepest visions without severing the ties of belonging to a community of humans for whom this frame of reference is familiar and powerful? How do I find a way to inspire that love, that commitment to everyone’s needs, including the people in power, instead of alienating people by being so different in my habits of speech?

Fairness and Equality

I have just as much challenge with notions of fairness and equality. Fairness, like rights, appeals to a standard that is outside the person invoking it. When a small child cries out “It’s not fair” they are speaking to that standard, as if someone exists, outside the conversation, who would make the determination about whether or not this is really unfair. This one is quite easy for me to translate. I hear in this cry deep fundamental human needs: to matter, to trust that my own needs can be met and will be part of the equation, to be cared about. Much of the time, I can easily convey to a person who invokes fairness my understanding of their situation without re-stating the word. Not always. Sometimes, the only way a person will trust that they are understood is if I use the same frame they use, in this case “fairness.” I am almost invariably willing to do that in order to maintain connection, in order to offer care and understanding, sometimes just for the sake of communication. Nonetheless, something in me is discouraged or disappointed in those moments, longing for more possibilities to express the truth in me without losing connection.

Is it justice or is it simply meeting needs?

With equality, things are even harder. For one thing, equality is confusing to me. What is or isn’t equal, even before the invisible authority that would determine it, remains elusive. Is it equality to pay the same amount of money to a worker who has five children, to one who is single, and to one who is caring for a sick family member? Is it equality to apply the same entrance criteria to people who grew up in privilege and to those whose lives were beset with one trauma and challenge after another?

Behind these examples is a deeper inquiry for me: since we are not equal, what would it mean to be treated equally? Would a needs-based society find different paths from what we know? Would equality come to mean holding everyone’s needs with equal care? When do some people’s needs weigh more than others?

Some years ago, during an exchange with other NVC trainers on an international email listserve, one person wrote: I am “from an ex so-called communist country. We really tried equality over here, and I do not want it. I really care for equal chances and I would like to be around people who care for each involved party’s needs. I am super sensitive to the word equality.” Although for me equal chances are still a problematic notion, I appreciated hearing this perspective and it helped me understand better what is true for me. As far as I have gotten to with my inquiry into equality, I think of it, fundamentally, as a very rigid strategy, at the heart of which is the desire to care for everyone’s needs, with total lack of imagination or resources about how to do it well. My belief remains that when we re-focus our energy and attention to look at human needs at all levels, more imagination and resources will become available.

About Deserving

Even though all the above examples are still work in progress for me, I have a sense of having made some progress. When I am speaking about my own perspective on things, I can generally find ways of articulating what is dear and precious to me, that which tends to be captured in words such as “rights” or “fairness,” and do it without using those words, only referring to what I know and have ownership of: my experience, my needs. I don’t appeal to any external authority, real or implicit, to define or evaluate things for me. More significantly, at least internally, I have a frame for how to understand what people mean when they speak of fairness or rights. Some of the time, I can also show my understanding without using those same words.

When it comes to the actual language of deserving, my progress has been more limited. Although I don’t think in terms of what people deserve, and in that sense have experienced profound freedom, I don’t know even internally how to reframe that language into the language of needs, the dynamic inner and interdependent experience of living people. When I am speaking with others who already share my view of life, I can find some clunky ways of translating. In conversation with those who don’t, people I run into in any kind of setting, I can only do what I used to do with other aspects of my inner consciousness training: I just watch, observe, learn, and do my best, moment by moment, to remain connected with myself and with others. I don’t know how to give someone an experience of being truly heard without using the exact word they used, “deserve,” the very word I question so deeply.

I want to make concrete what my struggle actually is. When someone says, for example, “I deserve better than this,” I am hard-pressed to come up with a needs-based framing for the simplicity of what they articulate. The more I reflect on why this is so, the more I realize how deeply the notion of deserving is rooted into our fundamental worldview. That worldview basically reiterates some version of a Biblical notion that says that those who do good are worthy of and will receive a good treatment, and those who do bad deserve and are going to receive punishment. I am not familiar enough with other cultures to make a statement, though I would be surprised if they don’t contain equivalent structures.

I can see that having a notion of deserving can serve multiple powerful functions. If we believe in it, then it provides us with some sense of order and meaning in the world, some way of attending to what would otherwise be so unbearable, requiring so much grieving to come to peace, namely the prevalence of so much suffering. It also gives us some hope and motivation for our own efforts: whether in the hands of God or others, if we do the right thing, we can anticipate a reward.

It is this very notion of “earning” anything that I am deeply committed to transcending. If someone took an action that harmed others, including many others, I want to shift from thinking that they now deserve punishment, or would better be dead. I want, instead, to recognize that this person did what they did because of conscious or unconscious attempts to meet their needs, often in internal, external, or relational conditions that don’t allow them to see the effect on others’ needs. I truly believe much of life as we know it would be entirely different if this one goal was successfully embraced by many.

Why is it not embraced? What is it that makes the structures of reward and punishment so robust, so clear, so appealing? How many of us would be ready to part ways with the idea that someone who went to school for many years and now has a license to practice medicine means that they would now receive substantially more money than someone whose work is cleaning houses?

Beyond the sense of order and meaning that these notions can instill, I believe these structures persist, even though they create so much strife, because of the worldview which gave rise to them in the first place. It is a worldview rooted in separation, scarcity, and a deep mistrust of human nature. Even when I can translate the specific utterance into the language of needs, I don’t know how to address the gap in worldview.

When someone says that anyone who doesn’t work hard doesn’t deserve to have financial support, I can relate to some needs I imagine the person speaking from. I, too, want people who receive support from others to do what they can to take care of themselves. I, too, want everyone to be motivated to contribute as much as they can to the larger whole. The difficulty is that while I can be connected to those needs, I wouldn’t choose to express myself in that way, nor do I have those thoughts. I can’t even remember having them or similar ones, though I am sure I used to, before being exposed to Nonviolent Communication and internalizing a new worldview. Saying those words, to me, implies, in addition, some anxiety about having enough for the speaker’s needs, and a deep-seated fear of losing an incentive, a way to motivate people to work hard.

I don’t think that imaginary speaker is so far from where even many people committed to caring for all are. Deep down, how many of us really trust that people who are free from obligations would access willingness to work, to give, to contribute, or to make an effort as much as or even more so than when there are rewards and punishments, respectively, for hard work or its absence?

Once again, I am coming back to the mutual relationship between words and thought. In order to create the possibility of relationships and systems based on human needs, a consciousness shift may be absolutely necessary, and changing our language may just be the path, even if I don’t quite yet see exactly how it could go there. As we learn to speak of needs, we create the possibility of the world I want to live in. In the world of my dreams, we provide for everyone’s needs not because they deserve it, not because they have done something to earn it, or possess the resources to ensure that others will provide for them. Rather, in that world we provide for everyone’s needs because those needs exist. It is none other than a basic reverence for life.

Credits: Untitled illustration by Laura Beckman for Peter Gabel’s Tikkun article “A New Vision of Justice.” The caption reads “What if Lady Justice were omnipartial? A new legal culture based on empathy and care might inspire a better use for that blindfold of hers.”
Equality vs. Justice: credit not found. The image exists on the web with various wordings.

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