When a close friend of mine who works in the prison service told me to read this book, she caveated it with saying: ‘I know what you’re thinking. But it’s actually really good.’
The name alone sent shivers down my spine, let alone the tag-line: ‘if “violent” means acting in ways that result in hurt or harm, then much of how we communicate could indeed be called “violent” communication.’
My friend told me that some prison officers use this technique with their most challenging inmates with amazing success, though, so I thought – why not have a read? If nothing else, I always try to engage with what I disagree with to ensure I keep an open mind. Plus, at my current school, we have a short-term programme of alternative provision (run on-site) for children at risk of permanent exclusion. I thought this could be a good route in to re-engaging those children with school.
Whilst I couldn’t claim to agree with everything in the book, there was a surprising amount I found incredibly helpful, and perhaps applicable even beyond our alternative provision. The foundational idea behind the book – which is, in my view, impossible to argue with – is this: treat everyone with respect. To do this, we must resist the urge to respond to others in anger or upset. When we hear something that upsets us, instead of reacting we have to ask: what is this person needing that they are lacking now?
In order to practice non-violent communication, there are four basic steps:
- Observe what is happening in the situation;
- Explain how this makes us feel;
- Ask what needs of ours are connected to the feelings identified;
- Make a specific request of the other person.
For a full explanation of the method, you really need to read the whole book. The part that seems least obvious to me, however, was step three: needs. According to Rosenberg, the root of our feelings is in our unmet needs. We need to ask: ‘what does this person need? What would they like to request in relation to those needs?’ We have to accept full responsibility for our own intentions and actions, but not for the feelings of others. We are completely responsible for our feelings and reactions, as illustrated by this eminently relatable anecdote: ‘if someone arrives late for an appointment and we need reassurance that she cares about us, we may feel hurt. If, instead, our need is to spend time purposefully and constructively, we may feel frustrated. But if our need is for thirty minutes of quiet solitude, we may be grateful for her tardiness and feel pleased. Thus, it is not the behaviour of the other person but our own need that causes our feeling.’
Another central theme of this book is empathy: ‘empathy… requires us to focus full attention on the other person’s message.’ Rosenberg gives example phrases for tricky situations, like: ‘I’m frustrated because I’d like to be clearer about what you are referring to. Would you be willing to tell me what I’ve done that leads you to see me in this way?’ For the author, ‘Self-expression becomes easier after we empathise with others, because we will then have touched their humanness and realised the common qualities we share. The more we connect with the feelings and needs behind their words, the less frightening it is to open up to other people.’
I still believe that for a large institution like a school to work, we need sanctions that are enforced fairly and predictably. Children must know that their actions have consequences.
For all children, sanctions can be given with love. We must reiterate to children that we are showing them their actions have consequences because we love them enough to care about their future, and to want them to change their behaviour to have a great future. I have never worked at a school where sanctions have been implemented without this philosophy, but I think in every school every teacher has, at least on some occasion, failed to be explicit enough about the love behind the sanction. We could all get better at this.
But what I am increasingly coming to see is that for the very most challenging students, sanctions with love are not enough. Our children at risk of permanent exclusion are impervious to sanctions. They simply do not seem to care what happens as a result of their behaviour. Yes, these children need to be apart from the mainstream, at least for a short period of time, because they need something more and something different to reorientate their mindset. And I do think that this method, which undoubtedly will take much more time and effort with each individual case, sounds extremely promising in helping these children feel understood, cared for and listened to. At this point, our only hope is that they choose to change their behaviour. Sanctions haven’t worked – what comes next?