Thursday, February 17, 2011

Peace 2 of 3: NonViolent Communication

The biggest problem with the Tu B'Shvat tree-planting, as I saw it, may have been how much it bought into the conflict. It seemed to think that some people are good, and some people are bad, and if we can shift the battle-lines enough (by shocking medium people into becoming good people) we can win this thing. I'm not saying that's wrong, necessarily, but it makes me uncomfortable. The second in my little round-up of pro-peace events might have the opposite problem: It embraced the conflict as Peace Waiting to Happen, nearly to the point of denying that there even are real problems between Israel and Palestine, or within the Israeli or Palestinian communities.

The event was a training in NonViolent Communication at the EcoME center near Jericho. EcoME (Eco Middle East) is an awesome place that I don't want to get into talking about. There's a nice article about one of EcoME's founders here. Here are a few pictures of the EcoME staff and site:

This workshop was a mix of Israelis, Palestinians, and Internationals, about 40 or 50 people total, coming together to meet one another and discuss personal experiences of the Israel-Palestine conflict using the particular tool of NonViolent Communication (tm). NVC is a theory of cooperation and a set of practices to make dialog more effective. My hosts in Maine, Vicki and Howard, have done a lot of NVC and communicated really clearly and compassionately as a result. I'm really inspired by Vicki and Howard's example as people who've done a lot of hard personal and spiritual work to good effect. They'd only told me a little bit about NVC over the summer, but on their merit I figured I would go and learn more, and I didn't mind if I helped to bring a little peace to the Middle East in the process.

I learned a little bit more about NVC over the weekend, and I think a quick tour through the basics might make it easier to then talk about the weekend itself and the one particular story I want to share. At its most fundamental, NVC is about speaking honestly and listening compassionately. If you don't feel like hearing any more than that, skip down to "So anyway..." below.

The basic theory of NVC says that people act in service of needs which are never fundamentally in conflict. Conflict occurs instead between the particular strategies that people form for meeting their needs. Conflicts can therefore be resolved if the people involved can discern their own (and each other's) true needs, and create a strategy together that meets all of them. That is to say, if we really understand what everyone needs, and we treat each other's needs as equal to our own, we can meet all those needs together.

Lovely, right?

In formal NVC dialog, people explicitly distinguish four elements of communication: Observations, Feelings, Needs, and Requests. This takes some work to learn, with beginners commonly confusing their feelings, observations, and assumptions. One of the things I liked best in the education material of the retreat was a list of words that aren't really feelings, but people often say after "I feel." Attacked, Blamed, Insecure, and Stupid, for instance, aren't really feelings. They're feelings mixed up with a lot of assumptions and/or observations. When you clean up your speech in this way, separating out those four components, it can be a lot easier for other people to hear you.

When you're listening, NVC is about honoring the perspective of the person speaking, trying to determine their feelings, needs, etc, and choosing to remain open and patient with anything they say (wrong, horrible, or stupid as it may be). Once they've finished, you can respond (ideally in Observation/Feeling/Needs/Request mode), and it's fine to disagree, but while they're speaking you let them speak. NVC leaders say "You are always responsible for your own experience," and owning that responsibility makes it easier to listen to someone with an awareness that you can choose how to respond. Once they've finished speaking, it's a good idea to reflect back what you heard and say "Did I understand that right?" before responding yourself. It feels incredibly awkward sometimes, but this helps the other person feel heard, and ensures that you do end up understanding what they really meant.

Eventually, after a lot of back and forth in this style, it's possible to get to the root needs motivating people in conflict and create a strategy that meets all of those needs gracefully. Remarkably often, just being heard in their needs lowers people's sense of urgency, and all of the parties involved can become a lot more flexible than they were going in. Believing that the other parties of the conversation are one's allies also lets people need less, because it removes the threat of future scarcity.

Again, lovely. At it's best, NVC can be a really nice way to interact with people. (NVC also teaches valuable inward-oriented skills for meeting your own feelings and assumptions and meeting your own needs. One facilitator led an excellent practice of identifying an emotional need and imagining the energy that would satisfy it. It's amazing how much that can help in and of itself.) A lot of the online material about NVC feels like a sales pitch, but there's some good stuff here, if you want to read more.

So anyway, you can see how all of this might be helpful with the Israel-Palestine thing. Blowing up civilians and building walls around cities are on some level just strategies to meet people's personal needs. There are lots and lots of people here with unmet needs for security, autonomy, religious expression, dignity... Getting them all to acknowledge the importance of one another's needs and talk productively about how to meet them would be great. But it might be a lot to ask for.

It's hard to identify your needs and listen to others without judgment, and there were a number of moments throughout the weekend when the process totally stalled. NVC requires a lot of patience and cooperation in order to get anywhere, and fundamentally one person always needs to be willing to listen first. Or rather, in a large group like we had, only one person can ever insist on speaking first. People came to this with two different sets of expectations that occasionally worked at cross-purposes - some folks just wanted to talk about The Conflict and didn't care so much about NVC as such, while others really wanted to learn NVC and let the conversations about Israel and Palestine emerge out of that - and it often meant that there were multiple voices asking for the floor right now. More skillful facilitation might have helped with that, but with language barriers and whatnot it was a difficult situation.

The conversation stalled like this a few times over the weekend, but I think one particular story captures the trend well.

We all got there on Thursday night, and Friday was the formal NVC training day with Saturday put aside for discussions about particular subjects. We broke up into three smaller groups on Friday, one group with each of the facilitators, and we learned about the four components of communication and the practice of reflecting back what you've heard before responding. In the morning, our group's translator sometimes insisted on participating in the conversation before translating it sometimes, which made it hard to get anywhere, and we adjusted things to need less translation in the afternoon. This meant that I was in a group speaking Hebrew, mostly, with a little Arabic, so I could only kind-of follow what was going on.

Our facilitator, whose name wasn't Francesca, asked for someone to share an experience of conflict from their life. A Palestinian man whose name wasn't Oscar spoke up about being stopped at checkpoints by Israeli soldiers who weren't born here and hardly speak Hebrew. He himself has lived in this area his whole life, and does speak Hebrew, and he's hurt and annoyed that these people have such power over him because it's "their" country. Someone else reflected back what Oscar had said, and Francesca guided us through identifying the observations (eg Some soldiers speak poor Hebrew) and removing the judgments (All soldiers speak poor Hebrew) and discerning Oscar's feelings about the interactions. We considered Oscar's needs for autonomy and respect, and then thanked him for sharing and moved on.

Francesca asked for another volunteer to talk about something unrelated to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and a woman I'll call Wanda started describing a conflict in her family. When it came time to reflect what Wanda had said, another Palestinian, a man of about 20 or so, call him Joseph, spoke up. Instead of reflecting Wanda's observations, feelings, and needs, Joseph said something like "What do I care about this woman's family? At least she can visit her family! I came here to talk about the suffering of my people, not listen to the complaints of the privileged." As you might imagine, this falls more into the column of "Violent Communication."

And what do you do with that? Wanda got offended, naturally, and insisted that she has as much right to group time as anyone else does. She mentioned to me in an aside that she thought Joseph was being very rude.Some of the other Palestinian guys jumped onto Joseph's side, and a couple internationals tried to defend Wanda. Francesca managed to calm everyone down, and then her priority was convincing Joseph to buy back into the system. She explained about giving people equal time, and learning to use the NVC method... and it didn't really go anywhere. She asked other people to speak about their desire to talk about Wanda's issue, and then asked Joseph to reflect back what he had heard... and that didn't really work either. Basically (and I think this was poor facilitation on her part) Francesca allowed there to be a Wanda-Joseph conflict, and she put herself on Wanda's side. Joseph had broken the rules, and she tried to get him to change instead of continuing to follow the rules herself. But it could just as easily have gone the other way if Francesca had let Joseph continue and let Wanda be upset over losing her turn. I'm sure there is a great NVC way to handle a moment like this, but I don't really know what it is. You can use NVC to talk to one other person who isn't using NVC. I'm not sure how you use it to intercede between two of them.

So Francesca continued to point to the non-Palestinian side of the room and explain to Joseph how much we all wanted to listen to Wanda, and doesn't he want to respect our needs to be heard and respected and so on and so forth, and after something like 45 minutes I finally spoke up with some frustration about the matter. I asked if I could express what I was feeling, and Francesca agreed, and I said that I really wasn't as interested in hearing about Wanda's problems, and I did want to listen to whatever Joseph had to say, but I hoped he would be willing to express himself using the NVC system that we had all come there to learn. And I think that broke the log-jam. Wanda was still somewhat disappointed that we hadn't all thought through her family's issue together, but she had more or less given up. Meanwhile, I was the first person other than his fellow Palestinians who had expressed any interest in really listening to Joseph.

We'd more or less run out of time at that point. Francesca asked Wanda to repeat back what she'd heard me say (!!!) and a few other people shared their feelings about the conversation as it had gone, and still no one was actually listening to Joseph. But the session ended, and a dinner break began, and I got to go over to Joseph and ask him to talk to me. Thank goodness, he spoke English, or else it really wouldn't have been possible to get anywhere. So he said, and I reflected back to him, that he was very upset about how the conversation had gone and how little had actually been accomplished or communicated. I asked if I could speak, and he agreed, and I told him that I felt the same way and I really wanted to hear what he had come to the workshop to tell people. He said he just wanted his voice to be heard, and I told him I was ready to hear him, and eventually he came around to actually talking to me.

There are a couple of things that worked about this. One is that he was alone, with other people listening in but nobody interrupting him, so that he could say whatever he wanted and I could respond in good NVC style, and nobody was insisting on speaking before him or telling him how to express himself. I think that Francesca's insistence on making Joseph learn the system before speaking his heart was counter-productive. The other thing that worked, I think, is that I met Joseph's anger with some anger. I said "Hey! Quit futzing around! Tell me what you want me to know, already." I wasn't rude or violent or even especially loud, but I was forceful. I gave him a lot of clear attention and I demanded full attention in return. After a day of often-fluffy, often-confusing communication, and being already somewhat angry himself, I think he really appreciated being met so directly. And as he started letting his anger out, started raising his voice and letting his feelings show while I stayed present, calm, and intense, I think he actually felt listened to.

So here's what Joseph told me, in as much his own words as I can remember now. "My people are being oppressed," he said. "We can't move freely in our own land. I have to pass through checkpoints to visit my family, and they don't treat me like a human being. They like having power over me, and these soldiers are even younger than I am, but they wave their guns around and they tell me what to do. They search me, and they intimidate me, and there's no reason for it."

I reflected this back to him, pointing out the observations and asking about his feelings. "I hear you feel angry and vulnerable. You have a need for recognition and dignity that isn't being met. You don't see any reason for many of the soldiers' behaviors."

He agreed, and I asked if there was more. He said "They treat me like a terrorist. But I just want to have a normal life. I just want to live and have a job and raise a family. Everyone in Israel thinks that we're all terrorists, but I want them to see that I'm a normal human being." I reflected that he had a need for stability and security that wasn't being met by his national situation, and a need for respect that wasn't being met by the soldiers and Israeli government. He agreed with all of that, too.

He said "Nobody in Israel sees that we're just normal people. Nobody is telling our story. It's all about terrorists and politicians. Nobody in Israel knows what it's like to be a Palestinian, to be oppressed and searched and told we're all terrorists. They don't understand what they're doing to us. I just want them to know that I'm a normal person, and treat me with some respect."

Until "I just want," all of that is Judgment in NVC terms, and not observation or feeling or need or request, but I didn't see any reason to tell him that. I translated this last bit into observations ("You don't see anyone in Israel respecting your humanity. You don't see anyone in Israel talking about the difficult lives of normal Palestinian people." etc) and here he really started to calm down.

Finally, he said "I just want someone to tell them my story. I just want someone to talk about how hard it is." I said "I promise I will do that. I will tell people how much you're suffering."

And here I am, and here you are, and here's what I saw in Joseph: He's a 20-year-old kid, everyone around him is trapped and miserable, and there's nothing in his life that lets him hope for anything better. He's totally under someone else's control, and he doesn't have any reason to believe that that someone sees him as a person. He's at an age for making plans, and taking stock of himself, and he feels powerless, hopeless, and invisible.

But powerless and invisible aren't NVC approved feelings. Hopeless might be, but I'm pretty sure that hopeless is a choice. And there are already people telling stories like Joseph's, but those stories aren't getting anywhere. I felt like what we had to do was start changing that story, how it was told and how it was experienced. Or maybe my reasons were less lofty than that. I don't know. Here's the next thing that happened:

Joseph had stopped talking, and no one else had started talking, and I realized that it had to be my turn. I'd promised him I would do what he wanted done, and he thanked me and shook my hand, and then... There were a bunch of people there now, who'd been listening to the two of us, and they just kinda stood around awkwardly for a second. So I said, "Would you consider doing something for me, too?" and Joseph nodded.

"I think this way of talking to each other is really important. I think that being able to listen to each other and make sure we're understanding well is really important. I think that if we all were able to talk to each other this way, even when we aren't talking about the conflict, or talking between Israelis and Palestinians, then it would be a lot easier for us to make peace together. That's really important to me, that people be able to communicate their feelings and needs to each other. Does that make some sense to you?"

Joseph nodded again.

"Would you mind reflecting that back to me, so I can be sure you understand?"

"You think it's good to talk this way, and it will help to make peace."

"Yes," I said, "Thank you. That's exactly what I meant. Do you agree with me?" and he said,


"So could you promise me that you'll try to learn how to use this system, and take it home with you and spread it to your friends and your community, so that we can all get better at this and better able to talk to each other productively?"

He said, "I promise."

I said, "Thank you. Would you mind saying back to me what you promised?"

He smiled really big. "Okay. I promise to learn how to communicate this way and practice it at home with my community so that we can all learn to listen to each other better."

I said "Thank you," and felt huge release in the air. Joseph and I hugged, and then someone else started talking to me and someone else started talking to him, and the whole thing was over, and I didn't really talk to Joseph again at all until the goodbye milling-around time at the end of the whole workshop.

So I don't really know any more about his story, in order to tell you like I promised I would, and I don't really know whether he actually learned any more NVC or took it home with him to his community. But I think he did, and I hope I'm good on my end. I saw, over the rest of the weekend, that Joseph was having some really good conversations with Israelis and Europeans at the workshop, and it seemed like he bought into the whole thing a little more than he had before. He thanked me when we said goodbye and called me "a great man," which kinda made me stammer and blush a bit. I felt, and still feel, really proud of myself that I stuck with the system and got him to see some value in it, while also meeting his need to heard and seen and respected.

I had a conversation with the senior facilitator, towards the end of the workshop, about how to take NVC to a bigger scale. It's all well and good between individuals, it seems to me, but with 4,000,000 people on each side of the wall who feel a need to be listened to, how do you actually use this to make peace? The facilitator, a remarkable woman with a lot of NVC experience, reflected back what I was saying and honored my feelings of frustration. She told me she had the same question, and she didn't know the answer, and she hoped that we would find one. I guess it felt nice to be heard, but still unsatisfying. Compassionate or curious individuals from both sides from have been talking to each other for a long time already, without making a lot of headway. A small group of folks reaching out to each other doesn't seem to do anything when the majorities of both nations are content to fear and blame. In a way, I feel like anyone who voluntarily shows up at an NVC peace-making weekend doesn't really need to be there.

I observe that there is not yet peace, despite the efforts of some people and because of the efforts of others. I feel anger about that. I have an unmet need for effectiveness and progress in pursuing an equal peace. I would like to request that the various parties involved all listen to one another more compassionately. I don't know if that's gonna go anywhere.

So here's the round up:

Was it Good?
Definitely. NVC's a really valuable skillset, and I've enjoyed working with it in the weeks since this seminar. I saw some Israelis and Palestinians bonding with each other, really coming to like each other, who had never even met someone from the other side before. For all the difficulties with translation and facilitation, for all the (possible) excess of self-congratulation, it's hard to say that anything bad could have come from that weekend. So an A+ on goodness.

Was it Effective?
I don't know, really. I know I said that last time, too. I suppose it must have been, to some degree. There are a couple dozen Israelis and Palestinians, now, who can tell one another's stories and communicate a little more effectively with their political opponents. It feels pretty drop-in-the-bucket-y, though, and there's something disheartening in that. At best, I have to hope that small changes from the weekend might spread, somehow, but a lot of small changes in 40 years of occupation haven't spread in the direction I'm hoping for. If there will ever be peace, there must first be weekend workshops of open-minded individuals, but I'm not sure how the one might ever lead to the other.

Next Time
Something both good and effective, but more limited in scope: Future Jewish leaders going into Bethlehem for first-hand (and second-hand) experience of the occupation and its effects.


  1. Yotam- thank you for this detailed, honest (and at times very funny) account of your weekend intensive in the co-existence NVC movement. I had a very similar experience in a Sulhita gathering last fall with probably some of the same people. I also think that the methodology is quite useful and yet wonder how it can be affective with regard to this conflict. Talking and LISTENING are definately important steps to changing action, however it seems that violent action prevails and destroys at a speed much faster than that with which nonviolent action builds.

    I think your "Next Time" idea is a fabulous one! Are you familar with the Encounter Programs? They do almost exactly that! Check them out

    I look forward to more talks and when we find ourselves again in the same part of the world.... Blessings on your Yadventures!


  2. Hey Princess! It's really nice to hear from you! And amusingly enough, Encounter IS the program I'll be writing about next time. I had a really hard/amazing experience, and I want to do more of it.
    Thanks for the kudos. I hope we'll talk this over more in person someday.