Let’s see if can I present this the NVC way, to Marshall Rosenberg and other teachers of Nonviolent Communication:
1: WHEN I READ Marshall Rosenberg’s article …
2: I FEEL angry …
3: BECAUSE I AM NEEDING to protect the vulnerable and powerless wounded-child-within myself and other adults.
4: AND I WOULD LIKE YOU TO take off your giraffe ears and 1) read “The child who refuses to die” with open, human mind and heart, and 2) consider my critique with open, human mind and heart. Are you willing to to look for grains of truth in what I have written, instead of judging if it is right or wrong? I do mean “grain” literally, like one grain of sand on a beach, and I ask you to tell me if you find any.
CRITIQUE OF THE NVC HEALING METHOD:
What NVC calls healing seems to create an automatic switch that derails anger and accusation into a side track of unmet needs.
This can probably be constructive in a mediation situation where there is locked and festering hate between more or less equally strong individuals or groups.
And in his article Rosenberg is using the technique on a person who is carrying deep wounds that her father dealt her when she was a child.
From my point of view, he has overlooked three crucial factors in that situation:
- The extreme disparity between an all-powerful adult and a totally powerless child.
- The default defenses of the child-in-the-adult who has been harmed. Some people have anger and aggression as a default defense, and Marshall Rosenberg’s method might help them. My default defense as a child was empathy and compassion. Trying to heal me the NVC way would be like giving speed to a junkie.
- The need of adults with a wounded-child-within for constructive tools that help them protect and liberate this child.
“Those who cannot remember the past
are condemned to repeat it.”
“Forgiving the Past
by Focusing on the Present.”
If I were to describe NVC in one word, it would be “one-legged”. I often see one thought that I agree with, and need another for balance. As in Rosenberg’s title: I need to focus on the present AND remember and understand the past so that I do not repeat it.
Forgiving is not
relevant in this context. As I see it, forgiveness-pushing is caused by society’s need to protect the powerful from accusations of the powerless.
In my opinion, “forgive”, like “trust”, is not something I can choose to do, forgiveness and trust are a result of the actions of people who deserve forgiveness and trust. The options I have is to look past my assumptions at actual actions … or not.
This I learned before I was six years old, from the example of Soldier and his friends
, WW2 veterans who befriended my family.
I refuse to be nicer than Jesus. On the cross he did not say “I forgive you”
to his tormentors. He did not see that they had unmet needs. He asked his father to forgive them, “for they know not what they do”.
I am no
longer religious, and there is no everlasting torment in my belief system, so my version is: “I know that they did
what they did because they have been harmed. AND they did what they did and own what they did, just
as I do what I do and own what I do.”
I have kept the view of
forgiveness that Catholic nuns taught me in the 50s. Therefore, forgiving
someone is only relevant when they …
- · Realize what they have done
- · Take responsibility for it
- · Resolve not to do it again
- · And show what they are doing to prevent repetition
Back to Marshall
Very often, a lot
of healing work goes on in our trainings. Realize first of all that this takes
place in front of as many as eighty or ninety people, so you might say there
are many witnesses to the efficacy of our approach.
I have two
“Healing” – what is
that? Before I can see what happens as healing, I would need to know
the entity’s situation after one year, five years, ten years. And that goes for NVC, LP, CBT, and the host of other quickfixes that are available.
The person who offered to connect with my pain had been healed the NVC way, and was imprisoned, as I see it, in the collective NVC story of unmet needs.
So … 90 witnesses to the efficacy of what?
regularly tell me they get more out of thirty or forty minutes of what I’ve
done than they received from six or seven years of traditional psychotherapy.
This I can readily believe,
as “traditional psychotherapy” seems to be firmly rooted in myths and
mystifications that deny an unending chain of harm that has been passed on since the dawn of humanity … from adults to children who then become adults who pass it on to new children.
Individuals can liberate themselves from this chain, and not pass on harm to the next generation, but only when they know that the chain is there. 
In my workshops,
we talk very little about what happened in the past. I’ve found that talking
about what happened in the past not only doesn’t help healing; it often
perpetuates and increases pain. This goes very much against what I was taught
in my training in psychoanalysis.
What kind of psychoanalysis?
What methods did Rosenberg learn and use on his patients?
Talking about things that
fit into the collective story that the therapist has learned can perpetuate and increase pain. Here I agree with Marshall
Getting stuck in the past is just as one-legged as only focusing on the present, and fear of pain seems to be a driving force in many different kinds of mental help and healing.
Therapists and other
helpers can only help others as far as they have helped themselves, so I suggest that anyone who is in pain and needs help asks Oriah’s question:
I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it.
Just like physical pain, mental pain is a beacon that can show us where the problems are. Here is my approach to liberation from childhood harm, an approach with four different modes: TELLING, FEELING, THINKING and NEEDING:
From where I stand, being with pain is part of the liberation process, and much of “traditional
psychotherapy” consists of forcing, manipulating or lovingly nudging people from
one mode to another to fill the therapists’ unconscious need to hide or fade or fix pain in areas where
they have not helped themselves.
That is also what I see Marshall Rosenberg doing in this article, within the NVC story of unmet needs.
current pain is stimulated by the past, and we don’t deny how the past is
affecting the present.
He does not deny that the past is affecting the present, but stating that pain is “stimulated” by the past, is IMO a denial of how the past is affecting the present.
Here is this huge word “heal” again.
But I’ve learned over the years that you heal by talking about what’s going on in the moment, in the now.
From my POV, the now is one leg, the past is another, and I need both.
And who is “you”? I, for
one, have not healed by talking about the moment. I am in a constant process of liberating myself from collective stories by telling, feeling, thinking and becoming aware of what I need – and I hope to continue doing so as long as I live.
Marshall Rosenberg writes:
How do I do this?
In workshops, I often play the role of the person who stimulated most of the
other person’s pain in the past. Not infrequently this is a parent. I might be
playing the role of a father who beat or sexually molested this person as a
At the word “stimulate” in connection with childhood harm, I call bullshit: “A statement presented as truth in order to strengthen a story”.
I accept this as part of the collective NVC story, and state that it is not a universal truth, and it does not belong in my personal story.
Has Marshall Rosenberg
ever been with a child who says “Daddy sticks his peepee in my bottom”? I was
looking at a photo album with one, and we came to a picture of the child at 18
months, wrapped in a towel, recently recovered from hard crying, and the child suddenly realized something: “That’s
when it started. When he was changing my diapers.”
in a situation like this, begin to play the role of the person who “stimulated”
pain by raping a baby anally? 
Saying that adults
“stimulate” pain is a very strong filter, a denial of what actually happened.
People who beat children, who use children sexually, who mentally torture children
… those people do not stimulate pain, they cause the pain of the children.
And people who harm others own their actions.
That is one leg.
What they do does not
mean that they are beaters, rapists, torturers. They are people, fellow human beings who have themselves been harmed.
That is the other leg.
I need both legs to
liberate myself from the past.
So now I’m
sitting with this person who’s been in pain for years, and I play the role of
the person who is the stimulus for the pain as though that individual knows
Nonviolent Communication. I begin with empathy and say, “What’s still alive in
you as a result of what I have done?”
See, we’re not
going into the past and talking about what I did, but about what’s alive in you
now that’s still there from what happened in the past.
Here I found an explanation of “alive”: “To say clearly what’s alive in us at any given moment we have to be clear about what we feel and what we need.” Could someone please tell me why Rosenberg doesn’t just ask “What do you feel and what do you need as a result of what I-roleplaying-your-father have done?”
And I do not understand the “still there from what happened in the past”. Explanations would be very welcome.
The translator in me does get a whiff of bullshit whenever something that can be stated simply and transparently is jargonized, but I’ll let that lie.
Often the person
doesn’t know NVC, so they don’t know how to tell me what’s alive in them except
through diagnosis: “How could you do it? You know, you were cruel. How could a
father beat a child that way?”
I call bullshit again. In no way can I identify
those three sentences as “diagnosis”. I see two questions and one accusation:
You know, you were cruel.
How could a father beat a child that way?”
As I see it, children
need to accuse powerful people who have harmed them, and they need answers to their questions.
In NVC we know
that all these diagnoses are just tragic expressions of what a person is
feeling and needing at this moment.
I am outside the collective NVC story, and I
do not know this. I see Marshall Rosenberg nudging someone out of their individual story:
father, I empathically connect with her pain, even if she isn’t expressing it
in a very clear way.
My inner klaxons and warning flags go berserk when Marshall Rosenberg, role-playing the father, imagines
that he connects with her pain.
Marshall Rosenberg states elsewhere that “Intellectual understanding blocks empathy”. I do not agree. I have learned through painful experience that I need to reality check what I feel before I believe it is empathy and act on it. So to me, feeling is one leg of empathy, thinking is the other.
Without intellectual understanding, there is the illusion that “This is Truth because I feel it”, and I call that “mirror empathy” – responding to a reflection of our own emotions. The word “projection” is so loaded that I prefer not to use it. Is Rosenberg in mirror-empathy mode? He knows nothing about the woman, nothing about the person who harmed her, and yet he knows without intellectual understanding that he is connecting with her pain and healing her. In front of 90 spectators.
I’ve been googling, and “been fully understood” and “receive understanding” seems to mean “they feel that I have understood them”. I would greatly appreciate it if someone explains why this has been jargonized, and I ask to be corrected if I have misunderstood it in this context:
I continue until
they have been fully understood about what’s alive in them now that’s still so
And then when
they have received all the understanding they need, I mourn – still in the role
of the father. Not apologize, but mourn.
I call bullshit. A huge, stinking pile of bullshit!
The story Marshall
Rosenberg has told so far, looks to me like a story of avoidance of
As I see it, children
whom adults have harmed need to hear this:
“I have harmed you. I cannot ask your forgiveness – that would be to cheapen your hurts and my responsibility for them. I can only say that I see you. I feel your pain. I see the scars you have kept hidden for such a long time. I see what I have done, and I take the responsibility for it, and when I do that, I can see your strength and your courage.” (From “The child who refuses to die”)
And if the people who
harmed cannot or will not say this, they need to hear it from others:
“They did it. They harmed you. I see you. I feel your pain. I see the scars you have kept hidden for such a long time. I see what they have done, and I give them the responsibility for it, and when I do that, I can see your strength and your courage.”
NVC shows us a
big difference between mourning and apology. Apology is basically part of our
violent language. It implies wrongness — that you should be blamed, that you
should be penitent, that you’re a terrible person for what you did. And when
you agree that you are a horrible person and when you have become sufficiently
penitent, you can be forgiven. Sorry is part of that game, you see. If you hate
yourself enough, you can be forgiven.
Instead of apology, Rosenberg has chosen “mourning”. And that would be appropriate if Rosenberg was addressing someone who has harmed a child, if responsibility was added later. In this role-playing he is addressing a wounded child, role-playing the one who gave her the wounds.
I choose “responsibility”. From where I stand, rejecting the apology game without responsibility leads to the “Let’s pretend it never really happened” game, which is just as harmful.
To me, sorting responsibility is an important tool for liberation from the past – seeing who owns what.
Another tool is “allow”: To respectfully and lovingly allow the vulnerable in us to connect with us, in safe surroundings, as described in my “story of shame”. And I do not see how that can be done without responsibility.
In what he considers a healing role-playing with a person in pain, Rosenberg now seems to be speaking directly to one who has harmed a child:
Now, in contrast, what is really healing for people is not that game where we agree that we’re terrible, but rather going inside yourself and seeing what need of yours was not met by the behavior.
If this had been Marshall Rosenberg’s personal story, I could accept and respect it. As it is the base of NVC healing, and people get paid for teaching it, I call bullshit.
There are some grains of truth in the NVC unmet needs thing. And something very important is missing in Rosenberg’s reasoning:
We are who we are, and we do what we do.
We are human beings with an inalienable right to dignity. And there is no dignity in being treated like children who need to be protected from the consequences of our actions. We do not honour people by excusing them, we honour them by giving them what they do, be it constructive or destructive.
I have written more about this in “Honouring my strong and broken mother”.
And as I see it, we can
only truly own the harm we do to ourselves and to others when we have given back to the powerful
what they did to us when we were powerless.  That has absolutely nothing to do
with apology or agreeing that anyone is horrible.
Moralistic judgments are irrelevant, actions and responsibility are important:
What did X do?
What did I do?
What does X own?
What do I own?”
And when you are in touch with that, you feel a different kind of suffering. You feel a natural suffering, a kind of suffering that leads to learning and healing, not to hatred of oneself, not to guilt.
I see some grains of truth here in the NVC context of unmet needs, and I can use similar sentences to describe the pain of giving and taking responsibility for actions, which I see as a part of the process of liberation.
So, in the role
of the father, having empathized with my daughter, I then mourn. I might say
something like, “I feel terribly sad to see that my way of handling my pain at
the time could result stimulate so much pain for you. And my needs were not met
by that. My needs were just the opposite, to contribute to your well-being.”
Will someone please show me how Marshall Rosenberg-as-the-father has empathized with his daughter? I can only see Marshall Rosenberg-the-NVC-teacher fading and fixing the guilt and self-hatred of a person who has harmed a child. With grains of truth, by all means, but void of responsibility.
When responsibility is taken from adults who have harmed children, it imprisons their victims in the Blame, Shame, Burden and Guilt of their childhood.
In Marshall Rosenberg’s description I see a story that manipulates a child who has been harmed into feeling sorry for the person who harmed her. Something many children are much too good at doing anyway.
I do not know if Rosenberg is repeating his own past in this reenactment, but I will assert that he shows a very clear avoidance of responsibility.
How can you ask for understanding when you won’t say what you did?
– Andy Conner, “Remanded in Custody”
From my point of view, Rosenberg is describing an act of violence: An invasion of a woman’s individual story, dignity and integrity.
mourning, the next step is for the father to explain to the daughter what was
alive in him when he did those horrible things in the past. We do go into the
past at this point, not to talk about what happened but to help the daughter
see what was alive in the father at the time he did this.
In some cases the
father might sound like this: “I was in such pain in so many parts of my life —
my work wasn’t going well, I was feeling like a failure. So when I would see
you and your brother screaming, I didn’t know what else to do to handle my pain
except in the brutal way that I did.”
I see much of traditional psychotherapy as a labyrinth of “They did it because …”. And “because” is only an explanation, it does not excuse or undo what has been done. What Rosenberg describes looks to me like a variation of the same labyrinth: “I did it because …”
Of course persons who have grievously harmed others have a right to tell their story, and I wish for all of them that they meet someone who can understand them and be with them in their stories and their pain “without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it” – and also allow them the dignity of responsibility.
And persons who have harmed have absolutely no right to tell these stories to their victims without owning what they have done! And not even then if the victims don’t want to hear it!
And no one, ever, has a right to tell a powerless victim their subjective version of an all-powerful perpetrator’s story with no mention of responsibility, as Rosenberg does!
So … why does a room full of people see “much healing”?
When the father
can honestly express what was alive in him, and the daughter can empathize with
that, and can see that, it’s amazing how much healing can take place. What’s
surprising for some people is that all of this can happen in an hour — and in
front a room full of people.
I think it is because of
the, albeit one-legged, insights that Marshall Rosenberg imparts during this process: the unmet needs, his avoidance of apology and perpetrator blame, shame, burden and guilt. His conviction, which I
share, that people who harm children are not evil, even if he and I see the “why”
And from what I saw in
the workshop, NVC methods can help people get in touch with frozen emotions and vulnerability that has been blocked by anger, fear and shame …
that can also be seen as healing.
And why do I see an act of violence?
Rosenberg communicates many constructive thoughts in this article, I do realize that, even if there is not room for all of me in NVC. And, as I see it, these thoughts and methods belong in mediation between equals.
In a context of liberation from childhood harm, these thoughts belong in a Power Point presentation, in my opinion, and certainly
not as one-on-one-roleplaying in front of an audience, where a powerless childhood victim of harm is manipulated into empathizing with the all-powerful person who harmed.
And I cannot ever sanction the winkling out of emotion and vulnerability in front of an audience! I have met too many people who have been doubly wounded by methods like this.
The essence of trauma is powerlessness + bullshit + isolation, and from my POV the bullshitting of a powerless, traumatized child-in-an-adult who is isolated in front of an audience is an act of retraumatization, no matter how excellent the intentions behind these actions are.
Rosenberg, Ph.D. is the author of the internationally acclaimed Nonviolent
Communication: A Language of Life, Speak Peace in a World of Conflict, and
several other books and booklets.
If you know that you have been healed in the way Rosenberg describes here, I accept that as your story. This healing method might be constructive for some people, even for many. But not for all. And I have written this for people like me, who do not fit into the collective story of NVC.
Many years ago, I was at a summer camp arranged by a Support Centre Against Incest. The collective story was similar to the one in the introduction, and the children who were there knew that story. One day they spontaneously arranged a parade – marching around, banging cans and pots and shouting rhythmically:
WE SHALL NO LONGER BE SILENT!
IT WASN’T OUR FAULT!
Yelling and can-banging is also a part of the healing process … which I prefer to see as liberation, in this case from the prison of Blame, Shame, Burden and Guilt.
I hope these children got the help they needed, and I fear that some of them did not, because similar doubts and criticisms to those I have mentioned here can be expressed about many different kinds of help, both within the health system and in the jungle of alternative teachings.
“Medical model of mental illness”, anyone? Or “The Work” by Byron Katie, where people heal by transforming “he raped me” into “I raped him”?
I’m not going there now. But I welcome feedback on what I have written. Disagreement, agreement, the pointing out of … points … that I have missed, all will be accepted with open mind and heart.
I promise to look for grains of truth in everything, and I leave you with Theodore Sturgeon’s greeting to the vulnerable in us, from a “Saucer of loneliness”:
There is in certain living souls
a quality of loneliness unspeakable,
so great it must be shared
as company is shared by lesser
Such a loneliness is mine; so know
that in immensity there is one
lonelier than you.
(…) And even to loneliness there
is an end,
for those who are lonely enough,