The Practice of Non-Violent Communication

By Kathleen Gerace

The practice of nonviolent communication has never seemed more urgent – or relevant– than it does at the present moment in our history. Before the latest tragic mass shooting in Texas, and before Las Vegas, and before Charlottesville, and before Ferguson, and even before Columbine, there was Detroit. From June 20th to 22nd in 1943 an enormous riot left thirty-four people killed, over 600 injured, and the whole city in a state of panic and fear. One of the people in that city was an eight- year-old boy named Marshall Rosenberg, who had just moved in the week before. Young Marshall and his family didn’t leave the house during those harrowing three days, but he saw the gruesome violence of the riots and wondered “Why do people do this?”

Alongside this terrifying event, Rosenberg saw his own family, which was very affectionate and loving. This left him with two questions that would become his life’s work: what gets into us that brings out such violence? and how can we unleash our compassionate nature? He became the first member of his family to go to college, but even after earning a doctorate in psychology he found the answers to those two questions as elusive as ever. It was only after years of study that he developed Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life and began leading workshops worldwide. Rosenberg has worked with groups in many varied contexts, from parenting to business and from health care to prisons. He engaged in conflict resolution on an international stage, working in some of the world’s most conflicted regions and making significant progress where many before him failed. He led workshops on five separate continents, including global conflict zones Rwanda, Serbia, and Indonesia.

“I don’t think any human being does anything except for good reasons,”  Rosenberg wrote in his book Seek Peace in A World of Conflict. “And what are those good reasons? To meet a need. Everything we do is in the service of needs. The “good reasons” that he identifies do not justify the behavior or imply anything “good” about the results. What is good about the reasons is that they are understandable and relatable in their universality. They are reasonable desires and needs that we all share. They offer us a glimpse into our common humanity, and accustom us to seek and recognize what is familiar within one another, rather than focusing on the things that alienate us and make us so glaringly different.” (Marc Elbaum, “Bad Actions, Good People”, Huffington Post, Aug. 23, 2017)

Rosenberg’s approach is further explained by Joe Recchie as follows: “Peace requires empathizing with the fears and unmet needs that provide the impetus for people to attack each other. Their unmet needs may be for connection, belonging, respect or safety. In the practice of NVC, we go there, try to help in identifying these unmet needs and address them; at the personal level and at the societal level. Once our former adversary feels that their intentions are understood we can then collaborate with them to find better strategies that meet everyone’s needs.” (Compassionate Communication Center of Ohio,August 19, 2017).

Marshall Rosenberg passed away in 2015, but he left behind a global community of people inspired by his work. Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, is one of them. “Microsoft’s CEO has stopped infighting, restored morale, and created more than $250 billion in market value… One of Nadella’s first acts after becoming CEO, in February 2014, was to ask the company’s top executives to read Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, a treatise on empathic collaboration. Rosenberg describes the concept as ‘a way of being very honest, without any criticism, insults, or put-downs, and without any intellectual diagnosis implying wrongness.’” Harry McCracken, “Satya Nadella Rewrites Microsoft’s Code,” Fast Company, quoted by Ben Kerschberg, “5 Technology Articles You Must Read Today,” Forbes Magazine, September 18, 2017

Here in Pittsburgh, a small group of us gathered to form Compassionate Pittsburgh in 2013. Our mission is to promote peace, eliminate violence, and work through conflict systematically using Nonviolent Communication (NVC) principles and practices. We host an open public workshop on the first Saturday of each month at Homewood Library from 1:00 PM to 3:00 PM. We are sponsoring an introduction to NVC this spring on three Sundays from 1:00 to 5:00 pm, March 11th & 25th and April 8th at Winchester Thurston School, corner of Morewood and Ellsworth Ave. For more information about us and upcoming events please visit or email

Kathleen Gerace is a member of the steering committee of Compassionate Pittsburgh and a Chaplain at UPMC Mercy Hospital.

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