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The subtle violence of nonviolent language.

and now nothing will be impossible for them, which they have imagined to
do. Come, let us go down, and there confound their language....
--Gen. 11:6

These thoughts are occasioned by a training video (1) by Marshall Rosenberg, a 200-minute condensation of a full-day workshop given in San Francisco by his Center for Nonviolent Communication. On the Center's web site (2) can be seen the variety of audiences the Center has reached since 1984, in public workshops and invited sessions with prison populations and warring factions in the world's most intractable regions. That history is also seen in Rosenberg's presentation, in frequent anecdotes that are humbling as well as inspiring, testimony to an extraordinary career of teaching, even in desperate settings, a language of the heart.

The essentials are easy to relate. Communication suffers if evaluation and judgment are confused with observation; if diagnosis of another person's inner state stands in the way of listening and seeing; if feelings and analyses, needs, wants, and strategies, requests and demands are not carefully distinguished. Quick to acknowledge these insights aren't new, Rosenberg does a spellbinding job of renewing them. When we neglect to draw those distinctions it is not because they are mysterious, but because they sound transparently simple and real exchanges, especially when heated, aren't. Rosenberg shines in the workshop format when he guides attendees through the subtle and demanding cognitive work needed to distinguish, say, observing from evaluating, when the conversation matters.

I emphasize that it's cognitive work because Rosenberg does not. Having dubbed his nonviolent communication also "the language of the heart," he offers a dim view of the place for thinking in such a language, speaking of "Who's Right?... a game where everybody loses," (3) and suggesting that "any time you're thinking, your chance of getting what you need is greatly decreased." (4) I hoped at first that was a bit of hyperbole to hold my attention while a more nuanced picture could develop, but he returns to it often in the half-day video, and as baldly. The effect is a curious picture of a man adroitly doing very fine, attentive thinking while insisting that it's not the thing to do. I do not see this inconsistency as a mark against him, but almost as the opposite, as a sign of the life in his learning and his teaching. As learning animals from a long line who picked up abstract thinking much more lately, we often find, when devoted to learning a thing, that we're becoming better at it than we yet know how to explain; I suspect that is happening to him.

What's going on? It seems to me there are two packages in his presentation. In the first package are the essential ideas and practices of nonviolent communication, the admonitions to listen attentively and speak without presumption whose history is ancient but whose application so often falls short. In the second package is a theoretical reflection: an effort toward a picture of our nature, history, and culture that will explain why we have such persistent trouble with the first. It is the question bound to haunt anyone who does what Rosenberg does, to give his work the spiritual dimension he finds in it. "I have tried to integrate the spirituality," he writes, "... in a way that meets my need not to destroy the beauty of it through abstract philosophizing." (5) It is natural, even so, that he should be drawn to the prospect of explanation. That prospect he finds in the work of theologian Walter Wink.

To be human

Rosenberg frequently credits the work on 'domination systems' by Wink, and as I do not know it first hand, I can summarize only Rosenberg's formulation. It leads Rosenberg to place at about 5,000 years ago (6) the origins of a way of thinking that has shaped human relations and institutions ever since, demanding a view of humans on which we are innately evil, motivating domination systems to control us, and eclipsing our original nature. That nature Rosenberg suggests with a song by his collaborator Ruth Bebermeyer celebrating 'natural giving'--the pleasure of spontaneous acts, under no obligation, that make our own lives and others' more wonderful. (7)

If domination-system imagery is common in our culture, that of Eden and the Fall is hardly less so, and any other week this picture might have given no more than a passing furrow to my brow. But the week I watched the video was the week after a pair of chimpanzees--my close phylogenetic cousins--sensationally chewed the face off a 62-year-old man cutting cake for a birthday, and that left me pensive. (8)

I do not mention this to defend the innately evil view. I have no more use than Rosenberg for such a picture--of us, or even of the chimps. To be sure, the popular image of funny, human-like companions with a taste for cake is incomplete. The image may be comfortable but it is no preparation for walking into their sanctuaries. They are a mixed bag; how could we, with our common inheritance and all our later invention, be less so?

Nor do I mean to lower expectations for human relationships. When I listen to those people most opposed to recognizing our kinship with the chimps, that seems to be their driving concern: if we are such close kin, isn't it unnatural to expect us to act differently? But there is a completely different way to look at it. Can we bring our best selves to our interactions without an unblinking look at what we can bring and how we came by it? We are the chimps' reasoning cousins, and it is exactly our nature--our birthright--to reflect on what we do, and to see more ways of resolving a conflict than might occur to a chimp. That's something in our bag the chimps haven't got, earned at untold cost, preserved and passed on if we value it. Rosenberg demonstrates it unmistakably when role-playing with his audience.

But what to make of the rest of his presentation? Following Wink, he sees in everything we conventionally learn about communication and relationships the shadow of domination systems. He uses the image of the jackal (in earlier writing also the wolf and the snake), and such terms as jackal-thinking, life-alienated language, and life-alienated consciousness, to describe those styles of thinking and expression. (9) Into that bin he sorts all language that hints of evaluation, moral judgment, guilt, obligation, or penitence, right, wrong, good, bad, ought.

Just how seriously he means that is not clear, but it is more seriously than I first suspected. His advice to a giraffe--symbolizing, because of its large heart, a nonviolent communicator--when interacting with a jackal is "do not hear thoughts." (10) Listen, instead, only for feelings and needs behind the thoughts: "All needs are universal; every human being in the world has the same needs." (11) In that way, "all you can hear is the only thing human beings are ever saying: 'please' and 'thank you'"; more elaborate dispatches from a neighboring human mind boil down to "tragic, suicidal expressions of 'please.'" (12)

Curious which of my own needs I could find there, I paid a visit to the CNVC "needs inventory" page, a commodious list. (13) It would be hard to feel completely left out, but easy to wonder just what it means in the end to claim universality of needs, beyond the obvious ones, at all. I am not sure how seriously Rosenberg intends this, either. I have quoted him on his need not to destroy the beauty of his work through philosophizing, which might be less than universal; the poet John Ciardi, for whom beauty was in league with clear thought, may have felt a different need in its place.

Something in me is not fed by the notion of people in monotonous search of a few unchanging needs, whose curious preference to view themselves, their fellows, and the achievements of culture as something more magnificent than that only makes everything more complicated. That this picture can have popular appeal perennially surprises me. Linda Elder, reviewing Daniel Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence, finds an eagerness to generalize upward from work in psychology or neuroscience, even at the very frontiers, as if it could supplant, rather than complement, all that the humanities already tell us about ourselves. (14) While she was responding to Goleman specifically, and I will suggest that a more generous reading of him is possible, I do think she has her finger on something more widespread. The picture of ourselves that we get from history, literature, and art is challenging and complex. It will not meet a need for pat answers, and it's just what's missing when Rosenberg casts jackals and giraffes to play our parts, or writes that we need to be as smart as bees and dogs. (15) "Better to be guessing wrong about what a person's need is," he maintains in his workshop, than "hearing what they think." (16) I am not sure that is a recipe for nonviolence, when what so many desperately need is that their fully human minds be fairly heard.


Rosenberg seems to have built on a theme of Wink's, that a domination system trains people to think in ways that support the system. Naturally, in his teaching he will aim to discourage thinking in those ways. Is it from simple haste that he does not try to suggest what is different about thinking in ways that support domination systems and ways that do not, and how to tell them apart? Or is it reason plain and simple, our chief distinction among bees and dogs, giraffes, jackals, and (by a narrower margin) chimpanzees, reason in itself that he lists on the side of domination?

The question gathers interest in light of the kinship between his nonviolent communication and an older term, critical thinking. Bertrand Russell, long a believer in kindness and clear thinking, recalls how he gradually came less to see them as two distinct things. (17) Many still do; some surprise may greet my suggestion that nonviolent communication and critical thinking have anything to do with one another. Rosenberg recounts often hearing from participants "this is essentially what their religion says. It's old stuff, they know this stuff, and they're grateful for this manifestation, but it's nothing new." (18) The same comparison, but to critical thinking, is less eagerly drawn, and yet major ingredients--attentive listening, careful distinction between observation and evaluation, fairmindedness, and clear, respectful expression-all are there. Why the discomfort?

One element seems to be that, in what amounts to an accidental pun, we hear the 'critical' in critical thinking in its other meaning of 'disputatious,' and conclude that critical thinking is something nice people don't do. This is not the deeper element; one could imagine that had a more market-tested name been chosen, 'careful' or 'mindful' thinking, perhaps, the difficulty might have been avoided.

The deeper element is hard to miss. We have all seen the skills and language appropriate to critical thinking used to play zero-sum games, to silence or humiliate 'opponents' with a convincing, even exaggerated, appearance of intellectual rigor, untempered by the humility, integrity, and fairmindedness that critical thinking properly entails. It is the stuff of partisan debates, Internet discussion boards and, all too often, our own conversations. Richard Paul has the term weak-sense critical thinking (19) for this use of the trappings without the substance, so often rewarded more generously than the genuine article. It is for many, and apparently for Rosenberg, the first or only association that 'critical thinking' brings to mind. It is the thinking that, as Rosenberg puts it, only makes someone wrong; it does no service to nonviolent communication. But it is not critical thinking in the strong sense. To send up critical thinking on a bad rap, a case of mistaken identity, would do no service either. In the strong sense, it is not what Rosenberg is opposing: it is what, at his best, he is modeling.

Moral judgment

Paul's distinction between weak-sense and strong-sense brings a useful lens to Rosenberg's work, because other forms of communication Rosenberg finds counterproductive can also be seen as weak-sense versions of what, in the strong sense, is priceless. Rosenberg discourages moralistic language, meaning most clearly the language used to label others or their actions as bad, to impose guilt, shame, punishment, to demand apology or penitence. Giraffes do not need to know that they or others are right or wrong, good or bad; they explore strategies for getting everybody's needs met, and make adjustments when those strategies have unwanted effects. Although giraffes do not apologize, with the implication that someone was wrong or bad, there is a place in Rosenberg's view for "giraffe mourning"--to acknowledge that a strategy had an unintended effect, perhaps even "to feel bad" that things turned out that way. It is, Rosenberg ventures, "a sweet bad." (20)

But if giraffe mourning is sweet, how much sweeter when things can be kept from turning out that way? Real giraffes, the spotted kind, may seldom take actions that concern more than a few other giraffes, or have more than a passing effect. Our own actions may have effects of a scale on which sweet mourning might seem parsimonious. To compensate, we also have a non-giraffe ability, imperfect as it may be, to work to understand the likely effects of our strategies before they have to be mourned. That is moral reasoning in the strong sense, and that is why we need it.

Rosenberg is warning of a weak sense that looks back, seeking to label and blame after the fact. But it would be too simple to discourage all attention to the past. Giraffe mourning surely carries a wish not to do something quite the same way again--a wish that, without a sincere effort to understand what happened in its moral dimension, would be insubstantial. Mourning so lacking in substance can seem parsimonious indeed.

To put aside moral reasoning without distinguishing the strong sense from the weak is to put aside something we need to make sense even of Rosenberg's chosen examples. Some points he illustrates with reflections on Nazi Germany, but what are we to make of them if moral language is off limits?

His pragmatic point is simple enough: "if we are even thinking that what somebody else does is wrong, it decreases the likelihood that we will get what we want." (21) Non-judgmental language may work better. It is a point well taken even if the Holocaust represents an extreme case where just how the principle could be applied is not clear. Surely we all would have welcomed an effective and less sanguinary way to get the Third Reich's program stopped--precisely because we share a language in which we could begin to comprehend that program, and reach agreement that it should be stopped.

Rosenberg would probably count this example among cases where 'protective force' is appropriate, a concept he explicitly allows. (22) Here the extreme nature of the Holocaust makes the picture simple: who would disagree? But subsequent history has not been kind to the notion that protective force is easily known when one sees it. To those who do not recognize a particular use of force as protective, there is no other name for it than violence. To keep our language from sliding into a mere supply of euphemisms to the strong, we do not need moral labeling or bullying; we do need moral reasoning of the most painstaking kind.


By this point the question may be whether I am not trying to stand Rosenberg's teaching on its head. He has focused on feeling to the exclusion of thinking; have I then concentrated on thinking, to the exclusion of feeling? To me, the question involves a popular stereotype, the idea that thinking, to put it bluntly, is unfeeling, and feeling is unthinking. Here I return to Linda Elder's review of Daniel Goleman's popular 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence, a book Rosenberg refers to, and one bound to come up in this connection. Elder confronts the same notion:
 In this view one must give up the possibility of a rich emotional
 life if one decides to become a rational person. Likewise, one must
 give up rationality if one is to live life as a passionate, highly
 motivated person would.
 These ways of talking do not, in my view, make sense of who and
 what we are. Rather they support a myth that is an albatross on all
 our thinking about who and what we are.... They lead us to think of
 thought and emotion as if they were oil and water, rather than
 inseparable constituents of human cognition. (23)

Elder's review of the book is unflattering, driven by her concern that Goleman unwittingly perpetuates that stereotype. My own sense of the book is that there is more in it than she has credited and, in particular, it seems that Goleman is aware of the same popular image, agrees that it is unconstructive, and has made his own effort to dispel it. In great part, his book is that effort. He goes a different way about it than Elder would, a way that does have the pitfalls she points out. His writing sometimes sounds the notes of the very commonplaces he means to dispel, as when he writes that the "new paradigm urges us to harmonize head and heart," (24) invoking the familiar compartments even as he advocates a holistic view. I suspect Elder would prefer to see a cleaner break, and her preference is understandable, given the stereotype's mounting cost. At the same time, the dichotomy is so ingrown in popular language that it is hard to imagine how Goleman could altogether avoid the trap.

In the end, I wonder if Elder is reacting more to the stereotype's prominence in the culture than to its prominence in Goleman's book, and perhaps has not recognized an ally. She and Goleman both maintain that thinking and feeling are inseparably entwined. She writes, opposing the popular wisdom, that a "truly intelligent person is not a disembodied intellect functioning in an emotional wasteland, but a deeply committed mindful person, full of passion and high values, engaged in effective reasoning, sound judgment, and wise conduct." (25) Goleman writes, "The question is, how can we bring intelligence to our emotions--and civility to our streets and caring to our communal life?" (26)

They echo not only each other, but also the rational-emotive therapy of Albert Ellis from the 1950s, (27) which Elder seems just short of reinventing. That work offers a way to mend the difficulty in her references to rational "command" of our emotional life. It is not, of course, that we can ever simply command our feelings about a situation--but we do choose what to do with them, and it often enough happens that our choosing to think differently about the situation will alter the feelings in due course. Goleman stretches a quantum-physics metaphor for the same idea: "bringing cognizance to the realm of feeling has an effect something like the impact of an observer ... altering what is being observed." (28)

There is a core of insight in Elder's review that brings this exploration full circle. Alongside the commonplace division of the mind's abilities into thinking, feeling, and will, there is another division that cuts across those, and it is the same one I have already mentioned in connection with critical thinking and again with moral reasoning. Most anything, it seems, can be practiced in a strong sense of commitment to its highest values, or in a weak sense, its trappings displayed for effect. The common caricatures of "emotional" or "rational" dispositions may be misplaced observations of what happens to the exquisitely tangled interplay of these that is human, when the strong-sense commitment falters.

To those caricatures of thinking and feeling that ultimately diminish both, Goleman and Elder (and Ellis) offer hopeful alternatives. Goleman's book offers more besides: its examples of teaching for emotional literacy in childhood and later, and their preliminary indications of success, suggest a call to action. The book contains, in fact, much of the essence of Rosenberg's nonviolent communication, free of the impatience with thinking that colors Rosenberg's approach.


I want now to pick up a thread from Rosenberg's work that seems to lead in a new direction. He names ingredients of a successful domination system; one is Amtssprache, (29) a word he ascribes to Adolf Eichmann and renders as "a bureaucratic language that denies choice, with words like 'should,' 'have to,' 'ought'" (30)--a language said to have made it easy for Eichmann to send trains of human cargo to the camps.

Rosenberg cites Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt's report of Eichmann's capture in Argentina and trial in an Israeli court fifteen years after the end of the war. (31) I had not read the book, and welcomed the opportunity; something about Amtssprache wanted to be pinned down. It is a common enough word in its plain, dictionary meaning: the official language designated for government affairs and publications, as in Germany the Amtssprache is German. Informally, it can also connote something windy and jargon-laden, like 'bureaucratese.' How and when did it gain the sense Rosenberg gives it? And was its key distinction a sense of obligation, fitting so neatly Rosenberg's own misgivings about 'should,' 'have to,' and 'ought,' or some other distinctive feature?

I learned that there were two different terms applied in Arendt's book to describe language used by Eichmann or his colleagues; it may be that Rosenberg's memory fused the two. Amtssprache was introduced first, but not for any role in oiling the wheels of destruction. In answer to a question at trial, Eichmann had offered a senseless cliche from card games, and when he was unable to assist the baffled judge by thinking of any other way to put it, he apologized, "Amtssprache is my only language." (32) Arendt renders the word as 'officialese' and nothing more. Her point is not about language but about Eichmann: the backslapping lingo of empty buzzwords and sporting metaphors passing for literacy with Willy Loman and Dilbert's pointy-haired boss was Eichmann's native tongue because it fit him to a T. The world followed his trial hoping to learn what kind of person can administer the incomprehensible, and found Willy Loman after all, canned from his traveling sales gig with the Vacuum Oil Company, joining the National Socialists with no curiosity to learn what they were about, and for no particular reason joining the SS rather than a Freemasons lodge devoted to humorous banquet speeches. (33)

He was not often troubled by conscience, not because he did no moral reasoning but because what reasoning he did rewarded him with suitable conclusions. At Judge Raveh's incredulous question, he was able to state Kant's categorical imperative almost clearly. (34) He had a "household" version, however, that he lived by, different only in a verbal detail--and a world of consequences. Arendt subtitled her book a report on the banality of evil for its most uncomfortable reflection: to bring about such unutterable mourning, little more may be required than muzzy thinking.

The second language feature Arendt reported was Sprachregelung, literally speech rule, a contrived or stylized form of speech, and it may be closer to what Rosenberg noted. It was used deliberately among officials involved in the Final Solution. Arendt did not emphasize, though, a choice-denying quality, a freight of 'should,' 'have to,' or 'ought.' In fact, Eichmann chillingly anticipates Rosenberg's sophistication on that point:
 They were not ordered around, for the simple reason that if the
 chief officials had been told what to do in the form of: you must,
 you have to, that would not have helped matters any. If the person
 in question does not like what he is doing, the whole works will
 suffer. We did our best to make everything somehow palatable. (35)

The passage is from the most agonizing section of the book, that detailing the assistance of Councils of Jewish Elders in getting their own neighbors registered, ticketed, and off to the stations on time. Eichmann was describing his interactions with them.

The feature of the official Sprachregelung that Arendt did emphasize is, what is hardly surprising, its surrender to euphemism. Deportation became "change of residence" or "resettlement"; killing became "evacuation" or "special treatment" (Sonderbehandlung, as in an upgrade to a VIP suite); the extermination camps were the "charitable foundations for institutional care." (36)

The Final Solution demonstrated such language stylings in nakedly horrible form, but they are not without more modest parallels. Erving Goffman's 1957 paper "On the characteristics of total institutions" (37) is concerned with the many forms of human social structure that acquire substantially total control of individuals. The Nazi camps furnish many examples, but Goffman explored as well such institutions as prisons, nursing homes, religious orders, the mental hospitals of the time, and military units. Some are voluntarily joined, some not; some confer social prestige, others social stigma, still others neither. What binds them into a coherent category is their immersive character. What makes the category interesting is the range of features Goffman finds common across institutions with such different images and goals.

One common feature is that a small population exercises great authority over a larger one, (38) one of Walter Wink's marks of a domination system. Just as Wink would have it, success involves shaping members' attitudes toward self in the system's interest. Some total institutions hold out that reshaping of self as an explicit goal. Each, in Goffman's words, "is a natural experiment on what can be done to the self." (39)

The first thing such institutions usually do to the self is unravel it, whether or not that purpose is overt. A few ways they accomplish that reappear across the spectrum of institutional types. Goffman does not mean only those arrangements--systematic privation and physical brutality, radical isolation, and the like--that may immediately come to mind. There are others not peculiar to total institutions, but exhibited by them "to an intense degree." (40) His findings offer cautions for everyday life. "Analysis of these processes," Goffman writes, "can help us to see the arrangements that ordinary establishments must guarantee" lest they bring about the same effect. (41)

Goffman reports that a contrived language is not unusual, tailored to the objectives and ideals an institution professes to the outside world. From the inside, an individual may find the "facts of his life given a translated ideal phrasing by the staff that mocks the normal use of language." (42) Goffman presents a side of the picture unexplored by Arendt or Rosenberg: a Sprachregelung does not serve only as a convenience to the staff, making the difficult parts of a job somehow palatable. When used with, or to be overheard by, the individual concerned, on whom its mockery of plain conditions will not be lost, it is itself an instrument of the psychological violence being done. It strikes at a central prerogative of the self: to offer and ask communication in language that is true to its task.

A distinction by Rosenberg illustrates how a speech rule can ring false: "we don't moralistically judge the person for what they did; we judge whether it's serving life or not." (43) Granting the point that it is more constructive to judge the act than the person, which can be addressed without the new styling of "serving life," the new formula has the same problems that elsewhere elicit Rosenberg's jackal howl. To say another's act is serving life or not, I must be claiming I can tell the difference. That I am taking a position on the desirability of the act can be lost on no one, but my language has put on a mask of benign objectivity. At best, I will reach my position on the same grounds and with the same care that would ordinarily inform a thoughtful moral judgment--but if I am deceived that this nonviolent phrasing has lessened the stakes, I may not be so careful.

The speech rule used in Eichmann's circle was a deliberate construction, but that is probably not the explanation in most cases. A language styling may reflect genuinely fine aims and principles and take root among people who hold them in all sincerity. It may grow habitual and come, through inattention or expediency, to be applied to means that dishonor the original ends. There is, perhaps, a weak sense for everything, and it may be just as high principles come to be practiced in a weak sense that a language honoring those principles ossifies into a Sprachregelung. It is at once obvious and ironic that languages composed of words and phrases of compassion, empathy, healing, and growth should be the common examples.


Why are the practical skills of nonviolent communication--the first package in Rosenberg's presentation--so simple to state, so difficult to practice, and so often reinvented in new dress? It is as if each new appearance kindles hope; we make bricks; the tower goes up; and just when we can see how little would be impossible once we imagine it, our language is confounded and we are scattered once again. The last tower is never simply lost but forsworn, as now we distance ourselves from critical thinking while we hope to learn nonviolent communication in its place.

Rosenberg's philosophical package has the flavor of that Genesis story, with Wink's domination systems playing the role of the jealous God. But I am not sure we need for explanation such a formidable opposing force.

To find the weak sense of a practice, to go through its motions when they might bring a reward, requires only a bit of ego and a bit of haste. It is easier than the alternative, and more familiar. As soon as there is a language I can use to regard my own thinking and guide my search for understanding, there is a language I can wield to score debating points. With a language in which I can reflect on my actions and bring my best to the community comes, perhaps, one in which I can label others for political gain. The language that helps me honor my emotions could be one in which I insist you express yours, whether it fits or not.

When those flaws appear in the tower, what brings it down is our impatience. Having seen a virtue in its weak sense, we forget there is a strong sense, or a difference. We identify reason, moral judgment, and emotional intelligence with their shadows, and continue the search for a knife that cuts only one way, that will not require such care and attention in use.

But care and attention are all. The defining feature of a virtue's weak sense is its mimicry of the real thing. There is no way to tell them apart but the hard way: patient, questioning attention to substance and detail. It is not popular wisdom: even forty years ago, Hannah Arendt wrote of "highflown assertions that it is 'superficial' to insist on details" and "the sign of sophistication to speak in generalities according to which all cats are gray...." (44) But with that care, nonviolent communication in its strong sense is possible in every person's native tongue. Without it, a language created for nonviolent communication risks becoming the next speech rule, the next abandoned tower.

That Marshall Rosenberg's care and thought are so evident in action in his workshop confirms that he understands in practice. To see him work through nonviolent communication with his attendees is to see the real thing. But the temptation of the weak sense will not be absent.

One way to see that is to observe how, next to other efforts like critical thinking, his has added violence to the language. Any skill can be practiced with proficiency or without, and any teacher or coach will need ways to express the difference. Critical thinking and nonviolent communication are no different in that regard, except in the pungency of terms like 'jackal-thinking' or 'life-alienated.' The encouragement, even tacit, to fancy ourselves engaged in conversations with jackals, or to file their concerns under 'life-alienated thinking,' can be flattery enough to ego and to haste.

His advice never to hear thoughts may be helpful in those bitter disputes of long standing where bad faith is so firmly entrenched that only a drastic measure to disrupt the established pattern of communication can get the parties to begin to listen at all. Many examples from his work in tribal disputes, or even long-standing family issues, do have that character. But as a general rule it seems likely to create exactly that kind of situation out of simpler ones that could otherwise be easy to resolve. It establishes a speech rule under which matters of concern or dispute common and important among serious people may be inexpressible, dismissed, and unheard. A person who steps outside the speech rule to try to explain the trouble may, in the trap Goffman called 'looping,' (45) find that effort itself dismissed for the same reason.

There is a communication principle famous in engineering for its use between machines, while its author, Jon Postel, is remembered for applying it with grace in the human sphere. "Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others" (46) is as deceptively simple to state as Rosenberg's essential principles. What it would add to them is a guard against Sprachregelung, against the metamorphosis of nonviolent communication into subtle violence done in its name. It asks only that we use the greatest care in putting our own feelings and concerns into the language we find best accommodates that care, and let others see that when they do the same, we will translate their language to our own in the best faith we can show. What's left is to listen, and hear--feelings, needs, and thoughts--not with giraffe ears only, but with a generous and fully engaged human intelligence. (47)


1. Marshall B. Rosenberg, The Basics of Nonviolent Communication: An Introductory Training, two video-cassettes, Center for Nonviolent Communication, 2001.

2. cnvc:: Center for Nonviolent Communication home page, 1 May 2005, Center for Nonviolent Communication, 4 May 2005 <>.

3. Rosenberg, Basics 1: 3m. For the reader's convenience, in each citation to this 200-minute, two-volume video, I have indicated the volume and approximate minutes from the opening title of that volume.

4. Rosenberg, Basics 1: 40m.

5. Marshall B. Rosenberg, cnvc:: The spiritual basis of NVC, 6 Jan. 2005, Center for Nonviolent Communication, 4 May 2005 <>.

6. Rosenberg, Basics 1: 5m.

7. Rosenberg, Basics 1: 1m. Also in cnvc:: Chapter 1 of "Nonviolent Communication" by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D., 6 Jan. 2005, Center for Nonviolent Communication, 4 May 2005 <>.

8. Kim Curtis and Terence Chea, "Chimps' Mauling of Man Examined," Chicago Tribune, 5 Mar. 2005, Chicago final ed., sec. 1:10.

9. Marshall B. Rosenberg, Anger and Domination Systems, 6 Jan. 2005, Center for Nonviolent Communication, 4 May 2005 <>; also Rosenberg, Spiritual.

10. Rosenberg, Basics 2: 7m.

11. Rosenberg, Basics 1: 53m.

12. Rosenberg, Basics 1: 31m.

13. cnvc:: Needs List, 25 Feb. 2005, Center for Nonviolent Communication, 4 May 2005 <>.

14. Linda Elder, "Critical Thinking and Emotional Intelligence," rev. of Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman, Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines 16.2 (1996): 42.

15. Rosenberg, Anger.

16. Rosenberg, Basics 2: 14m.

17. Bertrand Russell, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell: 1914-1944, first American ed. (Boston: Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1968) 232.

18. Rosenberg, Spiritual.

19. Throughout his writing. Representatively: Richard W. Paul, "Critical Thinking and the Critical Person," Thinking: The Second International Conference, Ed. D. N. Perkins, Jack Lochhead, and John Bishop (Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1987) 376.

20. Rosenberg, Basics 2: 50-59m.

21. Rosenberg, Basics 1: 35m.

22. cnvc: Advanced Training, Day 1, with Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D., raising your giraffe consciousness, 6 Jan. 2005, Center for Nonviolent Communication, 4 May 2005 <>.

23. Elder 41.

24. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam, 1995) 29.

25. Elder 37.

26. Goleman xiv.

27. An overview including critical perspectives can be found in Michael E. Bernard, ed., Inside Rational-Emotive Therapy: a Critical Appraisal of the Theory and Therapy of Albert Ellis (San Diego: Academic Press, 1989).

28. Goleman xii.

29. Rosenberg, Basics 1:10m.

30. Rosenberg, Anger.

31. Sarah van Gelder and Marshall B. Rosenberg, "The Language of Nonviolence," Yes!: A Journal of Positive Futures Fall 1998: 42.

32. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, revised and enlarged ed. (1965; New York: Penguin, 1977) 48.

33. Arendt 32.

34. Arendt 136.

35. Arendt 123.

36. Arendt 85, 109.

37. Erving Goffman, "On the Characteristics of Total Institutions: The Inmate World," The Prison: Studies in Institutional Organization and Change, ed. Donald R. Cressey (New York: Holt, 1961).

38. Goffman 18.

39. Goffman 22.

40. Goffman 17.

41. Goffman 23.

42. Goffman 46.

43. Rosenberg, Basics 1: 36m.

44. Arendt 297.

45. Goffman 39.

46. Postel's principle applies strictly to communications, not politics; it appeared in the specifications, here cited, of two core Internet technologies, where it daily permits millions of dissimilar machines to communicate so easily that nothing very interesting seems to be going on. The first reference contains the first appearance of the principle, clearly detailed; the second is the origin of the pithy form usually seen (if occasionally misconstrued). Jon Postel, ed., "DoD Standard Internet Protocol," RFC 760, RFC-Editor Webpage, Jan. 1980, RFC Editor, 12 Sep. 2005 <>, 21; Jon Postel, ed., "DoD Standard Transmission Control Protocol," RFC 761, RFC-Editor Webpage, Jan. 1980, RFC Editor, 12 Sep. 2005 <>, 13.

47. The generous and engaged intelligence of Charles Coley, John Duvall, Margaret Favorite, Ernest McDaniel, Catherine Madsen, Sylvie Mrug, Jennifer Radecki, and Noemi Ybarra encouraged me and improved the article. Hilary Landau Krivchenia brought the Rosenberg work to my attention; Beverly Nagel, the Goffman; and Phillip Wankat, the Ellis. The flaws I supplied without assistance.
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Author:Flack, Chapman
Publication:Cross Currents
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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