Yesterday, there has been a tragic event in Stockholm, Sweden, where we have our base. Today, we were supposed to write a completely different kind of article, covering how the Swedish Fika and the Argentinian Mate can be used as mediators for a good conversation.
But, since yesterday, reality has hit us hard. A stolen truck, driven by its hijackers, crashed into a store in Drottningatan, killing at least 4 people and hurting many others.
How does a thing like this happen? How does a human being go crazy enough to inflict such damage on other humans? We strongly believe this is not an out-of-the-blue, sudden behavior; but a set of thinking, feeling and acting that goes back in time beyond action itself. We believe this or these people, the perpetrators, have thought, said and warned others in their way to killing innocent people out of their hate and despair.
And we also believe the ones around did nothing to stop them. Not because they were indolent, or uninterested. They did nothing because as occident culture participants, they have been busy in their own life, holding tight to their own ideas, focused stubbornly into their goals, dreams and business. Even when their ideas include social change, consciousness or justice, the practices of those idealized concepts is shown to be very far from the theories. We do not want to be interrupted, we avoid cognitive dissonance at all costs, and we shut down anybody who would dare to challenge our self-centered points of view. “Winners don’t listen to other people, they go for their goals”. Such is the message our culture spreads.
“The biggest communication problem is that most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” —Stephen R. Covey.
Maybe we do believe in our hearts that our purpose in life is helping others, contribute to this planet somehow, imprinting a positive impact in our societies. That is absolutely legitimate and honorable. But truth must be expressed: We are far from practicing behaviors that lead to the carry-out of such ideas. Something is missing along the way.
In this sad day, writing an article about communication has a very different meaning and flavor. We would like to reflect together, if possible, about the role that the process of communication has in these shocking events.
Before the physical violence, many specialists agree, comes the violence of words. We have previously developed the importance that everyday dialogue holds as a building tool for a second language. Now we would like to stop and think about the part it has in the construction of a more peaceful, inclusive, and fair society.
Words hold a power in themselves. They shape our understanding of the world. They become as a filter glass through external and internal reality, and, beyond the semantic reach; the emotions surrounding words have a deep impact in our (and others’!) state of mind.
When violence breaks in, the way it has yesterday, the first question that arises is “why”. Why would someone perform any acts of cruelty upon other fellow humans? We search for rational causes, we try to draw the cause-consequence lines to the other violent events occurring in the world (namely, Syria’s horrible bombing, or some earlier incidents as Paris or Nice attacks). But the simple rational analysis won’t do. We will surely be left unsatisfied by only taking that account. Something, once again, is missing on the way.
What is this “something”? Some seek into political causes, others into cultural factors, even others make their attempt in the arena of religious beliefs.
We will gather around the concept we were developing before the madness started. We will make our best attempt to analyze this phenomenon from the point of view of Communication and Everyday Dialogue, and its multiple implications on the emergence of violence.
Violence in Communication:
How can we define violent communication?
Violent communication is communication that limits liberty, denies recognition of needs, diminishes the worth of a person, and/or blocks compassion and empathy. Violent communication is often the result of using manipulative or coercive language that induces fear, guilt, shame, praise, blame, duty, obligation, punishment, and/or reward.
In the backstage of this kind of communication, there is a symbolic fight for power. In the work of Pierre Bourdieu, symbolic violence denotes more than a form of violence operating symbolically. It is “the violence which is exercised upon a social agent with his or her complicity” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 2002, 167).
The most important issue in this topic is that this level of violence takes place in speaking and listening (and in thinking, through self-talk or imagined conversations).
…Yes . In our conversations, indeed.
But it is certainly not easy to connect such a tragic, coward attack like the one Stockholm faced yesterday, with our (supposedly) simple, innocuous, powerless conversations…The delicate string connecting those two events is not so visible, right? How can our dialogues, opinions, even arguments, generate such damage? We might discuss a topic, but even the most excited of dialogues is far from an act of terror or any attack over others.
Of course. That is true: a conversation has never killed anybody. It takes so much more than some words to put a criminal mind into action.
Whether we subscribe to the Criminology of “natural born killers”, or a more culturally-oriented perspective, most of us agree in the complexity of factors that play a role in the eruption of killing behaviors. It is never simple, linear, or mono-causal.
Nonetheless, it is interesting to notice that maybe, as a plant needs sun and water to survive, some potentially violent people get their fuel and nurturance from a twisted system of communication. It is the conversations we take part on, the way we speak to each other, the words we use, and ultimately, the ability to express our not-so-constructive emotions and feelings with restrictions and some level of empathy; the tokens we take on the ride to escalating violence.
Violence, evolutionarily speaking, is not a “disease” but an adaptive response:
“The assumption that violence is a disease is to make it the analog of diarrhea. But, what if it is in fact an analog of digestion, or of some subprocess like metabolization, ingestion, or excretion? There is no future, in this case, in looking for its ’causes’ since it doesn’t have any. It is just what the organism does as part of its routine of living.” – Robin Fox.
What makes violence so un-understandable in our human societies? The fact that we do have an “interface” device, which is language, as a mediator between the thoughts and the actions. We all feel the drive to be angry, offended, or plainly mad at circumstances, or at other people. But we have grown enough, both individually and as a society, to not pass directly our feelings into action (except for the case of non-adapted individuals). It is heartbreaking, therefore, when words fail to contain the dam of the revolted emotions and impulses.
How can dialogues and conversations help on the problem of social violence?
There are many approaches that follow the same pattern, consisting basically in stopping the circle of violence from the communication field. Usually they focus on compassion, empathy and some content-oriented strategies that foster a different style of conversation, based on respect and tolerance.
Among these efforts, “Nonviolent Communication” (NVC) is a communication process developed by Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D., back in the 1960s, sometimes also referred to as “compassionate communication.”
Nonviolent communication is defined as communication that maximizes liberty, enhances understanding of the relationship between feelings and needs, promotes equality, and creates compassion.
NVC involves understanding that our feelings are a result of our basic human needs being met or unmet. When our needs are met, we feel “positive” emotions, such as joy, delight, confidence, inspiration, etc. When our needs are unmet, we feel “negative” emotions, such as annoyance, tension, fatigue, yearning, etc.
Basic human needs are similar to those in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: physical well-being, connection, honesty, play, peace, autonomy, meaning, etc. They are basic human needs that we all share, as opposed to specific actions we would like others to take.
A basic human need is to contribute to our own and others’ well- being. Using nonviolent communication increases the likelihood of mutual giving and receiving because it helps us recognize and foster the joy we feel when we meet our basic human need of contributing to our own and others’ well-being.
How does this work in everyday conversations?
The most essential way that NVC occurs is through expressing the link between a person’s feelings and needs or our own feelings and needs, thus, we could say:
- Are you feeling _________ because you need ___________?
- I am feeling __________ because I need __________.
(At the intrapersonal level, we can also understand ourselves better and work through our emotional experiences more effectively by asking ourselves, “Am I feeling __________ because I need ___________?” – That gives us the foundations for a better connection with the feelings of other people)
Two things are important to note:
- Anger is a feeling usually associated with violent communication, like blaming the other person . Underlying the anger are usually other feelings such as sadness, disappointment, regret, and frustration. Focusing on these feelings may help identify the underlying needs more quickly.
- “Feelings” such as threatened, stupid, pretty, ridiculous, generous, betrayed, and industrious are actually intellectual evaluations instead of emotion-based feelings. And Non Violent Communication works best when you are discussing feelings instead of evaluations.
Once everyone’s needs are identified, the problem-solving can begin. Similar to interest-based bargaining, problem-solving with everyone’s needs on the table can result in win-win solutions.
This is only one of the registered tools for a culture free of violence. The principles are universal and apply for many other social situations that involve communication. ( …For further information, contact the Center for Nonviolent Communication on the web: https://www.cnvc.org )
Some other practical principles we have learnt along the way:
At e.MindSet, we have worked at many levels into communication; including the training of ESL, inmates’ rehabilitation programs, job searching quests, human resources management, behavioral therapy, and project management.
Our careers have allowed us to be in touch with diverse cultures and different people, and we have developed skills that encouraged us beyond our limitations. “Learning is never a one way road”; we know that very well, and in these troubled times, we intend to grow through the experience not only overcoming the sadness and fear, but also taking knowledge and wisdom of the situation, for the purpose of serving others beyond theories and slogans…ultimately, for the love of people, including ourselves.
So, here are some practical tips we have found, to make things easy and keep the win-win flowing:
- First of all, listen openly, listen eagerly, listen to learn, and listen most to the things that provoke some discomfort. There is richness there, on those words. Stop all judgement and “extra-thinking”, and listen. It is a rare skill these times, but the good news is that it can (and must) be trained.
- Get a supervisor. We mutually supervise our cases, our conversations with the clients, with classmates, staff, and superiors (i.e, professors at doctorate). “Four eyes see more than two”, and not only more, but we access a wider, better perspective.
- Avoid binary questions when asking. The questions that only allow “yes” or “no” for an answer are inadequate for grasping the real thoughts and emotions that a person can express in a conversation. They also force (even involuntarily) our interlocutor to “take sides”, which is a root cause in the raise of symbolic violence.
- Be honest without rudeness. There is always a better way to say things than the way our emotions dictate. Look for that other way. Practice patience towards yourself and others.
- Be sensitive but not emotionally-driven. The world is not your stage and the spotlight should be shared among fellow humans, not everything is about our own feelings. In the same way, avoid “equating” (meaning, do not compare the other person’s experience with yours. For example, if they lost a member of their family, do not go around telling them about a similar experience you had. It is not necessary, it is self referential, and people deserve to be respected in their uniqueness)
- Be respectful of boundaries. People have them for a reason. Maybe past experiences have molded them in that way, and it is a good thing to test the limits. But mostly, be gentle and wait for others to open up…remember, trust is built, not forced.
- When faced to an inconvenient truth, wait until the reaction settles in order to give a constructive response. Action and not reaction is essential for a better communication. Most specially, remember our perspective is not the ultimate parameter to read reality.
- In presence of definitely rude, disruptive, or attacking participants, use detachment strategies instead of emotional mirroring. It is better to openly admit you are overwhelmed by their behavior, and retreat, than engage in a road-to-nowhere that ends in escalating violence.
- Last, but not least…be brief. Expose your points of view and opinions, but do not hoard other people’s time. Being brief and specific also trains you to improve your point by being parsimonious, and reduces misunderstanding. Try not to repeat yourself. If you have a good point, it will stand alone without the need of condescendingly parroting your own ideas. Be respectful of others’ time. Everybody has something amazing to offer into a conversation, be honestly interested in that, and (at least in our experience) you will get enriched beyond your ability to imagine.
Enjoy life, stay safe, remember how beautiful this world is…and most of all, never stop learning. We wish all of our friends and family in Stockholm the blessing that comes from peace, the peace that we can, and will, build high for our city and generations.
Christer Edman & Veronica Rebora at www.emindsetlab.com