A Court Mandate

A Real World Situation

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is something I find immensely beautiful. Marshall Rosenberg, PhD developed it after working with the Civil Rights Movement. I first met him when my parents invited me to miss a few days of school to share their most recent new age excursion. When they asked, I was more than willing to vege out with a flock of hippies, as long as I got a break from my junior high classes. By the third day of the training I had convinced two of my friends to come learn as well. My passion has only grown with time.

I recently found the opportunity to help teach NVC when I went to a small town west of Atlanta, where a group of kids suspected of being in gangs were ordered by the courts to attend an NVC course to help them deal with aggression. Five adults and I were locked in a gymnasium with 60 kids who were none too excited to be there. Three cops stood at the entrance. As the kids trickled in, I ventured a greeting, “Good morning.” No reply. To another, “Good morning.” Mumble-grunt. I approached one guy to try the NVC concept of empathizing, “You look pretty tired and I'm guessing you don't wanna be here.” “Yeah, damn right!” He continued, “You know why the court sent me here?” “Why?” “I got caught with half a Crown Royal at school.” I'm always bewildered by how willing people are to connect when I show an interest in understanding them.

…eyes fixed on him alone, as I continued talking to the entire group. We locked stares, battling for dominance. Oh man, were we both FURIOUS!

After long speeches and introductions by people from the court, we broke into three equal groups, twenty of them for every two of us. I gawked: This could be our own little nonviolent Thermopylae. It started well enough. For a warm-up exercise we asked them to name some feelings they had experienced when life was “less than wonderful” for them. They said, “frustrated,” “mad,” “pissed-off,” “tired,” but also some words like “ignored,” which we translated into “lonely.” We tried to differentiate between words that expressed feelings and words that expressed judgments. I asserted that anyone can choose how they hear what other people say, that no one can make anyone else feel a certain way. Beautiful, beautiful! It was going great. Then disaster struck in the form of two burly young men roughly my age. They sauntered in and plopped down in my group's remaining seats, then promptly commenced chatting and chuckling with one another. A few minutes later, one of the late-comers was yammering on his cell phone. Uh-oh Toto, I wasn't in practice group any more.

I found myself resorting to a familiar trick that is so readily picked up simply by living in this world. I was talking to the whole group when I noticed him, but I didn't stop. Instead, I slowly walked over, eyes fixed on him alone, as I continued talking to the entire group. We locked stares, battling for dominance. Oh man, were we both FURIOUS! He lowered his cell phone. I turned back to the group. He resumed talking. This was a prime example of how society often functions, with very little compassion. And I had fallen right into it myself. My partner picked up where I left off, giving me time to take a breath. What would Marshall do? One...Two....

“Excuse me, Cynthia, I think I have a real world situation that we could use as an example.” That got everyone's attention. “Sir, I would like to try to apply this process to what just happened between us. Is that cool by you?” “Yeah.” “I'm guessing you were feeling very frustrated and maybe angry too, when I walked over to you and singled you out like that. I bet you had a need for respect that definitely was not being met.” “Yeah, respect.” A few minutes later: “Do you think you're at a point where you could understand where I was coming from?” He nodded. I said, “I find it interesting that I was also feeling very frustrated because I, too, had a need for respect that wasn't being met.” We continued with the NVC process and ended by shaking hands. Empathy, compassion, understanding, then asking, “What can we do to make life more wonderful for one another?”: the essence of Nonviolent Communication.

This is who I am, a man who finds hope in Nonviolent Communication. Though it may take me a minute or an hour or even more to muster up the courage to act, I will always ultimately strive towards empathy, compassion, and understanding because I am convinced that by doing this I can make life more wonderful for myself and the world around me.

Will Hiltman is a recent high school graduate who is committed to living and sharing Nonviolent Communication.