Marshall Rosenberg says he lives in Switzerland and New Mexico, but it would be more accurate to say that the world is his home. His seminal book, Nonviolent Communication, is both record of his life work and blueprint of a world he is intent on helping bring to pass. His Center for Nonviolent Communication has a vision statement: “A world where everyone’s needs are met peacefully.” We mention to Marshall that our publisher, Gabriel Media Group, has one, too: “Global Prosperity Through A Philanthropic Economy®,” and he says, “I’ve never heard that term before…philanthropic economy. I like it.” We’re not surprised. Marshall works his quiet nonviolent magic in schools, prison cells, corporate offices and the worst war-torn political hot spots of the world, and no matter what the context, his patient, practical message is the same. And here’s the amazing thing: it gets results. — JDM



Where did your work begin?

It started with the race riots of 1943. My family had just moved to Detroit, because the war industry was strong there and he could find better jobs. At the time, both blacks and whites were moving up there from the south for the jobs. Now, here they were, all living in the same neighborhood, and it was just ripe for a race riot.

And sure enough, just as we got there, we moved smack into the middle of the second worst race riot in the history of the United States.

I couldn’t go out of the house for four days, because of the fighting in the streets. Thirty people were killed just in our neighborhood.

At the same time, I would watch my uncle Julius come over to my house every night to take care of my grandmother, who was totally paralyzed. He had such compassion.

As a nine-year-old, I was trying to sort all this out. What makes some human beings so compassionate and giving—philanthropic, as you say—and others so violent?

That question burned in my mind ever since.

Eventually I concluded that the people creating all the violence must be mentally ill, so I decided I’d become a psychologist and cure the ill.

Just as I was ready to graduate with my doctorate degree in clinical psychology, I met a sociology professor named Michael Hakim who destroyed my career before I’d even started!

Professor Hakim showed me the scientific limitations of the concept of mental illness, and the political dangers of thinking in these terms—how it takes our focus away from the judicial and economic structures that create the suffering. How this profession was in a sense supporting those oppressive structures.

Was he saying the profession was pathologizing the victims?

He was saying that there’s no scientific validity to the concept of mental illness, that it’s purely a value judgment, and not a scientific diagnosis at all. Research after research shows that there is no scientifically valid way of making a diagnosis of mental illness. If you say someone has tuberculosis, there are concrete, measurable indications you find before you can make this statement.

It’s empirical.

Exactly. And the research shows that there are absolutely no such empirical criteria in the basic diagnostic manuals of psychiatry—zero. And this isn’t just one or two studies, this is a broad range of studies.

Much of human suffering, Professor Hakim said, derives from how we are educated—which is the result of the economic, judicial and governmental structures we have created. He pointed out that in the heyday of Soviet oppression, they didn’t put political challengers into prison, they put them in mental hospitals—and the same thing was happening in the United States.

This was quite a revelation to me. I said, “Okay, you’ve helped me see the political, scientific and moral limitations of the concept of mental illness. But we still have lots of suffering people—what are you suggesting we do?”

And he said, “That’s your problem.”

Now, that’s a great professor!

Yes. And that was very valuable for me. He got me thinking for myself.

I began asking, “How are we supposed to live?” I devoted myself to the study of comparative religion, and came to the same conclusion that Joseph Campbell did after 43 years of studying the world’s religions: they were all saying the same thing.

At the time, I was also involved in some research with Professor Carl Rogers.

The author of The Importance of Being Human?

That’s right. We taped some of our sessions at the mental hospital where I worked, and various measurements taken from these recordings were correlated with indications of healing.

Rogers’ research showed that two things correlated most with healing: empathy and genuineness—speaking honestly, coming from your heart.

This was exactly what I was seeing in my study of the world’s religions—and it also fit with my own observations of people like my Uncle Julius.

It all seemed to boil down to being able to simply be with people, to hear them without criticism or judgment, and in return, to be genuine, come from your heart and speak honestly. When that connection is there, we see each other’s vulnerability, our oneness, that we all have the same needs, and this makes compassionate giving natural.

But if everybody already knows this, then why the hell do we have all this pain? Yes, this has been known for centuries—but how do we manifest it? How do we show people?

So I put together a very simple formula for teaching people how to connect with other people in a way that made compassionate giving possible. I was in private practice by this time, so I had the opportunity to try out these weird ideas.

And what happened?

Oh my gosh—I couldn’t believe what a difference it made! I had people coming to me with depression, family problems, different issues—and in a single session I was suddenly doing more to help them liberate themselves than I’d been able to do in a year of therapy!

And that is what you’ve called “nonviolent communication.”

That’s been the basis of everything I’ve done since. However, I was very skeptical, at first.

It was too simple to be valid?

Right. I was a trained psychoanalyst, remember: for people to really make growth happen, you had to see them two or three times a week for a couple of years.

But I kept at it. After about three years of applying this approach, I knew this was really powerful—and that seeing only affluent people in private practice was not the way to distribute it. There was too much misery in the world. I had to find a way to make this process available to more people, not just people with money.

So I gave up my private practice. Now, by this time, I had been pretty successful, I had a nice big house, three kids in private school…

Quite a shift in lifestyle!

Indeed. Within a year, I was driving a cab to pay rent. Most of the people I was working with didn’t have much money. The government funded me here and there to do projects on racism, but it wasn’t enough to support me and my family.

I was traveling around the country in a dinky little Chevette. It was too small to sleep in, but I couldn’t afford to stay in hotels—so I usually slept outdoors. I had a sleeping bag that would take me down to about 20 degrees…

What an odyssey!

It was. But I started meeting people around North America who were really finding the training valuable. That was about 35 years ago—and the last 35 years have gone by like a weekend. It’s been wonderful.

Can you describe the scope of your work today?

We have people all over the world benefiting from the nonviolent communication process and helping us distribute it. For example, we go into schools and show people radically different ways of creating schools.

We’re also working on the prison system, showing people how nonviolent communication can support a restorative justice system instead of the current retributive system. One of our most exciting prison projects is in Brazil, where we’re working with judges to radically transform the correctional system there.

We have active projects going on in about 40 countries.

You have, what, over 100 trainers?

Several hundreds. And for every official trainer we have, there are five or ten people systematically teaching and using our material in their work.

Tell us about your work with businesses.

In many of the countries I visit—for example, Rwanda, Burundi, Israel and Palestine—the people need our training desperately, but they don’t have much money. So I play a game called Robin Hood.

Corporations can also benefit highly from our training, and they can usually give me some money—which I can then use in these other countries. In fact, some corporations have been so grateful for our training that they have given me money beyond my fees to do projects.

For example, Ciba-Geigy in Switzerland gave me the money to bring 20 Serbians and 20 Croatians to Hungary during the war between those two countries.

When you go into a company, what kind of work do you do?

Sometimes they bring me in because they’re having morale problems within the organization. Sometimes we’re brought in to show how nonviolent communication can be helpful in performance evaluations, which managers often dread doing.

We’re also brought in to help sort out interdepartmental conflicts. It’s amazing, the conflicts within departments and between departments—it’s like putting out wars.

What I really want is for them to do the scary work: I’d like to have them look at their mission. Is it really a life-serving mission or not? And if not, why are they doing it—and how could they transform it into something that is life-supporting?

Of course, these are sensitive issues—and companies don’t bring me in and pay me to get them to take a look at these issues. But that’s what I’d prefer to do.

I also want to help corporations make a radical transformation in their structure. Right now, we’re in the process of effecting a radical change in our own organization using sociocracy. Are you familiar with that?

No. Fascinating term. What is that?

It comes from a man named Gerard Endenburg, from the Netherlands. [According to Amazon.com, “Developed in the rough and tumble of real Dutch businesses, the sociocratic circle organization uses the principles of the new science of cybernetics to empower everyone in the organization through consent-based decision-making.” — Ed.]

Endenburg developed a radically different kind of organization, where everybody has meaningful input into what’s going on, even in a large, worldwide organization. He has really transformed some corporations. It’s very radical, but much more in harmony with the principles we’re teaching.

Because the structure of the organization has a critical impact on how people relate to each other?

Oh, the structures of organizations have a huge impact on that!

For the last 10,000 years, we’ve been operating on what the theologian Walter Wink calls “domination structure,” where some people claim superiority and the right to control those below them and use such tactics as punishment and reward to enforce that “right.” This requires a type of language that creates most of the suffering on the planet.

Our training shows a different way of thinking and resolving differences. So of course, parents and teachers and managers freak out when they experience our training!

What makes them freak out?

We say, “Here are the no-no’s: no criticism, no compliments, no punishment, no reward.” And they think we’re nuts!

It’s actually a more natural way of relating, and people very quickly become quite fulfilled by it. But the first few hours with it can be pretty scary.

I can understand—giving up a 10,000-year habit! Still, the approach you describe in your book seems immensely practical, not at all theoretical or academic.

We start out every workshop by saying, “Think of somebody, whether yourself or someone else, or some organization, who’s behaving in a way you’re not too happy with.” And in the first five minutes, we show people how nonviolent communication might help you connect with that individual or gang in a way that helps you fulfill your needs, in a nonviolent way.

Wow. Bet they never thought about that before.

Basically, we show people how to say and hear two things.

First, “How are you?” We show you how to say how you are—what’s alive in you—and then to connect with what’s alive in others, even if they don’t know how to tell you.

The second question is, “What would make life more wonderful?” What would you like?

Nonviolent communication is a way of expressing those two questions, and to hear the answers in other people, no matter how they’re communicating—even if the other person is screaming obscenities or insults at you.

We get people to see that the only thing anyone is ever really saying is “Please” and “Thank you.” Unfortunately, for 10,000 years we’ve been taught to say “Please” in a pretty nasty way.

When a parent wants to say to a child, “Please, would you meet my need for support in keeping the house in order,” he says it like this: “Why are you so lazy?!” He doesn’t realize that expressing it this way takes all the joy out of giving.

In the first 20 minutes, people start applying this and seeing how it works in their lives. The thing they always say is, “My God, it’s so simple!” And the second thing they say is, “My God—it’s so difficult!”

It’s like adopting a whole new posture for your body when you’ve been slouching for 25 years.

[laughs] I like that image!

At the same time, the mechanics are secondary. If you use the mechanics without the consciousness, it’ll drive people nuts. We need to have the consciousness that our objective is not to get what we want from people. The objective always needs to be to create a quality of connection that allows everybody’s needs to be met through compassionate giving.

When that happens, then whatever people do for one another, it’s done willingly, and you can’t tell the giver from the receiver, because the giving is enjoyable. No more punishment, no more rewards. It’s not necessary, they only get in the way.

Are you an optimistic man? Do you see us being able to make this kind of shift?

I had a student traveling with me for his internship. We went to seven different countries, four of them war-torn countries. At each place we visited, he would observe the people who met us at the airport—their kindness and how devoted they were to effecting change in their countries.

When we reached the last country and were greeted once again by wonderful, hopeful, committed people, he turned to me and said “Marshall, you are a very rich man!”

What a wonderful thing to say!

In my work, I see a different world than the one you see on television. In answer to your question, yes, I’m enormously hopeful and optimistic, because I see a rapid and radical transformation in process.

Now, it’s not going as fast as I would like all the time, especially when I’m in places where I see children starving. It’s one thing when I read the statistics about how many are starving—but when I actually see them with my own eyes, I get pretty impatient.

But when I look at just how fast things are moving in this direction, it gives me hope.

The truth is, I’m not just optimistic—I’m overwhelmed by how things are moving. We’re going to create a world where everybody’s needs get met peacefully. We have the resources; there’s no reason for thousands and millions to starve every day, we have the food. It’s just a matter of our transforming the limitations created by the last 10,000 years.

It’s inevitable. It’s only a matter of how much we can speed it up.

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