Nonviolent Communication and the Image of God
by Theresa F. Latini
I often tell my students that their most challenging moments in pastoral ministry will not be sermon writing, funeral preparation, pastoral care crises, or evangelism. As much as these practices and events stretch our practical theological imaginations, it is the entrenched interpersonal impasses and conflicts among staff, committees, consistories, and denominational factions that lead to the greatest anxiety, frustration, disappointments, and even burn-out in ministry. After citing empirical data peppered with a few anecdotal stories, I spend the rest of the semester introducing them to the practice of nonviolent, or compassionate, communication.
Nonviolent communication (NVC) is a four-step process of communication constructed by Marshall Rosenberg, a psychologist who, in the milieu of the national dissension and chaos of the 1960s, became convinced that training in skills of empathy should not be left to the helping professions alone. Since then, Rosenberg has taught nonviolent communication to a vast, international range of conflicted people and groups in educational, ecclesial, and political institutions. He has participated in peace negotiations between Palestine and Israel and among the warring factions in Rwanda. NVC is practiced by groups of people throughout the world who long to live according to the values of peace, harmony, reconciliation, integrity, and authenticity in their relationships.
Rosenberg and a second generation of trainers who are further developing the theory and practice of NVC do not consider it a Christian practice. Nor do they consider it a Buddhist or Hindu practice. They eschew official alignment with any one religion in recognition of our common humanity, though many persons practicing NVC consider themselves adherents to these religions. NVC does officially highlight spirituality as a necessary component, perhaps the core component, of human existence. To live connected with oneself, others, and the “divine” is its purpose and goal. For those of us grounded in the Reformed tradition, this implicit theology is inadequate. Yet if taken up into a larger theological context, NVC becomes consonant with certain aspects of a Reformed theological anthropology. Specifically, it becomes one concrete means of living as those made in the image of God in a world marked by violence and a church too often marked by entrenched power struggles and vitriolic discourse.1
Living into the Image of God
Karl Barth, Swiss theologian of the early-to-mid twentieth century, reminds us that Jesus Christ is both the self-revelation of God to humanity and the revelation of humanity to humanity. Jesus Christ is the true human, “the man for others.” Self-giving love marks his life. Therefore, to be human is to exist with and for others, though we are for one another in a qualitatively different sense than Jesus is for us. Put another way, the basic form of humanity, according to Barth, is “being-in-encounter.” The image of God within us is this relationality. Though our capacity to be in perfect communion with God, each other, and the rest of creation has been marred by sin, the image of God in humanity has not been completely eradicated (III/2, 274). We continue to exist in encounter with each other. This encounter consists of mutual seeing, hearing, speaking, and assisting one another with gladness.
NVC’s understanding of human life resonates deeply with Barth’s depiction of the basic form of humanity. To be human, for Rosenberg, is to live in life-giving connection to one another and our own selves; to bask in the joy of mutual giving and receiving, a giving and receiving that extends out beyond ourselves to ever-widening circles of community. Moreover, NVC offers a “map” that fosters humane living, which corresponds to the life of the True Human, Jesus Christ. The four steps of nonviolent communication–observing without evaluating, stating feelings rather than thoughts, connecting feelings to needs, making requests–provide one means for being-inencounter. These four steps correspond to Barth’s four aspects of the image of God.
Mutual Seeing through Observations
“Mutual Seeing.” To be human is to know and be known. It is to be open to God and others. We have the capacity to “look one another in the eye,” i.e., to set aside our own preconceptions, biases, and prejudices. It is to consider the other as a fellow child of God. To look the other in the eye is possible only if the other can see us as well. To hide behind facades contradicts our determination to live in encounter. It is inhuman.
“Observation.” Nonviolent communication begins with observation. This requires the “capacity to differentiate between what we are hearing, seeing, remembering and how we are evaluating what we have observed” (Hunsinger, 59). Observation without evaluation avoids moralistic judgments about others, if for no other reason than doing so evokes defensiveness and creates disconnection. NVC observations are concrete, in reference to a particular time, place, and event. In our observations, then, we avoid words like “never, always, whenever, everyone, no one.”
Consider this scenario: Sam, a church volunteer, says “I’m always slaving away around here and no one notices.” His statement contains a two-fold evaluation, an evaluation about himself and an evaluation about a nebulous group of others. To change his statement to include two observations, Sam might say, “I’ve been cleaning the Sunday School wing every Saturday for the last three months, and I haven’t heard the pastor acknowledge it.”
It is crucial to note that observation applies to one’s thinking as well as one’s speaking. So even if Sam did not voice his concern, he would need to change his evaluative thinking to an observation, if he were to truly see his pastor without prejudice, bias, and preconceptions. In this way, he would be “seeing” the other and thus living into his God-shaped humanity.
Mutual Speaking and Hearing Feelings and Needs
“Mutual Speech and Hearing.” Seeing is not enough for true encounter. It sets the stage for knowing and being known but does not guarantee it. We must hear each other’s self-expression, and we must express ourselves. In hearing, we allow our presuppositions to be dismantled, our suspicions to be silenced. We invite the other to help us understand him/her, just as we help the other understand us.
Self-expression is active not passive. It takes the form of “address,” i.e., I reach out to the other with a question, a concern, an explanation that makes my self known. Self-expression does not wait to be noticed. It does not remain distant out of fear of rejection. Conversely, when addressed by another, we hear and speak. Being-in-encounter precludes any possibility of ignoring the other.
Barth castigates the refusal to assist one another in mutual understanding through address and listening as “barbaric and inhuman.” If distance remains after conversation, then we have not truly,
The basic form of humanity, according to Barth, is “being-in-encounter.” The image of God within us is this relationality.
i.e., humanely, spoken to and heard each other. We have not entered into dialogue; perhaps we have talked past each other. Thus Barth admonishes us to persevere in mutual speech and hearing, anchored in the knowledge that our basic humanity is at stake.”Feelings” and “Needs.” The second and third steps of NVC can be interpreted as practices of mutual speech and hearing. In the second step, we differentiate feelings from thoughts. In the third step, we identify the needs that cause our feelings.
Most of us use the word “feel” to express opinions and ideas. “I feel like going to bed,” does not express a feeling. “I feel tired,” does express a feeling. Sometimes we use the word “feel” to describe an evaluation of ourselves or others. “I feel like a lazy bum,” is an evaluation. “I feel frustrated because I chose to watch television rather than clean the house tonight,” expresses a feeling and an observation. To summarize, when we follow the word “feel” with words such as “that, like, it,” we are not expressing a feeling.
Let’s go back to our scenario. Sam makes the observation, “I’ve cleaned the Sunday School wing every Saturday for the last three months and the pastor hasn’t said anything about it to me. I feel like I’m being used.” The last statement is still an interpretation of the pastor’s behavior toward Sam. While Sam clearly has intense feelings, he has not yet expressed them. To add the second step of NVC, Sam might say, “I’m feeling really hurt [feeling] because I’ve shown up every Saturday for three months to clean the Sunday School wing and the pastor has not thanked me [observation].”
If being-in-encounter requires a willingness to be seen and willingness to address the other, then Sam might be compelled to actually speak his concern directly to the pastor. Mutual seeing and speaking calls him out of hiding and into authentic dialogue. Clearly stating feelings would potentially transform the communication between Sam and his pastor. “I feel like I’m being used,” a form of blaming, evokes defensives. “I’m feeling hurt,” an authentic expression of one’s vulnerability, evokes openness and compassion.
The third step of NVC, identifying needs, is the hinge on which the whole process hangs. By “needs,” Rosenberg means that which is universally necessary for human flourishing, e.g., physical survival, safety, understanding, integrity, love, community, freedom, and meaning.
We can, and indeed must, if we are to be human, walk close to another in the midst of their burdens and anxiety, offering comfort, encouragement, support, and whatever “little assistance” is possible.
Defined this way, all human action is an attempt to meet basic human needs, and our feelings are determined by whether or not our needs are being met. When our needs are being met, we experience what we often label as “positive” feelings– happy, inspired, elated, satisfied, energetic, relaxed, etc. When our needs are not being met, we experience what we often label as “negative” feelings–angry, sad, disappointed, fearful, irritated, etc.Besides being universal, needs do not inherently conflict with one another; instead, strategies to meet needs might, and often do, conflict with one another, as discussed below in the fourth step of NVC. Needs can be met through a wide variety of means. They are not tied to any one person or action. Given our scenario, then, Sam feels hurt not because the pastor has not thanked him, but because Sam’s needs for appreciation, acknowledgement and perhaps respect are not being met. These needs could be met in ways other than an expression of thanks from the pastor.
Mutual Assisting by Mutual Response to Requests
“Mutual Assisting.” As Jesus is the man for others, so we, in correspondence to him, assist and request assistance from others. This reciprocity must be maintained, for assistance given but never received creates isolation. Self-sufficiency denies our basic humanity, for only God, who nevertheless has chosen to exist with and thus not to exist without humanity, is self-sufficient.
Our mutual assistance is also unlike the assistance given by Jesus to his fellow human beings. We cannot save another; we are not responsible for another’s wellbeing; we cannot take on another’s pain and struggle as our own. But we can, and indeed must, if we are to be human, walk close to another in the midst of their burdens and anxiety, offering comfort, encouragement, support and whatever “little assistance” is possible.
“Requests.” This fourth step in NVC provides a concrete means for mutual assistance in respect of our inherent limitations. It involves expressing and receiving requests, which are strategies to meet needs.
In NVC, there are two basic kinds of requests: action requests and connecting requests. The former asks someone to do something. The latter asks for honesty (an authentic expression of feelings and needs) or mirroring (paraphrasing what you previously stated) from another person. Nonviolent requests fulfill three criteria:
(1) They are not demands, i.e., the other person can say “no” without retribution;
(2) They are stated in positive language, i.e., they avoid asking someone to refrain from a particular activity;
(3) They are specific enough to be do-able. For example, instead of asking a friend to “spend more time together,” you would ask a friend to “spend an hour together at the coffee shop tomorrow at 3pm.”
Requests are gifts. Rosenberg often says that nothing brings us greater joy in life than helping other people meet their needs while simultaneously allowing them to help meet our needs. When we fail to make requests of others, we lose an opportunity not only for our own needs to be met but also for their needs to be met. In Barth’s language, we lose an opportunity to live in mutual assistance and thus in true encounter. In effect, we deny our humanity.
Of all the steps in NVC, making requests potentially unleashes excitement and creativity. Conversely, it is also the step in NVC where people experience the most conflict. A strategy that meets one’s need for intimacy might not meet another person’s need for autonomy. Again, the needs for intimacy and autonomy do not inherently conflict, but strategies for meeting those needs might conflict and fail. When this happens, we need to release our strategy but never our needs. To deny the fulfillment of our needs diminishes life. As NVC trainers quip, “Hold your requests lightly and your needs tightly.”
So let’s go back to our scenario again. How might Sam approach his pastor? “I’m hurt [feeling] and confused [feeling], pastor. I’ve been coming in to clean the Sunday School wing every Saturday for the last three months, and I haven’t heard you say anything about it to me [observation]. I want to make a contribution to the church’s ministry [need], and this is one way that I can do that [strategy for meeting need], but I’m also longing for appreciation [need].Would you be willing to let me know now what you think about my work here [action request] and how you feel about what I just said [connecting request]? ” Communicating in this way is an open address that creates room for mutual speech and hearing and assistance. It also provides a greater possibility for honest, empathic connection between Sam and the pastor.
In response, the pastor could utilize the framework of NVC to sort through her own reaction and frame a response that empathizes with Sam without giving up her own voice. She might choose to express appreciation for Sam’s work at the church, thereby responding to his action request. Then she might respond to his connecting request with an honest expression of her own feelings and needs.
Grateful and Free Connection
“With gladness.” To be human is to see and be seen gladly, to speak and hear gladly, to assist and be assisted gladly. According to Barth, only in gratitude and freedom can our encounter with another be human. Being-in-encounter cannot, by definition, occur under compulsion. We cannot presume that another belongs to us, and they cannot perceive us as property. We are “bound” to each other only in freedom, mutuality, and joy.
“With playfulness.” “Don’t do anything that isn’t play,” writes Rosenberg. Agree to a request only if you can do so “with the joy of a young child feeding a hungry duck.” Freedom and pleasure should characterize and emerge from our decisions.
Rosenberg points out that too often, our actions emerge from a list of internal or external “shoulds” or “have to’s.” We often acquiesce to others’ requests out of guilt, fear of retribution, or a sense of obligation. Living out of this negative energy depletes our joy, stifles gratitude, and inhibits connection to our own values and needs as well as those of others. Given Barth’s definition of true humanity, it also dehumanizes us and others. It contradicts our being-in-encounter.
Rosenberg does not suggest that therefore we simply refrain from all those grudgingly accepted tasks. Rather he urges us to discern the needs being met or unmet by certain activities. This enables us to consider if our needs would be better served in other ways. It also enables us to engage gladly those activities that seem onerous.
Reformed theology reminds us, however, that the fulfillment of human needs is not an end in and of itself. The goal of all human existence is multi-dimensional reconciliation, i.e., union and communion with God, each other and all creation.
For instance, committee work may seem dreadful to pastors (and academics). Yet we might acknowledge that our participation in these committees (or at least some of them) meets needs for stability, order, and contribution. Or we might decide that other needs for meaning and purpose are so undermined by committee work that we choose freely and gladly, and thus without resentment, to cease participation. In either case, we would choose without bitter complaint or socially-induced guilt.
Mutual Illumination: NVC and Reformed Theology
Nonviolent communication, as summarized above, can assist us in living in conformity to Jesus Christ, the true human, without conflating the distinction between us and Christ. When practiced in community, it can be interpreted, through the eyes of faith, as a sign of the image of God, our being-in-encounter. Moreover, when placed in conversation with each other, NVC and Barth’s theological anthropology can be mutually illuminating. It can (1) admonish the church toward greater theological adequacy in its use of sin language, (2) explain the spottiness of compassion, and (3) sustain us in hope as we seek to live into the image of God in the here-and-now.
NVC and the language of sin
Steeped in Calvinistic sin language, Reformed readers of Rosenberg will likely feel uneasy about his depiction of human nature as essentially compassionate. Rosenberg rejects views of humankind as innately evil, deficient, flawed, and, presumably, sinful, noting how these views foster life-alienating forms of communication, such as moralistic judgments, threats, coercion, and dichotomies between “right and wrong.” An honest assessment of church history and present denominational discourse could hardly disagree with Rosenberg. Yet removing the category of sin would gut Reformed theology, as well as the New Testament, of its unique message derived from the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. If “abuse does not bar use,” as the adage goes, then discussion and confession of sin do not necessarily lead to de-humanizing communication and action.
Nevertheless, the previous depiction of NVC as a sign of the image of God in humanity does admonish church leaders to assess whether their sin language is congruent with a Reformed theological anthropology. Does our sin language deny or denigrate the image of God? Also knowledge of NVC might contribute to more theological adequacy in our confession of sin. Can NVC help us speak in a manner that emphasizes, as Barth says, the “YES” of God to humanity without eclipsing God’s “NO”?
Consider the following as a few norms for sin language that take into account insights learned from nonviolent communication:
(1) Faithful discussion of sin does not eclipse the goodness of God’s creation, i.e., human beings. It acknowledges that those who sin nevertheless bear God’s image.
(2) Faithful discussion of sin understands it as an aberration of human nature, a contradiction of our true humanity.
(3) Faithful discussion of sin leads us toward, rather than away from, connection with ourselves and others. Thus, it creates space for mutual speech and hearing and assisting.
(4) Faithful confession of sin describes our actions, feelings and needs before a gracious God. Thus NVC may enhance our authenticity in our prayers of confession, lament, petition, and thanksgiving.
(5) When in a communal context, faithful confession of sin involves mutual speech and hearing and opens up new avenues of mutual assisting with gladness.
(6) All discussion of sin is secondary in emphasis to our discussion of the reconciliation of human beings to God, human beings to one another, and human beings to the cosmos.
Needs and the hope of reconciliation
NVC acknowledges that in some, if not many, instances our most basic human needs remain unmet. Children go hungry. Governments kill each other’s citizens. Spouses fail to connect with each other. Congregations split and peace seems unattainable. In such instances, NVC encourages us to mourn these needs, to stay emotionally connected to the beauty of these needs, and to keep our commitment to the fulfillment of these needs.
Reformed theology reminds us, however, that the fulfillment of human needs is not an end in and of itself. The goal of all human existence is multi-dimensional reconciliation, i.e., union and communion with God, each other and all creation. Moreover, reconciliation has not been accomplished and cannot be accomplished by human action. While we may contribute to others’ needs being met, we do not contribute to their reconciliation with God or each other. Instead, we participate in this reconciliation already wrought by Christ when we live with integrity, peace, and love in community. (Note that all of these descriptors are also basic human needs.)
To clarify further, reconciliation is one event in three modes or times–past, present, and future. In the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, humanity has been reconciled to God. “It is finished!” In the here-and-now, the benefits of this reconciliation are not fully manifest. The effects of sin remain with us. In the future coming of Christ, God will be all in all; reconciliation and its benefits will be fully actualized in human existence.
NVC’s vision of human existence in which all people exist in connection to one another, themselves, and the “divine,” which we understand as the Triune God, has been accomplished in the past tense of reconciliation. NVC’s vision of human existence in which every person’s needs (as defined above) are met simultaneously has been accomplished in the cross and resurrection of Christ as well. This existence will be manifest fully in all creation in the eschaton. In this “time between the times,” we are called to live into this vision of human life. In Barth’s words, we are called to become who we are. Acknowledging the inevitable incompleteness of this work in the present does not need to lead toward apathy. Instead, it can sustain us with hope as we seek to be human in our relationships, and more specifically, as pastors and church members seek to communicate with each other in a way that conforms to the image of God in Jesus Christ.
Barth, Karl (1960). Church Dogmatics: Volume III, The Doctrine of Creation, Part 2. Edinburgh: T & T Clark.
Hunsinger, Deborah van Deusen (2006). Pray Without Ceasing: Revitalizing Pastoral Care. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Rosenberg, Marshall (2003). Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Encinitas, CA: Puddle Dancer Press.
1 In writing this article, I am indebted to Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger, Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, who has noted the conceptual connection between nonviolent communication and Karl Barth’s theological anthropology. An in-depth, interdisciplinary work, tentatively titled, Compassionate Communication as a Christian Spiritual Practice, will be forthcoming, co-authored by Hunsinger and me.