“Most of the really confident people I met were actually rather stupid.”
— John Cleese, So anyway…
We lost the developer of nonviolent communication this year, Marshall Rosenberg (1934-2015), a man focused on how we can more effectively help wend our way through our conflicts with others—but without engendering more hurt along the way.
Rosenberg acted as a facilitator, mediator, and trainer in more adaptive communication methods that help us get what we need while giving others what they need. His framing stressed clarity and accountability.
We all know some of these techniques. Comedian John Cleese may or may not have heard of Rosenberg, but here is an excerpt from his autobiography that shows one of those flashes of genius:
I also knew that I could “do” confident, and it helped enormously socially that I appeared to be able to fake it no matter how insecure, anxious, or inferior I actually felt…[I had] the sense that I should be formidably well informed about everything… I had an epiphany. I was talking to a very well informed fellow called Peregrine something-or-other, and nodding knowledgeably, and smiling wryly at I knew not what, when on an impulse I suddenly said, “I don’t know about that. Will you tell me about it?”
There was a moment of silence, but the ceiling did not fall in. Peregrine something-or-other did not slap me contemptuously with the back of his hand, or spit in my face. Instead, he visibly brightened and proceeded to give me a thoroughly good explanation of what he had been talking about. He enjoyed explaining it, and I enjoyed understanding it, and he clearly liked me better for having given him the opportunity to display his learning. Instead of humiliation, then, I had initiated a profitable transaction. It was a revelation, and I found it such a liberation, and a relief, to be able to abandon that phony omniscient posturing.
I will suggest we take that even a step further. Give credit to our opponents for being correct. Find the kernel of accuracy or justification in what our “enemies” say or do, and openly acknowledge that. It can be positively disarming and it can draw down the frantic urge to hurt us.
Example: ISIS is right to try to redraw the boundaries in the Middle East. Those borders were imposed on the region by European cartographers at the behest of their colonial and imperialist rulers. The people of the region should enjoy the sovereignty over the political boundaries that all peoples deserve.
Does this statement weaken the drive by all reasonable people in the region to reduce and eliminate the ISIS terrorist threat? No. It weakens the outrage that fuels ISIS, if it’s accompanied by a US pullout and cessation of bombing. It makes the US look large and mature. Then a follow up of a US-led global boycott of ISIS and a stress on the outrageous conduct of their operatives can reach the ears of the people of the region and elsewhere. Such conduct by the US could radically reduce recruitment to ISIS and hollow out its authority.
This is the beauty and magic of adaptive conflict communication. It can attenuate damage and increase gain for good ethical and moral practices. Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist, worked his entire professional career on these concepts. If such strategies and tactics can save lives and lower all other costs, aren’t they worth trying?
Dr. Tom H. Hastings is core faculty in the Conflict Resolution Department at Portland State University and is Founding Director of PeaceVoice.