Finding futures

A blog about imagining futures, social and environmental change, and doing a PhD…

What can words do?

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~~~Hello and Happy New Year, despite it starting rather unhappily with news of shocking events in France and Nigeria reaching our screens of late.  In light of the outpouring of written and spoken commentary on these events it seemed relevant to publish this blog post now, although I wrote it back in December.  It describes my recent experiences at a workshop about Non Violent Communication (NVC), and although what follows is specifically about language and environment it struck me that the overall aims and principles of NVC are apt at the moment. Above all the method stresses the value of using language in ways which create space to contemplate the whole rather than forcing debates into the kinds of binary thinking which ultimately insults people’s ability to understand and live in a complex world.   If the world seems a bit inhumane recently,  NVC teaches that words can be small but mighty ways of regaining and sharing some humanity, if we use them wisely. ~~~

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Source: thesanctuaryguatemala.com

Have you ever wondered why, if you exclaim something like “I’m always cleaning up your dishes!” you rarely resolve the problem, let alone feel good about it? The psychologist Marshall Rosenberg has been pointing this out since the 1960s, insisting that the ways we use language are alienating and ineffective.

His idea was to develop a method – Non-Violent Communication (NVC) – which helps people to ‘re-learn’ how they use speech in ways that avoid judgement and blame and simply focus on the fundamental feelings, needs and values that we are trying to convey. Instead of the previous outburst, for example, Rosenberg would advocate trying “when we don’t share the washing-up it makes me feel resentful because I have a need for co-operation” and seeing how that goes down.

NVC, through a network of trainers, is used in all sorts of contexts, from marriages to workplaces, all over the world. But now its ideas for promoting empathy and compassion are taking on new relevance in light of humanity’s anxious relationship with the environment, and to the future. It is taking on a bigger challenge than the dirty dishes, that’s for sure.

I was introduced to NVC at a workshop held in a cosy front room in Swansea a few weeks ago. I thought I was going to learn how to have a calm conversation about climate change, but I came away with a much deeper appreciation for how language is implicated in the ways we relate to the environment.

“We do not describe the world we see, we see the world we describe” our trainer, Rachelle Lamb, emphasised. She spoke eloquently of how our taken-for-granted patterns of communication (in ‘westernised’ societies, at least) are no longer fit for purpose because they essentially reflect and promote individualistic values. For example, what many of us refer to as ‘environmental resources’, First Nations people in Canada call ‘relatives’. Much in the same way that our go-to confrontation phrases always put ‘me’ at the centre, phrases like ‘environmental resources’ also put us in the centre of a world that is at our disposal. Our unsustainable ways of living are, in part, justified by the words we use to describe them. Even the proposal of a new geological era – the Anthropocene – which signals a heightened awareness of our interconnectedness with the non-human world, uses a word which puts humans at centre stage (Anthro = human) and so perpetuates a certain way of imagining the world.

Rachelle refers to NVC as “a language infused with life” and believes that now, more than ever, we need more humane ways of talking with each other and about the world. Ultimately, what the language of NVC allows us is space to contemplate the complex, interconnected whole without resorting to knee-jerk binary thinking. This, surely, will be a necessary and valuable skill in the coming decades.  In the words of lyricist Ruth Bebermeyer: words are windows or they’re walls.

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2 thoughts on “What can words do?

  1. Happy New Year Anna!! May it be a very fine one for you. It was a lovely surprise to see my name come up in the Google Alerts referencing your post. I loved that day spent with you all in Swansea. I hope to return soon!

    The quote about seeing is, “We do not describe the world we see, we see the world we describe.” If anyone wants to learn more about my work, my website is http://www.rachellelamb.com/

    • Hi Rachelle, and Happy New Year to you too! I must have scribbled down that quote in haste – I have corrected now, thank you! All the best, look forward to seeing you again in Swansea.

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