Using Nonviolent Communication to Stand up to Hate Speech

“Never hear what somebody thinks about you, you’ll live longer. Hear that they’re in pain. Don’t hear their analysis.”

Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD.

You can use Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to stand up to hate speech in a way that preserves your integrity and attends to the humanity of everybody involved, including the person expressing the hate speech.

While “hate speech” is not a legal term, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that most things that would qualify as such are protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution.

So even though “hate speech” is protected by law as free speech (in the US), NVC gives us more options than fighting it, giving in to it, or trying to ignore it.

An NVC-informed approach to dealing with hate speech would include the following three areas: self-empathy, empathy, and honesty.

Self-empathy relates to skills around emotional self-care in the face of painful stimuli – for example hate speech.

Empathy is how we are compassionately present with another in our listening. This could include being with someone for whom trauma has been re-stimulated when they were on the receiving end of hate speech. And this could also be empathy for the deeper feelings and needs of the person expressing hate speech.

Judgments and criticism have at their root real feelings and universal human needs. We can disagree with the rhetoric and the perspective, and still have compassion for the fear and the deeper motivators that exist in a human’s heart.

Honesty in NVC refers to speaking from the heart, with clarity, power, and compassion. We are clear about our intentions, observations, feelings, values, and needs without demonizing or dehumanizing another. Some people refer to this as heart-honesty versus head-honesty — though, to be clear, NVC is not about head versus heart, but rather about head and heart working together.

NVC gives us the ability to stand up to hate speech by helping us be firmly rooted in our own values while holding compassion for the humanity of those who see the world very differently from us. This is our best chance at inviting them into a different perspective.

What is Hate Speech, and how is it Related to Violent Communication?

What we call “violent communication” in NVC is also known as “life-disconnected, life-alienated communication.” Some trainers use the term “Jackal” as a linguistic shortcut.

This type of communication is based on criticizing, name-calling, labeling people, blaming and avoiding responsibility, placing demands on others rather than requests, and justifying reward and punishment.

Hate speech is verbal or written communication that expresses prejudice or discrimination toward a particular group — or toward an individual due to their membership or affiliation in that group — often based on religion, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, and/or race.

So, while not all “jackal” is hate speech — for example, a guilt trip — everything considered hate speech fits the definition of jackal — also known as life-disconnected, life-alienated communication.

What is the Difference Between Free Speech and Hate Speech?

In the US free speech is constitutionally protected. While there are restrictions on free speech, this does not include what is considered “hate speech.”

Even though someone has the right to speak their mind, that doesn’t mean we have to like it or agree with it, nor does NVC tell us to ignore it, pretend it doesn’t bother us, or be inauthentically “nice.” In fact NVC is not at all about being nice! It is about being real AND compassionate.

From the perspective of NVC, we start with 3 broad areas of choices when we encounter hate speech:

    1. Self-connection (especially if we are activated or triggered): We connect with our own feelings, needs (values/dreams/desires), and requests. (Example: “When I hear that man use that word I feel despair because I long for a society in which everyone is treated with kindness! I feel so upset I think I will call a friend for emotional support!”)
    2. Empathic listening: Accessing our own compassion and curiosity, we can put our attention on the feelings, values, needs, (dreams/desires), and requests of the person who is expressing themselves. (Example: “I wonder if when he says that about immigrants he is actually very afraid for his own financial stability..?”)
    3. Honest self-expression: We express our observations, feelings, needs, and requests in relation to what we are experiencing, in this case hearing hate speech. (Example: “When I hear you describe an entire group that way I feel worried because my experience with them is very different. I’m wondering if you’d be open to meeting some friends of mine and having a different experience. Would you be open to that?”)

NVC does not give us a recipe or a formula.

Instead NVC gives us 3 general toolboxes in the areas of self-expression, empathic listening, and self-connection.

A highly skilled NVC practitioner moves fluidly between these three areas, as needed.

With that level of skill you can sustain difficult conversations until you get to the other side where there is more mutual understanding than when you started. And mutual understanding provides a foundation for co-creating mutually beneficial outcomes.

The Consequences of Hate Speech on Individuals, Groups and Society

What are the consequences of hate speech on individuals, groups, and society?

When exposed to hate speech about them or groups of which they are members, individuals are likely to have their self-esteem and self-worth eroded. This often impacts a person’s economic and social possibilities, and constitutes mindsets, words, and behavior which are passed down to the next generations.

The effects of receiving directed hate speech can also be compounded by poverty and trauma — each of which can be situational or generational. Generational poverty and generational trauma are different from, and have levels of depth and complexity not often witnessed in, the situational versions of each.

Sometimes the result of receiving hate speech over time can be shame, guilt, or depression.

And other times people on the receiving end of hate speech can respond with anger or rage. When acted upon, this will likely perpetuate the cycle of violence.

What breaks the cycle of violence is empathy — when people can get compassionate, empathic presence and listening for their pain, and they are able to grieve and mourn in life-serving ways. Pathways for forward movement open up after empathy & mourning.

Groups — depending on the individuals that comprise them — are also affected in various ways by hate speech. Some groups might enter into a collective state of fear or caution. Other groups — for example, those that fight racism — could experience a sense of being energized or galvanized.

One of the biggest impacts to groups — and particularly among or between groups — could be a loss of trust, which then leads to reduced opportunities for collaboration or making the world a better place.

When we allow or even amplify hate speech, we are fraying the fabric of trust and love which holds society together. A society that allows hate speech to flourish will be less happy and less safe.

The root causes of hate speech are multiple, and not simple. Rather than have a society that bans certain words, we could have a society that creates the conditions whereby the type of pain that gives rise to hate speech is less likely to occur in the first place.

The Rise of Online Hate Speech

In the early days of the internet, some optimistic visionaries saw cyberspace as the new “global brain” that would usher in a more rapid evolution of human consciousness toward more love, peace, integrity, care, etc. — all the higher qualities of human potential.

It hasn’t exactly turned out that way — or some people might say not yet.

One thing the internet, message boards, and social media have facilitated is (1) making it easier for hate groups to find each other, and (2) the siloing of groups, with each increasingly in an echo-chamber of similar beliefs and narratives reinforcing a particular belief system.

Sometimes people retreat to sites or groups comprised only of others with similar values. In addition, social media and video search algorithms compound the issue of exposing people only to views to which they already subscribe, and further suggesting more of the same.

Many platforms, past and present, made it easy for people expressing hate speech to hide behind anonymous commenting.

To the extent that internet spaces are designed to create a safe space for hate speech it will find somewhere to flourish.

It’s possible that as a society we may always have some version of hate speech. After all, human consciousness grows from a narrower to a broader compassionate embrace. We evolve in terms of who matters, who is deserving of ethical consideration, from just me, to us, to all of us.

For the evolution of humanity, it turns out that simply having interconnected communications is not enough. We need to widen and deepen the consciousness that holds and uses the technology. From this wiser place in ourselves — individually and collectively — we can inform our legislative processes and other social systems and structures to create a safer and thriving society.

Learn How to Handle Difficult Situations Nonviolently

NVC recognizes that violent expressions — such as judgment, criticism, and justification of punishment — are tragic expressions of one or more unmet needs.

Why tragic? Because these expressions often result in the opposite of that for which the speaker truly longs.

When someone uses hate speech it is evident that their needs are not met — in other words, they’re hurting!

The expression “hurt people hurt people” refers precisely to this phenomenon of unprocessed pain. Sometimes we refer to it as an “empathy deficit.”

NVC helps us attend to unprocessed grief through empathy — giving our complete attention to the person in pain, and putting our attention on their feelings and needs rather than their judgments, analyses, or stories.

Sometimes stories about what other groups of people are like can become deeply ingrained in our psyche. When someone with a painful (and bigoted) story like this receives empathic care (rather than agreement) they are much more open to the evidence and to changing their story about what other people are like.

NVC is a process language, acknowledging that life is dynamic and ever-presently changing.

Life-disconnected, life-alienated communication (“jackal”) is a static language, meaning that the verb to be becomes important to determine who is what — especially who is good and who is bad. This is in turn used as justification to punish those perceived as bad.

NVC helps us:

  • remember that the person expressing hate speech is human,
  • to understand that they are hurting,
  • to attend self-responsibly and compassionately to our own pain,
  • by understanding needs — our own and others’ — and by reminding us that this person has needs behind or underneath the words they are using.

NVC gives us the possibility of attending to their heart with compassion while at the same time standing in our values and denying the validity of thoughts, concepts, and words which generate hate, fear, and divisiveness between people. We connect with feelings and needs, as differentiated from agreeing with positions or stories.

When someone uses hate speech they are in pain? What causes this pain?

From an NVC perspective, feelings arise from universal human needs fulfilled/satisfied or unfulfilled/unsatisfied. For example, if I perceive or interpret that my need for safety is met I have certain feelings, if I perceive or interpret that my need for safety is not met I have different feelings.

However, one thing acknowledged and very rarely discussed in NVC circles is what causes “needs” (that which is deeply important to us/core human motivators) to arise in the first place?

What causes needs to arise is the meaning that we give a particular situation.

One colleague from South America uses the example of the dog poop on a Colombian beach where there is clear signage to clean up after your dog.

In this example, 3 people step in the same dog poop on the same day at the same beach, and they each have different sets of needs and feelings come up:

  1. The first person is terrified and what comes up is their need for safety. Perhaps they’ve been ill much of their life, and what comes up is a need for protection from pathogens.
  2. The second person is livid and feeling indignation. Perhaps they work as a judge or an accountant, and what comes up for them is order, and they value people following rules. After all, it’s posted right there: pick up after your dog!
  3. The third person steps in the same dog poop, and they feel elated — because they come from a part of rural Colombia where there is a popular expression that if you stepped in dog poop that day it was your lucky day.

That’s an important thing to consider when dealing with hate speech: the feelings and needs are real, but they are based on stories/beliefs/judgments that are false.

Though NVC does not specialize in inquiring deeply into our stories — there are other complementary modalities for that —, it excels in fomenting the mutual understanding between individuals which contributes both to trust-building and to collaborative outcome-creation.

Through the process of empathy and honesty people naturally become less rigid in their stances and are usually more open to reconsidering their stories.

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg on Opposing Hate Speech with NVC

It’s very possible that rather than opposing hate speech, Dr. Marshall Rosenberg would have preferred a different approach: transforming it!

In his seminal book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, Dr. Rosenberg recounts a story of sharing a taxi from the airport with a man who expressed hatred for Jews (Dr. Rosenberg was jewish). How he handled that conversation is eye-opening — and we won’t ruin it for you here!

Dr. Rosenberg consistently demonstrated how to meet someone where they are at, with compassion — able to hear the underlying needs — no matter how the other person expressed themselves!

And he modeled following up that kind of compassionate listening by standing firmly in his values and expressing his own truth — in a way that also showed care for the other’s humanity. He often exemplified fierce love for the needs and values which would protect life.

And one of the secrets he shared for getting people to hear our perspective?

“The other person is more likely to hear you out if they feel heard first.”

Pro tip: remember that empathic understanding is not agreement!

Puddledancer Press Books About Hate Speech Prevention

PuddleDancer Press is the foremost proponent and publisher of books on Nonviolent Communication, hate speech prevention, and conflict resolution.

NVC teaches us that at the root of our pain and judgments are universal human needs. This is a critical insight:

  • for having more compassion for people who express hate speech,
  • to help us de-escalate when we are hurting, and
  • to help people who use divisive and hurtful language to understand their own deeper needs and motivations so that they can find ways of satisfying their needs that are also in harmony with the needs of others.

NVC has shown time and again that human beings are capable of arriving at mutually crafted solutions. Because of the trust-building process involved, and the fact that the solutions include everyone’s needs, using NVC to prevent hate speech and de-escalate conflicts predictably gives us outcomes that meet a greater number of needs and are more durable than conventional coercive or punitive methods.

Our books on these topics can help you:

  • Create exceptional personal and professional relationships,
  • Offer compassionate understanding to others,
  • Know when and how to ask for that same understanding for yourself,
  • Prevent and resolve misunderstandings and conflicts,
  • Speak your truth in a clear, powerful way more likely to lead to harmony than conflict,
  • Create mutual understanding without coercion.

Whether you are a long-time student — or are brand new to NVC — PuddleDancer Press has the educational resources, including the books on hate speech prevention, to help you grow your emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and communication prowess. Check out our catalog of books… and give yourself the gift of Compassionate Communication!

More information on Books related to Hate Speech

NVC Hate Speech Web Resources

Click here for Marshall Rosenberg Hate Speech Articles
Click here for Marshall Rosenberg Hate Speech Videos
Click here for Nonviolent Communication Hate Speech Articles
Click here for Nonviolent Communication Hate Speech Videos

There is a wealth of information on Nonviolent Communication – in articles and videos. Of course we endorse all of Marshall’s sharing’s, however, there are many transcripts and videos created by others. Due to limited resources we do not verify the full accuracy of any particular video or articles created by others, even though there is plenty of wonderful and educational information on the web