Nonviolent Communication Skills and Bullying

“Behind intimidating messages are simply people appealing to us to meet their needs.”

Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD.

The connection between Nonviolent Communication skills and bullying is that NVC can help us get to the root of why people bully others, in order to help both victims and perpetrators learn, heal, and grow.

Bullying is both a real phenomenon and a word that can be used as a subjective interpretation.

One of the components of the Nonviolent Communication model — Observation — urges us to be clear about what is observable as opposed to an evaluation, judgment, interpretation, or story.

Some people use the term “bullying” to refer to any behavior they don’t like. Yet, there is something real and troublesome, especially in schools but also in relationships and workplaces, which we want to address.

So even though some NVC practitioners would say that bullying is not something observable — instead, there are specific observable behaviors which we then call “bullying” — for the sake of this article we are defining bullying in the following way:

When we use the word “bullying,” we are referring to a repeated and systematic attempt to threaten, intimidate, or humiliate — often in front of others — by someone with more power or privilege to someone with less power or privilege.

NVC is a powerful addition to any set of tools for how to deal with bullying in a compassionate and effective way.

Understanding Why People Bully Others

It is important to understand why people bully others in the first place.

People sometimes lack the skills for processing difficult emotions, and this can be particularly true of children, especially if they live in a home where there is a lot of distress.

Sometimes when we don’t know what to do with our feelings we stuff them. It’s as if each of us has a balloon in our chest, and each time we “swallow” a feeling, we are taking an invisible straw and pushing that feeling into our interior balloon. The more feelings we add, and the less we process what is already there, then the pressure begins to build up.

This is when people lash out at or bully others — because they are overwhelmed with present emotions, as well as everything from the past they have not yet processed or resolved. In order to understand why people bully others, consider a recent school assembly with life-altering implications for its participants….

During a school assembly discussing bullying, a young person described the sadness, isolation, and impact to self-esteem they suffered as a result of another’s behavior. The facilitator specifically did not call out the person who committed the hurtful behaviors, and instead allowed them to remain in relative anonymity in the audience so that they could fully take in the words describing the impact of their actions.

Before long, the “bully” raised their hand, and was offered a safe space to come up in front of the school. After hearing the impact of their actions, they were able to mourn and fully apologize in front of their peers.

As the facilitator interviewed them trying to understand what was driving the behavior, the bully described being in deep pain. “I lost my best friend last month, and I don’t have anybody at home to listen to me.”

This level of vulnerability moved the other students and faculty, and allowed them to understand the pain behind the bullying behavior, a key to understanding why people bully others. As a result, they reached out after the assembly to both students who had spoken. Repair of the relationships began immediately … and staff, teachers, and parents created a plan to catch situations before they escalate and to offer more emotional support at the school.

Signs of Emotional Distress in Children and Adults

Just like in the example of our school assembly, bullying can be prevented by spotting early signs of emotional distress in children and adults before they act out bullying behaviors or before more pain is generated.

We’ve been focusing on the person who commits bullying — and we need to keep in mind that the person on the receiving end may also be suffering!

Both the child being bullied, and the one doing the bullying, are in emotional distress!

  • Here are some typical signs of emotional distress (not a complete list):
  • Decreased appetite, other changes in eating habits,
  • Headache,
  • New or recurrent bedwetting,
  • Nightmares,
  • Sleep disturbances,
  • Upset stomach or vague stomach pain.

By spotting signs of emotional distress ahead of time, we can offer support where it is needed before it escalates. A follow-up to this support often includes one or more facilitated conversations in order to bring about a mutually supportive situation for all parties involved.

The goal is to help children in emotional distress receive support before any bullying behavior happens! However, once something has happened, these young people still need our awareness, care, commitment, and support.

Nonviolent Communication can actually help children want to refrain from lashing out at others, and seek support, because it’s best for them and everybody else; not merely out of a fear of punishment.

With punishment, we may get the behavioral modification we’re looking for, but the person hasn’t learned for themselves why the actions we’ve requested are important and also what to do instead.

When children receive training in NVC they learn to speak their pain in terms of feelings, needs, and requests — rather than acting out in ways that hurt themselves and others.

When children receive training in NVC they learn better strategies for self-care, and as a result are more resilient and better able to ask for support.

Imagine a child on the receiving end of bullying. IF this child has participated in NVC training, they will have more tools, and therefore more options, for what to do to help themselves. These include:

  • Self-empathy,
  • Working through feelings of shame and self-blame,
  • Knowing how to reach out to adults for support,
  • The ability to befriend the bully and turn that relationship around,
  • Breaking the cycle of revenge and retribution through empathy-and-honesty-based connection!

After all, hurt people hurt people. If our young person being treated poorly is able to compassionately connect with the person lashing out, very often that person can have a shift and will quickly change their behavior. This is very context-dependent, but is exactly the type of outcome NVC skills excel at.

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg on NVC for Bullying

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg would remind us that acts of bullying are actually tragic expressions of unmet needs.

What does that mean?

Someone who is happy, content, fulfilled, does not engage in the behaviors we associate with bullying. Before someone does what we would call bullying — before anyone does anything to intimidate, threaten, coerce, humiliate, or harm another person — we can assume that they are in some form of emotional pain.

When we are in pain the old habit is to either lash out or withdraw, and lashing out gives rise to the expression “hurt people hurt people.”

So what to do?

The first thing your Nonviolent Communication skills would tell you when applied to bullying is to not let the static label “bully” allow you to dehumanize or demonize another human being. Here is a person in pain, and they are lashing out at others.

If we see an act of violence, we may need to physically intervene to create physical safety, using force to protect life rather than to punish.

Of course, we need to have compassion for the person on the receiving end of such behaviors — the person often described as a victim of bullying.

It serves everyone more if we also have empathy and compassion for the person doing the bullying!

Does empathy or compassion mean that we are excusing, justifying, or saying that behavior is OK?

No!

But if we use NVC for bullying to understand the deeper needs underlying this behavior, we can help them meet their needs in ways that are more in harmony with the needs of others.

This is why we need to be very clear on restorative justice as opposed to punitive justice. To parents, teachers and others who still defend simple, punitive punishment in cases of bullying, Dr. Marshall Rosenberg emphasized two questions to ask yourself:
What do you want the other person to do?
What do you want their reasons to be for doing it?
If all we do is punish someone who hurts others, we are buying into the assumption that we know all the circumstances and it is for us to judge who is “right,” who is “wrong,” and therefore, who deserves to be punished.

More importantly, by relying on punishment we cut off the flow of that person’s learning and transformation. This is because someone who is stuck in a space of guilt, shame, anger, or depression does not easily transform in a life-serving way based on the promise of further punishment.

Nonviolent Communication helps people find more life-serving ways to meet their needs.

Puddledancer Press Books on Nonviolent Communication

PuddleDancer Press is the foremost proponent and publisher of books on Nonviolent Communication.

We understand there is no simple, overarching solution to bullying.

Administrators, parents, and teachers all need support to create restorative systems rather than resorting to merely punitive punishments and measures.

And they also need support in handling their difficult emotions so that they can be of greatest support to children who are having a challenging time.

Of course, the behaviors associated with bullying occur in many settings besides schools, including intimate relationships and workplace settings. In any of these circumstances, the principles of NVC still apply.

Nonviolent Communication is a world-famous, proven, time-tested methodology for:

  • Creating exceptional personal and professional relationships,
  • Offering compassionate understanding to others (and knowing when and how to ask for it ourselves),
  • Preventing and resolving misunderstandings and conflicts,
  • Speaking our truth in a way that is clear, powerful, and more likely to lead to harmony than conflict,
  • Creating mutual understanding without coercion.

With PuddleDancer Press books on Nonviolent Communication, we can cultivate the tools and skills of NVC to address bullying in schools, homes, and workplaces everywhere. As a result, we can begin to turn around trends in bullying and create a world that is kinder, more humane, and more resilient.

More information on Books about Empathy

NVC Bullying Web Resources

Click here for Marshall Rosenberg Bullying Articles
Click here for Marshall Rosenberg Bullying Videos
Click here for Nonviolent Communication Bullying Articles
Click here for Nonviolent Communication Bullying 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.