The Role of Nonviolent Communication in Combating Domestic Terrorism: Breaking the Cycle of Violence

By Alan Rafael Seid, CNVC Certified Trainer

In this article I explore the role of Nonviolent Communication in breaking the cycle of violence with regard to domestic terrorism.

While this article will be focused on conditions in the United States, I believe the basic principles can be adapted worldwide.

What role does NVC have to play in combatting domestic terrorism?

NVC is an invaluable tool for individuals, families, and communities, as well as for people in leadership and governance at every level of power and decision-making.

Domestic terrorism has many causes, and NVC does not purport to be a panacea.

However, neutralizing and dismantling domestic terrorism involves any given number of conversations: in the media, with and among law enforcement, between friends and within families, in organizations and institutions, and at all levels of governance.

It is in all these conversations that NVC can be an important trust-building tool to help create clarity, mutual understanding, and forward movement together, in a way that decreases possibilities for violence.

NVC helps with people’s mindsets and perceptions, offers powerful and common-sense principles, and provides concrete, actionable skills for preventing, de-escalating, and resolving conflicts.

NVC’s most important role may be in the long-term, with regard to creating a culture of care and compassion, and for humans to build a society in which they will enjoy living.

Overview of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and Conflicts

NVC is based on the premise that all human beings share the same Universal Human Needs — which are simultaneously core human motivators, and the conditions under which a human being can thrive regardless of geographic location or cultural background.

Universal Human Needs include things like love, trust, autonomy, connection, safety, and so forth. You can see lists of feelings and Universal Human Needs here.

Needs, because they are universal, refer to no specific person performing any specific action. Strategies, on the other hand, are very important because they are the ways we go about meeting needs, but they are by definition not universal.

The needs are universal — we all share them — but the strategies are not, and that’s where conflicts arise… at the level of strategies.

When we can look more deeply at the needs, and create mutual understanding about them, then we can collaboratively look for strategies that could meet all the needs.

The rise of domestic terrorism

Terrorism is a set of tactics by which an individual or a group threatens, intimidates, or enacts violence to further a political agenda.

In the United States, domestic terrorism is not new. What is new are some of the causes, motivations, and tactics.

Why is it happening? There are multiple causes.

One factor is legitimate economic angst among a significant portion of white, rural Americans. Why is this the case? Many people are impacted deeply because the country’s techno-economic base has been steadily shifting — away from manufacturing, away from coal, to name a couple examples, and toward service, tech, and green energy.

It’s not that different from the shift that happened when refrigeration became accessible for most people.

The advent of household refrigerators decimated the huge industry that involved cutting ice from the Great Lakes and transporting it via train all over the country and beyond, so that people could have ice for their ice-boxes. This massive industry involving thousands of people was eliminated in about a generation, due to a new technology.

The factors that have led to massive economic shifts in the present-day US are beyond the control of your average American coal miner or steel worker.

To name only one example, the race to the bottom — a set of perspectives, approaches, and policies that incentivize the movement of resources, workers, and capital in order to find the cheapest price — is partially responsible for manufacturing moving away from the US and to countries where labor is cheaper.

Global factors such as climate change are leading to a broad-scale phasing out of coal as an energy source.

The list of conditions leading to massive economic shifts is a long one, and yet the economy is only one factor influencing widespread discontent.

Social media — which incentivizes the siloing of groups, along with algorithms that have been documented to lead people down conspiracy-theory rabbit-holes — is partially responsible.

Foreign actors — state and non-state — have incentive structures leading them to attempt to destabilize US society, and have thus seized upon social media to sow division and demoralize the population through disinformation. These actors, and the way they manipulate perceptions and narratives, are also partially responsible.

Most domestic terrorism in the United States is associated with groups which espouse the following two distinct yet overlapping belief systems: White supremacy and Christian nationalism.

White supremacy (the belief that Caucasians are superior and that other racial groups are inferior) and Christian nationalism (the belief that the United States should be a Christian nation) are also not new — although social media has made it easier for these groups to find each other and to organize.

These and other belief systems that reinforce us-versus- them approaches and perceptions have also fed into the rise of domestic terrorism.

Also responsible are political leaders who foment, incite, and legitimize violence against people with different views or backgrounds.

The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 was a result of many of these factors despite that it happened before the advent of social media. More recent examples of what these societal conditions can lead to include the fire- bombing of abortion clinics over many years, the plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan, and the storming of the US Capitol Building on January 6, 2021, to name but a few examples.

Most domestic terrorism is associated with right-wing extremists, with a few exceptions. For example, Ted Kaczynski, “the Unabomber” — who maimed and killed people through mail-bombs — was an anti-technology anarchist.

Regardless of the political ideology, in order to commit violence against another human being you first need to convince yourself that they are somehow less-than- human, or less than you, and therefore less worthy of moral consideration, concluding that “they deserve it.”

The belief that I’m being wronged by a specific group, plus media reinforcement of enemy images about this group and its members, leads me to feel anger and outrage. That, combined with an empathy deficit (lack of safe emotional outlets), a society in which meaning and purpose are scarce, and a politician I respect telling me that I should be angry and get retribution — and as a result I have the us-versus-them-plus-I-have-no-choice mindset that could lead me or anyone to commit violence, or at least to support others in doing so.

All of these combined factors, along with some that are beyond the scope of this article, have led to the rise of domestic terrorism in the United States.

The connection between NVC and combating domestic terrorism

The saying “hurt people hurt people” applies here!

Someone who commits an act of violence on others is not someone who is happy, balanced, and at peace.

Before I can commit an act of violence against another I have to experience a level of emotional pain that allows me to sustain the story that they are my enemy, and that they must be hurt, punished, or otherwise killed in order for my needs to be met.

Interventions involving empathy, honesty, and self- empathy skills can help a person with this level of pain to defuse the emotional pressure and begin to find new strategies to meet their needs in a way that is in harmony with the needs of others.

The most effective and rapid approach would involve massive deployment of NVC training at all levels of governance, as well as in schools and social service agencies. It would also involve a larger cultural shift away from the empty and dissatisfying promises of consumerism to a cultural story that holds more meaning and intentionality for humans on planet Earth.

By defusing us-versus-them stories, recognizing our common humanity, and moving toward mutually agreeable, mutually satisfying outcomes — NVC is an invaluable asset in helping us turn the tide away from domestic terrorism.

Understanding Nonviolent Communication (NVC)

Nonviolent Communication is often misunderstood as being merely a tool or a technique. It is also misunderstood as about being “nice” or even permissive.

It is actually none of these things.

NVC offers a new paradigm for how humans can relate to each other and create outcomes of mutual benefit.

Definition and principles of NVC

The purpose of Nonviolent Communication is to create a high quality of connection out of which people spontaneously and naturally enjoy contributing to one another’s well-being.

One key differentiation in NVC is that between needs and strategies. As mentioned earlier, the word needs refers to core human motivators shared by all humans. Strategies are the ways we go about meeting needs and by definition they are not universal.

Strategies are the level at which conflicts occur.

With the consciousness and tools of NVC, we can connect with each other using empathy and honesty in order to bring to the surface the deeper needs.

When we can see each others’ needs we can connect with each others’ humanity.

Once we can identify the deeper needs it’s more likely that we can together find strategies to address the needs of which we are aware.

The role of empathy in NVC

Empathy is a universal human need which is met when you have the experience of being fully gotten or understood.

Empathy can be defined as a compassionate or respectful understanding, though technically what we are offering another is our full presence.

When you are fully heard and understood, your need for empathy is met.

Empathy also functions as a pressure release valve. When I am feeling emotional pain or distress I am more likely to lash out at others. When I can get heard empathically by someone, it allows me to release some of the pressure inside. This allows me to feel some relief, to soften, and makes it less likely that I will want to lash out and hurt another.

When we listen to each other with empathy, then we can humanize each other. When we humanize each other the chances are greater that we can work out our differences without violence.

NVC techniques and their application

The most important distinction at this stage of the conversation is the difference between the technique side of NVC and NVC consciousness.

NVC has a concrete model that involves 3 areas of focus: self-connection, empathic listening, and authentic self- expression (honesty). Each of these 3 areas of focus includes 4 components: observation, feeling, need, and request.

The consciousness of NVC involves clarity about my intention and deliberateness about where I put my attention.

The intention is to create mutual understanding along with a willingness to work toward mutually agreeable outcomes.

I put my attention on the 4 components rather than on who is right, wrong, good, or bad.

If my intention is to get my way or manipulate a specific outcome, then I can use words that sound like NVC but it wouldn’t be NVC at all! It would then become a subtle form of manipulation.

So the consciousness of NVC is primary!

Also, having a tool is one thing, and being skillful with a tool is another.

While the NVC consciousness is primary, you improve your skillfulness over time.

Your skill-level will be a limiting factor (or a supportive one) in your success with NVC. With a high level of skill comes a greater degree of confidence, which brings with it the ability to see possibilities where others do not and to create breakthroughs where others have been stuck.

NVC as a Tool Against Domestic Terrorism

Domestic terrorism needs to be addressed on all fronts and on all levels simultaneously.

As such, NVC is a key component of a toolbox that can achieve long-term results.

And while NVC may be necessary for going to the depths of what causes a person to decide they want to hurt, kill, and terrorize other humans for political aims — it is and will not be sufficient.

For example, we live in a polluted information environment rife with mis- and disinformation. NVC by itself cannot turn this around in the necessary time. Not everyone with a nefarious agenda and everyone in power will be committed to being trained in NVC — resulting in powerful a-ha moments and insights about interdependence and compassion. So part of the focus needs to be on implementing other tactics that create space and incentives to learn NVC.

How to clean up our polluted information environment is still only one important measure that needs to be taken. Despite its significance, it is beyond the scope of this article.

For NVC to work as a tool against domestic terrorism, more people need access to NVC consciousness and skills. There needs to be a sustainable set of strategies and approaches to disseminate widely the emotional self- responsibility, empathic listening, humanizing of others, and clear collaborative communication that NVC provides!

There is probably a lot of room for creativity about how NVC can be used as a tool to combat domestic terrorism. Messages in the media could be more NVC-informed, and hostage negotiators already use techniques that mimic some of what NVC teaches.

Yet despite all the potential applications, what is most needed immediately is political will and resources to begin implementing NVC-based interventions at all levels.

How NVC addresses the root causes of domestic terrorism

In the face of domestic terrorism, NVC serves as a powerful tool for healing and prevention.

By addressing the underlying needs and emotions that drive individuals toward extremism, NVC fosters understanding and reconciliation.

Below are some additional ways NVC addresses the root causes of domestic terrorism.


We’ve discussed that hurt people hurt people.

By having many more people in the world with empathy skills there is a greater chance of someone receiving the compassionate listening they need which could interrupt or de-energize their intention to lash out.

With or without widespread empathy skills, tactical empathic interventions could also be deployed, assuming there was enough intelligence or inside information to know where and when to deploy these skills.


When schools and other educational institutions embrace NVC — by training administration, staff, faculty, parents and students — people learn how to defuse conflicts. They learn to spot when someone is needing empathy, and how to offer it.

These are precisely the skills that could help spot someone in deep pain and thwart a potential plan to lash out terroristically. Much of this will depend on the right person being in the right place at the right time — which is why the need is so pressing to disseminate NVC widely.

Politics and governance

Our politicians and public servants easily fall into the trap of dehumanizing “the other side.” They desperately need to know how to cross the divide with their colleagues, in order to access ways of resolving differences without violence.

The attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 — and all the aftermath since — has highlighted clearly the power and responsibility people in governance positions have to tone down rhetoric, de-escalate tensions, and take the side of love and the common good.

One of my long-time colleagues, CNVC Certified Trainer John Kinyon, has pioneered some of the critically important work of healing political divides, which is an essential element in de-escalating tensions, and hopefully in interrupting the terroristic aspirations of people in deep pain.

You can learn more about John’s important work — and join the weekly calls here:
Healing Social-Political Divides in our Relationships, Families, Communities, and Society — One Conversation at a Time:

Systemic social change

There are many changes that can be made in governance, politics, and in socio-economic systems and structures — and most of the details of these are beyond the scope of this article.

However, there are substantive changes that are possible and which could have a concrete positive impact.

Having so many people succumbing to disinformation campaigns is partially the result of a society that has invested remarkably little in education, resulting in millions of people NOT learning critical thinking skills, how science works, or even basic civics.

Because our society is structured to serve the interests of people with money and power, true positive social change lacks the incentives that could see it happen in substantive ways.

We need to create systems and structures, at a societal scale, that incentivize NVC training, skills for conflict de- escalation, work-skills training for populations undergoing economic transitions, and for helping people out of desperate straights who happen to be the most easily radicalized.

The most powerful and durable way I can think of to address the root causes of domestic terrorism, is to use NVC to change societal incentive structures so that we can have the widespread dissemination of emotional intelligence, empathy skills, compassionate communication consciousness and skills in schools, politics, and governance.

This widespread dissemination would include programs that integrate NVC into de-radicalization efforts, helping individuals reconnect with their inherent capacity for compassion and empathy.

NVC’s potential in de-radicalization efforts

Through dialogue and empathy-based interventions, NVC can contribute to the dismantling of narratives that fuel hatred and violence.

However, NVC must be disseminated widely and rapidly enough to achieve a critical mass so that empathy and honesty are simply part of the culture. When people see it as obvious there will be minimum resistance to it.

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”
— Arthur Schopenhauer, German philosopher, (1788-1860).

Challenges and Criticisms

While NVC has a lot to offer for creating a peaceful society, it is not without its challenges and criticisms, some of which I address below.

Limitations of NVC in addressing domestic terrorism

As expressed above, NVC by itself is probably inadequate in addressing the complex psychological and socio- political factors that contribute to domestic terrorism.

For example, NVC does not necessarily, in-and-of-itself, help to change peoples’ stories.

Someone may be angry because they are convinced that the Earth is flat and that we have been lied to.

NVC could teach me how to give them empathy so that they could soften enough to be open to new information — but there is no guarantee that they will be open to evidence that goes against deeply held beliefs.

A comprehensive approach to the interwoven, complex issues that lead to domestic terrorism will require a variety of complementary approaches and tactics.

I personally believe the insights from NVC — coupled with widespread skill-building — could help make positive change more sustainable.

Nevertheless, there are valid concerns about over-relying on NVC, and I mention some of these limitations below:


If two people are punching each other out, or two groups of people are shooting at each other, then you don’t have access to dialogue, and a negotiated solution.

NVC excels once there is access, but it cannot by itself create that access. Like weeding a garden bed, other approaches might be necessary to create the space for NVC to take root.

Skill level

The biggest limitation as an individual will usually be your level of skill.

The greater your skill level, the more possibilities you see and the more confidence you have about intervening in an effective way.

My skills have given me an incredible sense of confidence when I find myself in other people’s conflicts. I see what is possible even when no one else in the room sees it. I have facilitated groups to reach a consensus decision even after everyone in the room had given up on that being possible. I’ve mediated conflicts after which couples or families reunited. And I’ve facilitated groups out of a toxic interpersonal workplace environment to the point that they said that it felt like a safe, cohesive team again.

These things are only possible when your level of skill is high enough.

Crisis of imagination

Sometimes we cannot think of a strategy or a solution not because one is not available, but because we are in a “crisis of imagination.”

Before taking drastic action, thinking that our choices are limited, it’s often helpful to get some creative thinking resources — for example, a group of friends to help us brainstorm — to examine whether or not we have thought of all possible strategies.

Thinking you’ve exhausted all the possibilities and finding yourself in a crisis of imagination is one of the ways in which people are limited when they apply NVC.

Like some of these other limitations, it is not a shortcoming of NVC itself, but rather, one we bring as practitioners.

Criticisms of NVC in high-stakes scenarios

The implementation of NVC in high-stakes scenarios requires skilled practitioners who can navigate the intense emotions and resistance that may arise. This level of skill is rare.

Also, NVC is quite radical — it goes very deep.

Politicians looking to score expedient political wins will not embrace it, unless they can also embrace the way that true implementation of NVC will change the power structures of the status quo.

Despite Dr. Rosenberg’s involvement in leading trainings and mediating conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere, one reason I think NVC has not been more widely adopted is because it would lead to a more empowered population which could easily be perceived as a threat by the people who hold power. Despite that this is speculation on my part, and something that seems difficult to factually determine, it intuitively makes sense to me given my decades of experience with NVC.

NVC’s simplicity and profound insights about human nature — combined with practical tools and skills — are what makes it go so deep. It is precisely this ability to shake up the status quo and create a more humane and equitable culture that make NVC so necessary at this time.

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg on NVC and Domestic Terrorism

I remember a powerful anecdote of Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s in which he was invited to mediate a conflict in a remote village in Africa.

It took six months to set up a three hour mediation.

In that six months about a quarter of the village’s population was killed — approximately 100 out of the 400 residents.

After arduous travel to get there, Marshall met with chiefs of both the tribes involved in the conflict. He worked hard, and struggled to get them to see each other’s humanity and needs.

Having only spent three hours with them achieving what seemed like limited progress, years later he recounted feeling crestfallen, thinking that he had not being able to help them as much as he would have liked.

It was at this point that one of the chiefs approached Marshall as he was leaving: “if we had known six months ago what you taught us today we would not have had to kill each other.”

PuddleDancer Press Books on NVC and Coexisting Peacefully

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NVC has shown time and again that human beings are capable of arriving at mutually beneficial solutions.

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