Nonviolent Communication and the Current Gun Control Debate

“Fantasists and zealots can be found on both sides of the debate over guns in America. Between these two extremes we must find grounds for a rational discussion about the problem of gun violence.”

-Sam Harris

Many societal debates get stuck at the level of strategies. This is true for the current gun control debate in US society.

So what does Nonviolent Communication have to say about the current gun control debate?
One thing to keep in mind is that “yes to guns,” or “no to guns,” or “how to regulate guns” — these are all at the level of strategies.

In Nonviolent Communication, strategies are defined as the ways we go about meeting or satisfying needs, specifically Universal Human Needs.

Universal Human Needs can be defined from multiple angles. They are the conditions necessary for life to thrive in any human being, regardless of culture or geographic location. They are how life is showing up in you or me, in this very moment. Universal Human Needs are core human motivators, impelling us to speak or act.

And while the needs are universal to all humans, the strategies are not.

For example, we all have a need for safety and protection. One person’s strategy around safety and protection may be to go out and get to know all their neighbors.

Getting to know all their neighbors is a strategy that contributes to their need for safety and protection.

At the same time, each of the neighbors might have different strategies for meeting their needs for safety and protection: one neighbor puts up a fence and gets a couple of big, scary-looking dogs; another neighbor gets an expensive alarm system; another neighbor triple bolts all of the doors and hides under the covers; and yet another neighbor buys two assault rifles.

In each of these situations, the needs were the same: safety and protection.

Getting an alarm is one strategy that may contribute to safety and protection. Getting a fence and two big dogs is another strategy. Getting to know all of your neighbors is another strategy.

When working something out with another person, or in cases of consequential societal debates, what we don’t want to do is allow the conversation to get stuck at the level of strategies.

Nonviolent Communication would tell us that if we can get people on different sides of an issue to hear each other’s deeper human needs, that would naturally lead to greater human-to-human connection and greater mutual understanding.
Based on a mutual understanding of the needs, then people explore strategies that contribute to or satisfy all of the needs, or as many as possible.

(All the needs matter; not all the needs will be met in every situation. The degree to which needs are met in a given complex situation involves many factors, including skill-level with NVC, knowledge of possibilities and opportunities, and the degree of imagination we can bring to creative problem-solving. Sometimes the reason we don’t break through to win-win solutions is merely a “crisis of imagination.”)

Nonviolent Communication informs the current gun control debate by giving us valuable insights which facilitate mutual understanding and collaborative solutions.

In the United States of America, there is long-standing culture of private gun ownership, and any conversation about gun control or firearm policy — in any country or community — needs to take cultural issues into account as well.

Nonviolent Conflict Resolution for Gun Control

Basic conflict resolution using Nonviolent Communication follows a simple pattern: ABABAB.

  • Person A speaks,
  • Person B reflects back what they understood,
  • Person A confirms they were understood,
  • Person B speaks,
  • Person A reflects back what they understood,
  • Person B confirms they were understood
    … and then back to the top and continue.

This is a bit oversimplified, but it reflects the basic pattern.

By separating the needs and the strategies, NVC dispute resolution allows people in any conflict to see each other’s humanity first, before getting to solutions. By getting out of good/bad, right/wrong thinking, and instead, speaking a language of life — of universal human needs — we create more connection and mutual understanding around even the most divisive issues.

What we find in the gun-control debate is that people’s needs behind the positions of gun rights and fewer restrictions on gun ownership are very often safety and security, but also autonomy in the sense of being able to have choice. There’s a significant portion of the US population that holds resentment around the perception of others telling them what to do, in particular the government. One of the arguments from this position is that more guns can actually make society safer.

At the same time, the people who want more laws restricting access to firearms and more control on gun ownership — they have the same needs: safety, security, protection. One of the arguments from this position is that more guns make society less safe — so fewer guns, and restricted access to them, would make society safer.

Skillfully facilitating a mediated process with people from both sides of the gun control debate is perhaps one of the most effective things we can do around nonviolent conflict resolution for gun control.
One NVC-based facilitation modality that would be particularly well suited for this is Convergent Facilitation.

Listening Without Judgement to Pro-Gun Control Arguments

How do we listen without judgment to pro-gun control arguments?

If I’m against gun control, it means that I want fewer restrictions. I want more freedom around and more access to guns. One of the needs is safety, and probably another one of the needs is autonomy in the sense of being able to have a choice.

Once I’m connected to the deeper needs behind my stance, I’m more likely to be able to hear compassionately what the needs are for the other side.

If I’m against gun control, it might be challenging for me to listen with compassion to arguments that are for gun control.

So how would I do that? How would I listen compassionately to an argument that’s on the other side?

NVC teaches me to listen for the values, or, more deeply, to the universal human needs behind or underneath the other person’s perspective. Rather than telling myself a story about why these people want to do this or what their motives are, I can listen and try to understand their feelings and their needs.
And we can remember that compassionate understanding — also known as empathy — does not equal agreement!

Communicate Non-Violently Toward Anti-Gun Control Arguments

If you are in favor of gun control, it’s also likely coming from needs for safety and protection.

When we want other people to change their minds, communicating with blame, judgment, criticism, or a verbal attack is more likely to result in that person getting defensive, becoming reactive, and to not want to listen to us.

As soon as somebody experiences us as making them wrong, it’s predictable that they will resist what we’re asking of them.

Somebody who’s in favor of gun control, who’s trying to speak the people with a different perspective, is more likely to receive the understanding they’re wanting when they refrain from belittling, insulting, or dehumanizing the other side.

The NVC model gives us specific guidelines about what elements of language contribute to a high quality of connection, and which elements of language get in the way or take away from a high quality of connection.

When we use language that puts people in a box, conveys demands (which by definition imply that others’ needs don’t matter to us equally to our own), justifies punishment through dehumanizing others, criticizes, and blames — we reduce the possibility of a high quality of connection.

Even more important than our word choice — when we are engaging with people who have perhaps an opposite perspective from ours — NVC would ask us to check our intention.

If my intention is to change their minds or to get them to see something differently, then it’s more likely that they will resist it.

If my intention is to create a high quality of connection out of which we’ll be more likely to problem-solve together and to come up with a mutually agreeable solution, then that’s consistent with NVC.

Communicating non-violently toward anti-gun control arguments involves several elements. It includes letting go of our position enough to look for the common ground at the level of our shared humanity; checking for shared intention as we go; and once there’s mutual connection and mutual understanding around the deeper underlying needs, then brainstorming and crafting strategies that could meet all of the needs on the table — or as many as our knowledge, skills, and imagination permit.

If we skip the underlying needs and values and go straight to the strategies it is far more likely the conversation will get stuck at that level precisely because the connection and mutual understanding that naturally make strategy-creation collaborative were by-passed.

Skipping the connection and trying to rush strategies would be “go fast to go slow” because the conflicts, the resistance, the cleanup that happens when things are not mutual all take far longer.

When we take the time to establish a connection first, then problem-solving goes more easily. This is called “go slow to go fast.”

This is the essence of how you communicate non-violently with anti-gun control arguments.

Finding a Common Ground with Compassionate Communication Skills

When we jump to solving while skipping the connection, we end up with solutions that are less durable and which people resist and resent.

Rather than forcing a solution, we engage in dialogue and take as long as we need to create a connection out of which exploring possibilities and strategies becomes more easily collaborative.

The common ground starts first by engaging at the level of universal human needs.

A skillful NVC practitioner will be able to let go of their position in order to really stick to the needs so that once the needs are on the table we can find other possibilities or strategies that meet all of the needs.

A failure to find common ground will simply lead to a protracted stalemate which serves nobody.

When how to find common ground with Compassionate Communication NVC) skills is a normal, embedded part of our culture, we will have come a long way toward resolving some of the thorniest issues that plague our society.

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg on NVC and Gun Control Solutions

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg traveled the world over — mediating conflicts and teaching people NVC — for over four decades!

In that time he saw the power, again and again, of people connecting with their own and one another’s humanity — and the resulting shifts in the most protracted interpersonal and societal issues.

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg knew that guns are a strategy and not a need, and that therefore any conversation about their use or regulation would need to include people’s hearts.

Dr. Rosenberg was known to have said that even in an ideal non-violent society, there would still be a role for police and military — but it would be 100% protective and never punitive in nature. This would involve highly trained, and even armed, professionals with a focus on safety and protection. Understandably these days that seems aspirational, and yet it is something worth aspiring to.

This was another of Dr. Rosenberg’s gifts to us: the key differentiation between punitive use of force and protective use of force.

Punitive has the same root as the word to punish. It is easy to enjoy the violence of punishing others when we have a story that makes them bad, wrong, and demonizes or dehumanizes them.

Dr. Rosenberg often spoke of the destructive power of punitive thinking and actions.

Protective use of force is when force is used only to protect life. (One example would pushing someone out of the way of an oncoming car.)

NVC does not have a hard, defined stance regarding gun control. From an NVC perspective the intention of gun usage — that it is protective and not punitive — is paramount.

In the context of the gun control debate, Dr. Rosenberg would point to a part of the conversation seldom mentioned: the intentionality and the consciousness of the individuals and the culture.

Why do people want to own firearms?

Where are the support systems and structures in place for the mental health support and interventions necessary for the mental breakdowns that precede and define mass shootings?

What are we prioritizing as a culture?

What are the deeper needs and what is the full range of strategies available?

Dr. Rosenberg urged us to look deeply into the needs before settling on specific strategies.

When we apply NVC to the debate in the US around gun control, a world of possibilities opens up far beyond yes/no, for or against.

Puddledancer Press Books on NVC and Societal Issues

PuddleDancer Press is the foremost proponent and publisher of books on Nonviolent Communication and issues that affect our society.

The gun control debate is one that has seemed tense and intractable.

At PuddleDancer Press we want to do our part to contribute to the emergence of a work that is kinder, more compassionate, and more discerning.

NVC has shown time and again that human beings are capable of finding common ground and creating mutual understanding even around the most painful and troublesome issues.

Our books on communication skills can help you:

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

Whether you are a long-time student — or are brand new to NVC — PuddleDancer Press has the educational resources, including the books, to help you grow your interpersonal skills and communication prowess.

Check out our catalog of books on conflict resolution and social change… and give yourself the gift of Compassionate Communication!

More information on Books related to Gun Control

NVC Gun Control Web Resources

Click here for Marshall Rosenberg Gun Control Articles
Click here for Marshall Rosenberg Gun Control Videos
Click here for Nonviolent Communication Gun Control Articles
Click here for Nonviolent Communication Gun Control 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.