Nonviolent Communication Between Cultures

“Intercultural communication does not differ from other types of interpersonal communication. To avoid conflicts, you can use your natural empathy and apply the NVC model with great success.”

How does Nonviolent Communication (NVC) work between cultures?

Does NVC even work cross-culturally?

It’s common enough for people from the same culture to misunderstand each other — let alone adding cultural differences!

Part of the issue is that culture is largely invisible to us.

Culture is to people like water is to fish.

Consider this Chinese proverb:
A fish can’t see the water it is in, unless it jumps out of its fish bowl.

Or a more contemporary version:

“One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in.”
― Marshall McLuhan, War and Peace in the Global Village

Culture can be like that.

We grow up so immersed in the modes of thinking and interacting that come with our culture that they become invisible to us, much like the lenses of a pair of glasses.

This level of embeddedness in our own culture, our and others’ inability to see it, and the misunderstandings that arise merely based on cultural interpretations — these are facts of everyday life, as invisible to most of us as water might be to fish.

And yet, NVC does work across cultures!

In order to successfully bridge those differences, you need to adapt your use of NVC.

The first step is understanding that you grew up within a culture, one definition of which is “people like us do things like this” (thank you, Seth Godin).

Understanding that how you see and do things is influenced by the culture in which you grew up sensitizes you to being open to other cultural ways of seeing and doing things.

Identifying cultural differences is made easier by something that will also benefit your success with NVC: slow down and get curious!

Everything about the practice of NVC contributes to trust-building and facilitates mutual understanding. Being sensitized to the reality of culture and cultural differences will in turn also contribute to mutual trust and understanding.

When you slow down and access your curiosity, you are more able to see your own assumptions and interpretations.

When we have trust between us we are more likely to ask with curiosity about each other’s cultural interpretations and norms.

This builds the kind of mutual understanding that helps us prevent and resolve conflicts cross-culturally.

The heart of NVC is Universal Human Needs. They are considered “universal” because they are common to all human beings, regardless of geographic location or cultural background.

Needs can be defined in different ways. To paraphrase Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, founder of NVC, needs are how Life is seeking to show up in this moment — in me, in you, in him, her, and them. They are the conditions necessary for life to thrive in any human being — love, trust, connection, authenticity, autonomy, etc. And despite other connotations of the word “need,” they are not intended to imply a sense of lack. Needs are energies that want to flow, not holes to be filled!

Universal Human Needs transcend cultural background.

This is why NVC — when applied correctly — helps you to connect with others despite and beyond culture.

Why is Intercultural Communication Important?

We live in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent global neighborhood.

There are everyday interactions across cultures online, in business, and while traveling.

To point out only one of thousands of examples from around the world, when trade relations began to open up between the US and Mexico in the mid 1990s, businessmen on both sides struggled with the cultural gap. The Mexican businessmen would get in close — physically — shake hands or put a hand on the upper arm of their counterpart and give it a warm squeeze. They would then proceed to ask how is the family? and other similar personal questions. The cultural norm in Mexican business was to connect for about a half an hour before getting into business. This was confusing to the US businessmen, whose cultural norm was a bit of physical distance and getting right to business. Only after about the second or third meeting would they ask about the family or other personal questions. The Americans thought the Mexicans too “touch-ey” and personal, while the Mexicans were put off, thinking the Americans too cold and distant. With time, these differences were overcome despite initial misunderstandings.

More significantly, international war or peace often depend on mutual understanding across cultures. Clear communication and mutual understanding can make a big difference with regard to escalation or de-escalation of tensions.

Simply conduct an online search for “when did a cultural misunderstanding lead to war?” — and you’ll find plenty of examples!

Intercultural understanding not only helps us prevent and resolve misunderstandings and conflicts. It is essential to positive, constructive relationships between people with different cultural backgrounds.

Experiencing Intercultural Communication Nonviolently

You can experience intercultural communication nonviolently.

As a matter of fact, it can often be very enriching to your own personal and professional growth as well as to deepening your understanding of the world!

To avoid misunderstandings, it’ll be helpful to know how things are interpreted, construed, and understood in other cultures.

For example, in some Asian countries pointing the soles of your feet at another is considered rude. If you are from a different culture and didn’t know this while traveling there, you might be doing something considered inappropriate and offending people without even knowing!

You can also experience intercultural communication nonviolently by understanding your own culture. By understanding the implicit biases, meaning-making, and patterns of needs from your own culture, you will bridge cultural gaps more effortlessly than if these remain unconscious, unquestioned, and unexamined.

Another example of culture includes family culture. Sometimes misunderstandings in couples can arise based on these differences. For example, in some families connection happens around the dinner table in the form of lively ‘arguments’ in which people debate their position, as lawyers might build a case in court. In other families, the norm is quieter and gentler, in which people ask “how was your day?” and other questions based on curiosity and emotional openness. In these families the “debate-around-the-table” style seems harsh or even rude. A person from the latter family might consider their partner from the former combative, when it’s simply how they learned to connect in their family of origin.

Like a fish trying to get to know the water, how might you learn to see your own culture more objectively? When you do so you can become less embedded in it, which enables you to talk about it with the people in your life and perhaps even consider other possibilities for yourself.

You can learn to avoid cross-cultural misunderstandings and experience nonviolent intercultural communication by knowing how things are interpreted, construed, and understood in your own culture and in the cultures of the people with whom you interact.

When you can see that all these modes of interacting and behaving are in the service of Universal Human Needs, you’ll find that you are deepening in the consciousness of NVC, enabling you to experience intercultural communication nonviolently.

Overcoming Communication Barriers Between Cultures

Overcoming communication barriers between cultures can happen by being well informed ahead of time. And it can also happen by developing understanding through dialog.

This type of dialog to develop mutual understanding is mostly possible when there is trust, or at least a willingness to build trust. And everything about the practice of NVC contributes to trust-building.

NVC helps by surfacing values and needs, and clarifying the observations that stimulate the meaning we give to situations.

All humans have feelings and needs [LINK], regardless of culture or geographic location.

This is the genius of NVC! Helping us connect human-to-human.

In addition, by exposing yourself to, and understanding, other cultures, you will be enriched personally and professionally — by seeing your own horizons of perception and meaning grow and expand.

This will contribute to your ability to overcome communication barriers between cultures in a way that — while initially and temporarily perhaps puzzling or frustrating — will also be enriching and fun.

Compassionate Communication Skills Benefit Multicultural Communities

There are many ways in which Compassionate Communication skills benefit multicultural communities.

Even before skillfulness with the tools, NVC consciousness is about having the intention to connect so that we can co-create mutually beneficial outcomes.

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, having traveled the world for 40 years said that everywhere in the world, in every culture, people were playing one of two games: “who’s right and who’s wrong” and “how can I make life more wonderful?”

This latter is the game of NVC. This is what we refer to as the consciousness or the intention of NVC.

That intention by itself produces marvelous results. (If your intention is to prove that your way is better, or to coerce a specific result, you will get very different outcomes no matter the language you use.)

Once you add the very effective tools of NVC to that consciousness, you will be much more likely to create results that are aligned with that intention.

And most of us know that having a tool is one thing and being skillful with a tool is another.

The consciousness, the tools, and the skills of compassionate communication benefit multicultural communities with an increased ability to get along. Greater harmony means better quality of life, less violence in the streets, and more fulfillment at home and at work.

With compassionate communication skills multicultural communities can craft better strategies that fulfill more needs for a greater number of people.

Use NVC to Improve Intercultural Communication in the Global Workplace

How do you use NVC to improve intercultural communication in the global workplace?

If you have experienced intercultural communication you know how challenging it can be at times.

When you have the consciousness, the tools, and the skills of NVC, it is more likely for you and others to offer empathic understanding as well as to speak honestly to each other.

This combination of authenticity and compassion is a benefit and an amenity that attracts higher quality staff to any workplace.

When owners and employers train their staff in NVC skills, workers bring less work-related stress home and less home-related stress to work. This results in more fulfilled staff who now have the tools and skills to work more collaboratively with others. And harmonious teams solve problems more easily and more quickly than teams in which there is conflict or in which people withhold key information from others.

Even in situations in which both parties speak English, for example, you might have an IT worker from South America working with a customer from Korea, or vice versa. The empathy and honesty skills NVC provides contribute to a great improvement in the quality of intercultural communication.

Increasing numbers of workplaces are international and cross-cultural.

The internet can help you connect from anywhere in the world, financially and economically, with someone anywhere else in the world.

When people don’t understand their own needs and requests, critical capacities in NVC, frustrations come out and even a small misunderstanding can escalate into a conflict.

NVC provides a solution to most of these situations — provided that employers are willing to invest in their workers.

If you are an owner or a boss you can use NVC to improve intercultural communication in the workplace. This by itself has a cascading effect of benefits for local communities, workers and their families, customers, and the financial bottom line.

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg on Meaningful Communication with Other Cultures

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg traveled the world for several decades mediating conflicts and training people in the tools and skills of Nonviolent Communication (NVC).

He often worked with people from different cultures, whether it was groups of Israelis and Palestinians, indigenous people from the Indonesian rainforest and the blue collar loggers cutting down their forests, Serbs and Croats on extended retreats in a third country to create cross-cultural understanding, or street gangs and police departments from urban centers in the United States.

He saw that in every culture people were playing one of two games: “who’s right and who’s wrong?” versus “how can I make life more wonderful?”

And he understood the limitations of NVC and how to work with them.

One of those limitations is access. Examples of lack of access include two people punching one another or two groups of people shooting at each other. In these circumstances you don’t have access to a space of dialogue to explore other possibilities.

Another way in which a lack of access can show up is when people dig in their heels with regard to the perspective that their view is the only correct one. When someone is stuck in the game “who’s right and who’s wrong” it’s very difficult to have access to the level of intention that leads to co-created, mutually beneficial and mutually satisfying solutions.

However, even in these situations there is still hope. Dr. Rosenberg taught us that we can create shifts that might seem miraculous to other people when we have a very high skill level in NVC.

This reveals another limitation of NVC which can also become a supportive factor: the practitioner’s skill-level.

This is why we encourage you to work on improving your NVC! A great place to start are the resources we mention below.

Puddledancer Press Books on Intercultural Communication Skills

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

Because of the trust-building process involved you can use NVC to overcome cross-cultural differences in a way that is mutually satisfying.

Because solutions arrived at through an NVC process include everyone’s buy-in, using NVC for intercultural communication predictably gives us outcomes that are more durable and meet a greater number of needs.

Our books on NVC and intercultural communication skills 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 intercultural communication skills, to help you grow your emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and communication prowess.

Check out our catalog of books on NVC and intercultural communication skills… and give yourself the gift of Compassionate Communication!

More information on Books related to Intercultural Communication

NVC Intercultural Communication Web Resources

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