Nonviolent Communication: Confronting Racism with Compassion

“The best way I can get understanding from another person is to give this person the understanding, too. If I want them to hear my needs and feelings, I first need to empathize”

Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD.

Click here for a featured article “How can Nonviolent Communication (NVC) be helpful in these transformative times? ”  by Roxy Manning, PhD. This article is a response to the drive for racial equity and an end to anti-Blackness.

Click here for a featured article “Empathic, Powerful Responses to COVID-19 Inequities” by Roxy Manning, PhD.

** The following content is a more general article on NVC’s approach to racism.

What are the Root Causes of Racism?

Racism — overt and subtle, externalized and internalized — has multiple and complex causes. These include mental conditioning coming from family or racist elements in society; and institutionalized or structural racism originating from, and perpetuated by, historical and generational relationships of unequal power.

There is also considerable evidence from the field of consciousness studies that human consciousness grows and evolves from a smaller to a larger embrace of care and concern. In other words, who we consider “we” or “us” — the circle of who we deem worthy of moral consideration — grows and expands as our consciousness and awareness grow and expand.

One way to describe this is that — in terms of who matters — human consciousness grows from ego-centric (concerned just with me) to ethnocentric (only people who look like me) to socio-centric (only people from my society) to world-centric (all human beings) and beyond, to include all sentient beings. In other words, our compassionate embrace grows to include increasingly wider circles.

From this perspective, someone who holds racist views would be currently at an ethnocentric (or lower) level of consciousness development. This is not intended as a diagnosis, since NVC teaches us that people are not only very complex, but also dynamic and not static. We don’t want to put people in a box. The intention is to understand, and we use the tools we have at our disposal.

When I exclude people from my circle of care and concern, and make them “other,” it becomes easier to project my own fears and lacks and avoid responsibility by scapegoating. It’s not so hard, then, to understand the needs someone with racist views might long for: economic security, physical safety, peace of mind through predictability. Unfortunately, tactics coming from a racist perspective not only create more pain and suffering in the world because of their (often violently) exclusionary methods, they also result in conditions that almost guarantee that those needs will not be satisfied.

Understanding that someone who espouses racist views is simply not yet at a level of “universal care” — and understanding the subtle and complex dynamics of projection and scapegoating — is intended simply to help us understand some of the root causes of racism.

How Does Racism Affect Our Society?

How does racism affect our society? Racism affects our society in innumerable ways.

Perpetuating racism is like planting seeds which produce a terribly bitter harvest.

Any way of thinking, speaking, or acting which sows division and hatred will only produce more of the same.

NVC teaches us that any time we attempt to meet our own needs at the expense of the needs of others, in the long run our needs are also not met. Any time I create a win-lose, in the long run I also lose. This is because we are interconnected, interdependent, and interrelated.

Additionally, internalized racism negatively impacts self-esteem and, as a result, other quality-of-life measures such as academic outcomes and healthy relationships.

And from a larger perspective, a less equitable society is less sustainable, if only because people will resent their poor treatment. Human beings yearn for care, dignity, safety, and freedom — and any society that does not provide those will be less stable over the long term than one which does.

Violent Communication: How Racism in Communication Affects Us

It’s nearly impossible to catalog all the effects of violent communication and how racism in communication affects us.

However, racism in communication affects us both on the receiving end as well as on the speaking end.

When we even think of someone in terms that are dehumanizing we are adding more violence to the world!

Sometimes it can be subtle or start as a joke, but eventually it can desensitize us to the fact that we’re talking about human beings with feelings and needs.

When we consciously or unconsciously engage in racist beliefs, thoughts, communication, and behaviors it undercuts our own humanity, our own human potential to live from a place of love, compassion, understanding, acceptance and other, higher human potentials.

The effects of receiving racist communication will vary from person to person, and from context to context. For some it will stimulate fear and terror; for others rage; and for some, a sense of disbelief and ridicule. The only safe generalization is that racism in communication weakens us individually and collectively, and contributes to the fraying of our shared social fabric.

Compassionate Communication Skills: Talking About Racism the NVC Way

How do we strengthen our Compassionate Communication skills? What would be an NVC way of talking about racism?

Racism is a subject that is best treated in a direct and frank way.

There are built-in societal advantages and disadvantages for people of different colors and races — the concept of “privilege.”

When using the term “privilege” as a noun, we are referring to the subtle and overt pattern of special rights, advantages, and preferential treatment based on characteristics independent of what someone has said, done, or earned.

The term “privileged,” as an adjective, can easily be intended or received as a label or a judgment — so NVC would caution us to be aware of that, so that we can use language that promotes rather than discourages connection.

One characteristic of what we call privilege is that it is invisible to those who have it.

NVC would want us to truly listen, with an open heart, to the experiences of others — even, or especially, if it’s hard for us to relate.

Talking about racism the NVC way means that you use clear observations — leaving evaluations, judgments, criticism, and interpretation aside — along with a vulnerable and authentic revealing of your feelings and your needs, followed by a clear request of what you would like the other person to do.

NVC teaches us to focus on the connection first before going to a solution or an outcome.

So, when using your Compassionate Communication skills to talk about racism the NVC way:
– focus on listening to understand,
– be self-responsible about and attend to your own triggers and pain,
– speak from the heart in a way that assumes responsibility for your experience,
– make clear requests when you are certain that in your intention there is no demand.

Using NVC to Confront Racism with Empathy and Active Listening

It’s possible, even important, to use NVC to confront racism with empathy and active listening.

After all, NVC is not about being nice! It’s about being real — vulnerable, transparent — in a way that is also self-empowered and self-responsible.

Sometimes we need to call someone out, or bring to their attention something they are saying or doing that is painfully outside of our own values.

Of course confronting someone has its risks.

So how to get heard by someone who is exhibiting behavior we would call racist?

Every situation is different.

However, we have a saying that applies: “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

If you can love the person — even while you despise their belief structures and behavior — you are more likely to reach them. And even this may seem nearly impossible — especially in the heat of the moment! Can we retrain our nervous system to show care for the human being behind the behavior that is so painful?

If the other person feels even a little bit like I understand — and let’s remember understanding is NOT agreement! — then I have much more access to dialog. Once I have access, I can use my NVC skills to confront the racist beliefs and behavior.

After empathy, in which they get some understanding, then I can express my honesty about the pain generated in me when I hear certain words or see certain behavior.

By getting vulnerable and speaking from the heart about my pain — and leaving questions of rightness and wrongness outside of this dialog — I am much more likely to get heard and to reach someone’s heart in a way that might cause them to reconsider, or be more open to that consciousness shift of expanding the circle of who they consider “we” or “us.”

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg on NVC for Healthy Racial-Ethnic Relations

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg was actively involved in the 1960s civil rights movement in the United States.

He was a fan of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and, like him, saw the potential humans have for creating systems and structures that liberate, support, and empower people.

Dr. Rosenberg also saw how shortsightedness and lack of perspective kept individuals and groups disconnected from each other, and the potential for connection and mutual understanding to grow into a sense of care for one another.

He saw the danger of people continuing to dehumanize one another and how that could further lead to physical violence.

Throughout his time consulting and advising leaders in the civil rights movement in the 1960s United States, Dr. Rosenberg trained others in his methodology for resisting the inner pull toward violence, humanizing ourselves and others, finding common ground, and deepening personal and professional relationships for the benefit of all.

Puddledancer Press Books About Racism

PuddleDancer Press is the foremost proponent and publisher of books on Nonviolent Communication and race relations, conflict resolution, and positive social change.

NVC has shown time and again that human beings are capable of arriving at mutually crafted solutions which lead to better outcomes.

Because of the inherent trust-building process — and the fact that co-created solutions include everyone’s buy-in — using NVC to inform our social change efforts will give us far more effective outcomes that meet a greater number of needs and are more durable.

Our books on Nonviolent Communication 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,
  • Co-create systems and structures that contribute to life.

Whether you are a long-time student, or are brand new to NVC, PuddleDancer Press has the educational resources 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!



Topic written by Alan Seid, a Certified Trainer, on behalf of PuddleDancer Press for use on

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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.