Nonviolent Communication and Reparations

By Alan Rafael Seid, CNVC Certified Trainer

Author’s note: I wrote this article as an expert in NVC, not an expert in reparations or race relations. I am a bilingual/bicultural white male — so the words below are influenced by my personal experience. I am not presenting this article as the final word on the intersection of history, racism, and reparations, but rather as my perspective on how NVC interacts with these areas.

This article is an exploration of the role of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) in the societal discussion around reparations, specifically for Black Americans.

Let’s first define the terms NVC and reparations.

What is NVC and what are Reparations?

Brief overview of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and its principles.

Nonviolent Communication exists to help us resolve our differences without violence or coercion.

Its purpose is to create a high quality of connection out of which people naturally enjoy contributing to one another’s well-being.

NVC was created by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg to identify the elements in thought, language, communication, and the use of power, that enable us to create that high quality of connection.

NVC is based on the premise that we all have the same core human motivators or drivers — also known as Universal Human Needs.

When we can distill the essence of any conflict into the underlying needs, people see each others’ humanity and conflicts are resolved more quickly and easily.

People also use Nonviolent Communication to deepen personal and professional relationships, prevent misunderstandings, reduce inner conflict, run more effective and enjoyable meetings, and exercise leadership with clarity and compassion.

Explanation of the concept of reparations and its relevance in today’s society

“Reparations are a concept rooted in international law that involves specific forms of repair to specific individuals, groups of people, or nations for specific harms they have experienced in violation of their human rights.”

The meaning of reparations is in the root of the word: it means to repair.

The conversation around reparations in the United States begins with a recognition of the impact of centuries of relationships of unequal power (to put it mildly).

The more you dig into the history of the repression of Black people in the United States, the more sad and terrifying it reveals itself to be. (The focus of this article revolves around reparations to descendants of people brought to America as slaves, and I want to acknowledge that there are many other groups who have been treated unfairly, repressed, and even terrorized. My belief is that the principles transfer to other contexts, even though the focus of my words in this article might be more narrow than ideally desired.)

The color of skin a person is born with is neither negative nor something they could control, yet it has been the basis of intense discrimination since the inception of the United States.

Black people in the United States have been discriminated against in ways that have affected everything about their lives: where and whether they can go to school, their economic opportunities, where and whether they can bank, and where they can live. In many instances, the history of murder, repression, and sheer terror is brutal and chilling!

As a White man I do not automatically assume that a traffic stop could be deadly for me, yet this is the daily reality of every Black man. Not assuming that my life might be at risk during a normal traffic stop is an invisible and unearned advantage I have by comparison.

As acclaimed author Ruby K. Payne points out, there is a significant difference between situational poverty and generational poverty. Likewise, there is a big difference between situational trauma and generational trauma.

The conversation around reparations assumes that the playing field is not level, due primarily to the effects of generational poverty and trauma. This trauma is exacerbated by a culture of racism in parts of America as well as systems and structures that are prejudicial against the poor. (And due to the conditions alluded to above, poverty affects Black people disproportionately compared to White people.)

One structural example of the system being stacked against poor people would be the cash bail system. A person of means who is accused of a crime can be with their family and go to work while they await trial. People without financial means often must spend time behind bars, sometimes exceeding what the sentence would have been if found guilty at trial — all before a trial even begins and while legally being presumed innocent. In these circumstances people can lose their jobs, and children can suffer parental estrangement — simply because the person accused, and not yet found guilty — could not afford bail. This is a structurally built-in, fundamental unfairness based on lack of economic means that disproportionately impacts poor people negatively.

There are many dozens of examples of systems and structures in which the prejudice is embedded, but hidden from those who are not affected. (One definition of privilege: “If it’s not a problem for me then it’s not a problem.”)

Although this article focuses on the conversation in the United States around redressing historical injustices with regard to African Americans, the concept of reparations exists in many other contexts. (For example, famous actor George Takei, of Japanese descent, received reparations for his and his family’s internment in the US during World War II. There is a link below to a news story about this in the Additional Resources section, under Some Applications and Case Studies.)

The NVC principles in this article apply to multiple contexts involving reparations.

The Role of NVC in Addressing Historical Injustices

Though NVC is not a magic formula, it provides a pathway for sorting out thorny issues — like historical injustices — in a way that is participatory, feels co-created, and in which solutions are not imposed by one group on another.

How NVC can be used to facilitate dialogue around historical injustices

How do we use NVC to facilitate dialogue around historical injustices?

One critically important differentiation in NVC is the distinction between needs and strategies.

Needs, as we use the word in NVC, are universal in nature — all humans share the same needs.

Strategies, on the other hand, are very important as they are the ways we go about meeting needs. However, they are, by definition, not universal. Therefore, conflicts happen at the level of strategies, not needs.

When a skilled and experienced NVC practitioner facilitates dialogue around any challenging issue, including historical injustices, this differentiation between needs and strategies is top of mind.


NVC aims to facilitate mutual understanding first. The solutions everyone can live with emerge out of that connection. This may sound nice theoretically, but I’ve had this experience hundreds of times in my nearly 30 years of studying NVC and over 20 years as a Certified Trainer.

As an NVC facilitator I help people understand each other — primarily at the level of feelings, needs, and values — before going to a solution.

Solutions that skip connection and mutual understanding tend to be less viable or durable. We’re not sure whether or not these solutions address the needs because we didn’t take the time to clarify what the needs were in the first place.

Slowing down to create mutual understanding first, and allowing the solutions to emerge from that clarity, leads to more viable and durable outcomes.

How you scale a process of generating mutual understanding and collaborative decision-making into a larger societal conversation, and how you then formulate policy decisions at the state or national level — these questions lie at the heart of the collective challenge and involve a discussion around social change that is beyond the scope of this article. That said, it is my personal opinion that it is within humanity’s reach to overcome these challenges, the limiting factors being resources and political will.

An example of NVC in mediation and reconciliation processes

When I met Dr. Marshall Rosenberg in 1995, he had been traveling the world training people and mediating conflicts.

One very enriching aspect of attending Dr. Rosenberg’s trainings was hearing his stories of mediation, repair, and reconciliation.

He would sometimes tell the story about the time he was asked to mediate a conflict in a very remote village in Africa, between a Christian tribe and a Muslim tribe.

It took 6 months to set up a 3-hour mediation. In that 6 months about a quarter of the village’s population was killed — approximately 100 of 400 people.

After flying into a remote airport and traveling for hours on a bumpy dirt road, he arrived at a one-room schoolhouse. As he was entering the schoolhouse, his interpreter turned to him and said, “It might be rather tense in there, as some of the people in the room know that some of the other people in the room are the ones who killed their children.”

In the room were the chiefs of both the tribes. At the end of the 3-hour session one of the chiefs came up to Dr. Rosenberg as he was leaving and thanked him for the gifts they had received, “if we had learned 6 months ago what you taught us today we would not have had to kill each other.”

Another example was the time Marshall Rosenberg spent 10 days with a group of Serbs and a group of Croats. He described them as people who had centuries’-worth of enemy images about each other — who had each grown up hearing stories about “those people hate you.” It’s a beautiful and intense story which I will not recount in its entirety here — suffice it to say that though it started with immense pain and difficulty, after 9 days they were singing each others’ songs and dancing each others’ dances.

I have personally worked with many couples, families, groups, and organizations — and know from first-hand experience that both breakthroughs and reconciliation are possible.

This can translate into meaningful conversations about reparations for African Americans in a polarized United States.

NVC could support a society-wide conversation about the best way to redress historical ills — including reparations for descendants of people who had everything taken from them.

Again, the challenge seems to be scaling this conversation to a societal level, which is doable with enough resources and political will.

Reparations: A Path to Healing and Restoration

Can reparations provide a path to healing and restoration?

On balance, the answer to this question would be a qualified yes.

Often people think of reparations as monetary compensation — but the strategies involved can include more than that.

From a global perspective, and according to the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, there are five components to reparations:
“The five components of reparations

This should restore victims to their original situation before the violation occurred: restoration of liberty, reinstatement of employment, return of property.

This should be provided for any economically assessable damage, loss of earnings, loss of property, loss of economic opportunities, moral damages.


This should include medical and psychological care, legal and social services.

The injured community should feel satisfied with the actions taken. Can include public apologies, sanctions and memorials or commemorations

Guarantees of non-repetition
This should include the cessation of continuing violations, and the promise that it won’t happen again.”

The importance of reparations in healing historical wounds.

In order to look at the importance of reparations in healing historical wounds, let’s first define the historical wounds and then discuss how reparations can redress the ills.

Defining the historical wounds

This article cannot do justice to the extensive documentation of the brutal treatment of Black people from the moment they were ripped away from their villages and homes in Africa and brought to the Americas for slavery. (We could say something very similar about First Nations people.)

For Black Americans — as well as for Native Americans — there was outright terroristic violence, too gruesome to recount here.

US citizens of African descent were systematically denied education, decent living conditions, and any sense of political or economic power.

Because of my background, it’s hard for me to imagine a life in which I would not call the police for help because they might make it worse for me!

There are volumes written about trauma, how it gets passed down, and the effects of generational trauma.

The downstream effects of generation after generation receiving inferior education, being denied access to traditional banking, having access to only sub-par housing, and the suffering of being marginalized socially and economically seem nearly impossible to quantify.

I have added a section with additional resources toward the end if you want to see how others have tried to define the impact in monetary and other terms.

How would reparations redress the ills

No amount of apologies, or financial compensation can undo centuries of generational trauma and societal unfairness.

But they could address the damage by “leveling the playing field,” and expanding opportunities where they were before denied.

Reparations represent the possibility that people’s lives could be uplifted to a baseline from which they and their descendants can fulfill their true potential.

Future generations would have a greater chance of developing their interior power, their sense of community, an effective role in political participation, and the self-confidence and resources to live a meaningful, productive life — without having to work twice as hard for it as people of the traditional majority.

The role of empathy and understanding in the reparations process.

Empathy is a Universal Human Need. It is satisfied when you feel deeply understood.

The many, many conversations involving reparations can benefit from empathy in multiple and perhaps unexpected ways.

Yes, we want empathy for the descendants of repressed peoples. Perhaps the reason that there is resistance to reparations is that there is an empathy deficit — a lack of compassionate understanding for the impacts and life experience of people whose direct descendants have suffered so much.

I would argue, too, that there is an empathy deficit for the people resisting reparations.

“Beyond ideas of rightness and wrongness, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” — Rumi

Many of us who support a redressing of historical ills think that those who resist reparations are simply wrong — and that’s when we check out from an actual dialogue or conversation.

Offering empathy to those who are against reparations could accomplish two very important things:

1) We stand to learn a lot about the values and needs of people we perceive to be “on the other side.” This will help us humanize them, which by itself has the potential to shift the entire dynamic of the conversation. Seeing each other as humans has the potential to bring us closer, which can deepen the dialogue, making it more mutually beneficial and satisfying. And we might learn something about ourselves in the process.

2) When people feel truly understood for their anxieties, fears, concerns, and desires… they tend to soften. When the other person trusts that you care enough to listen and understand (which can be different than agreeing) — when the other person is vented out — then they are usually more open to new ideas or new perspectives.

And this is the true gift NVC has to offer: how do we connect, human to human, in a way that keeps bringing us closer together so that we can find solutions and outcomes of mutual benefit?

NVC is a technology, if you will, that can bring us closer together and help us through the toughest of conversations.

Applying NVC Principles to the Reparations Conversation

Perhaps the most important NVC distinction to understand in the context of the conversation around reparations, is the difference between needs and strategies.

As stated above, needs are universal in nature. All human beings have the same needs.

Strategies, on the other hand, are very important because they are the ways we go about meeting needs. But by definition, strategies are not universal.

A useful oversimplification of how NVC works could be needs-and-strategies, needs-and-strategies

When conflicts occur they do so at the level of strategies.

In NVC we focus on the needs and values first — and allow strategies to emerge that address as many of the needs as possible.

NVC clarifies that if we jump to strategies and skip connection at the level of needs, these strategies tend to be less effective and durable.

So NVC would guide us to first deeply understand all the needs involved before making a decision about a strategy.

So, at the risk of belaboring the point: reparations are not one strategy!

As described above, the many strategies called “reparations” can include financial or other types of compensation, cessation and assurance of non-repetition, restitution (which could include repatriation), satisfaction (which could include an official and public apology), and rehabilitation (which could include legal, medical, or housing support).

However, the outcome will be all-around more satisfying relative to how many voices are allowed to be heard (which is different than being agreed with), that a majority of people trust that their needs are taken into consideration, and to the extent that everyone is clear what needs are being met and how.

How NVC techniques can be used to navigate conversations around reparations.

Graphic of connection naturally leading to a solution

The importance of listening, empathy, and honesty in these discussions

Listening, empathy, and honesty — together — contribute to building mutual understanding and trust.
With skilled facilitation, including NVC, you can slow down the conversations enough that everyone can feel heard.

When people feel heard and understood they are more likely to trust that their needs matter.

When people trust that their needs matter they are less afraid or contracted, and their rigidly held positions can then soften.

Dialog and relationship-building lead toward durable buy-in. Applied NVC would help enormously with that.

Additional Resources

Basic Information and Rationale
NAACP Declaration on Reparations
Why we need reparations for Black Americans
The Case for Reparations
Reparations for slavery in the United States
Reparations for slavery
Reparations: OHCHR and transitional justice
Some Applications and Case Studies
George Takei got reparations. He says they ‘strengthen the integrity of America’
February 18, 2022
A Black Nonprofit Got A 6-Figure Payment From Someone Whose Family Enslaved People
California is the first state to tackle reparations for Black
residents. What that really means
Pod Corner: ‘What Is Owed?’ explores reparations for slavery
The Story of a D.I.Y. Reparations Effort in Vermont : Invisibilia : NPR

What can reparations for slavery look like in the United States? One man has ideas
A grassroots effort in Michigan is raising reparations — while the government lags
The latest in California’s reparations efforts californias-reparations-efforts
They received reparations in 2022. Did it really change their lives?
Six times victims have received reparations — including four in the US

Marshall Rosenberg on NVC & Reparations

Besides thought language and communication, Dr. Marshall Rosenberg also focused on the use of power as a key underpinning to NVC theory and application.

If you ever attended a workshop with Dr. Rosenberg, or have checked out his YouTube videos, you’ll see that he spoke often, and sometimes at length, about something he referred to as the dominator system.

NVC exists to help us resolve misunderstandings and differences without needing to resort to violence.

And besides teaching us Nonviolent Communication, Dr. Rosenberg also taught us its opposite, so that we could learn to spot it when we or others are engaging in it. He called it Life-alienated, Life-disconnected communication (or sometimes, Life- alienated, Life-disconnected thinking and language). He would also refer to it using the linguistic shortcut jackal — a reference to a puppet used as a teaching metaphor.

Dr. Rosenberg’s contention is that you cannot have a “dominator system” — in other words, you cannot have a society in which a very few control most of the resources — unless you teach people to enjoy violence.

How does society teach people to enjoy violence? Jackal thinking and language

And what are some characteristics of life-disconnected thinking and language?
• Name-calling and criticism,
• Language that demonizes or dehumanizes others,
• Telling others what they think, how they feel, what their intentions are and what’s wrong with them,
• Avoiding responsibility and blaming others,
• Imposing demands rather than making requests,
• Justifying rewards and punishment — because we know who is good and who is bad; (jackal also relies on static language),
• Motivating people through subtle or overt coercion.

In all the years I studied with Marshall Rosenberg I heard many stories of him traveling to the South during the Civil Rights period of the late 1960s, joining the marches, and showing up as an ally for African Americans — but I not once heard him talk about the concept of reparations.

Knowing him as well as I did, and having studied with him as closely as I did, I think he would concur that:

— Most things — including reparations — that promote healing, peace, justice, safety, harmony, and connection are desirable,

— Any specific strategies will experience less resistance, have more buy-in, be more amenable, and be less likely to be challenged if there is a process of connection and mutual understanding at the level of feelings and needs first, with the specific strategies emerging from the connection and the needs.

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