Using Nonviolent Communication Skills in the Restorative Justice Process

“Restorative justice is based on the question: how do we restore peace? In other words, how do we restore a state in which people care about one another’s well-being?”

Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD.

Before we talk about using Nonviolent Communication skills in the restorative justice process, let’s first define restorative justice. This will be helpful for us to have a clear contrast with what is most common today: punitive justice.

The word punitive has the same root as the word punish.

So punitive justice is based on defining who is right and who is wrong, and then punishing those who are wrong.

The idea behind punitive justice is that punishment itself will clarify for people what doesn’t work, give them incentive to change or transform, and serve as a deterrent for people to not do it again. This approach rarely results in qualitative change or healing for individuals, families, communities, or society as a whole.

Restorative justice, on the other hand, is about restoring relationships and repairing the damage that was done. Restorative justice is about healing, personal responsibility, and transformation.

Healing happens most readily when there is genuine connection between people, and NVC has some of the most effective tools for creating high quality, authentic connection.

NVC also gives us valuable insights and practices around empathic emotional support, forgiveness, and for identifying peoples’ deeper motivations when they act in ways that hurt others.

For these and many other reasons, Nonviolent Communication skills are important and valuable in the restorative justice process.

How can Compassionate Communication benefit Community Restorative Justice?

Compassionate Communication benefits community restorative justice because skilled individuals are more likely to prevent a conflict in the first place, or are more likely to have the skills to resolve it themselves, before engaging a more formal community restorative justice process.

In any community or group, as people’s skills increase, consciousness deepens, and there’s a greater sense of self responsibility — you’ll see a greater degree of conflict prevention and conflict resolution, as well as the emergence of more community mediators.

When a community can prioritize supporting conflict rather than avoiding it, conflict prevention resolution skills become more widely distributed.

As consciousness, tools, and skills begin to spread in a population, you find that families, and all kinds of groups and organizations, start to resolve their own conflicts because they now have the skills inside their own community.

Punitive Justice does not provide healing, and often makes things worse.

If someone has committed a crime and another was hurt by that act — restorative justice provides a greater opportunity for healing for individuals, families, and the affected community.

Restorative justice processes often happen in a group. Compassionate Communication (NVC) gives individuals tools and skills to engage in and support the process with greater congruence and effectiveness.

Applying NVC to Restorative Justice Victim-Offender Mediation Programs

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg spoke of conducting victim-offender mediation between a person who was raped and the person who committed the rape.

Dr. Rosenberg used to say that for the person who committed the rape to sit in prison and think ‘I’m a piece of trash and I deserve to rot here for the rest of my life,’ — is a cop out, a form of avoiding responsibility.

He said that for the person who committed the rape to sit with the other person, and connect with their humanity and all their unmet needs; and then for the person who committed the rape to connect with their own humanity, and how their very own actions didn’t work for them either… Dr. Rosenberg used to say, “that’s true suffering.”

That’s the potential in victim-offender mediation, to actually go through human-to-human mourning, healing, and reconciliation. 

Part of the issue is that much of our culture has adopted “the myth of redemptive violence” a term coined by Walter Wink, a well-known Theologian often quoted by Dr. Rosenberg.

The myth of redemptive violence states that a human being can become a better person by having violence committed against them.

This is one of the reasons we call our prisons penitentiaries: it’s where we send people to do penance.

And the idea is ‘the more I think I am a piece of trash, the better I’ll come out in the end.’ That might be fine if it actually worked! Unfortunately, all the indicators show that it doesn’t work.

As of this writing, the rate of recidivism for “violent offenders” in the United States — that is, the cycle of getting out of prison, reoffending, and then going right back in prison (they call it a revolving door) — is over 60%.

Our prison system, based on punitive justice, is not actually helping people heal and transform nor is it truly making our society safer. When the goal is punishment, healing and transformation are not supported, and so they rarely occur in that context.

If you want to see a clear example of the myth of redemptive violence in action, simply look at children’s cartoons: There are good guys and there are bad guys, and the good guys beat up, humiliate, lock up, or pulverize the bad guys, right at the climax of the show! The good guys are then loved, accepted, and celebrated by others.

When we apply NVC to restorative justice victim-offender mediation programs, we give people a greater opportunity to create human-to-human connection which is a powerful foundation for healing and reconciliation. 

Violent Communication: The Unmet Emotional Needs Behind Criminal Behavior

At a certain phase in his career, Dr. Marshall Rosenberg claimed that he had gotten to the point where no matter what the other person said, he either heard “please” or “thank you.”

When somebody engages in behavior we call criminal — that is behavior that not only breaks a criminal law but actually hurts other people — that is clearly not a thank you. Here’s somebody with unfulfilled needs — probably unhappy. We can think of that behavior as a form of “please.” It’s coming from pain — here’s a person whose needs are not met.

People engaging in behavior we call criminal are acting from a place of unmet needs. And one of the most important key differentiations in NVC is the difference between needs and strategies.

Needs are universal, we all have the same needs. However, strategies are the ways we go about meeting those needs, and the strategies themselves are not universal.

Conflicts can’t happen at the level of needs because we all have the same needs. All conflicts happen at the level of what in NVC we call strategies.

Chilean Economist, Manfred Max-Neef (of whom Dr. Rosenberg was a fan) has categorized strategies into at least three different kinds:
1) There are strategies which go completely against our needs. For example if I’m in emotional pain and I have a need for empathy — and if out of that need for empathic understanding I go and punch someone so that they know how much I’m hurting — that strategy is most likely to result in my need for compassionate understanding going unfulfilled.

2) There are some strategies that meet some needs but at the expense of others. For example, some people smoke tobacco out of attempting to meet certain needs (down-time? relaxation?), and yet it goes against other needs, for example health, freedom, and often integrity.

3) And then we have some strategies that meet so many needs, we experience them as if they were a need themselves! These are called super satisfiers. We tend to relate to them as if they were a need, but they’re actually a strategy. Sex and money are two examples that come to mind of strategies people relate to as if they were needs.

Here’s an example of the distinction between needs and strategies:

We all need safety and protection. One person’s strategy might be that they go out and get to know all of their neighbors. Once they’ve gotten to know all their neighbors, that strategy contributes to their experience of safety and protection. Another person in the same neighborhood who has the same needs — safety and protection — might go out and buy a couple of assault rifles. These are totally different strategies but the need is the same.

When somebody engages in behavior we call criminal — in fact when anybody engages in any behavior — it’s in service of a universal human need, whether or not that person is consciously aware of the needs at play and whether or not they are aware of other possible strategies. 

When we see the behavior that we call criminal behavior as a tragic expression of unmet needs, (1) it’s easier to stand in a more compassionate place, and (2), we have a much more effective leverage point for helping people discover other ways to meet their needs. 

When we blame and seek to punish people, they pull away and close off, no longer open to learning valuable lessons others may impart.

This is where restorative justice is so hopeful!

The purpose of Nonviolent Communication is essentially how to guarantee that our needs are met in a way that’s in harmony with other people’s needs.

This is how NVC can contribute to rehabilitation of people who have learned strategies that end up hurting themselves and/or other people, so that they can become contributing and empowered members of society. 

Effectively Communicating Your Needs: NVC for Restorative Justice Victims

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg used to tell a story of a prison in Sweden that was based on NVC principles.

One of the key distinctions in NVC is between protective use of force and punitive use of force.

This prison did use force to lock people up and take away their freedom until they learned other strategies that were in harmony with the rest of society.

Again, people were locked up against their will not to punish them, but until they could learn other strategies to meet their needs.

Dr. Rosenberg told a story of teaching a workshop in this prison — a young man staring intently at him the whole time. As he was leaving, this young man rushed up to him and for a moment Dr. Rosenberg was nervous for his safety. The young man said “Thank you.” And he said “If I had learned 3 years ago what I learned from you today, I wouldn’t have had to kill my best friend.”

This young man’s act of attacking his friend was the only way he knew to communicate his needs at the time. However tragic or unskillful, it’s possible he didn’t at the time have access to a better way.

NVC teaches us how to reach out for emotional support, and how to offer it to others (or even ourselves!).

And Dr. Rosenberg used to say that violence is an incomplete expression of anger. He said the full expression could happen using classical NVC: observation, feeling, need, and request. 

NVC is how we shift punitive thinking and language, into restorative thinking and language.

When restorative justice victims learn to express their needs effectively — rather than demonizing or dehumanizing — they take part in the transformation of the cycle of violence.

Looking Forward: Nonviolent Communication in the Criminal Justice System

Laws and legislation are an important support to transforming our punitive justice system into a system of restorative justice. But laws and legislation are not enough.

Our consciousness around conflict, criminal justice, and punishment needs to transform to the point that people can expect to access genuine opportunities to heal, transform, and become better human beings for themselves, their families, their community, and society as a whole. 

One member of our worldwide NVC community, Dominic Barter, started a project called Restorative Circles in the slums — called favelas — of Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. (The practice of Restorative Circles is one of many modalities in the larger field of restorative justice.)

When somebody in these communities hurts somebody else, a restorative circle is convened and they engage in victim-offender mediation.

The consequences themselves are co-created by the circle!

Dominic reports that the level of follow-through on consequences, such as, for example, community service, is much higher than in the mainstream justice system.

When you compare this system to the punitive criminal justice system, the level of healing for the individuals — as well as for the community — is much higher.

The cost for society overall, and the financial cost to taxpayers, is significantly lower. Restorative justice can often bypass the cost of locking somebody up, keeping a roof over their head, feeding them three meals a day, and all the overhead in terms of personnel, buildings, and maintenance involved in our punitive incarceration system.

As far as all the metrics we can tell, the various methodologies under restorative justice are much more effective than punitive justice at helping us have a safer society — with a much lower cost to taxpayers.

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg on NVC for Restorative Justice Programs

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg travelled the world for several decades mediating conflicts and training people in NVC.

He noticed that all over the world, in every culture, people were playing one of two games:
One game is called “who is right and who is wrong.?”
The other game is called, “how can I make life more wonderful?”

The first game corresponds to punitive justice, and the ways it creates more disconnection, enmity, animosity, shame, guilt, blame, depression — and is very costly emotionally, socially, and financially.

The second refers to the ways we can come together, standing in truth and compassion, so that we can see each other’s humanity, and contribute to making the world better for all of us.

Dr. Rosenberg saw the potential for NVC to contribute in meaningful and powerful ways to the healing and reconciliation that is the promise of restorative justice and a future for which humanity can strive.

Puddledancer Press Nonviolent Communication Books on Restorative Justice

PuddleDancer Press is the foremost proponent and publisher of books on Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and Restorative Justice.

NVC has shown time and again that human beings are capable of collaboratively resolving conflicts, contributing to individual and collective healing, and crafting mutually beneficial solutions.

Because of the trust-building process involved — and the fact that the solutions include everybody’s buy-in — using NVC to assist us in restorative justice initiatives predictably gives us outcomes that meet a greater number of needs and are more durable.

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

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

More information on Books about Conflict Resolution

NVC Restorative Justice Web Resources

Click here for Marshall Rosenberg Restorative Justice Articles
Click here for Marshall Rosenberg Restorative Justice Videos
Click here for Nonviolent Communication Restorative Justice Articles
Click here for Nonviolent Communication Restorative Justice 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.