The article below was written approximately 9 weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one of dozens of active armed conflicts in the world in 2022. Though this article attempts to address the issue of war generally, it is impossible to ignore the current situation in Ukraine, as referenced in the article.

“You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.”

-Albert Einstein

Nonviolent Communication and War

What is the Connection between NVC and War?

Nonviolent Communication fosters the quality of connection which facilitates the information exchange needed to resolve conflicts peacefully.

We can extrapolate some of the elements of interpersonal conflict to larger armed conflicts. For example, people whose needs are satisfied do not commit violence against others. When a nation-state is secure, fulfilled, and satisfied it is hard to imagine it as the aggressor initiating a war of choice against a peaceful neighbor.

NVC can be a valuable component in dialog, negotiations, and in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, including wars.

One of the key elements to resolving and preventing conflicts is the NVC differentiation between needs and strategies which we articulate below, along with an exploration of other themes related to NVC and war.

The causes of war

What are the causes of war?

A nuanced and detailed analysis of the depth, variety, and complexity of the causes of war is beyond the scope of this article.

Though each armed conflict is unique, there are patterns to the causes. These include:

greed, lust for power, and corruption (e.g.: wars over resources or to fulfill land-based imperialist desires; or a population that is frustrated and hopeless in relation to corrupt leaders),
  • political ambition and diversion (a leader starting a war to shore up their poll numbers at home),
  • a focus on the aggressor’s own narrow sets of needs in a way that ignores, overlooks, or doesn’t even perceive their interconnectedness, interrelatedness, and interdependence with others.

The march toward violence or war is usually facilitated by the dehumanization or demonization of the other side.

The failure to arrive at agreements that avoid armed conflict can be the result of:

  • poor facilitation – someone without the skills for how to bring parties together to negotiate constructively,
  • a “crisis of imagination” — that is, the lack of creative thinking brought to bear on generating possibilities other than violence, or,
  • one or more parties engaging in poor faith — neither truly willing nor sincerely wanting to avoid armed conflict.

It is our contention at PuddleDancer press that there will be a direct link between the adoption of NVC consciousness and skills by those in governance globally, and the reduction of armed conflicts worldwide.

Though the causes of war are complex, and ending wars is challenging and complicated, we think the prevention of war is something worth striving for.

The results of war

There is no doubt that the results of war include complete and utter devastation for those caught in the center of it (eg: the city of Mariupol).

The human cost is nearly impossible to put into words: lost lives, families torn apart, livelihoods lost, long-term trauma and PTSD.

Wars carry a vast economic and financial cost, from the loss of livelihoods, economic sanctions, divestment and boycotts, and the cost of replacing destroyed infrastructure.

There are also environmental costs including the pollution of land, air, and water, the destruction of habitat, areas made uninhabitable with strewn landmines and cluster munitions, and the fact that every armored carrier, tank, and military plane burns fossil fuels into the atmosphere. When you add to this the destruction of fuel depots, the sinking of ships, and the environmental costs of replacing destroyed infrastructure, the damage increases.

Wars, as we have seen throughout the 20th century and so far in the 21st, can lead to massive refugee crises. This is not only another example of lives being torn apart. Refugees also create a logistical and economic burden for the countries seeking to accommodate large numbers of traumatized people who will need access to services.

One distinction useful for understanding trauma is the difference between generational and situational trauma. Situational trauma is triggered by a single event or situation. It is still traumatic and can even lead to complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD as it is known). Generational trauma is passed down from generation to generation. (There is also a similar distinction between situational poverty and generational poverty, the causes and results of the latter running very deep and with far-reaching impacts.)

When we study conflicts throughout the course of history and across geographic regions, it’s entirely possible that many if not most of us carry generational trauma from the effects of wars impacting our ancestors.

And the world’s present-day interconnectedness means that the impacts of war carry far beyond. For example, as this article is written, many countries depend on both Russia and Ukraine for food, and experts warn of food shortages for millions of people.

Certainly there will be people who will argue the benefits of war, both economically and in terms of bringing people together against a common enemy. However, these benefits are short-lived, and it’s almost impossible to argue that the costs don’t outweigh any perceived benefits.

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
— Dwight D Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States, in his “Chance for Peace” Speech, 1953

Wars lead to massive suffering: death, disease, famine, and the destruction of homes and lives.

To the extent that we can harness the power of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to help us resolve — but even better to prevent — armed conflicts, the greater the possibility that humanity and the Earth can be spared the worst results of war.

War, conflict prevention, and diplomacy

“I don’t have to agree with everything you say, but I should attempt at least to understand it, for the opposite of mutual understanding is, quite simply, war.”
— Ken Wilber

When individuals can separate Universal Human Needs from the ways they satisfy them, also known as strategies, they find that there are usually multiple avenues for fulfilling their needs.

The same is true for groups and nation-states.

However, without a willingness to communicate, understand each others’ needs, and find alternate strategies for meeting the most needs for the greatest number, the prospect of meeting needs without violence is decreased.

NVC — like any modality — has its limitations, among them access. If two people are punching at each other, or if two groups are shooting at each other, we don’t have access to a dialog to find a different solution.

One rarely talked about aspect of access has to do with trust and honesty. If someone has a pattern of saying things that later turn out to be false, or of breaking their promises, then trust is lost and dialog is weakened. We don’t have access to their true thoughts or intentions and this makes it nearly impossible to arrive at shared understanding, let alone dependable agreements.

However, with access and trust, we are more able to engage constructively in a diplomatic space of dialog and mutual respect, in order to co-create mutually agreeable and satisfying outcomes.

What would NVC diplomacy look like?

What would diplomacy with high level NVC skills be like?

In NVC we distinguish between needs and strategies.

Needs by definition are universal — all humans share them — and as such, they refer to no specific person taking any specific action. Examples of needs are trust, love, connection, honesty, integrity, and so on. You can find a list here.

We use the word “strategies” in NVC to refer to the various ways we go about fulfilling needs.

Conflicts always arise at the level of strategies. People do not have conflicting needs, only conflicting strategies.

NVC diplomacy would:

  1. seek to bring to the surface and clarify each party’s needs and values,
  2. support each side in helping the other side(s) be heard for their deeper needs and values, and then,
  3. facilitate the co-creation of strategies that support all or as many of the needs as possible.

Everybody’s needs matter, but not everybody’s needs will necessarily be met. This depends on the strategies they can imagine and on which they can agree.

The trust-building process of each side feeling heard for their deep concerns — and because needs are universal — naturally leads to a shared exploration and a collaborative co-creation of the strategies that can meet the most needs for the greatest number of people.

This type of diplomatic facilitation takes time, knowledge of historical and cultural contexts, and a high level of skill. The greater the pain and the lower the trust, the greater the skill level required. Even with high pain, if there is trust there is usually a path forward. And sometimes the parties themselves need to engage in trust-building to set the foundation for future dialog and negotiations.

Despite this type of diplomacy appearing to be uncommon or difficult to attain, its results far exceed the alternatives.

A world without war?

Is a world without war possible or even desirable?

If the world had no war — but this was enforced by a totalitarian and oppressive world government — would that be a desirable outcome?

How long has war and violence been with us? The best evidence at hand tells us that war has probably been with us since there was an us.

Some skeptics of NVC will ask: when you see how prevalent violence and war are, historically and currently, isn’t it a logical conclusion that violence is simply natural for humans?

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, originator of NVC, would remind us of the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “Let us not confuse what is natural with what is habitual.”

Simply because violent thinking, speaking, and acting have become habitual, this does not mean they are principal to our nature.

This does beg the question:

What is human nature?

It appears that human nature is a spectrum of possibilities.

As humans grow and mature, we begin to access, activate, and live from some of these higher potentials.

We grow and develop our compassionate embrace — from me, to us, to all of us. The higher capacities (love, compassion, understanding, harmony) are as much part of our potential as so-called lower capacities (indifference, hatred, disregard, and acrimony).

It’s beyond the scope of this article to dive into the intricacies of how we move, individually and collectively, from lower consciousness to higher consciousness, from hate or indifference to love and care, and so on. Suffice it to say that NVC is an important part of that toolbox; no other tools or modalities do what NVC does in the way it does it.

One thing that seems clear is that before anyone commits violence on anyone else, first these ‘others’ need to be seen as a threat, an enemy. A critical step before violence is perpetrated is to turn the targets of the violence into “others” — not like me, not like us — in fact, so much not like us that they are bad which then means they deserve this violent treatment. This is an example of the type of thinking through which people learn to enjoy violence.

Once we let go of old stories about human nature being inherently selfish, and embrace the reality that our true nature is full of potential and possibility, then we are in a more empowered place to move ourselves — and by extension the culture — into those more desirable and life-serving potentials.

So how do we stop “othering” others?

The answer to this question involves several factors.
These include:

  • individual growth and development;
  • cultural evolution and the shared worldview and values that a group develops;
  • the educational system and what children are being inculcated or indoctrinated to believe;
  • issues of parenting since these are children’s first teachers and role-models; and,
  • questions of economics and governance, as economic structures keep many of us in work-and-spend cycles in which we have little time or energy left for other concerns or priorities.

If we want a world without war we need to work collectively to address all the levels and factors which contribute to violence and wars.

When people are in survival mode it can be much more challenging to take the time to reflect deeply on these topics and to want to engage in individual, community, or collective transformational work. All these factors are interconnected and interrelated.

If you want an answer to how do you stop othering others, the response is threefold:

  1. Become aware and conscious of when you are doing it, because only then can you begin to create shifts. If you are unconscious of the fact that you are doing it then you have no power over it.
  2. Keep working on yourself to grow, learn, and continue to expand your perception and awareness.
  3. Remember that NVC is a powerful complement to anything else that you are doing for your own growth and development. With NVC you can turn your empathic attention to what might be motivating someone who is acting in a life-alienating way. This act of compassionate consciousness is an important step in stopping yourself from demonizing or dehumanizing people thus turning them into an “other.”

This greater degree of compassionate understanding creates openings for how to reach people in a non-threatening way so that they are more likely to be open to a different perspective.

These are all natural outcomes of training in NVC.

It is our sincere desire to see NVC consciousness, tools, and skills permeate all levels of governance — because we predict that this will lead to more life-serving outcomes for a vast majority of people.

How do we solve conflicts without violence?

One of the first things NVC helps you understand is that before you have the impulse to commit an act of violence you are in pain due to one or more unsatisfied needs. (Someone who is balanced, happy, and fulfilled does not commit violence against others.)

So NVC directs you to get empathy from a trusted source, and it also gives you tools for how to give yourself empathy. In many of these cases, empathy can serve as a pressure-release valve, supporting a decrease of the emotional distress that would have led to violence.

As a result of high quality empathy you are more connected to your own feelings, needs, and requests — and your emotional charge is lessened. You are now in a space that is much more fertile for dialog, for understanding others’ needs, and for an exploration of how to meet your needs with strategies other than violence.

When skilled NVC practitioners distill the essence of a conflict down to the Universal Human Needs — at that point both sides can see each others’ humanity.

This is the beginning of healing as well as of the exploration of strategies that could support all the needs.

Engaging in dialog — with empathy and honesty — and often with the support of skilled mediation or facilitation — is how we solve conflicts without violence.

Marshall Rosenberg on NVC and War

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg surprised participants many times when he would say that even an ideal nonviolent society would still have a police force and a military.

The difference, he said, is that these forces would be dedicated to protecting life rather than acting in any punitive or retributive way.

This is an essential distinction in NVC: the difference between punitive use of force and protective use of force.

Police and military would then form part of a system of restorative or transformative justice, rather than perpetuate the inequities of retribution- and punishment-based “justice.”

You can read more about NVC and restorative justice here.

Dr. Rosenberg understood that if his work was adopted widely, and especially by those with structural power in society, we would create a different world, one in which peoples’ needs are met and conflicts are resolved peacefully.

PuddleDancer Press Books on NVC & Conflict Prevention

PuddleDancer Press is the foremost proponent and publisher of books on Nonviolent Communication and conflict prevention.

NVC has shown time and again that human beings are capable of co-creating mutually satisfying solutions.

Because of the trust-building process involved, and the fact that the solutions include everyone’s buy-in, using NVC for conflict prevention predictably gives us outcomes that meet a greater number of needs and are more durable.

Our books on conflict 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, and
  • 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 conflict prevention, to help you grow your emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and communication prowess.

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

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.