At that precise moment, last Wednesday at 3 pm, I was coaching a group of four university age Palestinian and Jordanian men in Nonviolent Communication. We were in NVC training with about 40 other students at the Arava Institute at Kibbutz Ketura in the south of Israel- a class of Jordanians, Palestinians, Israelis and Americans, mostly university and masters’ students.
Arava Institute NVC Training
The room was abuzz with participants working in small groups, listening to the feelings and needs of people who heard messages that were hard to hear. In our small group, the first message one of the young men picked was trying to talk to a soldier who had just arrested his father.
As the role play unfolded, I learned that this scenario had happened in Jordan to his father, who was arrested by the Jordanian police.
The young man began the “role play/role be” by saying with energy and agitation- what are you doing, where are you taking my father? The young man playing the soldier said, stand back, move away. The son, again, what are you doing? Stop. And argument ensued and threatened to get worse.
We stopped and discussed the situation- within 5 seconds the situation had turned into an argument between the soldier and the young man. Is there another way we can do this? I asked, was he willing to try a nonviolent communication with the soldier? He was.
I began by asking the son to go inside himself, to connect with how he was feeling in his own body in that moment. Tight, constricted. I asked him, what is the emotion in the tightness he was feeling in his chest. Fear. Concern. He repeated , to himself,” I am feeling fear and concern. I am really worried about my father and my family. “We looked at the sheet of NVC needs ( In Arabic).
I explained that a nonviolent communication can take place only when we realize that our feelings are triggered by what the soldier does- but they are caused by our own needs- we feel the way we feel because something important to our own wellbeing – an energy or state of being, called a ” need” that we value and long for and thrive on- isn’t being met in that moment. We want to connect with our own need to understand ourselves and then to communicate that to the soldier. We all were using the Needs Inventory List to guess his needs for safety, security, empowerment, understanding.
As the role play continued, we coached the son to stay connected to his own feelings and needs- the more connected he stayed to himself in that way, the more he was able to be aware of what he was doing and saying and the clearer he stayed about what exactly he wanted from the policeman. When he got lost in his anger and upset, and didn’t know his needs, he wasn’t able to do anything to help meet the needs. The more he stayed connected with his need for his father’s safety, for understanding what was going on, the more clearly he was able to ask the policeman for the help he needed.
He ended by asking the police for the name of someone who could tell him where his father was going. He ended by asking, and taking down, the policeman’s cell phone number. He ended by feeling better and clearer about himself and what action to take to meet his needs in the moment.
(I was giving myself self empathy all through this- asking myself, is this preposterous for me, an American, from idyllic Woodstock, New York, to suggest using this with a soldier in Jordan? Am I in alignment with my own needs for awareness, for respect for other people ‘s lives and experiences and understanding of their own experiences ? How can I take care of this fear of mine that I am nit in that level of my own integrity? By checking in with them- is this useful, do you want to continue. Yes, the answer was yes, always, yes.)
Next, one of the Palestinian students in my group picked a scene at a checkpoint in the West Bank- a scene he said he has experienced many times- he was on his way to work and the Israeli soldier at the checkpoint said, the crossing is closed, come back in two hours.
One of the Jordanian men eagerly volunteered to play the Israeli soldier.
The role play began.
“Come back in two hours,” the soldier said, without making eye contact, in a monotone voice (we called it a gruff voice).
Within five or ten seconds they were in an argument. I stopped and asked, is this how we want it to go, or do we want to try something different? I wanted to make sure I didn’t have a judgment in my question, a hidden view that they “should” be using Nonviolent Communication- so I asked, what needs of yours are you meeting by expressing yourself in this way, by having this type of discussion? We used the sheets of Needs Inventory, which are in the packet I am using in the trainings here- the feelings and needs lists are in English, Arabic and Hebrew, thanks to Arnina Kashtan.)
We all looked at the sheets and guessed he was meeting his needs for self expression, for empowerment, for honesty, for being heard and understood. And we also saw that this wasn’t effective in meeting all these needs. He was willing to try “a nonviolent communication.”
I asked him to connect inside himself- how is he feeling in his own body when the soldier says, come back in two hours? Tight, fear, anger, burning. What are the emotions- anger, frustration. He said, mostly frustration. What are the needs? ( We use the feelings and needs sheets when we are training in this method of communication, to help us expand our literacy of feelings and understanding). Freedom, choice, autonomy. I want these things. I want to travel freely and have choices about how I live. I also want to help my family, and need this job to do that. That gives me security and self respect.
Now that he had connected with his own feelings and needs, I suggested he communicate that to the soldier- instead of yelling at the soldier, or telling the soldier what he thought of him, or what the soldier was doing, he communicated how he felt and what need of his was causing the feelings. I’m feeling scared and frustrated because its important to me and my family that I get to work.’ The solder (played by one of the Jordanian students), said, I said 2 hours. Can’t you hear?
We all took a breath. Time for the young man who wanted to cross the check point to connect with himself again. This time, to connect with himself so that he could have the next conversation with the soldier- connecting with the soldier’s feelings and needs.
(I want to say here that I was giving myself empathy- wondering, feeling fear that I was offering something that wouldn’t work in this situation, that isn’t “appropriate” I am telling myself- under that jackal word, appropriate, I feel my own fear that I do not have the awareness or experience to offer these tools in a way that really contributes to people’s peace and safety and wellbeing. And that supports their longings for freedom and transformation of the situation. I meet this concern of mine by checking in with them- do you want to do this- do you want to see if this can work, do you want to experiment with this? Yes, they clearly were having fun!)
So now, the Palestinian student turns to the soldier, and says, again, I am just feeling frustrated and scared, my family is depending on me, is there anything we can do so that I can go through?
Again, “ are you deaf, come back in two hours.”
Again, self empathy; the student returns to himself, to his own experience of what is going to how frustrated he feels. (He reported that this is what he was feeling, more than anger in this moment.) He reported to the soldier, I’m feeling frustrated. Is there someone who I can talk to? I’m worried about my job.
The rest of us then witnessed something shift in the soldier in that moment, when he heard the student say, “ I’m worried about my job.”
The soldier said, “ look, even if I wanted to let you through, I couldn’t, I’ d lose my job.”
We were all stunned to hear that. I asked the soldier, what just happened? He said,” Somehow I saw that there was a person standing in front of me.”
I asked the student what was going on for him, he said all of a sudden he felt some sort of connection with the soldier. That even though he still couldn’t get through for two hours, he felt more empowered, was in touch with his humanness. We finished the role play by talking about Mandela and Martin Luther King, the self dignity and power they felt, even in jail.
Toward the end of the NVC class at Arava, we worked on learning to make requests that can change our lives; requests, as Marshall Rosenberg says, are what empower us, what really bring us into connection with the other person and the world. One American student raised her hand- “I want people here to stop talking to me as if I am a representative of my government. I don’t support my government’s policies.
We helped her connect with her feelings and needs behind this request. She is feeling lonely and sad, wants to be seen and understood for the person she is.
I asked her, to whom would she like to make this request? She pointed across the room to one of the Jordanian students and said, to him. I asked him, what is his reply when he hears what she asked?
He replied, but she is an American.
We connected with her feelings and needs- sadness, wanting to be seen and understood for herself, not an image of “ an American.”
She communicated that to him.
He said, how can you ask me that- America is a democracy and you are responsible for what your government does.
I asked her, are we closer to the conversation that you want to have? Yes, she said.
I said, what do you want to ask him to do to meet your need for communication? I asked her to look on the list of “Connecting Requests” developed by Bay NVC, and find a specific doable request to ask him.
She said to him, are you willing to brainstorm with me about how we can talk about this in a way that we are both seen?
Yes, he said.
When, I asked?
They made a plan to continue.
Eco ME Retreat (see photos on my facebook page)
The next morning, I boarded the bus north, to EcoME, for the three day NVC training outside of Jericho. Hagit Lifshitz and I created the curriculum for the retreat. In smaller working groups, everyone began by practicing NVC within the family. After several sessions of working on difficult communications within our own families, the groups moved to NVC within our own communities. On the second day, in new groups, we slowly moved from NVC in our own communities to NVC between different communities. There was overlap between the last two categories because secular Israelis Jews wanted to talk to religious Jews and Jews they disagreed with about the situation between Israel and Palestine, and Palestinians expressed great pain over the violence coming from their side.
There are so many moments and role plays – here are a few-
A role play within a Jewish family where one person supports an end to Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and the other is focused on needs for safety and stability within Israel. A young Palestinian man witnessing the roleplay said, I have aquestion,I feel curious, what has caused the fear in the Jewish people. Hearing curiosity and openness to understanding in his tone of questioning, I felt tears in my eyes. This is what I am longing for- when people on “both sides” begin to ask for help understanding each others experience, each others fears. The young woman doing the role play, herself a rabbinical student, answered, him- two thousand years of no one wanting us, no one wanting to live with us, of being pushed out and pushed around because of that.” The two of them held each others eyes in silence for some moments.
In another role play, an Israeli Jewish peace activist was speaking to an Itamar resident. Another Israeli played the settler. The conversation turned to a dead end argument quickly. I said that for the role play to really work, you had to feel love and connection for the person whose role you were playing. He wasn’t ready for that.
A Palestinian man- himself formerly a prisoner in an Israeli prison- offered to play the settler’s role. I asked if he could really connect with the settler’s heart.? Yes, he has visited Yad Vashem, he has relationships with and has been in dialogue with Jewish settlers. ( At the end of the retreat he shared that praying with Jews at the retreat’s Kabbalat Shabbat had brought him a feeling of deep connection to Jews.
In the role, he kept saying to the Israeli peace activist, why don’t you come and live here if you are concerned about us and about the Jewish people. We need you. After her initial responses that led to arguments, she connected with his needs. After a while, we heard how he was holding her needs with care, and that his life choices meet his needs for meaning and purpose.
Her needs for connection were met, not by changing his mind, but by connecting with what was important to him. The possibility of continued dialogue opened up.
In another group, we role played a heated, painful discussion among three Jewish roommates- all young women yeshiva students. They live close to the Jerusalem central bus station and had heard the bomb go off from inside their apartment. One of the women ran out to help minutes after the bombing and saw the blood, injuries, destruction. She came back to the apartment shaken, distraught, and said words like, “we have to kill all of them before they kill us.” The other girls felt scared and upset hearing that comment, so we role played this for a while. Several different participants in the role play circle took turns being in the roles, including two of the girls who had actually ben involved.
We quickly saw that the girl who had witnessed the scene needed empathy, security safety and understanding. She needed comforting and warmth. Whatever she was saying, however difficult it was to hear, were expressions of her pain, her fear, her longing for safety and support. We saw that only when we could connect with her needs -safety, support, friendship, shared reality- our hearts opened to her and connection was possible. When we were stuck in listening to her words, instead of listening to her feelings and needs under her words, some of us closed.
We wanted to be open. We wanted to connect with her, with her heart. We wanted to offer comfort, support, companionship. And her fears that this attack would be used to further the cycle of hate and violence prevented her from doing that, from connecting with the young woman of whom she said, “I love her; she is my friend.
We saw that the roommate doing the role play needed to give herself empathy so that she could open and stay open to her friend’s pain- and to her own- she then self -connected to her own fears about this being used to create more hatred and division- with her own longing to have a peaceful refuge and safety with her friends in her own apartment, in the island of madness. She wanted her friend to join her there- in that place of peace and taking care of each others pain.
We saw that only after connecting with our own feelings and needs in this way could we then truly open without judgment to the other girl. Only by taking care of ourselves, by holding our own pain and fears, instead of projecting them onto the other, could we then hear her pain and connect deeply with an open heart to her suffering.
This is the work we do, what Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Nonviolent Communication, calls taking care of our self so we can act and speak from the energy we choose to live in- not our habitually triggered places.
Later, we role played a conversation between two “regular” women- one Israeli Jewish, one Palestinian. Practicing listening to each others feelings and needs, not getting lost in our stories; listening to the stories, not for “truth” or “comparison”, but for feelings and needs. What are we all longing for. What are the universal longings shared by the hearts of all of us.
We practiced many of these role plays “fish bowl “ style- I actively coached people to return to themselves- each time they started to say, “But” to the other person, or to talk about the other person, or blame the other person, we practiced returning to our own feelings and needs. From that place, we can engage in meaningful and transforming dialogue.