The practice of Ahimsa through Non-Violent Communication

Vidya Heisel
The Yamas (ethical restraints) and Niyamas (observances) offer us a way to live more ethically and more consciously.
Ahimsa, non-harming is certainly the first Yama because it sets a strong ethical foundation of non-harming for all of the steps that follow.

Practicing Ahimsa is more easily paid lip service to, than actually done. When analysed carefully, it’s disturbing to realize how much our everyday, socially acceptable way of speaking to each other contains seeds of aggression.

The Subtlety of Ahimsa

Hopefully most sincere yoga practitioners do not wilfully engage in grosser forms of violence, such as causing physical harm to another, or verbally abusing anyone. However, most of us have days when we get out of bed on the wrong side, or are moody, snappy or just plain grumpy.

Additionally, for most of us, when someone speaks to us antagonistically, our knee-jerk response is to be aggressive or defensive right back. If we had the wherewithal not to respond in kind, it could potentially have a disarming effect on our aggressor, and the aggressive energy could be diffused, but too often we fail in the stress of the moment.

A few years ago, I found myself in a situation where I was in a strong conflict with a colleague. I was under a lot of emotional stress and the conflict was having a big impact on me psychologically.

I discovered, that even though I usually try to avoid getting into arguments, or raising my voice, when all of my buttons were pushed, I really didn’t have the tools to respond skilfully in a way that was helpful, or resolved the situation.

Non-Violent Communication

At this point in time I started looking for outside help and began by reading many books about non-violent and conscious conversation. There are numerous great books on this subject and studying them opened up a whole world to me, which I had previously only been dimly aware of.

One of the original books on this topic is by Marshall Rosenberg and is called Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.

Marshall Rosenberg passed away last year at the age of 81. He was an American psychologist, who developed a communication process that “helps people to exchange the information necessary to resolve conflicts and differences peacefully”. He became the founder and Director of Educational Services for the Center for Nonviolent Communication.

Rosenberg taught NVC in many different countries. He was notably active in war-torn areas and economically disadvantaged countries, offering Nonviolent Communication training to promote reconciliation and peaceful resolution of differences.

After reading many books on skillful communication, I returned to NVC, finding it the most simple to understand and put into practice.

I learned how much of our way of speaking is intrinsically aggressive and have began to learn and appreciate a different way of communicating, which enabled me to navigate more skillfully in the conflict I was having at the time and eventually come to an agreeable resolution.

Convinced that it would be a good to become fluent in this new way of communicating, I went to London to take a weekend workshop in NVC and have since instigated a workshop with a teacher of NVC to be held at my workplace for my employees. We very much enjoyed and benefitted from learning this skill together. Since my business is a Yoga Retreat Centre, it felt very appropriate to introduce NVC as our means of communicating with each other in the working environment.

NVC Components

The four steps or components to practicing NVC are:

  1. Observations: Make a verbal observation about the situation with no evaluation. This may be at first listening closely to what someone is saying, and then repeating it back to them in your own words, with no judgment or evaluation, so they know you have been listening to them. Or if it’s you who is feeling charged, you need to make a factual observation without judgment. Observable facts provide a common ground for communication.

    For example: “It’s 3:00 am and I can hear music coming from your flat,” states an observed fact, while “It’s the middle of the night, and you are making one hell of a noise” is an evaluation.

  2. Feelings: State the feeling that the observation is triggering in you. Or, guess what the other person is feeling, and ask. 

    Naming the emotion, without moral judgment, enables you to connect with each other with mutual respect and cooperation. It’s important to aim to accurately identify the feeling that either you, or the other person, are experiencing. 

    When practicing NVC you need to be very specific about naming actual feelings and not confuse feelings with thoughts. 

    For example: 
    “I feel disturbed and irritated.”

  3. Needs: Behind every feeling there is almost always an unfulfilled need, so try to uncover what you or the other person needs. State the need, without morally judging it. 

    For example: “ because I need to get some sleep, as I am working tomorrow.”

  4. Requests: Make a concrete request for action to meet the need just identified. 

    For example: “Would you be willing to turn the music down?” 

It takes a lot of diligence to implement NVC, but it is well worth the effort. Since learning it, I constantly notice where I falter in my ability to consistently express myself with this new skill-set, then I pull myself up by my boot laces and try again. I think that this practice deserves a lifetime’s commitment and it offers us a very useful tool to aid in the practical daily practice of the non-harming of others. 
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Vidya Jacqueline Heisel
Director of Suryalila Retreat Centre and Frog Lotus Yoga International,
Yoga Teacher Trainings.

This article was first published in The Om 
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