Disruption / Non-Violent Communication
by Sara Triana
“I’ll be back at lunch,” says Mitch on his way out.
I am sitting with our daughters. “Bring lunch,” I say. “Okay,” and I know he is already thinking fried chicken. He pops back in and asks, “What do I get for a vegetarian?” I am already thinking french fries but all I can say is, “I don’t know.”
It’s just a New Year’s resolution; you can’t call me a vegetarian, yet.
The first time I read Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg I could hardly see my way through a single sentence. It’s supposed to be the language of empathy and self-awareness. It was like learning to speak from scratch.
There are four components: Observations, Feelings, Needs/Values, and Requests. Needs/Values are deep, core needs. What matters. The thing beneath the thing.
If you are trying to understand someone, you ask them questions to clarify their needs and feelings until they feel understood. If you are trying to make yourself understood, you can frame anything through the four components in any order.
So maybe what I could have said was:
Observation: I hear you say that you’ll return at lunch and my mental inventory of our kitchen reminds me that we’re low on food.
Need: I want to stick to my goal of not eating meat…
Feeling: …but I feel overwhelmed by the work of thinking of vegetarian options at the nearby fast food places where you’ll get the fried chicken you’re probably salivating over…
Request: … so I’d like you to think of my needs and find something for me to eat.
In the kitchen, I assemble breakfast for the children and myself with NPR on in the background.
Last week, 200 lawmakers and their staff were sheltering underground during the Capitol Riots. They were together for three hours. Some refused to wear masks, declined offers of masks, even though coronavirus cases are higher than ever before.
The news report says that the lawmakers were later informed that they were all exposed to the virus. And it’s not that there aren’t anti-maskers everywhere we go but aren’t these supposed to be our leaders?
Every system my body knows is based on domination. School. Church. Capitalism. Even parenting— the system of families. The one with the most power is the only one who has a right to use force. Everything is a hierarchy. All hierarchies are based on power.
Why? Because I said so.
I thought marriage was hierarchical when I agreed to it. And I agreed to it.
I come from a military family.
From the Southern Baptist church.
From spankings and lectures and all sorts of things being forbidden.
From purity culture and patriarchy. From man as the head. From woman as the help.
From the meat-worshipping, fast food-glorifying great state of Texas.
Feeling: I felt outraged
Observation: …when I heard some lawmakers wouldn’t mask up during the attack at the Capitol
Need: because I value showing compassion and leadership.
Request: I want to know how things that are felt as violence are not judged as violence by others. Why victims always have more explaining to do. Why they have to prove their pain.
Later in the morning while the baby is taking a nap, a daughter plays with Barbies and I sit in her room with her, writing. She is four. Her legs are folded under her. I say, “Hey, try and go potty.” She says no. Her face scrunches up. I say, “just give it a try.” She doesn’t want to. I say, “take your dolls, I’ll give you your privacy.” She refuses. I say “I know you very well and you know yourself very well. Be honest with yourself.” “I don’t need to go!” she says. And how do I know that I’m not wrong? And is this harm?
Observation: Love,I can see you squirming.
Feeling: I’m worried you might wait too long and have an accident.
Need: I want you to listen to your own body (but I also feel like I’m a bad mom if I don’t remind you but you know what? I’m almost certain I messed this whole potty-training thing up with your sister and now I am completely confused and pretty sure nothing works except for shaming you which I refuse to do but maybe this whole conversation has shame baked into it—)
Request: Could you try?
Marshall Rosenberg translated nonviolent principles into this model for language out of his sincere belief that everyone just wants to be be understood, that empathy is some healing balm that can be administered through careful listening and speaking.
The principles, the components, the examples: they swarm like bees around my brain but the creases they meet are deep and flowerless, fields compacted by generations of violent language, stampedes of domination.
Someone in my writing group uses they/them pronouns. I have accidentally used gendered pronouns for them twice (out loud and countless times in writing and re-writing this paragraph) and I am still mortified. I wear a mask sometimes that is pink, white, and blue— the trans flag, a show of solidarity— but I can’t get this right. I was so anxious leading up to our last meeting that I wanted to resign but I am the leader. How would I make them feel if I did it again? Their last two poems were about erasure. My tongue is the eraser.
NVC says no one “makes” us feel anything. I guess I’m just saying:
Need: Because honoring identities is important to me…
Feeling: …I feel worried that I will use gendered pronouns again…
Observation: …when the writer has made it very clear that they prefer they/them.
Request: How do I resist my own violence? Grow anything beautiful in this parched soil? My mask is just a potted plant I threw in the dead field and photographed, shared online.
The daughter playing Barbies finally agrees to go. It’s too late. I say “I’m happy to help you” as I clean her up but inside I am thinking potty training is the worst part of parenting for me, no exception.
What is the purpose of this? For nonviolent communication, for nonviolence as a practice, as something more than a code for shutting down protest? The way people say— get out of the streets, be like MLK: dead.
I text Mitch: “I’ll eat leftover fried rice with the mushrooms and bok choy. You can get the chicken.”
And it’s not that I don’t find meat delicious. It’s not that I don’t take pleasure in cooking it, letting a tray of carnitas caramelize under the broiler, tearing into chicken wings, sharing a green chile cheeseburger with Mitch. I do.
It’s this: Greta Thunberg traveled to Poland for the UN Climate Change Conference in 2018. Inside the conference center, the attendees ate lunch. Overhead, large screens played effects of climate change on loop— floods, fires, drought, mass migration. At this gathering of world leaders, scientists, and climate change activists, Greta was shocked to find that the vendors were sold out of hamburgers, that they were even serving meat and dairy. She tells the world leaders they are behaving like children. She was 15.
She said, “if the solution [to the climate crisis] was changing tea bags for loose leaf tea and eating vegetarian once a week, then it wouldn’t be a crisis.”
And I know sometimes you have to act the way you want to feel.
And I hope you can also act the way you want to think.
Observation: MLK said violence has three things at its core: racism, militarism, and poverty. I’m going to have to think about this, analyze each word I holler.
Observation: I have spent so much time meeting the world with my head, with my brain, with wanting to know more.
Feeling: I am head heavy.
Request: Give me proof of this new religion. Show me the stigmata. Show me one wave of change. Show me, don’t tell me. Put this in my body. Make empathy a ritual and not an exercise. Prove that empathy for myself is going to make people start talking to each other again, is going to keep people on this planet, is going to keep things from getting apocalyptic for my daughters…
Need: …because I need to know that this shift in words becomes a shift in world and that this isn’t all just for the ‘gram. That this isn’t just another middle class heaven I’m do-gooding my way into.
Did you read the one about Knepp Estate?
How did 3,500 acres of dead fields, packed parcels of dirt come back to life?
Rest. No more fertilizer, no pesticide, no tilling, no hustle, no homework, no performance. They let the weeds take over and the saplings. Let the leaves lie where they fell. Then in came the grazers— deer, cattle, pigs— creatures who root around and disrupt the field, mow down the grass, carve paths, open up pockets of dirt that had been holding its breath so that fresh air could rush in and sunlight, so that the systems of decay were allowed to break it all down and eventually erupt into life again— but only after rest.
I should rest. I should make dinner, but—
Observation: someone has pooped in the sink.
Feeling: *white noise*
Need/Value: to escape
I escape with just the baby to watch the ducks in the park at dusk.
It was only 16 days ago that I stopped eating animals.
Observation: I don’t know what I am doing.
Request: Who will guide me? Not the dogma that I doggedly try to scrape from my brain.
How do I assess my own power so that I don’t abuse it? How do I take a tender stance toward all who have less power, less privilege?
Beginning with my children. Beginning with animals raised for consumption. Beginning with ecosystems. Beginning with those for whom America is not some tired star-spangled trope but a real chance at representation and equity and protection.
When the baby and I return from the ducks, Mitch is making everyone an egg for dinner in his slow and quiet way that knows without thinking, that speaks without speaking. One single buttery egg at a time.
Need: One single buttery egg every time I return.
My last dream before I woke up today was of the zealot.
He was my step-dad. In my dream, I ask him when he is going to examine why he’s so scared of gay people. He spits. He shakes. I try to explain things for him. I say “Imagine being born with part of you that is unforgivable—that doesn’t make sense, now does it, zealot?”
He must have been on my mind because I’ve been looking for him in every photo and video of the insurrection. Red hats. Blue jeans. Screaming Jesus. Screaming Get behind me, Satan! He could be any one of them or he could be at home.
For a second, I think that I am doing the violence, just by thinking that the zealot could have been marching and by marching him through this ending. He’s no longer my family but he might always be trembling red-faced and righteous across my memories and is that the violence I am constantly trying not to inflict?
Observation: Speaking takes too much work sometimes. And thinking. And dreaming.
By the end of this day I want to know nothing, only grow vegetables. I want the plates to load themselves, the toilets to flush themselves, and the questions to answer themselves.
Observation: My daughter asks me what dying is like when we are snuggled in her bed and I talk about the end of breath and blood flow…
Feeling: … and this simple handing over of the facts feels like a relief…
Feeling: … and the dilemma of parenting feels like disruption, feels like being rooted around in, turned over, feels like every hard and compacted part of me breaking apart — and didn’t I just say 10 poems ago that we were raising a herd of grazers?
She asks me, “Can we watch it on YouTube?”
“Sure,” I say.
Request: Heaven help me.
Sara Triana is a Texas writer. She is the author of two picture books, Love Love Bakery and Every Day is Making Day, as well as one poetry chapbook, Poppy Seeds. Her poetry has appeared in BEATIFIC Magazine, The Waking, WORDPEACE and Gold Wake Live. She lives an unschooling life with her partner and three daughters near Houston.