Inspiring Learning Through Nonviolent Communication

So much of communication is actually not about what we say. It’s about how we come across, the tone of our voice, our body language, and all of that is an expression of our internal state. So this is one of the reasons why mindfulness is such an essential and valuable component of interpersonal communication and relationships friendships and teaching is that it gives us a tool to become aware of our inner world, and to begin to guide and handle whatever’s going on so that we can relate, teach, interact in a way that’s in line with our values rather than being dictated by our habits. So nonviolent communication is a very powerful process for collaboration, for social transformation, for personal healing and growth, as well as for building relationships and trust.

Violence isn’t just physical violence, like we would think of. So one definition from thinker, philosopher and, social theorist, Johan Galtung is that violence is any avoidable impairment of human needs. So it’s a very broad and profound definition, right? When we think about our society, our world, our planet today, and think about the level of basic human needs that are not being met. Poverty is a form of violence. Not having access to clean water, not having access to medicine, not having access to meaningful work, meaningful ways to contribute is an avoidable impairment of human needs. We can understand that as a form of violence.

Another definition could be any way of relating or acting that compels people to act by force rather than by choice. And when we think about that in terms of schools, how much are we using violence or the threat of punishment as a way of relating to children? And fundamentally, how much are we supporting children in developing an appreciation for and a capacity to learn, and how much are we training them to obey and to behave? 

It’s not about what we say, it’s about where we’re coming from inside, and the quality of connection and understanding where we’re able to create. So nonviolent communication is a way of training attention in terms of the relationship, to identify specific things that make it more likely for us to meet our needs together.

Communicating Clearly with Students

So behavior norms are a strategy, right? Having children sit in their seats, having children raise their hand, all of these group agreements that we make our strategies to serve a certain end, the end being learning, right? Inspiring children to learn, to understand themselves, to develop an interest in growing and learning. But what happens is that we lose consciousness of the need, we lose consciousness. We lose sight of the end, the purpose, and the strategy itself becomes its own end. And behavior, compliance becomes an end in itself and we forget why. And when we forget why, then we will start to use those strategies in a way that’s counter to the actual ultimate aim. 

So one of the things that as educators, we deal with the most and which we were just talking about is classroom management behavior issues. So taking these principles and applying them, some of what that might look like is if we’re asking a student to do something differently. “Sarah, I noticed that you’re talking a little bit to Julie next to you. Would you be willing to wait until the next break so that we can get through the lesson,” and then stating why? 

Why is this important to me? It’s not just that I’m the teacher and I’m in charge and you should do what I say, but it’s really important for me that everyone be able to hear me and pay attention to the lesson so that we can all learn. And when there are other voices happening in the room, it’s harder for people to focus. So we’re connecting our request, what we’re asking of the students back to how this is going to serve. How this is going to serve me, how this is going to serve the whole community. Right? And so now it’s not just about you should do what I say because I’m in charge, but my role in this classroom is to create an environment where everyone can learn. And that’s really important to me. And when you engage in this behavior, that becomes harder to do. 

So I’ve made a request, the students doesn’t follow my request. Okay, now what do I do? Noticing that you’re still talking. And now I can be transparent. I’m feeling a little bit frustrated because I want to use our time to be focused on learning. And I’m going to ask you again and I’m not sure what you need right now, and so we have the choice of engaging with the student. What’s going on for you, you feeling bored? Are you just wanting to play more? What’s happening? That you’re choosing to speak, so we’re using this framework of needs to understand the students’ behavior in terms of their humanity, what is it that they’re wanting, and then if we can make a connection with the students, now we have more options. 

It’s like, “Yeah, this lesson is really boring, Mr. Sofer, I don’t really want to be doing this.” So it sounds like you’re not feeling connected to what we’re doing and not really understanding why this is important in your life. I can totally understand not wanting to pay attention if you don’t see the relevance of what we’re doing. I would probably feel the same way. Now what’s happening? Now, we’re actually building trust now. 

And now and now we have more choices of where we can go. Now we can talk about well, why are we doing this? What’s the point of this lesson? Who has ideas about how this might be helpful later in life? Right. To this day I wish that my history and social studies teachers in middle school and high school had done a better job of creating relevance and meaning for me because I feel like there are gaps in my personal understanding of certain aspects of history because I didn’t have teachers who really created a sense of meaning and relevance for why is this important to know. And as a citizen today, when I see what’s happening in our country or in our world, I want more of that history available to me. 

So that’s one part of it. So let’s say in that situation the student isn’t able to really connect or get on board with what I’m asking for the sake of the learning and the rest of the classroom. But now, instead of using my power and authority as a teacher to say get out, go to the principal’s office, right? I can present the child with a choice. I can say, “Listen, I really would like for you to be able to stay here in the classroom and learn with everyone else, but I’m not seeing a way for that to happen with you continuing to talk, or to laugh,” or whatever the behavior is. So these are the choices that I’m aware of. “You can take a time out, do what you need to get yourself together and come back in. You could go to the principal’s office and take a break there and talk about what’s going on. Or if there’s something else you need that I can offer right now, I’m happy to do that, but I’m not seeing any other way to handle this so that everyone can keep learning. What would you like to do?” 

Right, so what am I doing here? There’s a lot happening. There’s a lot of learning, a lot of teaching, a lot of modeling. First of all, I’m modeling respecting the child’s autonomy. I’m empowering and entrusting the child to make their own choices about their body and the way that they meet their needs. I’m modeling taking responsibility and using power in a way that’s collaborative. I’m saying look, here’s my objective. I’m trying to teach so everyone can learn. That’s what I’ve been asked to do. That’s why we’re all here. Right? And now I’m recognizing my own limitation. I don’t see another way of doing that right now other than these options. 

Every time we use our power with a child, to get them to do what we want, implicitly the lesson that we teach them is those who are bigger and stronger win. That’s what we’re reinforcing. So can we use our relationships, our communication, and our role to embody and teach something different? This is an essential part of nonviolent communication. And again, the words or the expression of it, but really this is about a kind of consciousness that lives within us. It’s the kind of awareness of our own needs, our own feelings, what’s coming up in the moment, and how to handle that energy in a way that’s sufficiently transparent and collaborative. And mindfulness is an essential tool for that. If we don’t have mindfulness, if we’re not aware of what’s happening inside, it’s very difficult to use these tools.