Embodied NVC

How are emotions, empathy and connection embodied? What roles does the body play in NonViolent Communication? What supplementary physical practices can be used to support and develop NVC?

NonViolent Communication is an embodied practice and there are further bodily exercises that can supplement NVC as it is generally taught. In this article I will dip into the former and outline some of the latter. It is written primarily for those with at least a passing familiarly with NVC already.

I came to NVC through aikido – a nonviolent Japanese martial art that I love and continue to study. If first heard about NVC while working for an or organisation which uses aikido principles in peace projects – for example we bought together people from Israel, Palestine, Iraq and the USA, Greeks and Turks to train aikido together on the UN “green line” which divides Cyprus. At a conference for member so this organisation – Aiki Extensions – a member shared some NVC calling it “verbal aikido”. Aikido could also be seen as “physical NVC” as it is based on listening and reconciliation.  I divided into NVC and attended trainings and groups in the UK and USA, taught a little at a circus in Ethiopia and met it’s founder while sharing NVC in the favela slums of Brazil. As someone interested in movement and the body I sometimes found it challenging to sit still and talk in trainings and longed to meet needs such as movement and psychical play during trainings. I was pleased to find Gina Lawrie’s  and Briget Belgarve’s “dance-floors” which enable one to literally step through the “steps” of  the NVC process and desired more.

How NVC is Embodied

NVC is an embodied practice. There is no escaping this as we are all playing a game of embodied living, within a physical frame. Emotions are particularly embodied and there is much interesting research on how changes to the body effect emotions. Emotions can be seen primarily as bodily actions, and it is through interpretation of sensation of the body that emotion arises (Google “Schachter-Singer emotion”). It is through sensations in the body that we notice what we then label as emotions. I would also hypothesise that it is through unconscious recognition of subtle patterns within the body, particularly the core areas, that needs are identified. As one experienced NVC trainer told me, “I have seen people touch their stomachs when getting in touch with needs more times that I can remember”.

The hidden steps in the regular NVC description NVC process might then read: observation, sensation, which is interpreted as emotion, which points us to bodily intuition and the underlying need which has generated it (+ request). For me clarifying these elements of NVC can be useful for teaching NVC as it spells out the how of NVC clearly. My sense and that of a teacher expert in reading bodies is that Marshall Rosenberg and other senior NVC teachers are going through these steps but that it may be unconscious and transparent.

Empathy is also an embodied event as it is through our bodies mirroring of other peoples (and therefore “tasting” their emotions and needs) that it can occur. We even have special “mirror neurones” to facilitate this subtle compassion causing mimicry.

Note also that the observation and request stages of NVC which rely more on cognition, are also still “embodied” as thinking itself is now recognised by psychologists and being a whole body phenomena (Google “embodied cognition”).

Embodied Connection and Co-ordination Practices

All around the world when people really need to connect and coordinate they engage in shared embodied practices.  Courting couples, those celebrating and soldiers engage in them for example, with forms from tango to the Haka and everything in between. By moving together we become closer, perhaps engrained at a basic cellular level as a type of “biological entrainment”. NVC is also about connection yet curiously is most often done with very little or no touch or movement?  I have found it supports groups learning NVC or wanting to begin dialogue after conflict to engage in some movement movement practices together. This could for example be as simple as a walk together or a conscious and concentrated practice especially for this purpose. One simple one that I enjoy sharing with NVC groups is to have people walk backwards and forwards palms touching (pictured), first in straight lines and then more freely.  This not only builds trust and connection but can also be used as a starting point for some juicy dialogues about expressing (leading) and listening (following).  This exercise can also be done without touching which is useful in some cultures (shown also with a hair), from a handshake (how I generally start with business folks) and with contact from any body part (a bit like Contact Improvisation dance)…which can be A LOT of fun and range from fiercely chaotic to tender (see pictures) depending upon participants mood and what the facilitator wishes to draw from it.

Perhaps the ultimate in physical connection building activities that can be done with your clothes on is Fred Donaldson’s Original Play (pictured below).

Embodied Empathy

Due to the action of mirror neurones and non-verbal resonance and mimicry all relaxed consensual touch builds empathy. There are also some forms that are explicitly about empathy used either alongside verbal listening or even instead of (both people are silent) which I find support empathy and build connection quicker than without touch (as long as participants feel safe and it’s culturally appropriate naturally). When listening to someone while touching them their chest for example, you may feels them “back off” from a particular point or soften when saying something else. The touch can also be used to keep people grounded in the emotional reality of their bodies “here and now”. Some empathic listening forms are shown below – individual and group variants – there are many more.

Centring and Embodied Peace-building

The theory of NVC is simple enough and most people can grasp the basic concepts in a few hours in my experience. Why then is it so bloody hard to do in practice??!!!!? One answer is simply that – practice. Most people have been practising nonNVC for a long time before they get giraffe ears. Another is that physiological arousal in heated situations (fight or flight syndrome) shuts off the neocortex and results in an “lizard-brain hijack”. While this part of the brain is running the show and your body is in a state of collapse and/or contraction (fear and aggression essentially) the likely of being able to remember NVC  strategies, “connect to the heart” or engage NVC consciousness is very small. I have seen this with literally thousand s of people learning martial arts, some of which had considerable training in less physical arts. All of their theories counted for nothing when the shit hit the fan and “unskillful” or “aggressive” responses quickly surfaced.  happily the answer to this maladaptive physical “distress response” is straightforward – centring. Centring (which can be used alongside self-empathy) is a way to “get yourself together” under pressure and manage emotional arousal (while not repressing emotions themselves).  These techniques can be particularly useful for the observation and request levels of NVC which can require a certain clarity of mind to form, but are useful for the whole process.

The pictures below show Paul Linden’s tissue throwing exercise – a gentle place to start though centring though wrist grabs, shoulder pushes and claps in front of the face can also be used.  The basic principle is to stimulate the distress response in a controlled non-traumatic way (e.g. trowing the tissue at someone), calibrating the level of intensity so it is challenging but not overwhelming (e.g throwing to body first then face if that’s not enough), teaching a centring procedure (like ABC given below) and then have the participant re-experience the stimuli and see the difference. The stimuli can then be increased to build tolerance (e.g moving from a tissue to a more realistic verbal trigger). This video shows centring in action.

For more on centring I recommend Paul Linden’s (sitting above me in photo with me in red hoodie) book Embodied Peacemaking.

ABC Centring Practice – “Get Yourself Together” in 10 sec to 1 min

·         Aware – be mindful of the present moment using the five senses, especially feeling the body, ground (chair and feet) and your breath

·         Balanced – in posture and attention.  Expansive feeling

·         Centre-Line Relaxation – Relax mouth and stomach – breathe deeply into your belly

(Also – Connected to reason why you are doing this and to other people)

“Moods” in The Body

NVC as I understand it views emotions as short term motivational reactions to needs being met and unmet – a perspective I find very useful. Another angle is that there are also “moods” which are longer-term and defined as “physical predispositions for action”. In this light moods “lean” us in a particular direction, and may not be apparent as we habituate to them over time. Moods can also be addressed directly through the body.

There is now experimental evidence to suggest that moods and emotions can be altered thought adjusting posture and bodily expression directly (see for example the “facial feedback hypothesis”), and while addressing underling needs is also vital, this phenomena  can be utilised in supporting people make desired shifts.

Other Physical Practices Used Alongside NVC

Focusing, a process coming from therapist Eugine Gendlin that involves deep “listening” to the body after asking it questions, Authentic Movement which comes from Jungian psychotherapy, Gabriel Roth’s five rhythms dance, The Alexander Technique (there are at least 3 Alexander/NVC teachers in the UK) and traditional Buddhist embodied mindfulness exercises have also be used alongside NVC to access “the bodies wisdom”. There are likely other practitioners out there dovetailing and integrating other further physical practices.

The Protective Use of Force and Fear

In NVC the “protective use of force” is sometimes mentioned as a way of managing physical aggression. To be able to use force in this manner takes either great strength (it may take 5 psychiatric nurses to restrain one patient nonviolently for example) or much skill (aikido being the exemplar in the martial arts world, though Brazilian ju-jitsu and other arts based upon control and restraint rather than destruction may serve

equally well). I have however seen no  ore than lip-service given to this protective use of force in NVC communities I have been involved with, and have seen no interest in nonviolent martial arts (not as much of an oxymoron as it sounds) being taught alongside NVC. I feel pretty sad about this as it is my experience that (paradoxically) those trained in such techniques are able to intervene more confidently non-physically than untrained people which may have a fear of being hurt. Fear and love are incompatible – remove the fear of being hurt physically in a conflict and there is more spaciousness for love to enter. I would also like to see martial artists dedicated to nonviolence learn NVC as many everyday situations do not require a physical intervention!

Games and Riddles

One may of learning NVC I particularly enjoy involves the use of physical games and riddles. Games range from co-operative “new games’ of the style used by the Woodcraft folk for example to competitive games. There is for example a balance exercise where participants try to knock each other off balance by just touching the palms (pictured) which can be used to draw out discussion around conflict or practice centring.

An example of a “physical riddle” is asking someone not to let you pull them across a line when you grab them. People invariably struggle and oppose the pull as our culture is set-up in an oppositional manner. The solution is to walk across the line so you are not pulled across it. I recommend Paul Linden’s book “embodied peace-making” as a well-illustrated resource for games and physical puzzles.

Embodied NonViolence and Trauma

It is my experience that nonviolence is embedded in the body at a fundamental level which I find encouraging. What do I mean by this? Well, the body-mind works most efficiently from every task I have tested this on from throwing a ball to playing Tetris, when it is an embodied state of loving power. This state is soft, responsive, open, balanced and aligned with gravity – have a look at an aikido master, experienced bricklayer or expert in any field really if you want to see this in action. The body just works “better” when it is embodying peace. Equally people all over the world have an unpleasant bodily reaction to committing violent acts and the suffering of others.  This reaction can be numbed, overcome and even replaced by other factors (a child soldier meeting a need for fun by chopping someones arms off for example), and yet it is still there underneath this.  This has profound implications for those working with healing and trauma recovery – also an embodied phenomena (Google “Bessel vanDerKolk” for more on this). It also means that I sincerely hope that there will be a return to feeling the body in the Western world as this is our ethical foundation (connection  to the energy of life in NVC’ese perhaps). Through not feeling the body personal and environmental destruction is enabled, so for me this is a critical concern. I would like to encourage any NVCers reading this to have fun playing with your bodies, be physically creative and drop me a line if you’d like to know more.

Mark Walsh

Brighton UK, October 2010


+44 (0) 7762 541 855

Many, many thanks to my teachers Paul Linden and Richard Strozzi Heckler whose work is applied to NVC in this article.

Mark Walsh heads leadership training providers Integration Training: based in Brighton, London and Birmingham UK.  Specialising in “embodied” ways of working they help organisations get more done without going insane (stress and time management), coordinate action more effectively (team building and communication training based on NVC) and help leaders build impact, influence and presence (management training). His background includes work with blue-chip companies, non-profit sector work in war zones, an academic degree in psychology and an aikido black-belt. In his spare time he dances, meditates and enjoys being exploited by two cats and one baby niece. His life ambition is to make it “normal to be a human being at work”.