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Nonviolent Communication and Montessori

April, 2009
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One of the many areas where Dr. Montessori made a great impression on modern educational thought is in the area of peace education. Many Montessorians, myself included, believe this to be at the core of her philosophy and method. Montessori postulated that the most direct road to peace was through supporting the natural development of children. In this way the destiny of every individual is inextricably intertwined with the renewal of mankind. This message is echoed in the words engraved on her tombstone: “I beg the dear all-powerful children to unite with me for the building of peace in Man and in the World.”

If we take a moment and step back to survey the many stories which make up our lives it becomes clear that we are all subject to a wide range of external factors that stimulate both thought and action. The same event may stimulate different thoughts and feelings in different people (or even in the same person at different times). Each of these thoughts is imbedded in a matrix of stories which makes up each individual’s inner world. No wonder we clash from time to time! The complexity is so great that we are often even in conflict with ourselves. One strategy for approaching this complexity and connecting in a way which nurtures peace, community, and personal development that I have found particularly helpful is known as Nonviolent Communication (NVC), or Compassionate Communication, and is originally based on the work of Dr. Marshall Rosenberg.

NVC teaches that we all share the same set of core human needs, a strong desire to contribute joyfully, and a basic capacity for compassion. At the same time we often choose drastically different – and sometimes downright suicidal – strategies for meeting our needs, leading to conflict. Rosenberg teaches that “all violence is a tragic expression of an unmet need”. NVC operates from these and other core beliefs and offers a number of tools that lead us to connect deeply with the beautiful energy of need that is alive both within us and others. I think that NVC is in perfect harmony with the hopes, thoughts, and beliefs of Dr. Montessori and is a powerful meta-narrative for manifesting the type of world which my heart knows is possible.

One tool which is essential to NVC as a methodology is the four part OFNR process used for both empathy and expression. It looks something like this:

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Step #1: Observations versus Judgments

The first step here is making an observation. (This is also the basis of Dr. Montessori’s scientific pedagogy, so it will be familiar to most of you). Observations are the stimulus of our feelings, yet they do not cause us to feel a particular way, but rather stimulate a particular choice. It is important to remember that the primary purpose of observations is to limit our right / wrong thinking and free our communication from moralistic judgments.

Observations are often confused with judgments. For instance we might say, “I saw Siya being unfair/selfish/nasty” and think we are making an observation, when – in my opinion - we are expressing a judgment. Let’s learn a little more about the distinction between observations and judgments.

Observations Judgments
Is like a movie camera. It reports only what we can sense, i.e. see, hear, and – less frequently – feel, smell, or taste. Arises out of our interpretations, thoughts, and evaluations about a particular event.
Is expressed in process language: it doesn’t say what something or someone is, but rather reports on what she/he/it appeared to be in the process of doing at a particular point in time. Is most often expressed in static language: uses labels for people, animals, and things and their actions. We can see that static language is being used when we see words like is, was, are, were, and am (this is called the verb “to be”[1]).

It is important for us to remember that our evaluations and judgments aren’t “wrong” or “bad”. It is just important – if we want to communicate effectively – that we are able to distinguish between our evaluations and our judgments.

Step #2: Feelings versus Thoughts

Feelings are internal emotional sensations that act as sign-posts directing us towards our needs. Feelings, in addition to giving us a sense of which needs are most alive, help us to understand how those needs are living in us (i.e. they help us to establish what particular flavour or “yum” or “yuck” we are experiencing). You may recall that observations stimulate our feelings whereas feelings direct us towards our needs; therefore our feelings are an essential link between our experience of the external world and our internal living energy.

We tend to use the words “I feel…” in a number of ways in our language on a day-to-day basis. Very often we use these words to express our thinking. For example, one might say “I feel that we should be quieter”. So the important distinction here is between our feelings (how we feel) on the one hand and our thoughts (what we think) on the other. Once again it is not helpful to judge our thinking (as right or wrong), but if we are to truly connect with others it is helpful to have clarity about our processing and label it appropriately.

Feelings are very personal as the same experience may stimulate a wide variety of feelings in different people (or even in the same person at different times). This why it is very important to connect our feelings to needs that are universal. We are trained in our society not to express our feelings as this is a very vulnerable and transparent act. For this reason most of us have a limited feelings vocabulary and must train ourselves rigorously in order to increase our capacity for expressing our feelings.

Step # 3: Needs versus Strategies

Needs are the primal force of life - mine, yours, and every living being.

The important distinction for us to grasp when identifying needs is the distinction between needs and strategies. This is the distinction between essence and form. Our needs are the basic energy and essence of life and are universal; our strategies on the other hand are the actions we choose to take in order to fulfil our needs. Different people in different circumstances may choose entirely different strategies to meet the same need. For this reason incompatible strategies may be understood as being at the root of all conflict – because our needs are universal they can never be in conflict.

Step # 4: Requests versus Demands

The important distinction here is between requests and demands. When we make a request we are proposing a possible strategy and are fully open to receiving a “no” in reply - we see this as an invitation to explore an alternative strategy. When we make a demand we are prescribing a strategy. It is possible for us to coerce people into complying with our demands (this is the way to play “Who’s Right”).MatthewRichAndChild_ArticlePic

When we rob people of their freedom we all pay a price. In this life we often choose to respond to thoughts of fear, guilt, and shame. However, if we want to build a different world we should never do things because we tell ourselves we should, but only because it is joyful for us to do them. We should request things in such a way that this option is always available to others as well. Rosenberg suggests that we should never receive anything from anybody unless we are able to trust that they are giving it with “the joy of a small child feeding a hungry duck”, and we should also only give from this place. This is the basis of natural giving and receiving from the heart. At first this may seem selfish to us. We are trained to give selflessly even when we don’t want to. It might, however, be proposed that this is neither selfless nor selfish, but rather self-full. By honouring our own needs as well as others needs fully and authentically we are able to be present and free of resentment.

I would encourage all of you to play with this model and practice to make it part of your life; it seems to me to be one of the most effective strategies available to us for living in a nonviolent way. However, it is important that we are able to acknowledge that this is one possible effective strategy; it is not the right way (lets get away from that game).

I see modeling the skills of NVC in practical situations such as dealing with anger and conflict in the environment as essential to the practical life component of any Montessori classroom. Although we can’t draw up an Anger Curriculum, some Montessorians have devised Peace Curriculums.

NVC provides an effective approach to conflict resolution that can be easily implemented in the Montessori environment, even with very young children. Moreover, anyone can learn it and use it, and parents and children can also significantly benefit from it. To paraphrase one of my greatest teachers in the Montessori approach, Mama Bukelwa Selema, it is impossible for us to like everyone, but we can always choose to be kind.

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By Matthew Rich

Matthew Rich is erstwhile director at Nahoon Montessori School in East London, South Africa, where he learned what was really important from Sharon Caldwell. Matthew is a graduate of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication’s (www.baynvc.org) Parent Peer Leadership Program and a student in their 2008 Leadership Program, he is also a graduate of the Sustainability Institute, Montessori Leadership Institute and Alternative Education Resource Organization. He is hopeful that the more beautiful world that his heart knows is possible is just around the corner and hopes you have a beautiful day. He is presently co-director in the Casa dei Bambini at Mammolina Children’s Home in Beijing, China.

Series on Montessori education contributed by Mammolina Children’s Home Montessori Kindergarten

Photo courtesy Mammolina Children’s Home Montessori Kindergarten


[1] This is a technique which is called “e-prime” in Alfred Korzybzki’s “General Semantics”.

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