19 March 2005

Let's talk giraffe

By Jacqui McCarney

There's a new language called Giraffe. Appealing as it sounds, this is not a way to communicate with our long-necked friends, but much more challenging, a way to communicate effectively with our fellow humans. As the land animal with the largest heart, the giraffe has come to represent a way of connecting directly and effectively with our real heartfelt needs and the authentic needs of others. Last year, I attended a workshop where Dr Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Non-Violent Communication (NVC), presented this connection with humour, playfulness, pathos and puppets.

Rosenberg's work on conflict resolution takes him into fraught and dangerous situations - the most violent high schools in America, prisons, mental hospitals, tribal violence in Africa, Palestian refugee camps and - not least - marital conflict. NVC, which he also calls "a language of compassion." is useful, not just in these crisis situations, but also in everyday life.

This new language invites us to abandon habitual, culturally enforced ways of communicating, which Rosenberg calls "Jackal". This is a language based on judgments, competiveness, moral superiority, prejudice, aggression, control - "a need to win and a need to be right". Our language is so conditioned that we are often unconscious that we are thinking, and then speaking, like this. Schools and workplaces increasingly encourage competiveness, and sadly all too often negative mindsets of arrogance or inferiority, judging and aggression flow from this. The soaps, magazines and tabloid press, full of Jackal language, fuel this unhealthy tendency to compare and compete.

None of this leads to happiness and very quickly we fall into the game of blaming or guilt - partners, children, work colleagues become the scapegoats. Often we don't know how to get our needs met or to really hear the needs of others. Many suffer from years of low-level unhappiness, which may lead to mental health problems or explosive acts against society or people. Learning to speak and listen in Giraffe, rather than Jackal, offers a way to be happier.

Rosenberg's quantum leap is from the head to the heart, challenging us to stop playing mental games and begin to listen to the fundamental needs of ourselves and others. With his Giraffe and Jackal hand puppets, he explores these different ways of communicating, and shows how we can learn to hear our own and other's needs better. With a hint of irony, he admits that his hand puppets may be left at home in some of his more fraught conflict resolution, or taken out only after his audience has warmed up.

If we know how to express our needs, then we have more chance of getting them met. Human needs are universal and while cultural differences might affect how these needs are expressed, that does not affect the needs themselves. Rosenberg sings a folk song "See Me Beautiful" in his talks - about seeing ourselves and others in the beauty of our unique humanity - this is the core of his simple, profound philosophy.

Teenagers often have low levels of self-esteem, not seeing their own beauty. The Centre for Non-Violent Communication is working in a high school in California where two teenage girls committed suicide and one attempted suicide on a series of successive Tuesdays. One of the mothers turned her grief into a call for the school to reach out to other students before the loss was repeated.

Jackal language thrives when people undervalue themselves and others - when middle-aged women can be so fearful of losing their attractiveness that they go under the knife, old people are lonely and isolated, middle-aged men suffer the mid-life crisis, thirty-somethings are stressed and overworked, young children are obese or dieting, imprisoned in their own homes. So who is happy? I suspect it is those who naturally speak and hear Giraffe. They will be open and interested in people and not slaves to cultural images - they see the beauty in themselves and others.

NVC won't stop conflict, but it does offer a different approach to dealing with it, and allows us to change habitual and unhelpful patterns of communication.

I have only just touched on the philosophy of this approach, but NVC is a practical tool which can be learned by anybody and used in everyday life. It is a skill that we should encourage from an early age, it needs teaching and practise like other key skills. Rosenberg's methods are taught across the UK (http://www.nvc-resolutions.co.uk/), including at workshops in Norwich (contact nlscott@europe.com). We need NVC as part of the National Curriculum and as a prequisite for all politicians. Imagine Prime Minister's Question Time in Giraffe!