Nonviolent Communication and Climate Change
Climate Change Communication Environment

Nonviolent Communication and Climate Change

Who do you want to be when you step into the climate change conversation?

Custom artwork by Laurie Cullum

What would it look like if we all choose to use nonviolent communication when addressing climate change and other environmental issues? Probably pretty different from how it looks right now. I’m sure you’ve got a pretty good handle already on the fact that climate change has become a very polarizing and contentious issue amongst individuals, groups, communities, societies, and governments. Talks on these issues often contain a lot of poor listening, heated exchanges and strong opinions. Most of us have fallen into habitual societal patterns of thinking and communicating by assessing what we hear, letting our preconceived notions and judgements inform our opinions, and then defending our thoughts, which we like to call beliefs, as if they are the truth. Often we just wait for the person we are interacting with to stop speaking so we can spew our opinions, having that elusive chance at the last word. Even when you’re trying to be open to it, hearing the feelings and needs of someone on the other side of the fence on an issue that you are passionate about can be sincerely difficult. And that’s assuming that they (or you for that matter) know what their feelings and needs are, and can express them. How could choosing to utilize the tool of nonviolent communication possibly change this picture?

Let’s just think about words for a minute. Picture your most favorite place to be in nature, then consider these two groups of words as describing something happening there:

Beautiful. Thriving. Wondrous.

Catastrophic. Abysmal. Disastrous.

These distinct word groups bring up entirely different emotions and reactions, right? A word often carries with it an expression of something experienced on a mental or emotional level. Like ‘Catastrophic’ brings up mental anxiety and feelings of fear for me. Whereas, ‘Beautiful’ elicits mental calmness and feelings of joy. Words also tend to have a historical context of use that can dictate how we identify with them on the ‘good or bad/positive or negative’ scale. For example, it’s hard to put a positive spin on something that is described as ‘Catastrophic’.

 “Don’t ever diminish the power of words.

Words move hearts and hearts move limbs.”

~ Hamza Yusuf

Violent Communication

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in our world these days choosing to use violent communication, which is sort of the status-quo, in trying to be heard and have their needs met. You might recognize this type of communication as things like judging, demanding, criticizing, accusing, labeling, ridiculing, blaming, and threatening. Sound like anyone you know? Start becoming aware of these kinds of violent communication and you’ll notice them everywhere. Welcome to present times, in the midst of an era mired in social media culture, fake news, accusations and denials, protests and submissions, and some genuinely pressing social and environmental issues. I’m certain that the world would benefit immensely from a heck of a lot more people actively considering the power of what comes out of their mouths, choosing to pause and think before speaking, and then speaking in nonviolent terms. Easy peasy lemon squeezy, right? Maybe. I actually find it quite challenging when confronted with things or by people who really stir me up mentally and emotionally to maintain the composure to use nonviolent communication.

Nonviolent Communication

What does speaking in nonviolent terms look like anyways? It looks like honesty and empathy, observation and understanding, communication and sharing, choice and responsibility. It’s a type of communication that is perhaps intuitive on some level but not really mainstream in society, so we learn other communication habits that become ingrained as natural responses. There is a whole body of work dedicated to Nonviolent Communication (NVC), pioneered by Marshall Rosenberg and shared in his 2015 book Nonviolent Communication. I’ve read the book a couple of times and am constantly trying to integrate the tools for NVC that he offers, it’s a rewarding challenge (“read: it’s hard actually, but worth it”). It’s not a novel idea, NVC, Rosenberg is really just giving a name to a style of communication that can be a valuable tool in understanding ourselves and others. It a rewiring of our brains to perceive and interact with the world from a different space than most of us are used to, which can feel unsettling at first.

photo of head bust print artwork
Photo by meo on

The basic tenet of NVC is to express honestly and receive empathetically through observations, feelings, needs and requests. Meaning that it goes both ways: it’s not just about what comes out of your mouth but very importantly also what you take into your ears. This process works by going through these four steps:

  1. Observe the situation without judgement or evaluation
  2. Identify your feeling(s) about the situation
  3. Identify your need(s) or desire(s) connected to your feelings
  4. Formulate a request and obtain feedback

What? Example needed! I know, it’s not what most of us are accustomed to. As the title of this post implies, ‘Nonviolent Communication and Climate Change’, I’m primarily interested in how to bring NVC to the table when thinking about and discussing environmental issues and climate change, which informs my two examples:

EXAMPE 1: You’re on a boat near a coral reef and the skipper tosses the anchor overboard indiscriminately:

Violent CommunicationNVC Using 4-Step Process
“Whoa skipper, I can’t believe you just threw your boat anchor right into the middle of a live coral reef. Don’t you care about the ocean at all? You should be placing your anchors as if you were a responsible ocean steward!” (And honestly, this is still a pretty nice way of saying this. I had lots of other not so nice words in mind.)“Skipper, when I (1) see you throwing your boat anchor right into the middle of a live coral reef, I (2) feel outraged because I am needing (3) to know that you care about the health of the ocean too. (4) Would you be willing to have one of your crew free-dive and carefully place the anchor safely on the bottom away from live coral?

EXAMPLE 2: You walk by a wetland in your community where a worker is liberally spraying herbicides and pesticides on “problematic” plants and insects:

Violent CommunicationNVC Using 4-Step Process
“Hey Worker, why are you using a chemical herbicide & pesticide spray to treat weeds and insects deemed problematic? And you are right next to this wetland, which is so irresponsible. Don’t you know that it all runs into the river? Stop poisoning the environment by being so complacent and lazy and just use a shovel.”“Worker, when I (1) see you spraying chemicals right next to this wetland, I (2) feel concerned and scared because I am needing (3) to know that this wetland, including all of its plants and animals, is thriving. (4) Would you consider not using a chemical spray and instead using tools like shovels, spades and clippers to do the same job?

Rosenberg explains that, “NVC guides us in reframing how we express ourselves and hear others. Instead of habitual, automatic responses, our words become conscious responses based firmly on awareness of what we are perceiving, feeling, and wanting. We are led to express ourselves with honesty and clarity, while simultaneously paying others respectful and empathic attention”. For the process to really work however, the person receiving your words needs to approach the conversation with an NVC mindset as well, otherwise they are likely to just belittle you or blow you off and carry on. Tricky stuff, for sure, but it has to potential to really change the conversation around climate change and environmental issues. NVC alone is not the end-all be-all, but rather it could be an important and useful tool in our interactions, whether verbal or non-verbal. Even in non-verbal communication, which is a huge part of human communication, showing up for each other in a framework of respect and empathy rather than disregard and indifference can change the terrain immensely. I’m often drawn to this quote (attributed to Gandhi) because it is so fitting so much of the time:

“Be the change you wish to see in the world”

Nonviolent Communication and Climate Change

I already mentioned the polarization of issues around climate change, environment and nature. Broadly, it appears that humans around the globe just don’t seem to share the same levels of regard for nature, the resources we claim from it and how humankind fits into all of this. It’s a gradient from those pushing for the continued profitable exploitation of the Earth’s resources, while the mass of humanity is busy living the day-to-day status quo, to the people trying to throw up the brakes on such rapid, seemingly deleterious environmental changes. While a large swath of the Trump administration, for example, has shown themselves to be shapeshifters exhibiting a total lack of leadership around climate change on every level, others governments are stepping forward to have the difficult conversations that go along with climate change, brainstorming solutions and trying to implement them.

From what I can tell, what happens when these groups of seemingly not like-minded people try to communicate about climate change issues is usually one thing: conflict. Some of this conflict is created right off the bat by approaching the conversation from our distinct corners in the (boxing) ring, ready to take swings to protect our interests and ideas. Communication style: violent. It’s hard to be open-hearted and open-minded when you are under the passionate grip of violence.

Nonviolent Communication and Conflict Resolution

Conflict resolution is a really big deal on every level of interaction and discourse we collectively take around climate change and environment. And what is the backbone of conflict resolution? Respectful communication (again, both verbal and non-verbal). Conflicts, which are not inherently negative things, are sure to continue increasing as large swaths of human (and other plant and animal) populations migrate away from natural disaster zones, away from areas succumbing to sea level rise, away from areas fraught with oppression and war, towards areas with more natural resources (air, water, soil, food, etc.), towards cooler and more fertile areas, and towards more peaceful societies.

Conflicts are also on the rise in situations where people are protesting projects that threaten in some way the land they live on and the communities they are part of. The Dakota Access Pipeline protests, also known by the hashtag #NODAPL, being a great example of that – a lot of conflict resulting in divisiveness and (one-sided) violence. While the peaceful protestors began discussions by issuing their concerns using fairly nonviolent communication, those cries landed on deaf ears and things escalated quickly. It is very clear that not all parties involved were interested in the NVC notion of, “expressing ourselves with honesty and clarity, while simultaneously paying others a respectful and empathic attention”. The bulldozers used to illegally tear up native sacred lands are quite symbolic of the approach to the whole situation by those pursuing the interests of the oil companies: brute force, zero empathy.

Resolving conflicts around climate change can be experienced quite differently on local versus global scales. For example, point source ocean pollution differs in scale and scope to ocean acidification and sea level rise. As does implementing clean energy solutions (i.e. wind farms or solar fields) to those whose backyard is used for this versus those who benefit globally. So how does conflict resolution look when certain local communities (and environments) are bearing the brunt for global-scale fixes? An article titled “Conflict Resolution for Addressing Climate Change With Ocean-Altering Projects” is an example and interesting look at this. However, there is not much attention directed at communication as a means of conflict resolution. There are quite a few links I followed to groups providing or discussing conflict resolution around the topic of climate change, but looking deeper into each of them, it’s crickets on using nonviolent communication methods for resolving conflicts.

Anyways…we’ve all at least heard about (and possibly read) the most recent climate change report from the IPCC right? It’s not surprising if you’ve been following this ‘climate change’ story at all over the years (the IPCC, for one, has been talking about this since its inception in 1988, the same year Madonna was getting, ‘Into the Groove’ – yes, there were roller skates on stage), but still it’s pretty ‘in your face’, ‘holy crap’ kind of news. Remember my three ‘negative’ words from the beginning of this article? Catastrophic. Abysmal. Disastrous. Yep, that pretty much covers the gist of the most recent IPCC report. So how do we proceed with this discussion since for many of us inaction is not an option?

Perhaps it does, partly at least, come back to the power of words, and the way in which we use them. In line with the primary idea behind all the writings in this blog (Infinite Volition), the point is that we all have infinite free will in choosing (in this case) how we communicate with ourselves and others. Our relationship with words, how we receive and express them, can have such a powerful effect on both our own thoughts and on all of our personal interactions.

“Raise your words, not your voice.

It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.”

~ Rumi

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