Almost holding hands for empathy
Sustainable Communication

Non-violent communication for sustainability communication

When I see those social or environmental sustainability activists and/or educators trying to express their message through judgement, criticism, insult and blaming I feel slightly frustrated because I wish such messages reached as many people as possible in the most positive way. And I think that, in so doing, this will never happen.

The point is that in my opinion, there’s no point in spontaneously talking about sustainability to friends, family and acquaintances using tools that aren’t at all suitable to the message we want to communicate. That’s why as soon as I came across non-violent communication, I realised it was probably one of the most interesting tools to educate on sustainability. Because I wish everybody lowered their tone and listened to what others have to say, so as to adapt the whole process to their starting point.

What is non-violent communication?

Non-violent communication (NVC) is a communicative approach created by the American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, whose goal is to communicate peacefully and avoid confusing, approximate and violent exchanges.

This approach is also known as giraffe language and, as such, it is different from the jackal language. These are indeed the two animals that best represent the goal of NVC.

On the one hand, giraffes – the animals with the largest hearts on the planet – symbolise empathetic and compassionate communication. On the other hand, jackals symbolise the aggression, judgement and violence permeating our daily communicative approach.

As a result, NVC allows us to keep in mind the needs of other people when talking to them, instead of judging, stigmatising, insulting or blaming them. An empathetic way to communicate.

Empathy doesn’t mean that we always need to agree with them randomly. It rather means understanding the person in front of us and building a dialogue and a relationship starting from that.

How does non-violent communication work?

NVC is non-coincidentally based on empathy, on the ability to understand the other person’s perspective and emotions while at the same time expressing our feelings and avoiding conflict.

This communicative approach is thus articulated on four levels:

  1. Observe facts without judging
  2. Identify how we feel about those facts 
  3. Recognise the needs related to those feelings
  4. Express a request or get a feedback

Let’s make an example with a sentence articulated in a moralist-violent way (just like we tend to do daily…):

“You’re always on your phone, you’re so selfish!!!”

Now let’s take into account the four steps of NVC and articulate the very same sentence in this way:

“When I see you’re always on your phone I think you’re a bit selfish. I feel ignored and I’d like to talk to you more than we usually do. Shall we have a nice chat later on?”

What do you see? The second example is more tactful. If someone said this to me, I’d see nothing extremely bad in that. No frustration ready to explode. No negative judgement. Just a need. As far as I’m concerned at least.

It certainly is a communicative approach we should always prefer, especially when it comes to peculiar contexts. One of these is environmental and social issues.

Let’s see how NVC can help us in that case.

The unsustainable communication of sustainability

As already said, the main goal of sustainability communication is disseminating data to inform and educate individuals and communities, and promote new forms of solidarity and responsibility.

This strategy also includes the concept of sustainable communication, which isn’t only related to sustainability, but also to a wider perspective aiming at promoting a more sustainable and empathetic approach towards all dimensions of our life. It is indeed a communication that manages to truly change the imaginary as well as toxic narrations, support an ethical economy, and educate on diversity and inclusion. 

In this regard, there are two main difficulties when it comes to communicating sustainability – nitty-gritty communication strategies; the human element.

First things first: communication strategies. Green marketing is a slippery slope that easily results in clichés, manipulations and greenwashing.

Secondly, we’ve got the human element par excellenceemotions. When it comes to communicating social and environmental sustainability, it’s often difficult for some educators to manage their emotions, especially anger.

It frequently occurs that, in order to get the message through and, in theory, educate other people, we may tend to practice unilateral empathy that often results in verbal aggression.

Obviously, if nobody listens, putting on some pressure on them is the only solution. Such pressure turns into a problem when aggressiveness and reproach are used as if they were the only available tools to educate or have a general chat with other people who might have no idea whatsoever about a given topic.

This is where NVC may help us. 

How non-violent communication can support sustainability communication

I would first suggest reflecting on how we feel when we’re labelled and criticised regardless of our choices, without anyone listening to our reasons. Do we make up our minds? Do we improve our life?

Now… What if we did the same to other people?

As you may imagine, the results wouldn’t be 100% effective. 

“If I want to protect the environment and I approach a business executive like this: ‘You know, you’re a murderer of the environment, you have no right to abuse the earth in this way’, I have severely compromised my chances of getting my need met. It rarely occurs that a human remains focused on our needs if we express them through images implying that he is in the wrong.”

“Winning by telling other people where they’re wrong doesn’t work very well in the long run. Every time we meet our needs in that way we not only lose, but we have tangibly contributed to increasing violence on our planet. We may have solved one problem but we have created another one. The more others feel judged and blamed, the less they’ll care about our needs in the future.”

NVC allows us to take back the empathy that is needed when trying to communicate and educate others on sustainability.

This doesn’t mean that we have to sugarcoat issues. Obviously, when needed, it is important to resort to harder approaches that genuinely push people to reflect. Yet, such approaches must be well-thought-out, respect people and inspire them through a healthy reflection. So, beware – no insults. 

Example: you’re eating at a restaurant with your friends or family. They order meat or fish and you’re annoyed by their choices because you’re a vegan/vegetarian. 

Now, you might say:

“Wow, I can’t believe you keep eating meat even though you know it pollutes the environment and animals are treated badly. Why don’t you stop eating it? You should learn more about the impact you have on the planet and its beings. Your attitude is selfish, insensitive and ignorant”. Plus, you might be considering if you still want to be their friend or not.

Instead, why don’t you try saying:

“When I see you eating meat nonchalantly, I get a bit frustrated because I need to know that there are other people out there who are interested in the protection of the planet and its animals. Shall we try a plant-based meal sometimes? I can cook!”

Again, instead of saying: “You don’t help me fight climate change if you drive 2 km to go to work”.

Try: “I’ve seen you drive to work every day. Do you want to catch the train/bus together someday?”

Depending on the situation, you may even try to ask more engaging questions such as 

“Would you like to share with me the reasons behind your choice?”

“Shall we try this thing together?”

“I see why you think living sustainably is expensive. Would you like to try this cheap sustainable thing instead?”

This process isn’t always certain or automatic and it needs time and the right conditions. Yet, at the end of the day, I personally believe it is the right tool to deflate the potential conflicts that may arise when communicating and educating on environmental and social sustainability. A great foundation that can help us build inspiring bridges, instead of burning them.


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