By Dorothy Wigmore

You’ve heard it said in a very loud voice or sarcastically: “What are you doing?” “Can’t you do anything right?” and “Shut up. I don’t care what you say!” Even something as simple as “You’re late” can trigger a reaction when words hurt.

This judging/verbal abuse is on the violence spectrum. Sometimes it’s racist. Sometimes it’s sexual harassment. Sometimes it’s bullying or other kinds of harassment. And sometimes it leads to physical assaults or serious injury.

More and more unions representing education workers have said “enough is enough” when it comes to violence. Tired of just responding to incidents, they want tools to prevent and reduce all types of violence.

Effective prevention comes from examining the sometimes complex root causes that require employer action and support: programs, policies and commitment. Putting theories, recommendations, and lessons learned into practice takes time, training, discussions, evaluations, money and buy-in. The practices—focused on everyone in schools, not just students—must be integrated into the natural ebb and flow of activities.

Nonviolent communication: A tool for listening, understanding, empathy

One useful tool is nonviolent communication (NVC). It describes a method using active listening and discovering “needs,” leading to empathy and understanding, while sharing “power with others” rather than “over others.” The 1960s brainchild of Marshall Rosenberg, it now is promoted by the Center for Nonviolent Communication.

“You see or hear something, interpret it, triggering feelings—met or unmet needs,” says Marty Epstein, a New York City NVC practitioner. “Say a student or colleague is speaking violently/judgementally to you. If you meet them with resistance and anger, the possibilities for understanding and communication are gone. The place to begin is to notice what’s going on, what’s triggering you. Take a break: pause to notice and understand that. Once we understand what needs are met or not met in any situation, it’s a chance for understanding.”

“The most important piece is really listening,” he adds. Figure out what the person is upset about by listening and reflecting back what you hear, trying to connect with them.

“Any kind of violence is an unmet need,” he says. “At the bottom of it is fear. Usually when people feel heard and respected, they calm down.”

Needs can apply to the person in front of you or yourself, Epstein explains. Meeting needs—to be heard, respected or taken seriously, to have a problem fixed, having input, getting support—can be an individual thing or work for a group.

Empathy is key. It allows us to understand what is happening to another person.

“It’s the quality of listening with understanding,” he says. “For me, it’s understanding something from my own experience so that when you talk to me about not being heard, although I may not have that experience with that particular person, I can join you in that, understand how you feel.”

The four-step NVC process starts with observations or statements about how you are (what you see, hear, remember, imagine, etc., and how it affects you). It leads to expressing feelings, saying what you need or value and requesting specific actions, such as a statement beginning with “Would you be willing to…” in a way that does not blame or criticize. It’s telling another person how to meet your needs, if they are willing.

While NVC is about what individuals do and say, the Center for Nonviolent Communication says the training and practice “Helps teachers, administrators, students and parents to make school a place where students love to learn, teachers love to teach, and where parents feel confident that their children’s needs—for safety, respect, and learning—can be met.”

According to the center, schools using NVC in different countries reported:

• Fewer conflicts and increased skill in mediating those that occur.

• More listening to one another.

• Mutual respect among all school members.

• More engaged learning.

• Less resistance and more cooperation.

• A feeling of safety at school for students and teachers.

• More fun for everyone.

Evaluations show teachers practicing NVC usually feel “more secure when it comes to handling conflicts and difficult conversations,” Marianne Gothlin wrote on the center website. “More time was allocated to planning, agreements and discussions, while students have better test results. Teachers report that they feel less alone and vulnerable in their work and it is allowed to share difficulties at work openly.”

Bay Area practitioner Miki Kashtan writes about transforming power relations. For her, teachers have a “particularly painful dual role” of authority and control over students while being “remarkably isolated and often strikingly powerless” dealing with school districts and administrators. She states, “Learning to have power with our students means empowering them to say NO to us. Only then can we experience the magical beauty of hearing a YES that comes from true choice instead of a “should.”

Like some others, she links practicing NVC and restorative justice (see next month’s Review), and to living a vision that can lead to social change.

NVC also fits into state rules designed to prevent or reduce violence in and related to schools. New Jersey’s anti-bullying statute requires school districts to observe “School Violence Awareness Week” which annually begins the third Monday in October. Anti-bullying and related regulations require staff training and reporting and investigating incidents.

Local association action plan

Learn more about NVC. It’s the subject of a workshop at the Safeguarding Our School Staff and Children: A Comprehensive Approach to Violence Prevention conference on Saturday, Oct. 20 from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The conference is sponsored by NJEA, Healthy Schools Now and the New Jersey Work Environment Council and will be held at the NJEA Contemporary Building, 176 West State Street in Trenton. To register, go to bit.ly/safeguardingschool.

Dorothy Wigmore is a long-time health and safety specialist, trained in occupational hygiene, ergonomics, work organisation/stress and education. A former journalist, the Canadian has worked in the U.S. and Mocambique, and been involved in efforts to prevent violence on the job since 1989.


If “violent” means acting in ways that result in hurt or harm, then much of how we communicate—judging others, bullying, having racial bias, blaming, finger pointing, discriminating, speaking without listening, criticizing others or ourselves, name-calling, reacting when angry, using political rhetoric, being defensive or judging who’s “good/bad” or what’s “right/wrong” with people—could indeed be called “violent communication”.

Source: Key facts about nonviolent communication (NVC), produced by PuddleDancer Press and the Center for Nonviolent Communication, May, 2018.


Center for Nonviolent Communication: cnvc.org, and materials for schools at bit.ly/cnvcmaterials.

Marty Epstein’s website is effectiveconversation.com.

Miki Kashtan, a Bay Area practitioner, discusses empathy in a YouTube video at bit.ly/kashtanempathy and bullying in schools at bit.ly/kashtanbullying.

NJEA has “Ten steps to reduce violence” at njea.org/ten-steps-reduce-violence and information about bullying at njea.org/issues/anti-bullying.

PuddleDancer Press at nonviolentcommunication.com, has NVC materials to download and buy.

Anti-bullying/harassment resources at “Resources” listed on the New Jersey Department of Education website at bit.ly/njdoehib.

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