Nonviolent Communication Tactics for Pacifistic Activism

So you want to change the world. But you don’t want to hurt anyone or force anyone to do anything in the process. That’s a very possible aspiration to have. It begins in our own thinking patterns and in our daily conversations.

I’m interesting in finding out what violence is before it becomes actual bloodshed so I was naturally inclined to read Marshall Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.

In a recent post, I discussed how to address anger. I explained how anger is an essential call for action, similar to an alarm waking us up. It can be compared to a hunger pang – just like our hunger drives us to nourish ourselves, our anger drives us to meet other unmet needs.

Until recently, I was pretty out of touch with any real anger or sadness for quite some time, cruising the whatever plain and kind of enjoying not having the highs and lows of ‘emotions’. But all good things come to an end and it took a person who I really cared about to reopen my heart chakra. However, now that the vault has been opened I feel a responsibility to ‘feel with care’ so that I don’t unleash like a model with a sensitive ego. Actually, revising the book now to touch on some key points, I realize that I’ve read it, but I still don’t know it. I recommend buying a copy. Ignore the bad poetry in a few places; the rest is imperative.

Beyond providing methods to deal with our own self-violent habits and violent pattens in our social interactions, nonviolent communication (NVC) is essential for activists striving to protect animals, the environment, and the oppressed. If we wish to see results, we have to be confident that we are not creating new violence as we create change.

Requests vs Demands

NVC explains that the difference between a request and a demand is that a request is not followed by any kind of punishment if the other party does not comply. This means no guilt tripping, no snide remarks, no emotional alienation, and no continued persuasion. My interpretation: an essential part of nonviolent communication is being able to accept to word NO.

When faced with demands, people will react with either submission or rebellion. Demands are the language of the oppressors. So when we stand outside an establishment demanding that they shut down or “we’ll be back”, we are actually engaging in oppressive behavior.

The nonviolent method would be requesting a change and empathizing with the other party’s needs for not complying with our request. Eg. “So you are needing to make an income to survive? Or, so you feel fearful that changing your products would turn away customers.”

I think we forget as activists that asking can sometimes be magical. In 2010, the VADL asked Aritzia to stop carrying fur and this request was promptly granted.

This is Gold > Defining our Objective When Making Requests

“Expressing genuine requests requires an awareness of our objective. If our objective is only to change people and their behavior, or to get our way, then NVC is not an appropriate tool. The process is designed for those of us who would like others to change and respond, but only if they choose to do so willingly and compassionately. The objective of NVC is to establish a relationship based on honesty and empathy. When others trust that our primary commitment is to the quality of the relationship, and that we expect this process to fulfill everyone’s needs, then they can trust that our requests are true requests and not camouflaged demands.”

Animal rights activists are not simply seeking for an end of factory farming by law or by necessity, we are seeking a change in hearts. In order for a permanent change in the way that our society treats animals, society must electively make that choice.

The need behind animal rights activists’ requests to stop violence towards animals is in large part a need to reconnect with people. We want a relationship with these people who we currently feel alienated from. We want to know that their hearts match ours. So when we engage in animal rights campaigns, we are doing it just as much for our relationships with people as we are for the animals.

Marshall Rosenberg explains how he has more effective communication with people when he listens to hearts instead of minds.

Is this violence? This would be a 1 in comparison to Kim’s favorite activity of skinning animals alive.

The Need Behind our Actions

Animal rights activists want to see an end to human-induced animal suffering because:

  • we want animals to be free to live as they choose
  • we want people to live up to their full emotional and physical potential
  • we want a pure, clean environment to pass on to future generations

But there is another need that drives many of my colleagues in animals rights, and this is the need to fulfill a duty.

NVC warns against pursuing actions motivated by this ‘need’ because we are essentially subjecting ourselves to an internal oppression if we are acting out of obligation to a moral code and not by choice.

One animal rights group is named ‘Because We Must’, a name which every AR activist gets, but in relation, it was this same call of duty that allowed the Nazis to perform horrific daily violence during the Holocaust in a choice-denying phenomena called ‘Amtssprache’. I’m not calling into question anything that ‘Because We Must’ does; I support them, based on what I know that they do – I’m just drawing attention to the language that many animal rights activists often operate on.


Slacktivism, or arm-chair activism, is the act of… not really acting. Not leaving the house to support a cause. Sharing links, filling out petitions. This is great. I’m not discouraging it. But sometimes people don’t feel that interacting with people on a human level is effective – giving up before any type of communication has even been attempted, and perhaps it’s due to this:

“…when we have a judgmental dialogue going on within, we become alienated from what we are needing and cannot then act to meet those needs. Depression is indicative of a state of alienation from our own needs.”

When we break down the dialogue of what is going on in our thoughts, we are able to pinpoint exactly what it is that we are unable to act on.

Self A: I would like to see an end to factory farming in my lifetime.

Self B: That will never happen. It’s too big of a system to bring down.

Break down the latter statement into:

When seeing _____(observation), I feel _____ (feeling), therefore I am needing ______(need), so I would now like to_____(action).

A fun Mad Libs way to identify feelings and needs so we can really hear ourselves and create solutions for those silent internal wars within us.


Empathy is what drives people to become interested in animal rights. We empathize with suffering animals because we feel their pain. As a spectacular friend recently quoted from a poem: “I have the rages that small animals have / being small, being animal.” (Paper Matches, Paulette Jiles).

And yet we lose this empathy when dealing with those who can’t figure out how to meet their needs without violence, unable to see past our rage.

NVC advises to give the other party what they want first. “The more we hear them, the more they’ll hear us.” Practice identifying each judgment we hear from the other party as an unmet need.

The Use of Force

The part you’ve all been waiting for. Is there a nonviolent way to use force?

There is a great short story by this title, The Use of Force, by William Carlos Williams in which a doctor is trying to get a young girl to open her mouth so he can examine her for a deadly sickness going around. The outcome of the story is that the doctor uses substantial force to make the girl open her mouth, and discovers that she has the disease and will die. So in the end, what did the use of his force achieve besides the inevitable?

NVC speaks of ‘protective force’, which refers to attempting to protect life and individual rights by more direct methods, after nonviolent communication tactics have been exhausted or if they don’t have the chance to occur. Take the example of grabbing the arm of a child running into the street to protect her from a moving car. As long as there is no punishment following this action, this is an example of protective force. Protective use of force does not include blame, punishment, or condemnation.

Animal rights activists see more ‘heavy-handed’ tactics as precisely this: they are protecting animals who are in danger of violence and who cannot speak for themselves.

When an animal rights activist flour bombs a Kardashian, it’s not primarily because they wish to humiliate her, it’s to draw attention to the pain her actions are causing. (Granted some will take pleasure that she looks like she’s been owned.)

Interestingly, the chapter on protective force is pretty short in the NVC book. I don’t think Rosenberg has quite figured this one out yet. Most of the content is about punitive force. In the must-watch movie Bold Native, we see an activist kidnap and torture a factory farmer. This would be punitive force. But when the ALF liberates a mink farm, once again we’re back at protective force.

So when is it okay to use protective force?

Do we decide not to use protective force more often out of fear of punishment?

Is revelation through hidden footage the best happy medium in between basic demos and full-out arson? Is this why the AgGag bills keep popping up?

As you can see, I have more questions than answers here. I do know that I don’t consider property damage and financial damage as violence, especially in comparison to causing emotional and bodily harm to animals or humans.

If we want a nonviolent world, what tactics will lead to lasting change? It would appear that a mixture of tactics is in need. Perhaps a reminder not to judge one another’s tactics, as long as they fall within the nonviolent spectrum. And to examine and evaluate what tactics we are currently using and figure out how nonviolent communication in our everyday lives can help to facilitate that.

5 Ways to Address the Controversial Subject of Non-Violence

without Focusing on the Controversy

When asked what the theme of this blog is I often tell people: nonviolence. In dawnofanewera, I aspire to deconstruct modern myths in place of a sustainable and dynamic nonviolent existence or, the end of all oppressive systems.

But often, when an individual is unwilling to compromise on something (even non-violence) they are labeled extremists. Sometimes, in the unrelenting path of my own mental expansion, I look behind myself to see an uproar in the wake of my words. And actually, my intention is not to cause controversy, but to inspire others to come together to create a more free-spirited world.

So, here’s what I’ve been thinking:

1) Communication is the Response that You Get

Christian Carter, dating guru and the boyfriend I never had, may not have come up with this one, but he did coin it (I believe it was one of his female friends). Basically this statement means that if you’re not getting the response you wanted, then you didn’t make the statement or pose the question effectively.

I have experienced several examples of this recently. A certain unnamed person, we’ll call him, John Lennon, was recently feeling as though I wasn’t respecting his needs. But unfortunately he chose to tell me this at an extremely sensitive time in an extremely blaming way, and therefore I didn’t even want to engage with him. I thought about it and realized that if he had asked me to support him in a gentle way with a specific solution in mind, I wouldn’t have even questioned offering the support he was requesting.

So how can we learn from this when discussing non-violent topics such as veganism or a RBE (Resource Based Economy)?

  • Choose the right moment
  • Remove the blame
  • Offer specific solutions
  • Ask for what you want, don’t demand

Essentially, knowing that communication is the response that you get puts the responsibility perpetually back in your hands.

2) Give Up Attack Thoughts

In Marianne Williamson’s book A Return to Love, she discusses how in a dream one night a dream figure told her that she could never establish peace while hating politicians so much, because she was a ‘hawk’. Or in other words, she was on the attack and as such could not spread peace.

Marianne Williamson talks a lot about ‘attack thoughts’ and I really like this term because it refers to not only our attacks on others, but attacks of others on us. This means that if we’re contemplating an unfair remark made towards us, we are still focusing on the attack rather than the non-violent solution. (Serious LOA going on here.)

Being defensive is just as bad as being offensive because we are still creating a scenario of attack in our minds. Which brings me to my next point.

3) Choose your ‘Battles’

Those who advocate for non-violence are not likely to see their tactics as being violent. I have a few friends whose vegan views feel slightly fundamentalist to me and who often use the cause as an excuse to behave threateningly. It can be difficult at demos to not get carried away at times, as there is so much adrenaline in the air, but it is entirely possible to use rage at demos in a non-violent way. Non violence is not about not having feelings. The key is to do it in a respectful, controlled way.

In order to see opportunities to create non-violence in place of battles, you have to first be clear about your intention. I’ve discussed the concept of ‘choosing connection’ before. Instead of judging a (totally adorable and amazing) friend, we’ll call her Nelly Furtado, for wearing bunny moccasins recently, I explained a similar situation where I’d unknowingly purchased a fur hair accessory once. My intention is to connect with her, not to villainize her.

Engaging with teeny bopper girls who pretend not to know English on the street, or a certain millionaire booty queen who swears she’s a good person (and skins hundreds of animals alive a year) – it’s not so easy. You want to slap stickers their furry backs and kick them in the face. *Face kicking is violent, for those who were wondering. Solution? Keep it light and then move on. I chased the Harajuku girls for a block and they took a pamphlet, and I came up with some zingers for the poor Kardashiass, eg. “junk in the trunk, nothing in the heart #furkills”, which were retweeted.

I have a friend, we’ll call him David Blaine, an advocate for non-violent principles, who saves up his rhetoric for people of more influence, such as journalists who he feels could actually help him reach his activist goals. It can be fun to completely annihilate people intellectually, and I love a good debate, but sometimes our time can be better spent when working at larger goals. However, I’m in no way encouraging passivity. Passiveness is not pacifism.

4) The Rogerian Approach

We’ll call this the ego-sensitive approach, but it can be fun because it requires an element of stealth. Technically, a Rogerian argument is a long slow finessing of the other side, completed by a gentle suggestion of your true stance. Think of Robin Hood the fox sucking the rings off the cowardly lion’s fingers after buttering up his ego with praise.

The Rogerian approach doesn’t need to be manipulative – you could call it Canadian if you prefer. It begins with a great amount of listening and summarizing the other person’s view, and your best impersonation of sympathy. *This is not a feely feely communication guide.

When you’ve found a way to agree with every single point the other side has brought up eg. you know what climate change could be natural, and the government does do a lot right that we don’t give them credit for, and a transition of economic models could be messy (hint: do it in a way that doesn’t hurt too much), then suggest one small, unobtrusive point at the very end of the conversation, eg. hey, I heard your aunt was suffering from cancer, have you ever heard of the China Study?

The theory is that the other side will be so sure that you’re agreeing with them that they won’t notice that you’ve implanted a logic bomb inside their minds. A bomb like a bath bomb, not nuclear.

5) Use your Anger

Often when discussing non-violence with people who think it’s far-fetched or ‘utopian’, rage follows on the part of the pacifist. The other party transforms into this barbaric monster with antiquated views and entitled values and this is exactly what enrages those who rally for a non-violent world (even though it would make more sense for those who advocate violence to go to anger). The anger stems from the obviousness that arises from seeing better solutions that others do not see.

If you see the possibilities of a non-violent world, you are part of a minority. (In case you haven’t noticed, we’re still living in the dark ages where war and slaughter are daily occurrences). This learned vision is a gift, but it comes with anger – which is what will drive us to create change. It is our responsibility to diffuse the anger as we move forward. To exchange the anger for results.

In Marshall Rosenberg’s The Surprising Purpose of Anger, he advises not to see anger as something bad, and not to oppress it but to see it as like a warning light on your car – informing you that you need something. He says not to confuse the trigger for your anger with the actual cause of it, which is always your own thinking. So once we identify the trigger and cause, we can move onto the unmet need behind the anger. Just as we would die of starvation if we were never hungry, we become angry to satiate our emotional needs.

I think often times we feel like victims to our anger. We don’t want to engage with it because we feel it is overpowering us – bossing us around. One alternative to diffusing anger is ignorance, making a quick escape from the anger to something else. But activists for non-violence usually choose to go deeper. We are not afraid to get angry, even though we’re not experts at understanding our anger yet. As my friend, well call him Marcus Aurelius, just summed up well on Facebook: the more you oppose an idea, the more you give it strength.

When we entertain blaming thoughts, we are rejecting our personal power. It takes humility to recognize the scope of changes you can realistically make (those directly through yourself), but this seemingly small scope can lead to huge effects. It is all we can handle, and all we need.

Remember: just because we are honing our debate skills and activist methods, non-violence should NEVER be compromised to reach any type of temporary peace. Gentle interactions can exist without meeting people who support war or killing halfway. Stick to your… carrot sticks.


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