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.


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