San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Nonviolent Communication: Rethinking How We Speak

Human beings have been speaking for at least 10,000 years, but trainers and investigators of nonviolent communication feel we need to rethink how we do it.

Jorge Rubio Vollert, a nonviolent-communication trainer from Colombia, visited Costa Rica last month to speak about speaking, on the occasion of the International Day of Peace Sept. 21. Programs at the Costa Rican Attorneys Association, sponsored by the Justice and Peace Ministry, and at the Costa Rican-North American Cultural Center made audiences take a look at their speaking habits.

“We use language to control others, to manipulate or show our superiority,” said the cheerful and easy-to-listen-to trainer. “Or we may use it to change people or to make judgments. We even use speech as a weapon. The purpose of words is to connect with others, but often the connection is one of criticizing or judging. This leads to feelings of isolation or rebelliousness.”

Nonviolent communication uses “empathic intelligence,” an intellectual-sounding phrase that means using empathy when interacting with others – in other words, putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes to understand where he or she is coming from.

But in order to have empathy with others, we need to explore our own inner feelings, Rubio said. He referred to this concept as “empathic oxygen.”

“On an airplane, the attendants instruct you that in case of pressure loss you put on your own oxygen mask first, before helping others. We do the same with nonviolent communication,” Rubio explained. “We need to be aware of our own feelings first. Then one can become a catalyst for understanding.”

“Empathy is reading the feelings of others and being sensitive; it means listening to others,” he added. “This is more productive, and is just as relevant for groups and nations.”

Rubio works with governments, educators, health workers and other interested groups and individuals. At present, he is working with the government of Colombia, which is caught in tensions between groups within the country and with neighboring countries. Nonviolent communication works, and has had success at different levels in Colombia, Rubio said. War happens when both factions lose the ability to understand each other, he explained.

As an example of nonviolent communication, Rubio told the story of a government official in Colombia who used the practice at home. As a parent, he wanted to guide and teach his son, but found he was really interfering with his studies and telling him what to do. After a workshop on nonviolent communication, he decided to keep quiet while watching his son work on a school project. As a result, the son was proud of doing the work on his own, and it improved their relationship. Rubio also spoke of a mother who reported that nonviolent communication helped in her relationship with a rebellious teenage son, and of teachers who found it helped in their classrooms.

Nonviolent communication was developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist who directs the Center for Nonviolent Communication in the U.S. state of New Mexico. Rosenberg grew up in Detroit, Michigan, and saw the results of conflict there. He decided to look for a better way of solving problems using communication skills, and found that it worked. Here in Costa Rica, Rita Marie Johnson of the Academy for Peace in Piedades de Santa Ana, southwest of San José, has taught the techniques in workshops with teachers.

Rubio said he doesn’t “give speeches,” which is a form of showing superiority. “I converse with audiences,” he said. This gives listeners the feeling of being included.

Rubio is currently on a tour of countries, giving talks on nonviolent speaking. His Costa Rica visit was organized by friends who have worked with nonviolent communication and want to spread the message. They have invited Rubio to return later in the year.

For more information on nonviolent communication, visit Rubio’s website at For more on Dr. Rosenberg’s Center for Nonviolent Communication and available books and courses, see

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