Have you noticed the general lack of civility and courteous dialogue these days?

It is not just politicians but regular people who seem not to be able to cope well with those they disagree with.

The hateful, negative tone of letters to the editor, nasty conversations with store clerks, shouting at kids, feisty disagreements with colleagues and so on all create an overall atmosphere of negativity in our world.

Though we just got through both Passover and Easter seasons, it still seems a lot of us still need deliverance and redemption, not from the Pharaoh or the devil, but from ourselves. 

There always are individuals, thugs, gangs, boss types and their national or political leader equivalents who seem to think that they can force others to do their bidding through threats and physical or verbal violence and even lethal force.

While such “convincing “ may work for awhile, in the end, the violence done to people’s spirits and sensibilities overflows and comes back to haunt the perpetrators.

This was reflected in the ancient sayings of Lao Tsu, who said a few thousand years ago: “A violent man will die a violent death. This is the essence of my teaching.”

He also gave a refreshing counterpoint: “Cultivate peace in yourself and it will be present in the family. Cultivate peace in the family and it will be present in the village.

“Cultivate peace in the village and it will be present in the nation. Cultivate peace in the nation and it will be everywhere.”

Thus, the solution to negativity and bad attitudes in the world starts with us as individuals. I would like to suggest one tool, called “nonviolent communication,” that may take all of us a few steps up this road to personal and interpersonal peace.

I first learned about this recently as part of a new curriculum, The Physician Healer Track, which we are offering to UTMB medical students.

This program, conceived and orchestrated by Dr. Cara Geary in pediatrics and Dr. Julie McKee in family medicine, is meant to improve students’ capacity to serve their patients as true healers.

This requires building skills in communication, in mindfulness and mindful practices, and formulating their professional identity.

As part of the faculty, we are given the same assignments as the students, in this case, studying from Marshall B. Rosenberg’s best selling book “Nonviolent Communication — A Language of Life.”

He offers some simple steps to improving our understanding and communication with each other. He teaches how to cease doing violence to others.

This occurs through reaction, overreaction, misinterpretation and acting out of our own unconscious unresolved conflicts, which are then projected on others.

Nonviolent communication is founded on language and communication skills that strengthen our ability to remain human, even under trying conditions. The key elements of Nonviolent communication are as follows:

1. Observation — this is composed of mindful observation of concrete actions that affect our well-being.

2. Feelings — noting how we feel in relation to what we observe.

3. Needs — figuring out and noting the needs, values, desires, motivations that create our feelings.

4. Requests — these are the concrete actions we request in order to enrich our lives. 

Such a process requires that we express honestly through all four components and that we receive empathically through all four as well.

By observing without judging or evaluating, we are better able to notice how we feel about an action.

This gives us a chance to reflect on what we need for our feelings to be better or different and how we can be straightforward in asking the other person for what we need.

This is a courageous departure for some who jump right from observation to conclusion without the intervening and sometimes tough inner work of feeling and noting needs.

Rosenberg’s book and its accompanying workbook offer multiple details and exercises in how to do this process better, so get a copy if you wish to gain more expertise. A simple example of nonviolent communication could be as follows:

• Observation: A co-worker says something like a racial slur or sexually oriented comment. You note it without comment or immediate response or judgment.

• Feelings: You notice you do not feel comfortable in the presence of this kind of talk. It offends your feelings, values and sensibilities.

• Needs: You figure out that hearing such comments make your workplace an unpleasant and even hostile environment.

Reflecting on what you observed and how you feel about it you conclude that you need this not to occur.

• Requests: As calmly as possible, you tell the person something like: “When you say something like that, I feel uncomfortable. Please do not talk like that in my presence. Thank you.”

Now, you could also threaten to report the co-worker or write him or her up but that would be a step toward violent communication, if this is the first time this has come up.

You might have to do that eventually but, in the best case, the co-worker would have a chance to reflect, to respond positively and to change behavior without further ado. Both sides can walk away respected, with honesty and empathy.

So while the world may often seem like a violent place with those around us locking horns in intractable arguments, stepping back a moment to reformulate how we process our observations, feelings, needs and requests can change things dramatically.

Noting how we perceive conflicts in intimate, business, political or organizational settings helps us reframe and to respond creatively and non-violently. Perhaps this is the pathway back to peace and sanity for a world seemingly gone violent and crazy.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.

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