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Special Content


volume-13, 29 June - 5 July 2019

Practising Gandhian Nonviolent Communication for Social Cohesion

Dr. Vedabhyas Kundu

Mahatma Gandhi gave to the world a unique tool to promote social cohesiveness and solidarity amongst individuals and groups. In the 150th birth anniversary of the Mahatma, it would be pertinent to critically understand the elements of this tool, nonviolent communication and put it into practice in our daily lives. When the overarching aim of our society is to bring together people from diverse back-grounds and communities in the march towards nation building, nonviolent communication is the glue which promotes soul-to-soul exchanges, empathetic relationship, compassion and mutual respect. If introduced at different levels of education and learnings, more and more people can integrate the different elements of nonviolent communication and it would contribute towards a more responsible and compassionate citizenship.

The edifice of nonviolent communication is Mahatma Gandhi's five pillars of nonviolence: respect, under-standing, acceptance, appreci-ation and compassion. Once we start following these foundational attributes of nonviolence, we can start cultivating it and experience on how we are making a difference not only within ourselves but in the society at large.Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi beautifully explains the five pillars of nonviolence in his book, The Gift of Anger:

"Respect and understanding of other people, whatever their religion, race, caste, or country, is the only way the world can go forward. Putting up walls and divisions always backfires in the end, leading to anger, rebellion, and violence. In contrast, when we respect and understand each other, we naturally evolve to that third pillar, acceptance. The ability to accept other views and positions allows us to grow stronger and wiser. The other two pillars of nonviolence-appreciation and compassion- help bring about personal happiness and fulfillment as well as greater harmony in the world."

The Gandhian approach to nonviolent communication has been explained by Robert Bode. In his article, Robert Bode explains the Gandhian approach to nonviolent communication. He says this approach includes four aspects; these include:(1) nonviolent speech and action; (2) maintenance of relationships and enrichment of personhood; (3) openness; and (4) flexibility. According to Bode:

"For Gandhi, the goal of communication was to build and maintain human relationships and thus enhance personhood. Gandhi's insistence on nonviolence recognized the importance of others, valued humanity, and appreciated the importance of human relation-ships and personhood. Gandhi's nonviolent communic-ation theory included the valuing of personhood throughout the world, but he also stressed the importance of individual relationships and friendships. Openness was manifested in Gandhi's rhetoric and is a characteristic of his nonviolent communication theory. For Gandhi, openness included communication practices such as free speech and press, public discussion, and direct negotiation."

Bapu's writings and his action are the guiding post of nonviolent communication. For instance, in Harijan, he wrote:

“My writings cannot be poisonous, they must be free from anger, for it is my special religious conviction that we cannot truly attain our goal by promoting ill will. There cannot be room for untruth in my writings, because it is my unshakable belief that there is no religion other than truth. My writings cannot but be free from hatred towards any individual because it is my firm belief that it is love that sustains earth.”

Mahatma Gandhi was an avid letter writer. The role of letter writing in the evolution of nonviolent communication has been encapsulated by Gandhi himself. He writes in his autobiography, "For me it became a means for the study of human nature in all its casts and shades, as I always aimed at establishing an intimate and clean bond between the editor and the readers. I was inundated with letters containing the outpourings of my correspondents' hearts. They were friendly, critical or bitter, according to the temper of the writer. It was a fine education for me to study, digest and answer all this correspondence. It was as though the community thought audibly through this correspondence with me. It made me thoroughly understand the responsibility of a journalist, and the hold I secured in this way over the community made the future campaign workable, dignified and irresistible."

For greater understanding of nonviolent communication, it would be pertinent to familiarize ourselves on what nonviolent communication really means. Senior Gandhian, Natwar Thakkar gave a nuanced explanation of the central idea of nonviolent communication. Using the Gandhian praxis, he notes: “To me nonviolent communication literacy would mean how our communication efforts should be nonviolent; how our ability and capacity to communicate not only with ourselves but with our family and society be nonviolent in all aspects and overall how the entire process of communication whether between individuals, groups, communities and the world at large should be nonviolent in nature. This would entail deep understanding of the art and science of nonviolence and its centrality in all our daily actions. It's not just verbal and nonverbal communication, nonviolent communication literacy would also include whether our thoughts and ideas are nonviolent or not. This would also mean how we can communicate and stop evaluating them to suit our own ideas. More than often we are attuned to think in terms of moralistic judgements which may be our own constructions. By developing deep under-standing of the art and science of nonviolence and integrating it in our communication practices we could get over with biased and moralistic judgements; this in turn could contribute to emotional bridge building."

Thakkar further notes, "By being nonviolent communication literate, an individual/group/community will be able to self-introspect whether the message they want to share has elements of violence and whether such a message will hurt others. Nonviolent communication literacy would automatically help in strengthening and deepening relationships. When we are able to emotionally build bridges with others, we will be able to empathize with their views." He says that nonviolent communication can open new spaces for dialogues and engagement, mutual respect and tolerance.

For quick reference, it would be useful delineate the different elements of nonviolent communication. These include:

  1. Complete lack of violence in the way we communicate with others- be it verbal, nonverbal, our thoughts and ideas.
  2. We should learn to communicate with ourselves and self-introspect.

iii.        Use of appropriate and positive language. Expansion of our emotional vocabulary.

  1. Avoiding stereotypes in our communication efforts.
  2. Avoid moralistic judgements
  3. Avoid cruel and evaluative language

vii.       Avoid being aggressive

viii.      Role of mutual respect in communication

  1. Power of empathy. Empathetic communication helps us understand others point of views.
  2. Strong belief in the power of compassion
  3. Connecting with needs of others

xii.       Importance of flexibility in our communication

xiii.      Practicing deep and empathetic listening skills

xiv.      Expressing gratitude in our daily lives

In the context of the above elements, it can be argued that by using the tool kits of nonviolent communication we can practice humanism at all times of our lives, it will help us to act humanely even at most challenging situations. As our emotional vocabulary expands, we will start revisiting on how we express ourselves and listen to others. We will get into the habit of making empathetic connections and become more self-aware. In today's world, where differences of opinions are frequent causes of conflicts, developing empathetic connections is critical. Gandhi had aptly said, "Three-fourths of the miseries and misunder- standings in the world will disappear, if we step into the shoes of our adversaries and understand their standpoint. We will then agree with our adversaries quickly or think of them charitably. "Also, as a nonviolent communicator, we are able to hear our own deeper needs and those of others. A large number of conflicts gets solved easily when we are able to critically understand the other persons needs. Jiddu Krishnamurthy had said, "The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence. "This is precisely nonviolent communication enables us to do.

Myra Walden a trainer in nonviolent communication, talks about the importance of nonviolent communication, "Many of us have been brought up in environments where competition, judgment, demands and criticism are the communicative norm; at best these habitual ways of thinking and speaking hinder communication and create misunderstanding and frustration in others and ourselves. Still worse, they cause anger and pain and may even lead to violence. Even with the best intentions, we can generate needless conflict. The system of nonviolent communication... begins by assuming we are all compassionate by nature and those violent strategies, whether verbal or physical, are learned behaviours, supported by the prevailing culture. Nonviolent communication helps people learn how to communicate effectively with each other so that their lives and relationships are transformed."

Finally, all of us like to take healthy food for our nourishment and health. Unhealthy food makes us sick. Similarly, all of us need fresh air for our well-being. Polluted air makes us depressed and can be the cause of various diseases. Communication like food and oxygen is equally important. As we cannot communicate and it is part of our existence, it is significant that we indulge in healthy communic-ation which will nourish us. Many times, we indulge in unhealthy communication. Our ego, feelings of hegemony and superiority, differences with others, our own life conditions and many other reasons could be reasons on why we practice unhealthy communication. We don't have the patience to listen to others, we are not self-aware and knowingly or unknowingly we get into petty talks or use words that can cause suffering for not only ourselves but also others. All these are causes of depression, stress, anger and feelings of insecurity. These are not traits of a healthy lifestyle. So, we need to involve in a communication process that de-stresses us and provides us with a sense of well-being. Our communication should be able to plug the gap of happiness inequality and contribute to the nurturing of positive emotions. Hence it is for all these reasons, teachings in nonviolent communication should be introduced in all our institutions. Right from primary level to universities and in difference forms of governance structure, integration of nonviolent communication will lead to a humane and happy citizenship contributing to social cohesion and solidarity.

To conclude, it would be apt to quote Lord Buddha on the centrality of nonviolent communication in our daily lives: "Words have both the power to destroy and heal. When words are both true and kind, they can change our world."

The author is a Programme Officer, Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti, E-mail: vedabhyaskundu.ahimsa@gmail.com

Views expressed are personal.