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Stopping the blame game with nonviolent communication

Local activist, therapist and teacher Rick Longinotti recently published a book titled That Loving Feeling: A Couples Guide to Transform Hurt and Criticism into Kindness and Gratitude. It’s a practical guide to nonviolent communication (NVC). Longinotti will be leading Zoom study groups based on That Loving Feeling on four Mondays 7–8:30pm, beginning June 3; the sliding scale is $90–$180. Register at nvcsantacruz.org. In 2004, Longinotti co-founded NVC Santa Cruz with his wife, Aviva, Jean Morrison and Christine King.

John Malkin: Congratulations on the publication of your book, That Loving Feeling. It’s a unique blend of fiction and workbook that explains NVC practices.

Rick Longinotti: I deliberately made it fiction because a self-help book seems kind of dry. The story adds an emotional connection. My wife and I read a book like this about parenting when our kids were young called Liberated Parents, Liberated Children. It was their own story that was fictionalized. They were two moms of young children that were attending a parenting workshop. I think people can learn more when they feel emotionally connected.

For people who aren’t familiar with nonviolent communication, explain briefly this model that is beyond the usual reward and punishment.

It’s particularly helpful for couples because it removes blame from the equation. It’s a no-blame world. That’s different from the way we habitually think about our relationships. Often if we feel hurt, we think it’s because our partner didn’t acknowledge us or didn’t consider us. NVC offers some tools to get ourselves out of that feeling of hurt, without resentment.

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You write about the importance of self-empathy and offering empathy to others.

When we feel hurt, we may respond defensively, angrily blaming. The self-empathy tool is a way to notice, “What’s going on? What are my needs behind this? Why am I feeling hurt?” Part of self-empathy is noticing the chatter in our heads; we’ll call it the “jackal” messages that may be deceptive. We may think we’re being rejected, when in fact our partner just doesn’t like something we did.

The next step is empathizing with our partner to see that they were just trying to get their needs met in a way that I didn’t like. But I see it wasn’t intentional. That combination of empathizing with yourself and being aware of the jackal tricks we play on ourselves, plus empathy out to the other person—this can relieve us of a lot of hurt and defensiveness. And then we’re able to express our needs without any guilt trips. Without any subtle coercion, we can just ask for what we want based on our needs behind it.

Marshall Rosenberg was the founder of NVC and passed away in 2015. I’m grateful he came to Santa Cruz to give workshops and presentations. Rosenberg would sing about empathy and use jackal and giraffe puppets to dramatize NVC. I always loved watching people being surprised by things he’d say like, “The most violent word in the English language is should.”

Rosenberg was a student of Carl Rogers, who was famous for saying that you can hold unconditional, positive regard for the person you’re talking to while also holding unconditional positive regard for yourself. That’s the underlying assumption of NVC; we’re all beautiful inside. And when we don’t act beautifully, it’s because we’re trying to get our needs met in tragic ways. So, it’s a very positive view of human nature. Rosenberg, as you mentioned, had very effective and funny ways to get that across.


Recently, as part of NVC Santa Cruz, you led meetings called “Building our Muscles for Effective Communication about Israel and Palestine.” Locally there are lots of strong feelings about the ongoing Israeli war on the Palestinian Occupied Territories. What did you learn from the recent discussions?

The issue’s very close to my heart and I devour the news about what’s happening in Gaza. It reminds me a lot of my reaction to the Vietnam War. As a student in a Catholic high school I thought, “This is a war that’s necessary in order to preserve the freedom of religion and democracy in Vietnam.” And I had an evolution; by the time I was in college I felt, “This is a big mistake.” I thought my parents’ generation were ignorant and to blame for this big mistake. In other words, I got kind of self-righteous.

I wrote to my sister in 1972. Richard Nixon was running for reelection, and I knew she was planning to vote for Nixon. I said, “How could you vote for a war criminal?” She wrote me back a letter and said, “How could you be so self-righteous?” I thought, “Well, my effort at communicating over differences did not succeed here!”

Not until I learned NVC 30 years later, did I understand what it meant to be able to communicate in a way that was not self-righteous. It’s really about noticing that the people that are doing such violent and destructive things are people like me.

I’m an advocate for peaceful resolution of conflict. I consider what’s happening in Gaza right now tragic, with Israel’s reliance on indiscriminate military violence. For me the challenge is this: for people I know and care about and respect, who don’t have the same view about this war, how do I not think of them as part of the problem?

It’s just about noticing that we’re all human. We get caught in these traps, and some of them are so destructive. It makes no sense for me to feel self-righteous around this. I can feel a sadness that doesn’t diminish my respect for the people that disagree with me. It was in that spirit that Michael Levy and I attempted to have these workshops where we would invite people to practice in roleplays, taking different sides and talking to each other.

Were there breakthroughs in how people were discussing the violence in Gaza?

We had separate meetings for people with different points of view. We didn’t want to throw people together. Once people get triggered and emotionally upset, it’s very hard to calm down. So, we wanted to do some preparatory meetings with people that are of like mind. And we’re looking forward to trying to get people of opposite points of view together. But that hasn’t happened yet. 

Listen to this interview on Thursday at noon on “Transformation Highway” with John Malkin on KZSC 88.1 FM / kzsc.org.


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