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with Jared Finkelstein, CNVC Certified Trainer
The Center for Nonviolent Communication

Hi everyone, Jared here, first time blogger and honored to have been invited to share highlights of the session I led introducing a few of the principles and practices of Nonviolent Communication.

Begin With Connection.

I like to start sessions I lead with connection.  

I value connection; if the practice of Nonviolent Communication (which is also frequently called Compassionate Communication, as well as other names) is founded on any one belief it is that human beings enjoy giving to one another, and that with a suitable amount of connection of a certain quality, it is inevitable that this sort of giving to one another will happen.  So, when I teach, I like to start right at the beginning with inviting this kind of connection in the hopes of making that sort of giving more likely.

To this end, I shared with the group something meaningful about me.  I shared how moved I had been hearing the passion in the room during the previous session where the heads of school assembled here at the conference spoke from the heart about what makes being the head of a small school unique.

Hearing all this awoke for me memories of my own schooling experience, attending a small school from nursery through high school, a school where both my parents were teachers, and a school that very much integrated my experience of home life and school life.

I then invited the open-ended question, “What would people like to know about me in order to experience a sense of connection?”

I was asked about how I found my way to this work, and I was asked for a story of why I find this work meaningful.  I enjoyed answering both questions, revealing both personal challenges I’ve had in my past, a serendipitous story of how this practice of Nonviolent Communication seemed to fall from the universe in to my lap, and an incident of how sharing this practice in the world had impacted a family I worked with.  

Safety, Trust and Respect

After this, I shared with the group the level of comfort I have with what in some environments are considered “disrespectful” classroom behaviors.  I shared that I work with many intergenerational groups, that I value intrinsic motivation, and that I want people in the room to be at choice and comfortable.  

Attendees were explicitly invited to get up and move if they needed, to keep their phones on if they felt it necessary and if turning them off would actually increase a sense of distraction!  They were invited to get food and snacks, to spread out.   Ultimately, I wanted them to know my comfort , my confidence that I could say something if I found myself challenged or distracted, and that I wanted partnership and collaboration in creating a working space that was comfortable for everyone.  

I believe that learning happens when people experience a sense of safety and trust and respect.  When people trust that they can be themselves, take risks, and know that their inherent dignity will be honored is when room is created for the authentic feelings of joy and frustration that are necessary to feel when human beings grow, learn and discover.

Universal Human Needs / Qualities of Life

At this point we shifted emphasis from what I would call a “lived experience of nonviolent communication” into a more experiential activity designed to explore the what we call in nonviolent communication “universal human needs”

The activity involved distributing yellow laminated cards to those assembled sitting in a circle.  On each card one of these Needs words was written.  

Once distributed I began to ask a few guiding questions to support our exploration.  I asked that people use, presenting them to one another, as a means to connect with one another on the level that these words point towards.  

For instance, I asked people to bring to their mind an experience in the last week that they enjoyed.  One person was then invited to share this experience and others in the circle were encouraged to hold up their card, which served as an inquiry, wondering if at the root of this person celebration was a flavor of the quality written on the card.  Taking a moment to scan all the guesses presented to them we then checked in with the receiver of all these guesses about how that experience had been.  “Moving”  “Powerful”  “It feels good to be gotten this way” were some of the responses shared.


Instructions for the Universal Human Need Cards activity

(This activity – and more- were developed by colleagues on mine Sura Hart and Jean Morrison. Lots of books and classroom materials can be found on their websites) 

  • # Participants: 10-30 (adaptable to smaller or larger)
    • A circle is preferable for the setting, though rows can work too
  1. Take the set of needs cards, fan them out face down, holding one end, and walk around the circle inviting each person to take 2-3 cards (depending on how many participants you have).
  2. “Look at your cards. Would it be OK if you didn’t have these things written on the cards for the rest of your life, starting today?”
    2. Listen to responses, ask a second time or third. “Why wouldn’t it be OK?”, or “How would your life be affected without this?”
    3. “Everyone has a different word on their card, so how could it be that you all want what you have?! What are these?! What would you like to call them?” Repeat out loud their responses. Then say that in this talk you’ll be referring to them as “Universal needs, values, wants.”
    4. “OK, now choose ONE of your cards that is most important to you and hold it up in front of you; so you can each look around and see each others.”
    5. “Are there other cards you like more or less than your own.”
    6. “Now put up your second and third cards and look around. Are you drawn more to any of these
  3. “Please think of something you did this week. Anything you did. Big, little, anything. Now would someone volunteer to tell us what you did.
    1. Volunteer names what they did. Ask the group members to “..hold up any card you have which you guess might be the needs this person was meeting or trying to meet, when they ___”(repeat what the volunteer said they did).
    2. Repeat steps 1 and 2 until several volunteers have offered their example and the group has had the opportunity to make guesses.
  4. As participants are holding 2-4 Big Needs Cards, say to group: “Now think of something that someone did, that you didn’t like, or didn’t like them for doing/saying what they did.”
  5. “Now imagine that YOU are that person who did or said that thing you didn’t like.” (Pause for the participants to imagine themselves being this other person.) I’d like a volunteer to tell the group what is was you did or said (the SHORT version! The Headline!)”
  6. Volunteer names what they did/said. Ask the group members to “Hold up any card you have which you guess might be the needs this person was meeting or trying to meet, when they _____”(repeat what the volunteer said they did).
  7. Repeat steps 1 and 2 until several volunteers have offered their example and the group has had the opportunity to make guesses.
  8. Group Process inquiries:
  • “What insights did you glean from this exercise?”
    • “Do you feel any differently about the person you thought of.”

Empathy has a hard time flowing uphill


After a short break we moved in to the second phase of this introductory workshop.  The intention for this time was to begin getting a taste for how the use of this vocabulary we were beginning to learn could support courageous and caring conversations.

I found it touching how many of the heads of school in attendance had shared a similar sentiment to me of feeling varying shades of isolation and invisibility in their roles as the head of school.  For this reason I wanted to make a point of introducing the notion that “empathy has a hard time flowing uphill” when you are at the top of a hierarchal system had a lot of resonance.  Which is a way of saying, that when you are an authority figure entrusted with power over people it is much more difficult for people under you in the system to see you for you full humanity.

From my perspective, much of what we practiced in the afternoon were ways that heads of school might be more seen and heard for the fullness of who they are while also engaging in conversations with their school community members that fulfill their functions of “holding the whole” with care, integrity and compassion.  



The remainder of our time together revolved around two role-plays situation we set up.  

In the first one I stepped in to the role of a board member that a head of school was struggling with.  I assumed the role of this board member as if they had been studying the practice of nonviolent communication, and I offered the head of school the experience of being heard for the pain of their challenge from their perspective (empathy) and  what *might* be some of the tragically expressed feeling and needs that this actual board member might be trying to communicate in their otherwise challenging behavior (honest self-expression).  

This role-play generated a lot of discussion, questions, and touching to me a vocal sense of appreciation for the courage and sincerity that the participant who volunteered for the role-play allowed themselves to step into by “going there”  

In our second role-play I assumed the role of a head of school speaking to an employee whose behavior was stimulating a lot of frustration and pain for both the head of school and for others in the school community.  

This role-play generated even more discussion!  From my perspective it also brought to the surface feelings of hope, skepticism, frustration and more.  

Welcoming feelings as natural and normal, healthy and human, is a central component of the practice of Nonviolent Communication.  The belief is that human feelings let us know that we have Needs, and that when people are feeling things strongly its letting us know how important the values and needs are for that person in this moment in time.  For me, the richness of engagement, curiosity, and yes, even the frustration, that people expressed was welcome and rewarding.  I enjoyed how much wrestling with these ideas and practices I experienced and I noticed a softening inside of me imagining just how much longing for skills and language to generate cooperation, collaboration, trust, harmony and ease is wanted by these heads of school for these learning communities.

Gratitude and Hitlamdut

In closing, I want to make a special mention of Rabbi Sam Feinsmith @ Institute for Jewish Spirituality who led a session the day prior on Mindful Jewish Day School Leadership, and I wish to express gratitude for the gift I received from him for the word hitlamdut.  

The term hitlamdut means to cultivate a stance of curiosity and openness to all of life’s experiences and to internalize what we learn.

Sam’s session on mindfulness rooted in jewish spirituality provided such a comfortable launching off point for my session and I am so appreciative of the ease and confidence that being able to follow his presentation the next day afforded me.  Sam covered much of what we would call “self-connection” in the practice of Nonviolent Communication using language new to me and richly rooted in Jewish spirituality.  

I am particularly grateful for learning the word hitlamdut – which Sam defined for us as a cultivation of a stance of compassionate curiosity. Nonviolent communication could be a considered a practice of hitlamdut, placing ones attention time and time again, moment after moment, on what is alive in ourselves and what we imagine is alive in others.  

Seeking out these life qualities and invoking them into language of feelings and needs as a strategy of cultivating compassionate connection, and exploring the question “How do we want to live and learn together?”