with Sarah Sims Williams
Communication has been a very important consideration for Sarah Sims Williams for the last couple of decades. Originally from West Sussex and spending much of her life in Devon and Wales, she remembers feeling that it was difficult to express who she really felt herself to be from a young age.
She first came across Nonviolent Communication while training with a Quaker project called Turning The Tide. Her next encounter with the techniques to transform potential conflict came at Buddahfield Festival, where she met the teacher Jararaja. Buddhafield is a collective that arrange camps and workshops across the world.
“There were about twenty of us waiting for the workshop to begin but the co facilitator hadn’t turned up. I was so impressed with the way Jararaja responded to the situation. He transparently expressed his anxiety that he was unsure whether he could run the workshop alone, but at the same time he seemed confident about sharing his feelings. The authenticity of the whole workshop resonated with me.”
Inspired to know more, Sarah began to explore further, attending many workshops, and camps, and completing her Foundation Training with Shona Cameron. The camps are particularly useful, she tells me, as a way of immersing oneself in the NVC way of living. After many days of training she became a Certification Candidate and with many more days of training, has been working as a practitioner in Wales since 2010.
I asked Sarah to explain where Nonviolent Communication originates.
“It began with Marshall B Rosenberg who was a clinical Psychologist. He grew up in a turbulent neighbourhood and was inspired to find techniques that could bring peaceful resolutions to conflict. Nonviolent Communication has proven to be a very powerful tool across the world between warring tribes and nations, and in professional and personal lives.”
I tell Sarah that I mentioned to a friend that I was meeting with her today and my friend was curious about the word violent. She felt it was very strong and might be off-putting.
“ Marshall’s techniques grew out of his experience, that the language we use can be so disempowering that it can lead to conflict. He showed how considering our language carefully can help avoid violence – physical, emotional and mental. I remember reading somewhere that he said the most violent word in the dictionary is ‘Should.”
I ask Sarah to elaborate.
“When you tell someone they should do something, you are not offering them a choice. When people believe they have no choice, the ultimate potential outcome is violence – to someone else or to them self.”
Sarah suggests I come up with a statement that might frustrate or annoy me as an example.
What about, ‘You should do what I tell you to do?’
Sarah nods,” Tell me how it feels if someone says that to you.”
I have to say that I certainly don’t like it. It feels that person is taking away my choices. They are imposing their views on me.
Sarah nods again, “Where is the space for your own knowing? Does it feel safe to disagree?”
I tell her that it makes me feel threatened.
Sarah agrees. “If someone, however subtly, appears to impose their will upon us we may find it very hard to be ourselves. Some of us are miserable when we can’t be ourselves and then we can get stuck in patterns that lead us to behaviours that lack empathy. Hence ‘should’ is a violent word.”
So if someone tells us we ‘should’ , how can we respond to change the outcome?
“In NVC we would call “should”, ‘no choice language’. It doesn’t help us to connect with each other. It doesn’t help everyone to get their needs met and that is very important in order to create an interdependent society. All our needs matter.”
Sarah continues, “We talk in NVC about compassion and empathy and the place to start with that is with empathy for yourself. When you are in that situation of someone telling you that you should do as you are told , how do you feel?”
I have to say that my first response is, How dare you tell me what to do. Actually I feel pretty angry.
“Where in your body do you feel that anger?”
Tension in my belly and I realise I have actually made a fist. I feel I am not being respected, so I suppose I want respect. I want to make my own choices, to be independent.
Sarah goes on to describe a tree with 2 branches as an image sometimes used in NVC. Below the ground are the roots, the unseen part of ourselves. We strengthen and nourish the tree from the roots with empathy and compassion. Acknowledging how we are feeling about the conflict is a way of giving ourselves that compassion. The branches are expressions of needs and feelings, one branch for yours and one for the other’s.
“We have 3 choices in any situation: nourish our roots, express our heart to the other (1 branch), guess their longings (the other branch). In the example we have been discussing, you could express to the other person your own longing for independence. if you have received enough empathy first there should be no blame.
Then you may want to move on to guessing what you think the other person might be feeling and needing and checking it with them.”
Do you mean, I tell the person that I feel that my independence isn’t being considered, that I am not being respected?
“You might do that, or you could have a go at guessing how they are feeling and what is valuable to them before you express your side. You might say, Are you feeling upset because respect is important to you? Or do you feel that you are not being valued?”
Sarah continues, “It almost doesn’t matter what you guess. Even if you are wrong, it has opened the possibility for the other person to tell you how they are feeling. You have handed it over to them to tell you what is happening for them.”
It sounds really interesting, but my sense is that it’s not necessarily a quick solution to a conflict.
“There is more to explain that we don’t have space to go into here. I have had phenomenal results with people, but yes, it is not necessarily quick, nor is it about turning oneself into a doormat, or a mouthpiece. It’s about finding a way for both parties to know that they matter.
We mentioned earlier about Marshall’s work. He brought clans together who had been killing each other for a long time. He worked with murderers and child abusers. He brought people to a place of understanding that their violence had been unnecessary. They saw better ways to get what they needed, that the damage that had been done need never have happened. That’s pretty powerful.”
Do you need two parties to come together for NVC to work?
“No, I work with individuals as well as groups and couples. Some of my clients know about NVC , some have never heard of it, but with this work we come to a clearer understanding, restoring connections through linking our feelings to our needs.”
Like linking someone saying, You should do what I tell you to do, with the feeling behind that demand?
“Yes, that is part of it. If you can see what is inside your heart, when you make a demand, or express an opinion, you can start to find real honesty. NVC is a set of skills you have to learn of course, if you want your communication to be kinder, and more compassionate and more effective at getting what everyone wants.”
What if people don’t want to cooperate?
“If I can get someone into the room (non-violently of course!), I hear what is in their heart. It is truly beautiful when people feel heard at that level. Someone experiencing a breakthrough is better than finding a diamond for me.”
That sounds amazing and in a world that seems to be overwhelmed with conflict, NVC sounds like a skill we all need to learn.
Sarah can be contacted through her website or her face book page.
Information about her mediation service, called Loving Mediation, workshops and classes, plus her prices can all be found here on:
….Attending an ongoing group every 2 weeks has provided me with a lot of support. I have shared what I might be struggling with and received, deep compassion, empathy and skilled support that has enabled me to understand what’s behind some of my difficulties …
…by the time I got home [from the session] I had begun to feel a lot lighter, freer…
I feel grateful for the space you provide and you are an inspiration, or rather, you meet my need for inspiration!
I felt held and heard, but never judged