Those who have spent any length of time in a community garden or collective farming project know about the challenges posed by conflict among members of the group. It is a tragic irony when those who come to a community garden or farm to find relaxation, peace and refuge, instead wind up in arguments or fights or develop grudges due to unresolved disagreements. The flat hierarchies typical of many gardening groups or farming collectives are well-suited to empower their members but also place significant demands on members’ self-awareness and communication skills. Without the latter, groups face an increased risk that disagreements escalate and that a protracted conflict causes members to withdraw or quit the project altogether.
As the coordinator of one of Berlin’s newer community gardens, I am familiar with the problem of conflict and decided to spend some time during the off-season to share with gardeners about nonviolent communication (NVC). NVC is a communication technique developed by the American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. It aims to substitute habitual judgments, diagnoses, criticisms and demands of others with a language that fosters connection, empathy and authentic expression. Rosenberg explains how to use this language in his seminal book “Nonviolent Communication — A Language of Life.”
In our introductory workshop we discussed different ways of dealing with conflict, how to respond when others criticize or fault us and how to express hurt or anger in ways others can hear and empathize with. We discussed and practiced the four steps of NVC which are (1) making an observation, (2) expressing the feeling that is stimulated by the observation, (3) identifying the need that underlies the feeling and (4) making a request of the other person, so that an unmet need can be met.
Workshop participants seemed to absorb the material quickly and demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of some of the linguistic subtleties involved in distinguishing observations from interpretations, feelings from thoughts and requests from demands. It was agreed that we should conduct a follow-up workshop, emphasizing role-play of NVC dialog techniques. I was thrilled by this positive response. It is my hope that we will remind each other of these powerful tools during the next gardening season when tempers flare over who used up all the spinach seed, left the dirty dishes in the sink or removed all the carrot seedlings in the belief they were weeds. Deep breath, observation, feeling, need, request… yes, no problem! Happy community gardening 🙂