Beacon for Peace in the Promised Land

Transforming Palestinian/Israeli Relationships with Nonviolent Communication

By Hagit Lifshitz, Arnina Kashtan & Miki Kashtan
from Beyond Bullets and Bombs: Grassroots Peace Building Between Israelis and Palestinians (C9880) edited by Judy Kuriansky

Our cultural conditioning often leads us into the habitual game of responding to events and situations with judgments, blame, labeling and demands. This familiar approach preserves and reinforces the experience of painful alienation amongst human beings, as it tends to create fear, guilt and shame. Continuing to respond in these ways is unlikely to get us what we deeply want. We all pay a price in the long run when our needs are met at others' expense.

As an alternative, Nonviolent (Compassionate) Communication (NVC) helps us to act and encourage others to behave out of choice and caring, thus leading to give and receive from our hearts. Instead of focusing on thoughts, judgments and opinions, we look for the core human feelings and needs that are alive in us and in others. NVC practice rests on the assumption that we all share the same feelings and needs: tenderness, closeness, understanding, safety, the desire to contribute, to matter to others, to be valued and loved. Arguments and fights arise mostly out of our different strategies to meet these needs.

This paper gives an overview of the principles and steps in a unique communication skill that facilitates understanding, caring and “heart-centered” interaction, and an example of how the skills in this technique are being applied with Palestinians and Israelis.

Marshall Rosenberg developed the practices of NVC in the 1960’s in an attempt to support communities in creating peaceful desegregation. Soon the vast potential applications of this powerful technique led to a rapid spread across the globe.

Rosenberg has run workshops with people in the Middle-East of various political persuasions (Palestinians and Israelis, secular and religious Jews, Israelis on the political left and right), and used NVC to help participants express feelings regarding the highly contested issues of the occupied territories. In one interaction, a settler was willing to re-examine living in the West Bank if she could be truly listened to (Kashtan, 2002); in another, a Palestinian man at a mosque at Dheisheh Refugee Camp near Bethlehem went from calling Rosenberg names to inviting him home for a Ramadan dinner (Rosenberg, 2003).

Hundreds of thousands of people in dozens of countries and from all walks of life, including many professionals in the fields of mediation and conflict resolution, therapy and counseling, and group facilitation, have been trained in NVC. Currently about 200 certified trainers offer NVC in 35 countries, with several in Israel and in the Palestinian territory.

The practice of applying Nonviolent Communication in the service of social activism is based on a combination of practical considerations and deep spiritual values. On the practical level, we listen with empathy to those with whose positions we disagree. This increases the chances that they will want to listen to us.

On the spiritual plane, listening with empathy to others is one way of putting into practice the fundamental values of compassion and nonviolence. Underlying the willingness to persist in identifying and attending to everyone's needs is a deep well of trust in the abundance of the universe and in the fundamentally benign nature of human needs. Thus, when we approach a conflict from the NVC perspective, we aim to connect with the underlying needs, and look together for ways to attend to them as equal to ours, and in harmony with all parties involved in the conflict.

The Nonviolent communication dialogue entails four clearly defined steps. The first step requires transforming judgments into Observation. Expressions of what we see, or hear, or notice are separated from thoughts and evaluations.  For example, one would say, “I see/hear/notice that ….” Instead of starting with what the other person did, which would likely stimulate defensiveness.

Steps 2 and 3 require expressing fully and accurately Feelings and Needs which are alive in relation to those observations. These two steps require our awareness and expression about the reasons for our feelings, which are our needs that are either met or unmet. When they are met, we might feel happy, satisfied, relaxed, or calm; and when they are unmet, we might feel frustrated, uneasy, in pain, or disappointed.  Trainings use lists of possible feelings and needs to help participants identify them.

Step 4 of the NVC dialogue is making a Request. Here we offer to the other person our concrete “doable” suggestion as to the way s/he can contribute to our well-being and assist us in fulfilling our needs.

As the listener, we can open our heart with “empathic listening” to the other person. We listen carefully to the Feelings and the Needs of the person who talks, no matter how s/he expresses her/himself, and reflect them back, in an attempt to check if we understand her/him fully and accurately. Such compassionate/empathic listening makes it possible to maintain our connection with the humanness of the other. This process often gives rise to surprising, creative results of mutual good will and generosity by all sides involved, even in previously insurmountable conflicts.

According to Rosenberg, use of language can reinforce "enemy images" of others. When we refer to corporate executives as "profiteers," our use of language implies greed; when we refer to lower-level managers as "bureaucrats," we imply uncaring; when we refer to people fighting for an opposing cause as “terrorists,” we imply inhumanity. Learning to practice empathy requires being able to recognize in others' actions fears and longings similar to our own, regardless of their actions.

The use of NVC does not require that the persons with whom we are communicating be literate in NVC or even motivated to relate to us compassionately. If we stay with the principles of NVC, with the sole intention to give and receive compassionately, and do everything we can to let others know this is our only motive, they will join us in the process and eventually we will be able to respond compassionately to one another (retrieved from May 11, 2006).  If we want to engage in social activism based on mutuality, trust, compassion and nonviolence, we are likely to find that social change requires changing ourselves within while working on changing external structures. The experience of applying NVC in our daily life and in our social change work makes transformation possible.

Presenting the use of NVC in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a unique opportunity to witness its healing power at its best, since this conflict is considered as perhaps one of the most difficult and complicated situations known. Some even consider it “impossible” to transform.

The following excerpt from a dialogue serves as a powerful example of just such transformation. It takes place during an NVC training for Israeli and Palestinian peace activists who are preparing a joint humanitarian project in a Palestinian village (referred to here as “village B”).

In this training, dramatic moments occurred when Israelis and Palestinians played their own or each other’s role in an effort to transcend the pain preventing them from hearing each other with an open heart. A Palestinian man took the Israeli person’s side and expressed his fears and worries as if he were Israeli. Similarly, Israelis took the Palestinian side. All were moved to express hidden fears, wishes and hopes and be understood.  This resulted in a sense of partnership, friendship and closeness.

The facilitator is Hagit Lifshitz, the first author in the paper. Israeli participants are members of Middleway, a peace organization operating in Israel, and the Palestinians are residents of a Palestinian village B. Besides role-playing, other tools include verbal interactions to clarify needs and feelings, and to guide the participants through the steps of the NVC process.

The training focused on giving the participants an opportunity to experience the effect of healing energy present when compassionate listening and compassionate expressions are put into practice. It aimed at allowing the participants to recognize and feel the transformation and at encouraging them to trust this process and make efforts to learn it and use it. It also aimed at showing them the concepts and the basic four steps of the process.

Phase 1:  Exercising expression of one’s feelings and needs, instead of judgments, accusations and demands.

The facilitator first lets the participants* talk freely as they would normally, and then helps them reframe their expression to avoid judgmental expressions or arguments.  She then guides them in realizing and transforming their speech into expressions of their feelings and needs.

Waseem (a Palestinian man) says: Well, you Israelis come and go in our village and you say: Oh, this is bad, this is woeful, this is unbelievable about our poor condition and then you go back to your places and do nothing. Are we monkeys in the zoo? It may be better if you stay at your places and leave us alone!

Facilitator giving instructions to Waseem: Say more of your feelings and more of your needs. What is important to you? What is painful underneath the anger?

Waseem:I am very frustrated and disappointed with you Dorit, because I wish you used your power to stop the unjust occupation. I feel helpless and confused. I wish you realized what it means to be under occupation. I wish you knew how desperate I feel as I cannot take my child to the doctor, the soldiers refused to let my wife go through the fence when she urgently needed to go to the hospital, we have no work! I wish you could even imagine what it is like!

Dorit (an Israeli woman): But what can we do? At least we try to do something for you! You — the Palestinians — want us to do the impossible! You don’t understand that we cannot control the army and the government and change their policy towards you!

Facilitator to Dorit:Speak about your feelings and your needs! Focus on your heart, not on your thoughts and judgments. Speak about what you appreciate and realize…

Dorit to Waseem:I hear your pain and despair. I hear a deep wish of yours that I and my friends will realize and imagine what many-sided suffering you go through every day. Is that it…?

Waseem:Na’am (yes, in Arabic). I wish you could be with us and witness our suffering.

Dorit: I feel so sad and helpless. I wish I knew what to do. I’d like to help and be there for you.

Waseem: You hear me. I feel relieved and grateful.

Dorit: I am glad to hear this. I also wish to say something else to you. Would you be willing to hear this now?

Waseem: Yes!

Dorit: I also need your acknowledgement and appreciation for what we DO in this matter to better your situation in many ways. I wish we could work together to realize what we could do. I need your cooperation and help.

Waseem: Oh, Yeh! I wish we spoke more in this way. I feel more hope and courage this way.

In the process described above, the participants have experienced and witnessed the effective power of staying connected with and expressing fully one’s feelings and the needs, as an alternative to accusations, demands and analysis.

The facilitator now guides the participants to the next step of the process: the practice of compassionate listening to another person, however challenging it might be.

Phase 2: Exercising empathic – compassionate listening to another person: Facilitator’s demonstration

In this second phase, the facilitator demonstrates empathic-compassionate listening. She listens to a participant who expresses his opinions, judgments and expectations. She avoids any “answers”, “arguments”, “disagreements” or “agreements”. Instead, she tries to focus, guess, realize and reframe the participant’s feelings and needs, willing to get his consent for her reframing. She keeps on doing that until the participant is ready for the next step.

Ya’ir (an Israeli man) is upset and skeptical.  He is reacting to the interaction between Dorit and Waseem earlier:  In real life, no one speaks like Dorit did to Waseem. It’s artificial. They — the Palestinians — should have known that we, Israelis, have our own needs and feelings!  Why should we be those who listen to them?  This is impossible and unfair!  It also makes them inferior to us!

Facilitator (focuses on his feelings and needs):So, Ya’ir, is it your need to be heard, understood and appreciated by your Palestinian partner, without judgments, analysis, arguments, answers? Do you wish to GET this kind of listening from him in the same way you GIVE it to him?

Ya’ir:  Exactly!  I can speak this way, but it will not be true, and it’s unfair, because the situation is more complicated than that.

Facilitator:So, You would like to speak all your truth, to share your deep feelings and needs and be assured that he is willing to do the same with you? You need the certainty that he is willing to explore with you your perspective empathically?

Ya’ir:Yeh! I don’t know if Waseem and other Palestinians are able and willing to give me that.

Facilitator:  So, you need their confirmation that they want to do it and you need their support and cooperation for going deeper and talking about all the aspects of the situation from your perspective too?

Ya’ir:  Well, I realize that they have their own perspective, and I am willing to give them the same attention that I want them to give me. I believe this is important, if we are all brave enough and want to work together.

Facilitator:So, you have faith in such a dialogue and you wish your Palestinian colleagues would have faith in this too and would be willing to join you in this journey?

Ya’ir: Yes. I wish they wanted to do this with me. I want to invite you, guys, to this kind of exploration as equals.

In this process the participants have witnessed a consistent focus on the speaker’s feelings and needs, regardless of his way of speech. The facilitator kept guessing and suggesting to him the feelings, the needs and the wishes he had and asked for his reaction and confirmation. This helped the speaker deepen his reflection on his own truth and express more accurately and widely what he had to express. This process also allowed the participants to understand more deeply and open up their own hearts to the speaker.

Now the facilitator guides the participants to the next step of their training, to practice compassionate listening as was demonstrated by the facilitator earlier.

Phase 3: Exercising empathic – compassionate listening to another person: The participants practice

The facilitator now invites participants to practice compassionate listening. Ya’ir, who has just experienced GETTING compassionate listening, is now willing to GIVE the same healing experience to his Palestinian friends. Then Abdullah, a Palestinian man, is encouraged to play the role of the Israeli woman and express what he realizes are her fears and needs, as if he were her.

It often happens that people’s generosity and goodwill arise spontaneously after receiving such non-judgmental deep listening. Their hearts open up and they are more capable of and willing to GIVE from their hearts. This phenomenon encourages us to trust that the more we OFFER our compassionate understanding first to the other human being, the more likely it is that we will also RECEIVE it from their heart.

Moreover, as a result of this process during this training, Palestinian and Israeli participants felt inspired to take the role of the other, and express deep hidden feelings and needs that otherwise would not be expressed or mentioned. The general atmosphere was trust, support, love and sharing. Eventually, this led them to a joyful and creative ability for cooperation and work together.

Ya’ir:OK, I’ll try to do what you (the facilitator) have just demonstrated with me.

Ya’ir (looks at his list of feelings and needs and says to Waseem): Are you feeling unhappy, because you want me, us – Israelis – to understand your perspective better?

Abdullah(a Palestinian man, pretending he is Dorit and speaking as if he were her):I wish I could speak to you (the Palestinians) about our fears too. I wish you’d be willing to listen to us about the horrors we had in Europe from the Nazis!

Abdullah(speaking again as himself, a Palestinian man):I hear your fears from us, as Israelis. I remember Israelis talk about the Arab expressions like “We’ll throw them to the sea.”

—- Silence in the room…

Abdullah:I feel shame. I realize now that we, Arabs, express our own fears and tension when we say things like that. I wish we knew how to express our needs and feelings in a different way.

Abdullah was able and willing at this point to do two different things: He could empathize with the Israeli fear and acknowledge it, by expressing it in a compassionate way, and he could also reflect on, realize and express his own feelings of shame and fear and his motivation to explore this more. Yet, another Palestinian woman in the group, Ebtisaam, expressed herself in a different way.

Ebtisaam:You, Israelis, made us your victims. You suffered in Europe and you come and take our land here and make us your victims and you want us all the time to understand your suffering, as if this makes you right and just. We, Palestinians, had done nothing to you, Jewish people. Why should we suffer because you suffered? Go settle your conflicts with the European people, not with us!

As the general ambience is of mutual acceptance and open hearts, Ebtisaam’s expression invites other people to reflect on and explore deeper their own experiences.

Dorit:I am feeling now grateful to Ebtisaam for raising this point. I can now connect with my fears and my experience of being the victim. I am feeling identified with Ebtisaam. I am feeling such a pain and sorrow now, and sadness…

Tears come down her cheeks… Silence in the room.

Dorit:  Oh, this is so tragic. Could we ever stop this cycle?

— Silence…

Rina (another Israeli woman):I want to share with you all something. I now realize that in order to be able to give this kind of listening to another person, I need a lot of compassionate listening to myself first. Before I can GIVE it, I need to Get it, express all my own fears and needs and emotions until the transformation unfolds.

Ebtisaam:  I wish we had more of this kind of energy before we start our project together. Let’s fulfill our need for support, encouragement, and preparation and enhance our cooperation energy in such way.

     The above excerpts from the Nonviolent Communication training for Palestinians and Israelis show that the most important component of this four steps process is the intention and the willingness to stay focused on feelings and needs, and on offering compassion as a way of transforming the situation into mutual giving and receiving from our hearts. It shows that it requires at least one person who is willing to stay with the sole intention to give and receive compassionately, and do everything s/he can to let others know this is her/his only motive. The others will join in the process and eventually everyone will be able to respond compassionately to one another. This “compassion in action” allows spontaneous and creative ways of reciprocal support and cooperation.

* Names are changed to protect participant’s confidentiality


Center for Nonviolent Communication, retrieved from website: May 11, 2006.

Kashtan, Miki (2002). “No Enemies, No Demands”, Tikkun, Sep-Oct 2002, vol. 17 no. 5.

Rosenberg, Marshall (2003).  Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life2nd Edition, (Encinitas, CA:  Puddle Dancer Press)

About the authors:

Hagit Lifshitz, MA, is a co-founder and director of Mifgash (“Encounter”) for Conflict Transformation, a nongovernmental organization in Israel. A graduate in educational counseling from Hebrew University, she is an organizational and educational consultant who conducts trainings in nonviolent communication (NVC), mediation and peacebuilding; facilitates dialogue groups in the context of diversity and conflicts; and mediates between individuals, families, groups, and organizations

Arnina Kashtan. B.A. is the founder of Meitarim ("Chords"), an Inter-Disciplinary Center for Non-Violent Transformation. She conducts public workshops in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and offers coaching, mediation and training for individuals, families, groups and organizations in Israel and the United States. She studied music at the University of Tel-Aviv, Israel.

Miki Kashtan, conducts public workshops in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and offers mediation, meeting facilitation, coaching, and training for organizations and businesses throughout the United States. In 2002, she co-founded Bay Area Nonviolent Communication (BayNVC), part of an international network of trainers and local organizations. She did her graduate work in sociology at the University of California in Berkeley.