Meet the Flipsters

Conversations on the Bridge

A Conversation with Dr. Marshall Rosenberg
(The complete Flip interview, with only minor edits, not found in the book)

Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg is founder and director of educational services for the Center for Nonviolent Communication (, an international nonprofit organization. Nonviolent Communication training evolved from Dr. Rosenberg’s quest to find a way to rapidly disseminate much-needed peacemaking skills. The Center for Nonviolent Communication emerged out of work he was doing for civil rights activists in the early 1960s. During this period, he provided meditation and communication skills training to communities working to peacefully desegregate schools and other public institutions.

Worldwide reactions to his work have been inspiring. Evaluations indicate that his training vastly strengthens the ability to connect compassionately with oneself and others, as well as to resolve differences peacefully. Reports also indicate that the benefit of the training not only is stable over time, but actually increases. We were curious to know how the early circumstances of Marshall’s life placed him on the path to developing Nonviolent Communication. “As a child my family moved to Detroit just in time for the race riots of 1943. We lived in the inner city and for four days we couldn’t go out of the house. We were locked in because there was violence going on in the streets; thirty people were killed in our neighborhood in that time.

“As a nine year-old boy, locked in the house and being aware that I couldn’t go out because of my skin color taught me that this is a world where some people can want to hurt you for no reason. To accentuate this lesson, when I started school I found out my last name was a stimulus for hatred. When people heard my last name was ‘Rosenberg’ they were waiting for me after school and they treated me to some violence. As a child I kept wondering why, why, why?

“I was very fortunate, though, because at the same time I also saw just the opposite. My grandmother was totally paralyzed by Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) and every evening an uncle of mine came over after work to help care for her. Even though it was often a dirty, smelly job he always had the most beautiful smile on his face. He just enjoyed so much contributing to her well-being.

“When it came time to decide what I wanted to do for a living, I chose to go to the university and study psychology. What I was looking for was just the answer to a couple of questions, the ones that I had ever since I was a child: What makes some people compassionate no matter what their social conditions? and What turns other people to violence? Just as I was about to get my doctor’s degree, a very powerful sociology professor helped me to see that I had picked the wrong profession. Critical psychology wasn’t going to provide my answers. Psychiatry and psychology were part of the problem. They contributed to the violence by creating this myth of mental illness, which took focus away from the structures that were really responsible for the oppression on the planet.

“So, I turned to just studying people who lived like my uncle – how they are different, and what they have gone through. Even today, when I meet compassionate people in countries suffering horrible conditions, I’m always eager to ask them, ‘What has helped you to stay compassionate in a world that contributes so much to violence?’ The answer is that they didn’t get disconnected. I think it’s our nature to be compassionate. In exercises I’ve taught all over the world, I have asked people to think of something they did recently that enriched somebody’s life. Then I ask them how they feel. And they feel wonderful. So, I’m convinced that is our nature; that we are created out of an energy which makes contributing to life our highest joy.

“We’re all born with this nature, but we are systematically disconnected from it. The problem is the education we have received to maintain centuries-old social structures. As the theologian Walter Wink says, ‘We have been educated for about eight to ten thousand years in a way that makes violence enjoyable.’ We’ve been living under the assumption that this figure called ‘God’ sits on a mountain top and judges people, punishing them if they’re bad and rewarding them if they’re good. Some people claim to be close to that figure and have the same right to dish our punishments and rewards.

“Fear is not the problem. Education has disconnected us from our nature. You have to disconnect people from their natural compassion in order to teach them that the good life is doing ‘what’s right’ as defined by authority. And if they do ‘what’s right,’ then they deserve to be rewarded; if they don’t, they deserve to suffer. You bump that into people’s heads from birth on in churches and educational institutions. You teach them a static, judgmental language – right, wrong, good, bad, normal, abnormal, freedom fighter, terrorist. Then you teach them the concept of retributive justice. Keep them from seeing each other’s humanity, and then the simplest of conflicts can lead to war.

“For thirty-some years, I have been helping to create radically different schools. We have them now in many countries, including Serbia, Israel, Palestine, Sweden, and the United States. There are no punishments or rewards in these schools. We teach the teachers, students, and parents non-violent communication. So you don’t hear them using language like ‘have to’, ‘should,’ ‘must,’ ‘right/wrong,’ or ‘good/bad.’ There are rules, but the rules are designed to protect everybody’s rights, not to punish bad people. The result is far less violence and far higher academic achievement.

“To get to the next generation, of course, we have to go through this generation. And it hasn’t been easy to get into the schools. Most of the time we get into the schools when children are violent and everybody gets desperate; we are allowed into the schools out of desperation. But once we get there, beautiful things happen. For instance, we now have a teacher in every school in Serbia teaching non-violent communication.

“Here’s another story I love to share. A mother came to an open seminar of mine in Jerusalem. During a break, she said she wanted me to know how she got there that day. Three days before, she was having an argument with her husband. She was telling him what was wrong with him, and he was telling her what was wrong with her. Her nine year-old daughter came up to them and said, ‘Mommy, don’t tell Daddy what’s wrong with him. Tell him your needs. Say it this way…’ The mother couldn’t believe it; her child was saying exactly what she wanted to say to her husband, and he was listening. She asked her daughter, ‘How did you know to speak that way?’ And the daughter replied, ‘Oh Mommy, that’s just non-violent communication. Everybody at school does that!’

“The mother called her child’s school principal and was told, ‘Be patient. First we get it to the students and teachers. Next month we’re going to get it to the parents. But the man that taught us is going to be in Jerusalem this weekend.’ And so she decided to attend my seminar.

“This mother is a fantastic musician who has since incorporated the principles of Nonviolent Communication into children’s songs and even a powerful, entertaining musical play that she and her husband have performed in hundreds of schools across Israel.”

We asked how Marshall plants the seeds of change in a country that needs the benefits of Nonviolent Communication. “Before we can even deal with a country’s specific issues, we have to find people with the competence and capacity to work toward social change. These people must have a spiritual, service-oriented perspective that’s in harmony with the principles of Non-violent Communication, as well as a certain political sophistication. So that’s how we proceed. We try to find a team of such people within the country, give them every bit of training we can, and then provide continued support by connecting them with people who have had success in other countries. We charge the team with liberating themselves and others from oppressive learning, peacefully resolving conflicts at home and at work, and ultimately changing the social structures. The most powerful way for people to learn and internalize the value of Nonviolent Communication is for them to see it in practice.”

Marshall has found that this principle works even in war-torn countries where there is enormous strife and pain. “In places like Rwanda, Bosnia, Israel, and Palestine, we bring together people from both sides of the conflict. In many situations, everyone participating has lost at least one member of their family. We bring them together for restoration and reconciliation. At the beginning it seems impossible because both sides are in such pain. But once you can get each to see each other’s humanity, it’s amazing what you can do in a short time. For example, in Nigeria, I was working with chiefs from both sides of warring tribes – a Christian tribe and a Muslim tribe. My colleague told me as I walked in the door that it could be a little hot in there. He said, ‘There’s got to be at least three people in the room that know that somebody in the room killed a member of their family.’ And it was very, very tense at the beginning. I explained to them that our training is focused on human needs, and my job that day was to get everyone’s needs on the table. I was confident that when we saw everybody’s needs, we could find a way to peacefully resolve the conflict – which had to do in that case with how many places in the marketplace each tribe could display its wares.

“So I said let’s start with telling what your needs are, whoever wants to start. A chief from one of the tribes screamed across the table, ‘You people are murderers!’ And he was answered, ‘You people have been trying to dominate us!’ So, I asked for needs, and I got each side telling me what was wrong with the other. I wasn’t surprised, because whether it’s couples who are going through divorce or nations at war, people don’t know how to connect with each other’s humanity.

“Instead, they resort to diagnosing what’s wrong with the other. I loaned the skills to the chief who screamed ‘Murderer!’ I helped him describe that as a need, which was pretty obvious. I said, ‘Are you saying your need is for safety and you want to be sure that no matter what conflicts are there, that they be resolved somehow other than through violence?’ And he said, ‘That’s exactly what I mean.’ There was some back-and-forth after that, but at one point one of the chiefs said to me, ‘Marshall, if we know how to communicate this way, we don’t have to kill each other.’”

And that, of course, is the essence of Marshall’s life work. We asked if he had any last words of wisdom for those wishing to apply the principles of Nonviolent Communication. “Use the power of your words and deeds to enrich the lives of others,” he replied. “And watch the seeds you plant come to fruition. Do you know of anything in the world better than that?”



The Flip, by Jared Rosen and David Rippe, illuminates a clear path to a vibrant enlightened world where millions of people already live and thrive. It describes in vivid detail and real examples evidence of an upside down world in decay and a Right Side Up world of authentic beings bright with possibility.
The Flip is an owner’s manual for the twenty-first century full of insights, conversations with recognized experts, thought leaders, and visionaries, and actionable exercises and tips you can use to begin your own personal flip.

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