I’m delighted to feature this article by Susan Clarke, a music teacher in Australia.

Susan posted a comment on one of the NVC forums I follow about learning NVC and she drew an analogy to learning to play a musical instrument. I enjoyed her comment so much I contacted her and asked if she would like to expand it into a full article.

And here it is!

Are you feeling confused because you’re needing clarity about the way we learn the process of Non Violent Communication?  I have an analogy that might help, would you be willing to read about it?

The structure of formal NVC can sound contrived and feel uncomfortable but it has a useful role to play as we learn a language of compassion and non-violence.  The following analogy came to me as I taught a class of nine-year old beginning band musicians and might be useful in putting the process in perspective.

Learning to Play

Learning to play a musical instrument for many children is a complex and difficult process, especially if they have no family background.  Most of my students are in that category.  They attend public schools in blue-collar areas and are all accepted, regardless of their academic or musical ability.

I designed a poster that gives an apt description for what a musician attempts to do:

Music engages our whole selves – Ears, Eyes, Body, Mind, Heart

Young students are confronted with a massive amount of information in the beginning as they learn the vocabulary of notes and rhythms at the same time as they are learning to hold adult-size instruments and coordinate fingers, breath and tongue.   For several months, I would not describe what they’re playing as music, even though they’re playing what’s on the page – it is stilted and jerky and I can almost hear the internal cogs turning as they focus on putting all the elements together.  I tell them,

The more you play the easier it gets; play until it’s easy

and as their skills develop with practice there are moments when it sounds like music.  Then, over time, usually many years, their technique develops and they become aware of the nuances of phrasing, structure and dynamics,  bringing them closer to the magic of making music.

Playing v Expressing

There is a difference between being able to play an instrument competently and being able to express ones self as a musician.  Pablo Casals, a man of peace and one of the greatest musicians of the last century once said,

The most important thing in music is what is not in the notes

It is possible to play an instrument with virtuosic technique but still fail to move others if we forget to connect our playing to our heart and soul.  Likewise, it is possible to play imperfectly with mistakes and still express music from the heart.  Virtuosity without heart is a spectacle, impressive to some, leaving others cold; with heart it is miraculous, and deeply satisfying.

I am reminded of a scene in the movie Mr Holland’s Opus where Mr Holland (Richard Dreyfus) is teaching a struggling, young clarinetist.  She is frustrated and upset because in spite of all her practice she can’t play the piece with any sense of flow.  The breakthrough comes when he helps her connect to her own inner experience and, as if a lock had been broken, her heart opens, freeing her to play the passage with ease and expression. She is not virtuosic but she is expressive and that’s what she wanted to be.

Technique is only the scaffolding in any art form – without it a performance can be expressive but messy, but if it’s the only thing in evidence the performance has nothing to say and misses the point – to move the soul.

Our intention informs our practice

If we want to learn to play an instrument competently we will learn enough technique to experience the joy of performing in an ensemble and entertaining our family and friends, meeting our need for fun and self-expression.  For many, this is a worthy goal.   However, to achieve mastery, a musician needs to reach a level of technical facility that will liberate her to express the composer’s intention while expressing herself – artistry takes her to a whole new level of commitment, resilience and practice.  This can be a grueling process, and many give up as the demand for technical perfection wears them down because they forget why they wanted to play music in the first place.

At one stage, many years ago I told my new teacher I wanted to be a professional musician.  I thought he would be pleased, but instead he looked exasperated and said,

Why not be an amateur? Do you know what that means?  A true amateur plays from the heart.  Being a professional destroys that.

And for many the sad truth is that their intention to play music joyfully from the heart has been lost in the quest for success in the harsh competitive environment of the profession.

Learning NVC is like the journey of learning music

My guess is that most people come to NVC with the desire to improve their relationships and way of being in the world.  For many, there is this feeling that whatever they’re doing now isn’t working and they’re attracted by the idea that there is a process and skills that will make things better and help us to connect with others safely and effectively.

Formal NVC gives us a skill set for compassionate communication that feels clunky and contrived to begin with, and couldn’t be described as fluent communication.   The cogs turning are very much in evidence at the start in much the same way as it is for a beginning musician.

Firstly, we remember to pause to process what is alive for us in the moment and attempt to observe what’s happening without judgment, then we choose whether to express what we are feeling and needing and follow up with a request.  Most of this process feels foreign to us because we have gone through life reactively responding either defensively or aggressively.  Just to pause is a huge step, and accepting that taking the risk to practise in real life is vital to our progress is another step further.  For myself, in the beginning I’d pause and say nothing because my mind was processing what was alive for me and how I wanted to respond to the other person so slowly the moment would pass before I’d said anything.   I decided that was a positive step along the lines of “Do no harm!”

As time goes on and my consciousness grows, and my intention for compassionate connection comes to the forefront of my interactions, the nuances of compassion – empathy for myself and others, literacy in feelings, needs and requests – are becoming integrated into my way of being and my communication is less contrived and more connecting with myself and the other person.  The pause becomes silent empathy, sometimes for myself but more often these days for the other; the words become genuine expressions and enquiries into their feelings and needs and the requests become connective strategies to bring us together.

As with musicians, it is difficult for us to express ourselves authentically if we are sweating over the process, but with practice the mechanics become more natural allowing us to communicate from the heart.  It takes time to bring the two components together and the process of developing mastery involves a balancing act between them.  We are developing habits of heart with the conscious intention to connect compassionately with ourselves and others using the scaffolding process that is NVC.  Ultimately, this is artistry in NVC.

For many, the intention to learn NVC is about developing a set of communication skills that helps them to deal with conflict in their lives.  When I mention Non Violent Communication many people automatically reply “Oh, like conflict resolution” and that is enough.  Others want to learn it to communicate more effectively with their spouse or their children, while others see the potential for spiritual and personal transformation and strive to integrate non violence into their lives and way of being.  The danger is that like the aspiring musician, we can become so engrossed in the mechanics and technique of perfecting the process, we forget our intention to live compassionately, to connect with others with authenticity. If we forget that intention we end up with empty words and something that sounds a little weird and sometimes even threatening, especially when used in self-serving ways.  The NVC process used without heart is not NVC, just like musical technique alone isn’t music.

As with most learning, these are spiral processes, moving through different levels that afford a view of where we’ve been and maybe a glimpse of where we’re going when we work with teachers and mentors.  We will make progress, think we’ve got it, and around the next bend notice we’ve been there before, but with a greater awareness and capacity to build on what we’ve already learned.  I have students who want to flick the pages of their method books to play the last page as fast as they can before they’ve acquired the skills and knowledge they need to make it work, and they get frustrated because they would dearly love to impress others.  Sometimes they need to be reminded that in the long term it’s a more effective strategy to slow down and accept the process of learning and building on the skills step by step, that to be good musicians they need to respect and embrace the craft with loving attention.  I often have to remind myself of the same thing in NVC, take time, slow down, accept the process, live the intention and practise with love, even if my imperfection is on show.

Orchestra, band, community

Finally, belonging to a community is common to most learning, linking up with others who share a common interest and who know what it is we’re trying to achieve and understand the values that motivate us.  Young musicians join a band or an orchestra to pool the resources of their skills and talents together to make music, the whole often greater than the sum of its parts.  Together they can encourage each other and grow in confidence as they play together.  Likewise with NVC, joining together with others, who want to live more compassionate lives and live in a more compassionate world, in practice groups or empathy circles, strengthens us as individuals when we practise our skills and live our intention in a community that understands, supports and values our journey.

Perhaps NVC, like music, engages our whole selves.  We listen, observe, feel our responses, process the information and empathize – ears, eyes, body, mind, heart.  If we remember that we can develop an artistry in our practice that can transform our lives and communities.


Susan Clarke teaches instrumental music in public schools in Queensland, Australia.  She is a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and is learning the art of making sour dough bread.   She hopes to be a candidate for certification as a trainer in Nonviolent Communication in the near future.