A new way of connecting

Danny Cohen leads a workshop based on nonviolent communication

Danny Cohen (photo credit: DANNY COHEN)
Danny Cohen
(photo credit: DANNY COHEN)
Danny Cohen believes that empathy will set you free. In his new eight-week course held at Yeshivat Sulam Yaakov in Nahlaot, titled “Inner Life Work: the Art and Craft of Connection,” he aims to present what he has learned from many years studying Nonviolent Communication (NVC).
“I came by it the hard way – through my own needs and struggles,” Cohen recalls. “I needed to find a way of relating to my own experience that would help me out of the constant emotional ups and downs that were occurring a number of years ago. That’s what launched me into mindfulness practice, and NVC came not long after.”
Cohen was introduced to Marshall Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Light seven years ago. Rosenberg was the target of antisemitism as a child, lived through the race riots in Detroit, and watched two of his uncles take care of his grandmother, one of whom was resentful and the other profoundly compassionate. Rosenberg was led to explore the questions of what leads to violence and how to remain living and relating with an open heart.
Cohen admits that he doesn’t read many books cover to cover, but this was an exception.
“The book brings theory with really concrete, practical applications, stories and anecdotes,” he explains. “There was a woman who kept herself from being raped or murdered using emergency empathy on her attacker. This is not just for niceties; it’s actually not at all about being nice. There’s even an NVC book called Don’t Be Nice, Be Real.”
The first opportunity for Cohen to employ some of the principles of NVC occurred while he was attending the University of Pennsylvania. He received an email informing him that pro-Palestinian student activists were planning on wearing T-shirts the next day supporting their cause. The email suggested that the Jewish students wear their “Stand with Israel” T-shirts as a counterprotest.
“The thing that struck me was, why do we have to be by definition counter? Anything that a person does or says is motivated by an attempt to meet their needs. I wondered what would happen if we took the approach of curiosity and asked what was motivating their needs. Maybe we’re not necessarily opposed to what it is that they want. I tried to write a response to the email in a way that was really holding that consciousness.”
Cohen was amazed at the number of responses he received from people who were grateful and moved that he had articulated a more empathetic approach. It was an empowering moment for him and a taste of things to come. He noted that freeing himself from the polemics of ideological arguments enabled him to reach beyond and connect with something that is more human.
“That is what motivates me in the work that I do, touching what is deeply human and alive,” Cohen says. “The sense of aliveness that I get from being able to meet people in that place is what drives me to teach the workshops. My hope is that this kind of orientation in situations allows us to respond in a way that is compassionate rather than defiant.”
He recently attended a nine-day, intensive, international training for NVC. A message he received from one of the trainers struck him: Never give your power away to someone else, such that you’re left only with the option to either submit or rebel. This is at the core of NVC philosophy. Cohen points out that although those are rather grand terms, we deal with those options all the time in our communication.
“Instead of responding in that way, we could try to understand what the needs are of the other person,” he states.
The distinction between strategies and needs is a core NVC principle. NVC teaches that conflicts occur on the level of strategies, but if we get back in touch with our own needs as well as the needs of the other, we will always be able to relate on a deeply human level.
“We could look at our interpersonal relationships as much as geopolitical ones,” he adds. “I want this to happen, or I want you to do this. A strategy is a way of trying to fulfill needs. NVC teaches you to hold tightly to your needs, but lightly to your strategies. We never have to give up on anything which is important or dear to us.”
Couples in counseling are often told that they have to compromise, which, in Cohen’s opinion, stems from a conflation of needs and strategies. According to NVC, needs are never in tension with each other. When a person realizes that there are a thousand ways to meet their needs, then they are less attached to their strategies, especially if they feel that the other understands and cares about what they need.
There is an important distinction between empathizing and agreeing, which in NVC communication is an empowering difference.
“If I recognize what’s important to you, that doesn’t mean I have to go along with it and give up what’s important to me,” Cohen adds. “If I can hear that you so want love and support and to be seen, that doesn’t mean that I’m going to give up on what I want, but I can acknowledge that that’s what’s important to you and be with you in that.
“What enables me to do that is if I have clarity around my own needs. I’ll only do something if I’m really choosing to do it, because if it’s any other way, you’re going to pay the price later. There’s a lot of awareness around what causes that resentment. We develop resentments towards other people when we do something that we’re not really choosing to do or is not aligned with our core values.”
Another radical principle of NVC is to never do anything unless or until you want to do it and it is aligned with your values. NVC asks not only what do you want the other to do, but why.
The belief is that freedom lies in being open to new strategies. According to NVC, the more creativity and flexibility we have around strategies, the more joyous life will be, and the more willing others will be to support those strategies.
This ties into another core NVC principle, which is the distinction between requests and demands.
“NVC uses a lot of particular language, but it’s not at all about language,” Cohen explains. “Requests are not defined by the use of the word please. Requests are defined by the willingness I hold in my heart to hear a ‘no.’ That doesn’t mean I won’t be disappointed, but there are other ways for me to live out my need.
“People pick up on other people’s demands, and the reason that we are averse to them is that they don’t acknowledge our sense of choice. We all have a need for choice and autonomy. If you share with me what needs would be met for you by doing it this way, then I might even be inspired to do it that way, which is very helpful for couples. As soon as you tell me what to do, I have this sense of contraction.”
In Cohen’s estimation, NVC relates profoundly to Torah. He points out that the world was created with the letter bet, which represents duality, and that the challenge of creation is discovering the unity amid the multiplicity. If there is only duality, then humans are ultimately estranged from one another.
“The promise is that there is actually an alef. Alef is the letter of revelation, of anochi of the 10 utterances; it’s the unity,” he explains. “My experience with NVC is that it gives access to the sense of commonality that permeates human experience. When I talk about what people are, that fortifies us into an otherness; us and them. When I speak in a language of feelings and basic human needs, they’re common to everyone’s experience. If I say that I’m feeling disheartened and that I would like more of a sense of reciprocity in this relationship, see if that touches you in some way. Do you know that experience of being disheartened? Do you have some sense of resonance with that quality of reciprocity?”
At the heart of NVC is the belief that by communicating in a way that expresses basic needs, it strips away the protective layers and allows for real connection. The language of NVC helps to translate the human experience in a way that creates resonance, which, in turn, can help maintain an openness even, and especially, in difficult or tense situations and conflict.
Cohen moved to Israel in 2011 after traveling extensively in India.
“I had a sense of belonging and had been holding this idea that Israel is the place where we get to play out our vision of what’s possible,” he says. “I wanted to be a part of, and contribute to, that.”
In the fall of 2015, Cohen led his first workshop on “Inner Life Work” through “This Is Not An Ulpan,” where the principle is to teach Hebrew around a particular subject. He offered a course for advanced students on NVC. After receiving positive feedback, he began to consider teaching a full course.
“I’ve been to a number of workshops with NVC teacher Yoram Mosenzon, and I served as an assistant for him,” Cohen says. “He has been very supportive of me starting to teach. I was able to observe him modeling how this can work. NVC can be used in a way that people are really turned off by, with overly formulaic language. But to watch him was to see this beautiful, organic, soft-hearted, masterful process.”
Cohen has now led several intensive workshops on NVC, under his own title of “Inner Life Work.” Each of his sessions includes sharing and teaching of principles, modeling, demonstrations and practice time.
“I’m enlivened and engaged with the pedagogy of sharing these tools,” he states. “How do I support you in integrating this into your own consciousness and communication habits, so that it can fulfill its transformative potential? In Hebrew, NVC translates as communication which brings close. That’s really the goal. If communication doesn’t bring connection, then it’s not NVC.”