NVC De-Escalation Handout for Participants

This material has been compiled by Ceri Buckmaster, together with Viv Slack, Neil Howard, K2, Penny Spawforth, Laura Harvey, Paul Kahawatte. For more information, see the NVC UK website: www.nvc-uk.com. 

What is Nonviolence?

Nonviolence works because it inspires, builds trust and opens doors for large numbers of people to get involved and express themselves. It also models the world we want to live in by committing to causing no harm.

Beyond blame and judgement, nonviolence recognizes that all of us are part of this system and that we live interdependently (what happens to you affects me and vice versa) and all of our futures are at stake.

Some core elements of nonviolence are:

  • Non-harming.
  • Moving beyond blame and judgement to seek to understand the position and perspective of the other.
  • Truth-telling from a place of courage, compassion and love.
  • Interdependence.
  • Self-connection or inner peace.

”Nonviolence is the courage to speak truth with love…and love is the full radical acceptance of the humanity of every person.” - Miki Kashtan

What is Nonviolent Direct Action?

Nonviolent Direct Action (NVDA) is a strategy of organising in groups to put your bodies in direct contact with or to directly oppose a force that you see as destructive or causing harm. NVDA strategies as we know them now developed out of the Nonviolent campaigns to end British rule of India, most commonly associated with Gandhi, and in the struggle for Civil Rights in the US in the 50s and 60s, most commonly associated with Dr. Martin Luther King.

What is Nonviolent Communication?

Nonviolent communication (NVC) is another expression of Nonviolence. NVC was developed by Marshall Rosenberg who drew on the humanistic psychology of Carl Rogers and the nonviolence of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, to develop the tools to approach actions and organising in a way that includes your own needs, while considering others' and the needs of the wider environment, so that unintentional harm is more likely to be avoided.

Some Core elements of NVC are:

  • Recognising that all humans share the same fundamental needs, no matter how different their strategies for meeting them might be.
  • From this basis, seeing the possibility of connection with all.
  • Moving beyond blame, judgment, ‘should’, ‘have to’.
  • Communicating from a place of choice.
  • Foregrounding the act of listening, as a precursor for speaking, including to de-escalate tense situations.
  • Expressing yourself by trying to communicate clear observations which aren’t disputable instead of emotion-laden and unconscious interpretations.

Overview of NVC De-Escalation Skills

The acronym below is a simple, five-step process that may support you to stay self-connected and in your intention to connect with the other, including in tense situations.

  1. Breathe. Ground. Notice your sources of support.
  2. Remember The Humanity of All.
  3. Empathy Before Education.
  1. Reflecting Not Reacting.
  2. Feelings Before Facts.
  3. Connection Over Correction.
  1. Ask First - Is the other person ready to hear your perspective?
  2. BreaTHe. Debrief with Support.

NVC De-Escalation Step by Step

1. Breathe. Ground. Notice your sources of support.

High-intensity and conflictual moments can be extremely challenging. We are hard-wired to fight, flight or freeze during them. And if we wish to remain calm, self-connected and able to focus on connecting with the other, we need both preparation and support. The idea of this first step then is preparatory. Before you begin your ‘work’ as a de-escalator, between each moment you are active, whenever you have a second to replenish - breathe. Ground yourself. Connect to the fact that life is ongoing no matter what is happening in this present moment. Also: look around and name what support you have available; simply doing so can give you a sense of safety, solidarity, stability.

Ways of grounding yourself in tense situations:

  • Breathe slowly and deeply, count your breaths and follow them.
  • Close your eyes and feel the Earth beneath your body. Imagine roots extending under your feet.
  • Notice your feelings and name them (e.g. I feel the tension in my arms, I have some fear, I’m wanting this to go well…’)
  • Notice your sources of support. Ask yourself what in your immediate environment is a source of support right now? It may be a friend, the presence of people you trust, the fact that you have somewhere safe to sit...anything.

Practice!! Practice daily. How does it feel?

2. Remember The Humanity of All

A commitment to nonviolence begins from the premise that all of us matter. It recognises that we are all fundamentally similar. It also holds that none of us is intrinsically ‘bad’, even when and if we do things that are painful for others. A critical starting point for practicing nonviolence, therefore, is to connect to the humanity of all. We can do this by attempting to put ourselves in another person’s shoes. In the context of a protest, imagine yourself as a frustrated commuter, a policeman, or an angry demonstrator. What are you feeling? Why? Sink as deeply as you can into what it must feel like to be that person, how you would feel if you were them. Judgements and evaluations of the ‘rightness’, ‘wrongness’ or ‘deservingness’ of the other will block our compassion for them; imagining ourselves as them can help to melt those judgements away.

  • Connect to what those disrupted by an action might be feeling (e.g. a bystander, driver of car, shop assistant, etc).
  • Spend time considering what’s going on for them (what they might be feeling, what they might be needing) until something shifts inside you.
  • Do this exercise again and again to prepare you and sustain you through the actions.

3. Empathy Before Education

When people are upset, empathy can be supportive. They don’t want to be told that they’ll be OK, that this isn’t a big deal, that you’ve had it worse or have an answer for them. They also don’t want some ‘rational’ engagement where you seek to shift their state through the force of argument. What they want is to be understood - to have someone get what they’re feeling and why. Think of the times when you are upset - isn’t that also what you want?

Truly listening to someone is a powerful gift that can foster a real sense of connection. It also supports people to re-centre themselves, taking the immediate charge out of any anger. At the very core of our de-escalation will be ongoing empathy. It is the lifeblood of NVC and will be essential to maintaining peaceful connection at the protest actions. It is also likely to be fundamental to any growth in this movement, since all the latest psychological research suggests that people are not often persuaded to change their worldviews but instead open to change through the pathway of connection.

Here are a few alternative ways of expressing the principle of empathy before education:

  • Reflecting not reacting.
  • Feelings before facts.
  • Connection not correction.

What is not empathy?


All of us will at some point have tried to comfort another or been comforted by another. Unfortunately, a great deal of what passes for empathy is in fact very different to it, and far less effective. Why?




I see, that’s the issue. What you’ve got to do is this….




Oh you poor, poor thing, don’t worry, it’ll get better soon…




Oh, guess what…




Oh that’s nothing! Wait until I tell you about what happened to me….




Oh you’re such a poor thing. What ever will you do?




I know exactly how you feel…



Although well intentioned, none of the above really lets the other person feel held and heard. None allows sufficient space for their process. And none involves you being fully present with the other in their experience.


What is empathy?


Empathy is the practice of compassionate presence with another. With empathy we allow space for the other, we offer them unconditional acceptance, and we accompany them in a kind of radical emotional openness. The German word for empathy translates literally as ‘feeling into another’. Because in empathy, we are with that person, but we do not become them. We feel and sense what matters for them, what their feelings and needs may be, and in the process of that empathic co-presence we are able to support them as they deal or heal.


Empathy Skills


There are multiple stages in offering genuine empathic presence to another person.


- Active listening.

- Mirroring/ Reflecting back.

- Sensing what is important in the other.

- Guessing at feelings and needs.

What is Active Listening?

Actively choose to really listen to the other, to understand them and help them see that you aim to understand them. Do not wait for them to finish so that you can speak. Do not interrupt or lead the conversation for them.

Examples of Mirroring/ Reflecting Back

Bystander: “I get what you are trying to do. But why are you blocking the road? These people will get criminal records. Where does that get you?”

Activist: “So although you see the aim, you also feel that it’s pointless to block the road?” Is that right?

Bystander: “Yes, it doesn’t get you anywhere and these people will get criminal records for nothing. I’m sure there are better ways of getting the message across.”

Activist: “Right, yes, you are really doubting this will get us anywhere and there is high cost to pay for doing this, and you have a sense there are better ways of being heard and bringing about change.”

Sensing What’s Important/Guessing at Feelings and Needs

Activist: I’m hearing that you’re really frustrated and would just like to get home. I’m guessing that you’re tired and could really just do with some ease right now....

Don’t be tempted to add-on your own perspective to this reflection. The founder of Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg said ‘Don’t stick your but(t) in the other person’s face.’  

Avoid saying “I get that you are feeling really annoyed and frustrated that you are being held up like this, but it won’t be for long and it’s the only way to get climate change onto the agenda.”

Your ‘but(t)’ statement undoes the helpful impact of your attempt at listening to the other person. People will only hear the last thing you said and they won’t have the felt experience that you have got their perspective.

Instead say, ‘I get that you are feeling really annoyed and frustrated.’ (Silence. Space. Pause. See what else comes from the other person.)

Tip: Resistance to the Resistance is Fertile!!

  • Listen to people’s criticism of XR with curiosity and receive it as feedback. Inside there may be something useful.
  • When people resist what you are doing and saying, and criticise XR choices around strategies and actions, know this is fertile ground for connecting across differences and building engagement.
  • If you can hear people’s concerns in an undefended way, you are more likely to inspire them with having had a positive interaction with you.
  • You might be in a place of absolute certainty that direct action is the only way of creating change in the current moment. You are likely to have to face feedback about the cost (disruption, inconvenience, life-threatening delays) of doing these actions. What reactions do you typically have when hearing this feedback? e.g.‘You’d better get used to it!” / “We have no choice. This is the only way to be heard.” The challenge is to be aware when you are responding from a place of ‘No choice’ and ‘Scarcity’. These are not generally motivating for people. Responding from a place of listening, empathy, connection builds bridges between you and bystanders and is more likely to inspire a positive experience.

4. Ask First - Is the other person ready to hear your perspective?

This helps to build a nonviolent culture of consent and choice. If you want to be genuinely heard by the other, they need to be ready to hear you. And they are unlikely to be ready if they are triggered and angry and don’t first feel heard by you. This is why empathy first is critical. And then, when there is connection between you, respect that person’s space by asking them whether they are open to hearing what’s alive for you. Asking for consent prepares them in a small way for listening, so they are more likely to take on board what you are saying.

Following on from the last practice, ask the bystander first, before you share your perspective. If you have time you could say a line or two from the last practice and then ask:

“Do you have a sense that I’ve got what’s important for you?”

“Do you want to hear a bit from me about what we are doing here and why?”

Then, how do you express yourself in ways that they will hear? Use ‘I’ statements, always own your needs in what you are saying, step into the vulnerability of being honest. For example:

‘I am really scared for our collective future, for my children and all the children. I am scared and I’m worried. I desperately want us to take action to protect our future, to save our planet, and I’m here because I want the government to hear me and the millions of others who feel the same’.

Tip: This may feel ‘weird’. Allow a bit of space for the ‘weirdness’ of this. This is probably the experience of new neural pathways forming - and this is not how most of us have been raised to communicate, so it takes practice!

5. BreaTHE - Self-check in. Notice your sources of support. e.g. empathy, movement, checkin. Plan to access them.

Don’t forget that protests and conflict within them can be intense, energy-sapping, scary and many other things besides. You may well need empathy of your own or other support to sustain your nonviolence in and beyond them. When they are over, make sure you bookend your contribution with a debrief. Ground yourself again as you did at the start. Seek support and access it.


CLARA Action Steps

When we act, we often act in relationship to others.  When considering which actions may be most constructive when acting amongst others, the following tools may be helpful. 

When engaging with others, often the best thing we can do is to listen, and to affirm what is being said.  Too often when we are not speaking, we are also not listening with an intent to understand – we are simply waiting our turn to speak, then we jump to respond without affirming a single thing we heard. 


Take deep breaths and Ground


Listen with an intent to understand.  Listen for underlying principles, cultural values, emotions, and issues behind what is being said.  Listen for commonalities.  Observe body language and tone of voice which may provide additional meaning.  Listen for inherent needs and interests, not just what is said.


Affirm the principles or issues in what was said, or simply the feelings or emotions that were expressed (“you care strong about this”).  Affirming is not agreeing, it’s acknowledging or recognizing what is shared. This can be done by simply repeating or rephrasing what was said. 


Respond to the issues that were raised and the underlying needs behind them.  Ask questions about what was said. 


Add information to the conversation.  After seeking to understand, seek to be understood. 

Assertion Statements (also known as “I” Statements)

One way to engage conflict constructively is to communicate our desires and interests to others and share the rationales behind those interests.  When we are affected by others, it can be extremely helpful to give feedback on how we were impacted.  The assertion statement framework is especially effective when used in the “Add” part of the CLARA method (above) but can also be used on its own.

“I feel ______ when (you) _______ because ________.  What I’m hoping we might try is ________.”

The formula above is best used by adapting it to your communication style, “voice” and culture.  What’s most important is that all 4 key elements are included in your communication, regardless of the order.

  •  Identify and share your feelings and emotions about the situation.
  • Identify and articulate the cause of those feelings.
  • Provide lots of context and explanation for why those feelings are caused – the more the better!
  • Identify and articulate what your needs and desires are – what your ideal looks like – and frame it in a way that invites others into a conversation about how that might be achieved, what their role in your vision might be, and how their own interests might be satisfied as well.     


Know your rights

One element of De-escalation is to Know your Rights and for anyone who has a De-escalation role to know our rights. 

Netpol seeks to monitor public order, protest and street policing, and to challenge and resist policing which is excessive, discriminatory or threatens civil rights.


Core Messages

The core messages that everyone should remember are:

No Comment

You do not need to answer police questions, so don’t.

No Personal Details

You do not have to give them under ANY stop and search power, so don’t.

No Duty Solicitor

Instead use a recommended solicitor with protest experience.

No Cautions

Accepting a caution is an admission of guilt, so don’t.

What Power?

Ask officers what power they are relying on to challenge them to act lawfully.

This material has been compiled by Ceri Buckmaster, together with Viv Slack, Neil Howard, Sinhaketu, Penny Spawforth, Laura Harvey, Paul Kahawatte: www.nvc-uk.com