These blogs are an attempt to put the content of Eva’s NVC trainings online into a readable format. If you missed them, here are previous blogs in this series. 

Part One: why we study nonviolence

Part Two: the practice of empathy

Part Three: the building blocks of empathy, feelings and needs

Part Four: observations and requests

Part Five: beginning a practice in NVC

Part Six: when enemies appear

Part Seven: the movement needs a repair kit

The Gist:

Before I got involved in activism, I worked in healthcare. Fresh out of college, I held my idea of professionalism tightly and revealed little about myself to colleagues, keeping my exchanges sunny and brief. It was easy to do because my role involved driving by myself to patients’ homes for visits, so I seldom had moments for small talk with colleagues. 

One day, after I had been working there for about six months, my team got together for lunch to celebrate an intern’s graduation. It was at a Mediterranean place, so I easily found something to eat. After we sat down with our food, the most veteran team member, Tom, asked what I was eating, and after I told him, asked if I was vegan. I confirmed. 

He replied, “Hey, how do you know if someone is vegan? Oh, don’t worry, they’ll tell you!”

I don’t remember what I said next. I probably just laughed, but inside I was seething. If I had had any vegan friends at the time, I would have immediately excused myself to the bathroom to text them. He asked! How does he get to make that joke when he was the one who brought it up! 

Here are some things I know about the interaction that day. 

  1. I received a cue of nonbelonging: a message that there was something about me that did not fit in with the group. 
  2. Tom did not mean to express hostility to me or tell me I didn’t belong, at least not in a consciously malicious way. He probably had no clue how he made me feel and quickly forgot all about it.
  3. This was not the first, or even the tenth, time I had experienced the same joke in my life. 

I imagine many readers can relate to this, and especially can understand the impact of that final point above. What made the joke even worse was that I had received many similar cues of nonbelonging before. I’m thinking of times when, given limited options, I put together a strange combination of foods and someone said it looked gross. I’m remembering times someone told me, “I could never be vegan, I just love…” and described the experience of eating an animal’s body in graphic detail. Or a high-school friend who made a habit of telling me, “I like the kind of vegan you are because you don’t make a big deal about it.” 

This is something that Tom had no idea about: he wasn’t there for any of those moments. Even so, his intention was completely unrelated to the impact his words had.

Years later 

In January 2020 I attended a Nonviolent Communication retreat with my colleague Aidan. After a session on microaggressions by renowned trainer Roxy Manning, Aidan said to me, “Vegans can definitely experience microaggressions.”

I cringed, feeling a million retorts compete to come out of my mouth. “Are you equating being vegan with…” “That’s super problematic.” “We choose veganism; nobody chooses their race, gender, sexuality, age, ability, etc.” “Gosh, I hope you never bring this up again.”

But in the magical, open, listen-first air of the retreat, I saved my retorts. I found space to listen to what he meant before I responded.

As it turned out, Roxy taught this definition of microaggressions:

Things we say or do, or structures we create, that intentionally or unintentionally send a message to a particular group that they do not belong or are less than.

While not explicit above, the explanation Roxy gives in her book, The Anti-Racist Heart, requires an element of systemic power. 

“Because microaggressions are rooted in beliefs that some groups are less than others, a critical understanding of microaggressions include that they target groups that have been historically marginalized and given less structural power in society.”

So, microaggression wouldn’t usually refer to a joke at the expense of the only white person in the room or a comment disparaging Christmas in the US. Rather, it refers to a black person being called articulate or women in pain being denied medication, as brief examples. The concept was coined to describe subtle acts of racism and has expanded to refer to things that reinforce other differences in societal privilege, like gender, ability, class, religion, and nationality. 

Roxy describes receivers of microaggressions, who directly experience the cues of nonbelonging based on their own social identity, and also bystanders, who can be impacted greatly despite not being the direct object of the microaggression. 

It’s true that veganism is a choice in a way that many social identities are not. It’s also true that when we open ourselves up to feeling empathy for animals, we feel that pain very deeply as bystanders. And, while animals themselves are victims of systemic violence, their advocates are penalized for bringing attention to this, even with the subtlety of what we eat. 

But that realization—that microaggressions are experienced by animal advocates—isn’t about giving us a free pass. It’s about recognizing the way microaggressions can isolate and harm, even while being completely invisible to the person creating them. I offer this in hopes that we can feel more committed to avoiding them, to repairing any harm that we inadvertently cause, and to communicating in ways that help each member of our communities feel that they do belong. 

We Are Tom, Too

I really liked my colleague, Tom, as did everyone else. He’s a goofy, sensitive guy with a carefree attitude I worked to emulate. (Did I tell you we were working in hospice?) Tom being one of the only men in our company, it’s likely that over the years working together, I sent him some cues that he didn’t belong there as a man. In fact, as someone who belongs to a lot of dominant cultural groups (I’m a white, cis, so-far able-bodied, straight-passing person in the US) it’s likely I’ve inadvertently sent a lot of cues of nonbelonging to a lot of people. 

What Does Repair Look Like?

If we have a story in our heads that says that microaggressions are inflicted by racist (etc.) people, then it can be impossible to hear someone when they say that we’ve inflicted one. It conflicts with our self-image too much. Our only option might be to deny that we’ve done it. If we can understand that microaggressions happen in a context in which both the actor and receiver are only a tiny part, it’s easier to respond supportively when we find out that we’ve messed up. 

When Tom made the joke about preachy vegans, I never told him how it landed. This is the case with a lot—and probably the vast majority—of microaggressions we will commit in our lives. But let’s imagine a world where Tom had the opportunity to hear me out and try to repair the disconnect he had caused. 

I’ll go through a repair process as a dialogue, with notes in between about what is happening. I’ll include directions for both the actor and receiver (who, in this case, can also be called bystander) and imagine that both are “wearing giraffe ears.” (Marshall Rosenberg, NVC’s founder, would sometimes use giraffe puppets to role-play characters speaking nonviolently to each other.) But please keep in mind that neither person depends on the other following my directions. That is, in real life, we’re usually talking to people without training in this particular communication modality. Even so, this model can work for people on either side of a microaggression. 

Let’s imagine a private conversation after our team lunch has concluded. 

In this scenario, the receiver brings up the harm, as the actor was completely unaware of it. In other cases, it could also be appropriate for the actor to start the conversation with a gentle invitation to check in about anything bothering the other person or specifically about how a particular interaction landed for them. 

Eva: Hey Tom, there was something you said earlier that landed pretty hard for me. Are you open to talking about it?

Tom is quickly doing silent self-empathy in this moment, checking in with his body sensations and trying to determine if he’s ready to have this conversation. He’s taking a deeper breath to self-regulate. 

Tom: Sure, what’s up?

Eva’s going to try her best to use observation language, while still identifying multiple layers of the observation to help Tom understand why this is a big deal to her. She’ll refer to the joke generally to avoid disagreement about exact wording. She’ll name the feelings that came up for her and the needs that were unmet. 

Eva: When you made the joke about vegans telling you that they’re vegan, I felt pretty alienated. I’ve been vegan for a long time for reasons that are really important to me, and it’s almost always the case that I’m the only vegan in the group, so it can already be something that leads to me not feeling the belonging that I’d like. When I hear stuff like that, it stings because it builds on a whole bunch of similar experiences. 

Now, she’ll pass the conversation back to him. As an attempt to slow it down and give herself a chance to be heard before he defends himself, she’ll ask for a reflection. 

Eva: That might be a lot to hear—would you mind telling me what you got from that? It would really help me to know that you’re understanding it. 

Even if Eva didn’t make the direct request, Tom could offer a reflection to make sure he’s understanding it. He is so tempted to explain that he didn’t mean anything by the joke, but he refrains, and focuses on letting her know he hears her. 

Tom: Okay, I think I’m getting it. It sounds like veganism, while important to you, can be pretty isolating. And comments like mine are hard to hear because they cue that you don’t belong here, either. Is that it?

She might have more to say, to which Tom will continue to reflect. Once she’s been heard out, they can move on. 

Eva: Yeah, and I also know that experiences like this are one of the reasons that people decide to keep eating animals, or they start again after they stop, even when they care deeply about animals like I do. So when I feel that, it’s compounded because I know it’s the experience that means I have less camaraderie in this than I wish I did. 

Now Tom really feels like too much is being put on him. He didn’t create all of animal agriculture! He didn’t even come up with the joke himself! This is true; what Eva wants Tom to understand is not about him. Again, he refrains from defending himself, and reflects what he heard. 

Tom: I see, so it’s even bigger than your own history, and it feels so big because it’s the kind of thing that affects many others and stops them from joining you in veganism? Am I getting it?

Eva: Yeah, that’s it. 

Now Tom will try to repair the relationship, first by sharing how it impacts him to hear her. He’ll start by asking if his share is welcome. 

Tom: I’m glad you let me know about this. Would you be open to hearing what’s coming up for me?

Eva: Sure.

He’ll be careful not to self-flagellate with overly emotional language, which can sometimes feel like a demand for comfort or reassurance. He’ll once again avoid the urge to defend himself, and instead keep a focus on his impact on her. The question of whether he did something wrong has not come up. He mourns the impact without taking blame. 

Tom: I’m sad to hear that it had that impact, and I think I get why it did. I want you to have a sense of belonging here and I definitely don’t want to be the reason that anyone feels unwelcome. How is that to hear?

Eva might need more empathy at this point, or she might not. 

Eva: Thanks for hearing that, it helps to know that it matters to you.

At this point, we can talk about solutions. Tom will name the obvious– not repeating the microaggression in the future– and probe for need for further repair. 

Tom: Of course I’ll do my best not to make a joke like that again after hearing the effect it has, but is there anything else I can do now to help?

Observations Have Layers 

I’ll draw attention also to the different aspects of her experience that this fictional Eva described. 

In classical NVC, observations were sometimes taught as “something that can be observed with a video camera.” Roxy Manning notes how video cameras, and the attention of the people viewing videos, can pick up a million different observations depending on where they’re pointed. 

Roxy calls observations on this level, external. In this case, this is Tom saying “How do you know if someone is vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.” Instead of stating the observation, Eva referred to it generally, saying “When you made the joke about vegans telling you they’re vegan.” This might sometimes be smoother to share than the observation itself because we can remember exact words or events differently. 

Roxy also teaches internal observations. These are memories, internal reactions, or personal context that help all parties understand the impact of the external observation. In this case, Eva shares information about her personal history with veganism and similar jokes. 

Finally, we discuss systemic observations. The impact on Eva mostly lives at this level. It’s not just that Tom made a joke at her expense, or even that it was one that she’s heard a bunch of times in her life. If he were making fun of her for being from California or even for being young, it wouldn’t have landed so hard, even if she’d heard a similar number of jokes about these in her life. The reason it sucked so much to hear that joke was that it relates to something really big- animal exploitation and Eva’s alienation in her understanding of it. 

In this case, Eva knew that Tom wouldn’t be able to hear it if she talked about animals directly in relation to this microaggression. Even fictional giraffe-eared meat-eaters can shut down given too much horror. Instead, she spoke generally about animals- that there are important reasons for being vegan, and that she cares about animals—and shared a systemic observation about vegans—that their recidivism is related to their alienation. This allowed Tom to hear her and begin to understand. It also allowed Eva to practice self-respect and integrity with her own values. 

We Can Be Better Allies 

By relaying a repair that you can imagine from the receiver or bystander side, I hope to invite you to imagine yourself, also, on the actor side of this exchange. You may find yourself inadvertently causing harm to someone by delivering a cue of nonbelonging because of their race, sexuality, gender, ability, age, or for one of many other factors. The experience of delivering a microaggression is often that of experiencing someone else “overreacting” to something we’ve said or done, because we aren’t immediately aware of the layers of experience that are present. In these cases, your task of repair is not in defending yourself or explaining what you’ve meant—it’s in deeply understanding the other person to the extent that they want to share, and in sharing your commitment to repair and to learn for the future. 

These blogs are an attempt to put the content of Eva’s NVC trainings online into a readable format. If you missed them, here are previous blogs in this series. 

Part One: why we study nonviolence

Part Two: the practice of empathy

Part Three: the building blocks of empathy, feelings and needs

Part Four: observations and requests

Part Five: beginning a practice in NVC

Part Six: when enemies appear

The Gist:

In navigating the complex and often strained landscape of movement relationships, empathy is essential. The process outlined in this blog serves not only as a framework for mending the rifts caused by unintended harm but also as a reflection of our own shared values. By taking the time to truly comprehend the impact of our actions, express genuine sorrow, and actively work towards a solution, we foster a movement culture of responsibility, introspection, and constant improvement. In embracing our fallibility without discarding our integrity, we honor not just the relationships we seek to repair but also the very essence of our interdependence.

In the most basic sense, Nonviolent Communication gives us two options in every moment: we can give empathy to someone else’s experience or we can express our own, and we can do either of these silently or out loud. 

Certain exercises can guide us in how we make these choices in certain moments. 

This exercise is for moments when we’ve made an impact on someone else that we don’t enjoy. This process doesn’t require that we believe that we were in the wrong or that we would necessarily make another choice in the future, but is for situations where we care about the impact we’ve made and want to repair the relationship. 

This process can be emotionally difficult because it asks you to focus completely on the needs of the receiver (the person who experienced harm). A self-empathy process, such as described in the last piece in this series, may be helpful in preparing yourself. 

In making a repair, imagine answering three questions that the other person has: 

Do you get why I was hurt?

Does it matter to you that I was hurt?

Where do we go from here? 

In addition to apologizing to and seeking forgiveness from another person, an alternate use for this exercise could be as a role-play when someone else’s actions harmed you. Even role-playing this conversation with someone playing the part of the other person can help us to resolve our hurt. 

  1. Understanding the Impact

This stage comes first. In it, offer empathy. Hear out the other person completely, reflecting back the content of what they’re saying, their feelings, and their needs, and checking for understanding. Questions that might help you in this process include:

Do you get it? Once it feels like you do—and once the other person reports feeling understood—you’re ready for the next step.

  1. Expressing Mourning

Mourning means expressing your own feelings in relation to the impact of your actions. As you pay remember from the piece on empathy, this involves keeping a metaphorical spotlight on the other person, even while discussing our own feelings and needs in relation to theirs. 

To offer this step, ask something like, “Would you like to hear what it’s like for me to hear you?” 

Consider three types of mourning. Let’s imagine a scenario where I was late to a high-stakes meeting, causing my colleague embarrassment and stress.  

Type 1: When I see your pain, I feel pain. 

When I hear how much stress you’re experiencing, it brings up sadness for me because I want this work to be sustainable for you and I really value your contributions to the work. 

Type 2: When I see the impacts of my actions, I feel pain. 

When I hear how much of an impact my being late to the meeting had, I feel a lot of regret.

Type 3: When I see that my impact didn’t align with my values, I feel pain. 

I want to be someone who others can depend on. When I see that I didn’t live up to that and it had such a negative impact, I feel heartbroken. 

It’s important to note that this stage is not about self-flagellation. We can mourn the impacts of our actions without discarding or disrespecting ourselves. It might be delicate to express mourning without that landing as self-punishment. If the receiver jumps in to defend you, such as by saying, “It’s not that big of a deal, everyone makes mistakes,” you might try something to clarify like, “Of course, I can accept that I make mistakes. I still want you to know that it matters to me that my mistake hurt you.”

To move on from this step, ask something like, “How does it feel for you to hear this?” If the receiver expresses more pain, return to giving them empathy. 

Does it matter? Once you’ve fully mourned with them, the receiver will know that the negative impact matters to you, and that they matter to you.

Offering an Explanation

An optional step to this process is to offer an explanation for your behavior. Someone who experienced an impact from your actions might be asking, “Why did you do it?” This might be a request for empathy, for you to reflect a sense of shock or disgust that the person has with your actions. So keep listening and offering empathy for the receiver’s perspective as much as possible, before in any way explaining your own perspective.

If this kind of question comes again, after some empathy has already landed, it might be a request for information. At that point, you can offer to share what needs you were trying to meet when you did what you did. Offer with something like, “Would it help to hear a bit about what I was thinking in that moment?” 

  1. Where We Go From Here

Finally, consider any requests or offers you can make going forward. These will be extremely specific to the situation, but might be solutions to prevent the same thing from happening in the future, to literally repair the harm done, or to act out the care you’ve spoken by contributing to the other person in some other way. 

For example, I might express a plan to set an alarm or turn on calendar notifications to stop myself from being late in the future. I might offer to share information with some third party so that my colleague is saved from embarrassment. I might even offer to do some piece of unglamorous work that my colleague would otherwise do in order to demonstrate care and make it up to her. 

Moving On

In the process outlined above, we can make better apologies to reach genuine forgiveness and relationship repair, strengthening not only the movement but also ourselves.

These blogs are an attempt to put the content of Eva’s NVC trainings online into a readable format. If you missed them, here are previous blogs in this series. 

Part One: why we study nonviolence

Part Two: the practice of empathy

Part Three: the building blocks of empathy, feelings and needs

Part Four: observations and requests

Part Five: beginning a practice in NVC

The Gist:

Anger is powerful and can be a massive force for protection and positive change. But sometimes, anger can feel too big for our bodies to hold without hurting us. Until I discovered this exercise, I was often kept up at night stewing with anger, sometimes toward people whose supposed violations occurred years ago. When I learned this exercise, developed by Miki Kashtan, I resolved to get up out of bed in those moments and journal it. I knew that when I was stuck in these states, something that really calmed me down would be the fastest way to get to sleep, even if it took an hour. 

I imagined a long future of this strange practice, seeing myself slipping out of shared hotel rooms and coming up with explanations for my 2AM journaling for years to come. After all, this pattern was strong and I had a seemingly endless supply of sparks to ignite my late-night smoldering (though generally, when I brought these same situations to mind during the day, they weren’t nearly as charged). 

I think I got out of bed for the exercise twice in the first couple of weeks, and the pattern hasn’t existed since. I was astonished at the efficiency with which I had untangled my anger at the “enemies” who appeared in the night.

You Might Need Your Anger

This exercise involves extending silent empathy for someone who’s the object of your anger, in order to soften anger and blame. You don’t need me to tell you not to do it if your anger is helping you in some way, such as by protecting you from returning to an abusive partner. As with all practice, start at a lower intensity to get a sense of how the exercise can work for you. 

What is it for?

This is a practice that seeks to guide us from blame and anger towards understanding and compassion, even if the other person is no longer accessible. The goal is to experience a softening of fury and an ability to imagine, even if we don’t agree with, another’s perspective. There are two main applications I’m suggesting. 

  1. When your anger isn’t meeting your needs, such as in my example above.
  2. When the object of your anger is someone with whom your relationship is important. This could be another activist, a family member, or an adversary in your activism, like a dismissive powerholder or a member of the public you talk to during outreach. 

Self-Empathy First

Before diving into the process of understanding another's perspective, it's crucial to start with yourself. This process is explained in more detail in Part 5

Repeat this self-empathy process anytime you get escalated during the exercise. If we’re working on something that really needs untangling, you’ll probably do this a handful of times. It’s likely that some different observations, feelings, and needs will come up each time. 

The Other Person's Perspective

Once you’ve softened from practicing self-empathy, you can begin to explore the other person's perspective. Even inviting yourself to do this might cue up more anger. If that’s the case, return to self-empathy. When you’re ready, consider the following, paying close attention to any shift in how you’re holding anger and blame.  

Identify Requests

Once you've experienced a shift in your emotional stance, consider any requests you might have of yourself or the other person. These might be internal commitments or external actions, depending on the situation. Recognize that it might not always be possible or necessary to take external action. The practice itself, the shift from blame to understanding, can be a powerful resolution.

What if it didn’t work?

If your anger still feels escalated after this exercise, consider which needs your anger might be meeting for you. In what ways are you better off for having anger or blame? Is anger protecting you from something dangerous, preserving your sense of dignity, or fueling your work? Allow for the possibility that you can choose anger as a strategy to meet these needs. 

Softening the Edges

"When Enemies Appear" is an invitation to travel from the turmoil of blame and anger to a place of understanding and compassion. By starting with self-empathy and then extending that empathy to the other person, we soften our hard edges and open ourselves to connection and understanding. This process is not always easy or quick, but it is a powerful tool for reconciliation. Even when the other person is no longer in our lives, this practice remains relevant for offering a resolution for ourselves. 

These blogs are an attempt to put the content of Eva’s NVC trainings online into a readable format. However, the largest benefit to attending real-time workshops is practice. As with any skill, reading isn’t enough. What follows are suggestions for practice to be used individually and as a supplement to workshops or practice groups. 

If you missed them, here are previous blogs in this series. 

Part One: why we study nonviolence

Part Two: the practice of empathy

Part Three: the building blocks of empathy, feelings and needs

Part Four: observations and requests

The Gist:

Start Easy

An important consideration for practice: start on easy mode. When attempting to integrate new communication practices, focusing on easier situations can let us get a feel for the skills without getting overwhelmed. It also lets us make mistakes in lower-stakes situations. 

Practice Alone

Every exercise can be done journaling instead of with another person. Writing can be an intentional way to guide yourself through the process to systematically process thoughts and feelings. 

Practice in Safe Relationships

I’ve occasionally heard people say that they tried NVC and it didn’t work. Usually, this means that they came to someone they had a difficult relationship with and said something like, “When you yell at me, I feel frustrated because I have a need for respect.” When the other person didn’t respond differently than they had in the past, the person declared the experiment failed. 

Of course, NVC doesn’t provide magic words that will make every person you are in conflict with see your point of view. If we consider it, instead, a skill set we can master, its application changes. We don’t say, “Great, something I can use to finally make my estranged mother hear me!” We say, instead, “I’d like to give this a try. Maybe, next time my friend tells me about something going on in her life, I can see if she’s okay with me guessing her feelings and needs.” 

To begin a practice of NVC, I recommend starting by offering empathy (before asking for it) and in relationships that are mostly safe. See if you can identify feelings and needs in day-to-day conversations. Occasionally voice a guess out loud. See what happens. Once empathy becomes a habit, see if you can bring it into more difficult conversations.

Notice old habits

An early step in the practice may just be to notice. What are my tendencies? When someone is telling me about something that bothers them, what is my impulse? Where am I using judgment and where am I using empathy? 

Notice judgment in your own language. This gives you an opportunity to then replace some of that judgment with observations that are more nonjudgmental. In day-to-day conversations, can you name your own feelings, and connect them to your needs? 

Nonviolence Starts Inside

Self-empathy is a vital prerequisite skill for the application of Nonviolence in our relationships with others. Every exercise we’ll explore includes self-empathy as an initial step because it’s really hard to listen if you haven’t been heard. Hearing ourselves first can take some of the pressure off the conversation and give us the capacity to listen to others. 

Stages of Practice

In this piece, we’ll go through a general format for practice. This can be used as a guide for any situation where you’re feeling emotional tension that you’d like to process. Processing tension can prepare you for finding solutions on your own or with others, or can bring acceptance such that no external solutions are needed. 

Story, Thoughts, and Judgments

We’ll talk about some exercises that use an NVC framework to untangle your own experiences. These exercises usually ask you to reflect on your observations, feelings, needs, and requests. Before that, though, it can be helpful to let out your story about the world, in all its judgmental glory. What are we telling ourselves about what happened, about what’s wrong with the other person, about what this all means? We try to only do this in a safe place, like to a journal, a therapist, or a trusted friend. 

When confiding in a friend about conflicts with people they may know, it’s important to be clear on your intention. Try saying something like, “I’m having a hard time with this situation and I want to be able to see it from the other person’s point of view. Before I’m ready to try that, it would be helpful if you could just hear me vent for a moment.” By stating the goal of a supportive conversation—to vent out frustration with the aim of being able to resolve the conflict—we can avoid gossip and side-taking. 

Marshall Rosenberg sometimes used a metaphorical jackal to represent judgmental language, and he’d go so far as to bring puppets to his workshops to illustrate the point. The giraffe was the counterpoint to the jackal and represented NVC consciousness. Silly as it was, the separate puppets helped to draw a clear distinction between the jackal and giraffe consciousness even while making room for each. 


Once you’ve gotten out any burning judgmental thoughts that were keeping you distracted (“my roommate is a slob!”), what you can try next is writing or stating observations. This is an exercise that can prepare you for a conversation by revealing what solution requests might meet your needs. For example, if I observe that my roommate left blueberry stains on the floor, it becomes clear that I can request that they wipe the stains immediately next time.

Attempting to state observations, when we’re very escalated, can bring out more judgments. Let those come out in your journal or with your practice partner and then find the observation. 


Next, write or state all the feelings you had in the moment—as well as the ones you are experiencing now, thinking about it. Those might be pure emotions (sadness, frustration), sensations (chills, knots, heat), or even images or metaphors (ripping paper, a boat in a hurricane). Sometimes, naming feelings results in feelings changing, as if being named lets them know they’ve fulfilled their purpose, or, on the other hand, invites more intensity to arrive for processing. 


Identify the needs that are alive for you in relation to this situation. As each need emerges, reflect on how it feels to be a person with this need. Feel its importance and the sensation of it being unmet. 


Lots of situations need multiple rounds of this reflection process. Continue identifying your judgments, observations, feelings, and needs, until a sense of resolution is reached. Returning to the observation, you will hopefully find it less activating to your nervous system on repeated encounters. Once you’ve experienced a shift towards relaxation or peace, move into the last stage: requests. 



Knowing how to process our own tensions is important, but equally important is knowing how to respond when somebody else is tense toward us. Part Six of this blog series will explore an NVC approach to acknowledging harm when we’ve done something that impacted someone else. Stay tuned and enjoy your NVC practice this week!

This series is an attempt to put the content of Eva’s NVC trainings online into a readable format. This blog will cover preliminary concepts in Nonviolent Communication, which will help in understanding later blogs in this series. Part One covered why we study nonviolence, Part Two covered the practice of empathy, and Part Three covered the building blocks of empathy, feelings and needs. Here is Part Four, covering observations and requests.

The Gist:


Observations are clear descriptions of what happened in a particular time, stated in a way that minimizes evaluation and judgment. For example, “You don’t respect me” isn’t an observation, while “You began speaking while I was still speaking” is. 

The purpose of NVC observation is to share clarity about what we’re talking about in a way the other person can hear. While judgments and evaluations can spark defensiveness in conflict, observations are a strategy to get on the same page about the stimulus without blame, judgment, and subsequent defensiveness. 

Early in the development of NVC, people used to talk about observations as the sort of things that can be captured by a video camera—only what we can perceive with our external sense. I prefer a broader version of “observations” presented by my teacher Roxy Manning, which includes internal and systemic events as well. For example, telling someone about a traumatic flashback that was triggered by an external stimulus is considered an observation, as is a statistic or knowledge about systemic problems. The inclusion of these is important to allow us to share the breadth of our observations in a way that matches our experience of the world while still holding NVC’s distinction between observation and judgment. 

At times, naming observations will help you speak in a way that is met with less defensiveness. At other times, it might feel important to reflect someone else’s judgment in order to connect with them. And of course, judgment is synonymous with reasoning; we create stories about the world and act on them in order to make decisions big and small every day. Owning and naming these judgments can be important and life-serving. 


NVC requests are clear, specific, and use positive action language whenever possible.

Clear requests contain the information necessary to fulfill the request. “Listen to me more” doesn’t contain the information necessary, while “Put your phone down and make eye contact with me while we’re talking” does. 

Positive action language asks someone to do something, rather than not to do something. Running children may understand “walk” better than “don’t run.” 

What distinguishes requests from demands? 

A demand is a request paired with a stated or implicit threat of punishment or retaliation. When we hear demands, it can bring up a need for autonomy and cue us to decline the request in order to protect our own freedom. Or, the threat of retaliation, real or imagined, can lead us to agree to strategies that wouldn’t meet our needs. 

We can imagine requests and demands existing on a spectrum. The more trust we have that other ways to meet our needs exist, and the more curiosity we have about others’ needs, the more likely our own requests will be heard as requests and not demands. 

As an example, let’s take the Liberation Pledge which I’ve previously written about. Upon taking the pledge, we ask people in our lives not to eat animal products in front of us. How we ask can determine whether the other person hears what we say as a request or a demand.

The latter may be more likely to be heard as a request and, paradoxically, be more likely to result in a solution that we want even while preserving the relationship. 

There certainly is a time and place for demands or even force, such as to stop certain and immediate harm, but using coercion always has a cost to the relationship. Consciousness around making true requests can help us to be intentional about when we’re deciding to pay that cost and when we’re trying to stay in connection. 

Requests are hard

Requests can be scary. It’s a vulnerable thing to ask for our needs to be met, because it risks hearing a no. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone could just intuit what we need or want?

Some people come to NVC because they communicate too aggressively and want to learn to be kinder. Others are too passive and want to learn to be more assertive. Again, this work is about nonviolence. In the same way that nonviolent direct action confronts systems of oppression without violence, we want to be able to bravely face (and even initiate) hard conversations with unflinching nonviolence. 

One thing that can make requests less scary is to first make smaller requests about a conversation you want to have, before suggesting that anybody change their behavior. In NVC we call this a connection request.

Connection Requests

NVC’s unique contribution to the conversation about requests is the concept of a connection request. While a solution request concerns the subject of the conversation, connection requests are all the little requests we make during a conversation about the conversation itself. They check to see if we’re still in connection and ask for consent to take the conversation in a given direction. 

A common error in making requests is offering solution requests too early in a conversation, before both parties trust that they have been fully heard. This might result in resistance or misunderstanding. Connection requests allow us to facilitate a conversation toward greater connection and understanding and thus toward solutions. 

Examples of connection requests 

For a conversation:
"I'd like to talk about what happened the other day. It's really important to me that our relationship feels comfortable and trusting for both us. Could we take a walk tomorrow and talk then?" 

To offer empathy:
“I want to make sure I’m getting it. Can I repeat back what I heard?”

For understanding:
"I just said a lot and I'm not sure that it all made sense. Would you mind letting me know what you heard so I can be sure I came across okay?"
“To make sure we’re on the same page, would you let me know your impression of what we just agreed on?”

For empathy (feelings):
"It would help me to know that you have a sense of how I'm feeling about all this. Can you tell me how you imagine I am feeling?" 

For empathy (needs):
"Would you mind letting me know what seems important to me in what I just said?" 

Many people may find it unusual to hear a request that they give you a specific form of empathy, as in the examples above. A preface might help your request land. Try saying, "I'm sure you have a lot to say in response, but first– would you mind letting me know what seems important to me in what I just said?"" 

For responses:
"I'm wondering, how do you feel having heard all of that?"
"What comes up for you, hearing that?"
"What would you like me to understand?" 

To move towards solutions:
“I’m thinking of some ideas for how to move forward- is this a good time to share those?”
“Are you open to talking about how we could do it differently in the future?”

Solution Requests

Solution requests are the requests we might usually think of, yet they are made much less frequently in Nonviolent Communication. The guiding principle is that if both parties can deeply hear each other first, they’re likely to be able to come up with a solution together that meets everyone’s needs, so the emphasis is placed on building understanding rather than negotiating. That said, the NVC advice for solution requests is to try to have at least a few in mind when we go into a high-stakes conversation. That way, when we learn that our first request won’t meet others’ needs, we have other ideas that might.

And remember, if you are feeling nervous about proposing a solution, it might be good to request connection first! Once your connection requests have given you a chance to debrief observations, feelings, and needs, here are some examples of solution requests: 

"Going forward, would you be willing to try to clean your dishes within an hour of using them?" 

"Could we brainstorm a few ideas for how to hold each other accountable?" 

"I think it would really help if you read this article before we talk next. Does that sound doable?"

Consent in Nonviolent Communication

People who are drawn to a communication practice like NVC tend to be socially conscientious and want to respect others. Naturally, some have raised concerns about consent when having these discussions. Indeed, it is possible to end up in a conversation with someone that ends up feeling too vulnerable to one party. The Connection Requests that we have talked about aim to address this problem. By checking in with consent as we go about a conversation, it is more likely we can all walk away feeling that our needs for respect, privacy, dignity, and choice have been met.

On the other hand, consent is a word often associated with sex, and in that context is fraught with moral weight. Consent cannot hold the same moral weight in the context of having conversations with each other to resolve conflict. When we relate with people, we have conflicts inevitably, and to get to a place of peaceful resolution usually requires at least some discussion of what’s going on with us. We can’t opt out of conflicts in the same way we can opt out of physical contact, nor can we draw clear lines between which kinds of communication require consent upfront– especially when we aren’t the ones initiating conversation. Instead, we have to do the best we can with the resources we have available to us at the time. We will make mistakes, and we will learn. If we can remember that NVC is not about right and wrong but rather about having more connecting conversations, then we’re open to a creative application of the skills we learn that work for the individual we’re talking to. 

What About Power?

Power can make the most gentle request language land like a demand, or a strong request feel like a gentle suggestion. Imagine an employee hearing from their boss, “Do you mind coming in this weekend?” It’s quite possible that the employee would understand that they’d be punished– or even fired– for saying no. 

Vulnerability can also be magnified by power differentials. People with more power can avoid asking for too much vulnerability by guessing at needs rather than feelings or guessing at milder versions of feelings, and by letting the other person set the time and place for the conversation. Stay tuned for later blogs that will explore these dynamics in more depth. 

Moving forward

So far, we’ve covered the basics of Nonviolent Communication: empathy, observations, feelings, needs, and requests. The next blog in the series will present some exercises to begin your practice. 

This series is an attempt to put the content of Eva’s NVC trainings online into a readable format. This blog will cover preliminary concepts in Nonviolent Communication, which will help in understanding later blogs in this series. Part One covered why we study nonviolence and Part Two covered the practice of empathy. 

The Gist:

Feelings and Needs

We know about feelings. They come in many shades of sad, glad, mad, scared, and disgusted. 

When introducing this concept in the workshop, I like to ask people to guess my feelings such as from when described my petitioning experience in the last blog:

“I was petitioning the other day and someone said they eat meat and want to keep eating meat. I gave a response to him but he walked away without acknowledging it. I feel so frustrated with how little some people seem to engage.”

It’s easy to name a feeling when I already did! “Try offering that one back to me,” I’ll say to the workshop participants. Our conversation might sound something like this. 

“I hear how frustrating that was.” 

“Yeah, it was frustrating. I hate that ‘gotcha’ thing where they act like I was saying something that isn’t true.”

The feeling was frustration, but what about my need underlying that feeling? My response in the dialogue above might point you toward what was important to me in this situation. I wanted respect, perhaps, or a sense of being seen. Also called values, this is the concept of universal human needs in NVC. 


Needs might take a little more work to understand. To do so, let’s talk about babies. I want to use a baby as an example here because babies come out and they’re mostly just a little pile of need for the first bit. What do babies need? 

Babies need food. They need to be changed—kept clean. They need care and love, which comes in the form of physical contact, attention, and interaction. Interaction is really important for them to have mental stimulation and learning, too. Attention is really important to keep them safe. So, in summary, we could say that the needs of a baby include nourishment, cleanliness, care, physical contact, attention, and so on—and the baby will keep needing these same things throughout their life.

There are specific strategies to meet these needs for babies. For example, their own mothers’ milk is a great strategy to meet their needs for food, and choosing this strategy over another can meet other needs as well. But spoken as generally as I listed above, we all have the same needs as babies. 

If I can have a felt sense of what someone is feeling and needing, then I can have empathy for that person. If someone else can feel that empathy, then we’re in connection. 

What needs aren’t

When I’m guessing your needs, I’m guessing what needs are alive in you, not what you’re supposed to do or receive. The important distinction is that I’m not giving you advice; I’m letting you know that I hear you. 

For example, if you’re feeling lonely, you might have a need for companionship, love, safety, or to be appreciated. You don’t have a need to invite a friend over to watch a movie, even if that’s a strategy that would meet your needs. You also don’t have a need to have more or better friends, even if these are the only strategies you can think of that would meet your needs. And to give you empathy, I don’t need to know what strategy is going to work for you—I simply need to let you know that I hear your need for connection. 

Needs vs Strategies 

Another way to get the concept of needs is to ask, “What is the need here that I want for everyone in the world?” If my strategy is to invite a friend over to watch a movie, I surely don’t expect everyone in the world to have that same friend over to watch a movie tonight. What about having more or better friends? Some people keep to themselves more than I do, so I wouldn’t want them to have as many close friends as I want if that’s not something that would actually satisfy them.

Thus, this discussion reveals the needs that would be met by the strategies I’m considering. Companionship, care, love, and appreciation are things that I do want for every single person in the world- this qualifies them as needs. 

The important thing about this distinction is that identifying needs allows us to fully hear people in what’s important to them. By separating needs from strategies, we can break through adversarial dynamics and start out on the same side. I want you to have your needs met, even if I disagree with your strategies. 

By starting with needs consciousness, we can be open to creative strategies that could meet everyone’s needs. 

How to make needs sound less awkward

But Eva, you protest, that sounds so weird. I’m never going to ask my friend if they have a need for connection when they invite me over to watch a movie. I’m never going to suggest that a fellow activist who has an idea I don’t like is trying to meet their need for purpose and meaning. You’re suggesting that we talk like robots! 

Some people use needs lists when studying NVC. These lists can be helpful in learning how to identify and name different needs. I sometimes avoid using them, though, because I worry that the vocabulary in them doesn’t feel natural. 

If these words don’t land for you either, express them however you want. I want everyone in the world to have someone get where they’re coming from, to know that there are people who give a shit about them, to have hangout time, and to have space to do their own thing. Needs are needs even if they’re not put that way on a list. 


In NVC parlance, feelings are emotions or body sensations that give us feedback about our needs. That is, feelings and needs are always related. Feelings are often categorized into pleasant (relating to needs that are met) and unpleasant- (relating to needs that aren’t met). 

How feelings can go wrong

Feelings might feel overly intimate to guess at right away, especially in conflict. If someone guesses a feeling that is too vulnerable for us, it feels bad. We might worry that they’re trying to manipulate or diagnose us. In these cases—conflict that feels adversarial, formal settings like work—a less heavy feeling might make for a better guess. If your first guess is angry, maybe the one you say out loud is a little frustrated. Another option is to skip feelings altogether. Having just the need reflected back can be enough, without the emotional weight of asking someone to acknowledge their feelings. 

Feelings are also differentiated from faux feelings—words that are phrased like feelings, but contain more information about what happened than how the speaker is feeling. For example, if I say that I’m feeling judged, what I’m really saying is that someone is judging me. If I say I’m feeling betrayed it contains a story about someone betraying me. Same with others, like taken for granted, violated, insulted, and attacked. Using these words might result in defensiveness from the person you’re talking to; it’ll be harder for them to hear how you’re feeling when they’re distracted by a desire to defend themselves from an accusation of wrongdoing. 

Faux feelings may also lead to right/wrong thinking in those you’re going to for support, sowing the seeds for allegiances and conflict of their own down the road. 

Big Caveat!

I feel nervous when I talk about faux feelings because I worry that given only this concept, we can leave an NVC training much more obnoxious than when we entered. I’m discussing faux feelings here to suggest that you, the reader, avoid them, especially during conflicts. When other people use the language of faux feelings, please don’t correct their language, but instead translate what you are hearing them say into pure feelings and needs. Then, you can check with them that you understood correctly. Or, you can simply use this silent translation to avoid a defensive response, yourself. 

Forget Faux Feelings

Roxy Manning redefined these as fusion words instead of faux feelings. This is because these terms have a lot of useful information in them. If someone shares a fusion word with you, you have a wonderful opportunity to make an empathy guess. For instance, unwanted contains a story that nobody likes you. If our partner comes to us feeling unwanted, we can notice that we might feel tempted to argue. That’s not true! I love you, I was just busy yesterday! But, now that we know about fusion words, we might choose to make another choice first: to reflect a feeling or need that might be alive for our partner in that moment. We might instead choose to say, “I’m guessing it was really sad for you when I wasn’t home by the time I said I would be, and you’re wanting more of a sense of care from me?”

When we use fusion words to express our own feelings, they might be more likely to cue defensiveness because they contain a story about the other person's intentions. They might also be more likely to cue defensiveness in us, when we hear them. Let's do a little bit of practice translating these into feelings and needs guesses. I’ll list a few, invite you to make feelings and needs guesses from the perspective of the speaker, and then I’ll reflect on what my own guesses might be. 





Taken for granted

Blamed- Are you feeling hurt and wanting a sense of trust, understanding, or acceptance?

Tricked- Is there some shock up for you? Or some confusion? Would it be nice to have a sense that you’re on the same team?

Manipulated- Would it be nice to have acknowlegment of disgust? Are you so wanting trust in this situation?

Judged- Are you feeling angry? Would it be nice to have a sense that you’re accepted exactly as you are? 

Taken for granted- Is there some alienation? Is there a need up for appreciation? 

But blame feels amazing!

It does. Go ahead, try it. Think of a conflict in your life and imagine telling the person, “I feel ____ and it’s your fault.” You might use one of the above faux feelings for this. Notice the sense of righteousness in your body. 

Empathy is a gentler satisfaction that feels less like less of a rush. It’s a release of tension, a sense of relaxation, or a shift in what feels important about the situation.

The hope here is that a practice of empathy, for yourself and others, can help us to access this more sustainable satisfaction. This can mean replacing the roller coaster of blame with something more sustainable for our own emotional health and the health of our relationships.

If you found this discussion interesting, stay tuned for the next piece where we’ll explore observations and requests. We will learn how to untangle objective observations from blame-tinged assessment and begin the practice of NVC requests. 

This is Part 2 of our series on Nonviolent Communication. To start with Part 1, read Why the Animal Freedom Movement Needs Nonviolence.

The Gist:

This post is all about empathy. Nonviolent Communication places a big emphasis on deepening our capacity for empathy, and I believe that as animal advocates, this is relevant both to our internal relationships with other advocates and in how we engage with the public.

A large part of Pax Fauna’s work is research to find best practices in messaging to convince the public about animal freedom. Now, I had already been very invested in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) when I was starting the research, but I was still amazed about how often empathy came up as a theme in our research.

One phase of our research consisted of 1:1 interviews with ordinary Americans who eat meat. We asked open-ended questions and didn’t provide any retort, only occasional content reflections. “Is this what you mean?” Given space to explore their own ideas, our study participants were able to talk themselves through defensive reactions and objections to animal freedom. Most participants also said that they actively try not to think about animals used for food in their daily lives, but were fully willing to think about it for our benefit. Our goal here as researchers wasn’t to trick people into talking themselves out of objections to animal rights. In fact, we were trying to avoid doing that: this stage of the research was just about understanding what they currently think. Yet, just by asking these questions and providing a non-judgmental space for people to sort through their own thoughts on the topic, we watched them transform.

This is what empathy seeks to do—by accompanying others in their experiences without trying to intervene, argue, or fix, we allow them a chance to transform. When people aren’t busy defending themselves or avoiding judgment, they have more space to self-reflect and change. 

Empathy is a vehicle for transformation

Nonviolent communication is based on a radical premise: that every single thing a person does is an attempt to meet a need, and everyone’s needs matter. If we accept this premise, then we can empathize and connect even when we don’t agree with the strategy a person is using to try and meet their needs. 

Alternatively, when we dismiss people and write them off, we cut off our ability to connect with them, and thus sever a connection that could have let them change. 

Empathy First 

This section is based on an exercise I learned from Oren-Jay Sofer.

When I conduct NVC trainings, I like to talk about empathy first. That’s because the practice of empathy is probably the biggest difference we can immediately make in our conversations and conflicts to make them go better. 

If you can form a habit that your first response be a reflection—letting someone know that you get what they are saying or how they’re feeling—you can de-escalate some conflicts before they start. 

One exercise I like to do in workshops is to talk about something that bothers me, and ask for examples of things that aren’t empathy. This might sound something like the following. 

“I was petitioning the other day and someone said they eat meat and want to keep eating meat. I gave a response to him but he walked away without acknowledging it. I feel so frustrated with how little some people seem to engage.”

The non-empathy responses I get back might sound something like these. 

Taking the spotlight: “Oh my gosh, last time I was petitioning I had two people say that they don’t want to give me their address because they don’t know what I’ll do with it, and they used that as an excuse not to sign! It’s so dumb because it’s actually illegal for us to use that for anything else; don’t they know that?”

This is a response that might create connection in casual conversation, but I might have a sense that you didn’t really hear me before you started talking about yourself. If this was something I really needed support on, I’ll feel like you missed me. 

Advice: “What I like to say in those situations is, ‘Do you think animals should have to die for that?’” 

Questioning: “Are you sure he didn’t misunderstand what the petition was saying?”

Advice and questioning can also lead to me not feeling heard. In this case, I explicitly said that I did have a response to the person who wouldn’t sign the petition and I was feeling frustrated because the person wouldn’t engage with me. But even if I hadn’t shared this information, hearing advice on what my response should be misses the mark entirely. Advice and questioning can trigger me to feel defensive—I wonder if you’re assuming that I use a bad pitch when I’m petitioning. Either way, the conversation has moved away from my experience. 

Sometimes, asking for advice (what should I do?) or validation (am I being crazy here?) is a veiled way of asking for empathy. I don’t mean that people who ask for emotional support in the form of advice are being dishonest. Rather, our dominant culture doesn’t have very much language around asking for empathy, so advice language is the best we can sometimes do. 

So, when you’re asked for advice on a charged topic, I recommend considering offering a few reflections of empathy first to let the person know that you’ve heard them. If they still want advice after that, they’ll tell you. If empathy meets the need in full, they might generate their own solution (and it might be better than what you were about to suggest!). 

Analysis: “People are so defensive. They have their retort and just aren’t willing to think about it anymore.” 

Diagnosing: “Sounds like a sociopath.”

These might be connecting if it tells me that you’re getting my perspective, and they might not. Remember, when I’m talking about something I’m having an emotional reaction to, I’m really talking about myself. Talking about the people who set me off might be a miss. It also might be escalating, guiding me more towards my own judgments instead of letting me move through my feelings. 

Minimizing: “That kind of thing happens; just move on to the next person.”

Optimism: “Well, you’re always planting seeds.”

Lecture: “I think we really need to be understanding as a movement that not everyone can see things from our point of view right away. We have to be patient.”

These kinds of reactions skip empathy. You see where you’d like the person (in this case, me) to be, and you suggest that they go there. What you’re missing is the necessary step of empathy in between having a feeling and resolving that feeling. Given a little bit of empathy, people often find themselves generating their own advice, analysis, optimism, and so on. Before receiving empathy, these responses can feel terribly alienating. 

Who is the focus on?

What all of these non-empathy responses have in common is that they turn the focus on the listener instead of keeping it on the speaker. It’s as if we’ve jumped up and turned the spotlight onto ourselves in the middle of someone else’s solo. When we talk about the skill of empathy, we’re talking about practicing deep listening, which helps people know that they’ve been heard, thus deepening relationships and preventing conflict. Deep, empathetic listening means listening with a different quality than we usually do. It means speaking in a way that keeps the spotlight on the person who is sharing. The exchange might sound something like this:

“I was petitioning the other day and someone said they eat meat and want to keep eating meat. I gave him a response but he walked away without acknowledging it. I feel so frustrated with how little some people seem to engage.”

Empathy: “I hear that frustration. Would it be so nice to be given a chance at being understood?”

This kind of response, we hope, will give the speaker a sense that we’re really listening and willing to engage about their experience. So let’s break it down and figure out what it takes to respond that way.

Elements of Empathy

In NVC, giving someone empathy usually refers to guessing what feelings and needs you heard in what they said, but of course, we can feel supported even when our feelings and needs aren’t reflected back to us. 

Empathy is a mutually felt sense that you’re being understood, and there are four different ways that is often achieved. 


In the context of a supportive relationship, an attentive, silent presence alone can be enough to communicate empathy. 


This one works well in situations where low emotional vulnerability is desired, such as in a workplace or with someone you don’t know well, or when someone’s describing a complex situation and you’re able to follow it. Repeating back the content of what someone says can help them feel heard. 

When I’m giving NVC presentations and get to this point in the Elements of Empathy discussion, I like to ask how I’m doing. “Would anyone be willing to repeat back what I’ve said so far about understanding, so I know I’m making sense?”

If I’m lucky, someone will volunteer to say, “If you repeat back the content of what someone said, that can be empathy too.” In doing so, they’ll provide a perfect example of an understanding reflection. When I hear it, I know I’ve been gotten—I’m not just talking into the void. Somebody hears me! This meets my needs for contribution and competence. 

You can offer others in your life the gift of understanding, even when they don’t ask. Sometimes it can help to give a little preamble, so they know you’re not necessarily agreeing or taking credit for their idea. You can say something like, “Is it okay if I repeat back what I’m hearing so I can be sure I’m getting it?” 

Feelings and Needs

NVC considers feelings and needs the main ingredients of empathy. If I understand what you’re feeling and what needs are alive, then I’m able to empathize. Feelings and needs will be discussed in depth in Part 3, but they include things like feeling lonely because you have an unmet need for companionship, or feeling rejuvenated because your need for leisure time has been met. 

Empathy example

I love learning about and teaching NVC in a workshop setting because we can use lifelike examples. In this blog, I’ll write out what such an everyday NVC conversation could sound like. 

Note that speaker and listener are the titles used because the modality thrives on this distinction. In casual conversation, we alternate between being a speaker and listener quickly and often, but in a practice setting, we’ll stick with one role for a while to fully inhabit it. So, in this example, the speaker and listener keep their roles throughout. 

Speaker: “I’m so frustrated with these cupcake vegans. Why even be vegan if you don’t care enough to come to a protest?” 

The speaker’s use of a judgmental term, “cupcake vegan” (sometimes used to refer to vegans whose interest in veganism is limited to food and not advocacy), doesn’t stop us from being able to empathize. 

Listener: “I hear how frustrating it is that more people aren’t coming out to protests. Is that about a sense of collaboration to you?” We reflect back the feeling the speaker mentioned, “frustrated”, along with a guess at a need, “collaboration.” Let’s see if it lands. 

Speaker: “Yeah, every time I go to a vegan event it seems like a great idea—there are usually a couple dozen people who come to these dinners, but hardly ever is anyone interested in talking about activism, let alone coming out.” 

It’s unclear if our last guess landed—she’s moved on to a different aspect of the situation. Let’s come with her and make a guess about what she just shared. 

Listener: “Ugh, that sounds so disappointing, is it?” We guess a feeling and phrase it like a question. We aren’t telling her how she feels, just asking. 

Speaker: “Yeah, it’s disappointing. But honestly I don’t even care anymore. I’m just going to put my head down and do the work, and if people want to join, they can, but I’m not going to bother with the vegan group anymore.”

Notice how the speaker has moved on to talking about what she’s going to do about the situation (or not do). You might feel tempted to give advice at this point, and it might be welcome, but I suspect that continuing to give empathy will work better. Let’s try another empathy guess. 

Listener: “Are you just feeling defeated after so many tries to invite people without any interest?” Her last share was content-heavy, so after we guessed the feeling, “defeated,” we added in a little bit of her story to let her know we’re following. 

Speaker: “Well, no, I mean, we have a steady group of people coming out, and sometimes they bring friends. It just seems like, with so many vegans in this city, our protests should be huge.” 

I guess she wants to change the world, and don’t we all? What need is that? Purpose? Contribution? Those sound so small compared to what she’s talking about now. Let’s use a metaphor to try to show that we’re really getting the enormity of it. 

Listener: “Is it almost like you’re trying to start a fire, and you know you have all the elements there—you have dry fuel and sparks and air—and you just keep adding paper but the logs won’t catch?”

In workshops, we spend a bit of time practicing this skill of empathy. We take turns sharing something we’d like empathy on, and others practice the skill of staying with our feelings and needs without advice, debate, reassurance, etc. We call these empathy groups or, when in pairs, empathy buddies. This practice is easy to self-organize in small groups and pairs. 

In one of my first NVC workshop experiences in 2020, I was assigned another participant as a practice partner. She and I continue to meet weekly today. I very much recommend finding others to practice with on a regular basis, both to hone the skill of empathy and to receive empathic support yourself. 

It’s difficult to summarize the impact that a study of NVC has had on my life. I’m less stressed by conflict now, and the conflicts I have go better. I make requests (and receive yeses!) to things I never would have thought to ask for before. And, I have new tools and rituals to manage when I’m up late at night fuming about something that happened three years ago. It’s not a magic spell– it doesn’t mean that I never have to apologize, that I haven’t lost any friends in conflict, or that I always sleep well. But I’m beyond hopeful that making time to study NVC will be well worthwhile. 

In the next piece in this series, the building blocks of empathy are described in more detail: Feelings and Needs.

The Gist

Why I’m Writing This

I’ve been involved in the animal freedom movement since 2015 and I’ve seen, time and time again, conflict slowing down the movement’s momentum. In work that is mainly limited by person-hours and the ability to work together, conflict represents a grave threat. 

At the same time, conflict is, to misquote Melanie Joy, normal, natural, and necessary. That’s to say that it would be naive to expect a movement without conflict. The ideal that we should hope for is that as a movement, we learn to process conflict in a healthy and constructive way. But many of us don’t have a very robust model for what healthy conflict looks like. Agreements and shared understanding of how conflict will be practiced can help everyone do their part. 

Nonviolence—which extends beyond just the physical and includes how we talk to each other and ourselves—can give us a model for healthy conflict within movement groups, giving everyone an idea of what’s expected of them and some skills they can develop towards its execution. For the past couple of years, I’ve offered trainings for animal advocates in Nonviolent Communication in hopes to support norms and skills around healthy conflict. 

In preparation for my latest set of workshops, I’m offering this blog series about Nonviolence and Nonviolent Communication (NVC) in an effort to provide the content of these trainings in readable form. There is no substitute for practice and hands-on learning, but reading and doing exercises on your own can also be a great way to interact with the material. 

This piece introduces the concept of Nonviolence and its place in the animal rights movement. It describes starting assumptions and goals of two specific philosophical traditions within nonviolence: Nonviolent Communication and Kingian Nonviolence. Later blogs will describe the vocabulary and practice of Nonviolent Communication and provide exercises to begin the practice. 

How I Learned The Importance of Nonviolence

I got my start in animal advocacy with Direct Action Everywhere (DxE). DxE is deeply committed to Nonviolence, and back in those days, most of its members were expected to go through a weekend-long training in Kingian Nonviolence. Kingian is a philosophical and principled approach to Nonviolence based on the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and studying it gave me a sense of the spiritual foundations of Nonviolence—a sense that relating to each other with unconditional goodwill is the right thing to do, regardless of whether it seems most effective in the short term. 

DxE’s trainings were often led by Kazu Haga from the East Point Peace Academy in Oakland. Kazu always stressed that these courses were just scratching the surface. So in 2020 I sought out a teacher Kazu recommended and began an intensive study of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a practice pioneered by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. With NVC, Rosenberg sought to use the Nonviolent philosophy of Dr. King and others and build out a set of tools and strategies to help people live out that philosophy in their relationships. Rosenberg left NVC in the care of an organization called the Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC), a decision that allows the practice to grow and evolve while still being held to integrity with its founder’s vision. Though I can study and share NVC without becoming certified, it is in the interest of this sense of integrity that I am currently on the path toward fulfilling CNVC’s requests as a certification candidate.

Some of my teachers are people who have helped NVC continue to grow after the death of Marshall Rosenberg. I specifically want to name Roxy Manning, whose work on power and privilege gives me language to link the systemic lens of Kingian Nonviolence with the interpersonal lens of NVC, and Sarah Peyton, whose work on Relational Neuroscience deepens my practice and provides insight into the effect that trauma has on our bodies and behaviors. 

Participating in real-time training, as opposed to only reading, felt crucial for my development of these skills. As I’ll discuss more throughout this series, I deeply encourage real-time practice with other people, either self-organized or through courses. 

Our Nonviolent Roots

Six Principles of Nonviolence

NVC is rooted in the traditions of nonviolence on which so many social movement organizations base their activism. Many social movement organizers look to the U.S. civil rights movement as a particularly deep source of inspiration and guidance for building movements today. The principles below were first laid out in this form by Martin Luther King Jr. as a description of the ethos of the movement that created him.

Principle One

Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is a positive force confronting the forces of injustice, and utilizes the righteous indignation and the spiritual, emotional and intellectual capabilities of people as the vital force for change and reconciliation.

Nonviolence seeks to create a third way beyond violence or pacifism. 

Once, while introducing this concept during an NVC training in a beautiful outdoor space, two dogs who were accompanying training participants began to fight right in front of me. The dogs’ caregivers pulled them apart in the time it took me to drop my notes and start to get to my feet. These caregivers intuitively understood Nonviolence in this moment as an active process to prevent violence. It wasn’t pacifism, sitting back and declining to participate in the dogfight, nor was it violence, such as joining in or adding punishment. They provided exactly the amount of force needed to prevent the fight from continuing, and they did so with a pure intention to care for everyone involved. 

Similarly, our practice of Nonviolence seeks to intervene in violent institutions. We don’t say live and let live or respect everyone’s path. We seek to stop harm from happening to animals. To the extent that our strategies look gentle, this is for strategic reasons. When force is needed to stop harm, Nonviolence requires it. NVC calls this the protective use of force. 

Principle Two

The Beloved Community is the framework of the future. The nonviolent concept is an overall effort to achieve a reconciled world by raising the level of relationships among people to a height where justice prevails and persons attain their full human potential.

Following the earlier discussion of the protective use of force, we always seek to intervene in a way that allows the door to be open to reconciliation in the future. NVC isn’t just about resolving conflict in the moment, but laying the foundation for long-lasting harmony, inviting the whole world into King’s vision of the Beloved Community. 

When we study NVC, we work a lot with our own internal emotional process. This might seem irrelevant to some people who expect more focus on the external practice of communication in a workshop for animal advocates. However, the more advanced and frequent application of the skills we practice in NVC is in our closest relationships. Maintaining relationships within the movement is crucial to allowing our movement to succeed.  

Principle Three

Attack forces of evil, not persons doing evil. The nonviolent approach helps one analyze the fundamental conditions, policies and practices of the conflict rather than reacting to one's opponents or their personalities.

NVC is a communication modality that believes that everyone’s needs matter, and every single thing a person does is an attempt to meet a need, no matter how tragic. Nonviolence is how we might choose to be if we really believed that.

“Everything a person does is an attempt to meet a need” is a radical statement. When I don’t get pushback while introducing it in a workshop, I assume it hasn’t been understood. What I’m saying is that all actions, no matter how violent or despicable, are attempts to meet needs that we all share—such as a need for significance, self-expression, or belonging. 

This is not to say that we excuse or enable violent actions. Again, Nonviolence means interfering to prevent violence from happening. By understanding the needs that people and institutions are trying to meet by committing violent actions, we can help them find better, nonviolent ways of meeting those same needs. Thus, we can work towards a world where everyone’s needs are met. 

Principle Four

Accept suffering without retaliation for the sake of the cause to achieve the goal. Self-chosen suffering is redemptive and helps the movement grow in a spiritual as well as a humanitarian dimension. The moral authority of voluntary suffering for a goal communicates the concern to one's own friends and community as well as to the opponent.

While this principle is often rightly applied to political sacrifices, such as facing incarceration, an NVC lens would ask us to apply it to interpersonal conflict. Willingness to suffer means willingness to do unglamorous work, to engage with people we dislike, and to seek to understand our allies and adversaries even when doing so is uncomfortable. 

I’m currently facing felonies for my rescue work, but the hardest and most thankless suffering I’ve endured for the movement has been in the conflicts I’ve endured. Even if we aren’t in a position to take legal risk, we can cultivate a more willing attitude towards our own suffering. Accepting discomfort and suffering—physical, emotional, and otherwise—as part of a larger cause imbues it with meaning. 

Principle Five

Avoid internal violence of the spirit as well as external physical violence. The nonviolent attitude permeates all aspects of the campaign. It provides mirror-type reflection of the reality of the condition to one's opponent and the community at large. Specific activities must be designed to help maintain a high level of spirit and morale during a nonviolent campaign.

We can think of NVC as a Kingian practice of self-purification. NVC is a practice of building emotional discipline to break habits of judgment and blame so that we can relate with love to everyone, even those causing harm. With this discipline, we can act in a way that maximizes our chances of achieving reconciliation in the end. 

This is why we teach Nonviolence as an internal practice as well as an external one. Over the rest of this blog series, I’ll describe exercises that ask us to dismantle our own judgmental thoughts before turning our attention to relationships with others. In this way, the project of promoting the study of NVC is to create an internal culture in movement groups that minimize blame and judgment.

Principle Six

The universe is on the side of justice. Truth is universal and human society and each human being is oriented to the just sense of order of the universe. The fundamental values in all the world's great religions include the concept that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice. For the nonviolent practitioner, nonviolence introduces a new moral context in which nonviolence is both the means and the end.

Principled nonviolence asks of us a kind of faith. We’re invited to believe in this principle and act accordingly. We believe that the means are present in the ends. That means that if we use violence to get to an outcome, we’ll have violence in the world we’ve created. When we’re in doubt, Nonviolence can be a North Star to guide us toward beloved community. 

Principled Nonviolence vs Strategic Nonviolence

So far, I’ve discussed the principles of Nonviolence and instilled a sense that Nonviolence is the right thing to do even if it doesn’t seem effective. This belief can be a guiding force in moments of uncertainty, because acting in integrity with it can make even our mistakes less harmful. But in addition to the principled Nonviolence described above, we also draw insight from the narrower concept of strategic Nonviolence.

Strategic nonviolence was described by Gene Sharp in The Politics of Nonviolent Action. He sought to divorce Nonviolence from this spiritual dimension to practice its techniques without the God stuff. (The big names in Nonviolence before then, like MLK, Gandhi, and Jesus, were pretty into the God stuff.) He was aware of the extreme capacity for violence that the State has, and that armed resistance justifies the State’s use of violence in the eyes of the public. For Sharp, nonviolence was not necessarily a moral right, but a strategic necessity. 

He was also interested in the inclusivity of Nonviolent action—that it allows movements to include more people and be truly populist, and the inclusivity of a Nonviolence that doesn’t require subscription to a spiritual element. 

Like Sharp, I am non-religious and I organize in secular spaces. And yet I resonate with a dimension of the work that speaks to our whole selves, our place in a larger system, and the meaning that our impact will have after we are gone. 

I believe in the ability of animal advocates, as a community, to accept a secular spiritual element to our Nonviolence. A community of people who are up against a cultural institution with tens of thousands of years of power, who cry at vigils, who watch their own parents eat the bodies of the victims, can handle a spiritual orientation to the work. 

If you’re not ready for spiritual Nonviolence, then I welcome you to practice first and consider the philosophy later. And don’t get hung up on my use of the word spiritual—I might mean it more broadly than you think. For instance, my colleague Aidan thinks about the imperative of Nonviolence as: “How can I conduct myself so that if I later realize my convictions were wrong, I can still be proud of the actions I took?”

However you approach it, Nonviolence and NVC will offer you tools to improve your relationships, your internal emotional landscape, and your advocacy. The second blog post in this series will introduce the practice of empathy as a fundamental concept in Nonviolent Communication. 

The Gist:

When piglets Lilly and Lizzie were rescued from a giant pig farm, their rescuers spoke openly about what they had done. A multi-year FBI investigation and state felony prosecution followed. At the end of their trial, supporters expected them to go to prison, potentially for years. The rescuers had gotten their affairs in order. We thought they’d be held in custody between the verdict and sentencing. We wondered how they would do in their yearly parole board hearings, given that they’d never express remorse. This was goodbye for a long time. 

I was in the courtroom when the decision was announced. It all started the way we expected. After deliberating for nearly eight hours, the jury entered the room, stone-faced. They didn’t look at us. The judge asked if the jury had come to a decision. They had. The bailiff passed the written decision between the judge, the foreperson, and the clerk. But then something strange happened. Charge by charge, we heard the words “not guilty.” 

It was a fantastic moment. We were elated. The bailiff scolded us gently, saying, “I get it, but you need to be quiet.” But how were we supposed to be quiet when the unbelievable had happened? The judge had referred to Lilly and Lizzie by name. The jurors had asked why we didn’t rescue more piglets. We had argued for rescue in a court of law, and we had won.

This moment of sweetness was particularly unexpected for me. In the years since I’d participated in Open Rescue myself, I had grown doubtful about our hopes that it would produce wins in the courtroom. After all, I served as DxE’s legal coordinator for a little over two years- hiring lawyers, setting up defendant meetings, and occasionally talking down the worried parent of an activist facing charges. In all this time, of dozens of criminal defendants, not one went to trial. Cases were dropped, activists took deals so they wouldn’t need to continue their cases, and mostly, cases were delayed long past the point when I, impatient with the glacial pace of the legal system, left DxE to start Pax Fauna. 

Now that the celebrations are over and regular work resumes, this post is an attempt to make an honest assessment of Open Rescue as a tactic to create social change for animals, in light of a victory we never expected. 

A Moment to Re-evaluate

The rescue of Lilly and Lizzie happened on March 7, 2017, and their rescuers, Wayne Hsiung and Paul Darwin Picklesimer, were acquitted over five years later, on October 8, 2022. In 2017, DxE was releasing open rescues monthly, conducting mass trainings, and hoping that open rescue would end up being a viral tactic that would touch every farm and slaughterhouse in the world. 

Since then, DxE has moved away from open rescue. At one point, Wayne had 17 pending felony charges, which seemed like plenty. Most of the cases took years to resolve (several are still plodding through pretrial hearings), and, without making it to trial, they didn’t always get the media attention we hoped for. Now that long-awaited evidence of the outcomes of Open Rescue cases are available, it is a prime moment for the movement to consider using it again. In this article, we’ll outline the lessons learned for the animal freedom movement from the Smithfield victory, and the implications for future strategy. 

A Legal Theory that Worked

But First, the Parts that Didn’t

One defense strategy batted around in the heyday of DxE’s open rescues was that we could convince a jury to simply ignore unjust laws and make a decision based on their conscience, known as jury nullification. But it seems that’s not exactly what happened here. The jury did not explicitly decide that rescue is moral and Paul and Wayne didn’t deserve to be punished- they decided that the prosecution didn’t meet its burden of proof that the particular crimes charged had been committed. (From juror interviews afterwards, it seems that a moral motivation was also present, at least for some.) It also wasn’t a case that created a binding legal precedent. That means that nothing has changed regarding the legality of open rescue. Of course, activists hope cases like this can set a cultural precedent, and they can also be used as persuasive authority, information that informs, but does not dictate, the actions of judges in the future, even outside of the state of Utah.

Another piece to the theory whose result was inconclusive was the necessity defense- a legal concept in which a criminal act is justified if it prevents immediate, greater harm. The judge in this case forbade DxE from introducing it (as usually happens for animal and environmental activists hoping to claim it), but it would sound something like this: Paul and Wayne knew that animals were suffering terribly inside Circle Four Farms, and they were justified in committing trespass, a smaller harm, in order to stop a greater harm- criminal animal cruelty. While it was explictly forbidden, this defense was both implied by the defendants in their discussion of the poor health of Lillie and Lizzie, and possibly common sense to the jurors who aquitted. My guess is that the necessity defense represents an unquantifiable moral component to this case. It can’t be expected to earn aquittals by itself, since it’s rarely included in jury instructions, but it’s necessary for winning over juries all the same. (You can hear more from the jurors at an upcoming by the Denver Animal Activist Defense Project.)

Felonies Schmelonies 

It was, however, a proof of concept of part of a legal theory that Wayne and DxE have been touting for years- that under the right circumstances, diligent open rescue investigators won’t be guilty of any crime more serious than trespass. (In Utah, prosecutors must choose between charging burglary and trespass- this isn’t true everywhere.) Because investigators enter farms with only the intent of documenting what’s happening in the facility, they aren’t guilty of burglary, which generally requires entering a building with the intent to commit a theft or felony. Because the animals they rescue are on the verge of death, they aren’t guilty of theft, which usually requires that one steal something of value. However, courts and juries do not always agree with activists in the assessment of the monetary value of sick rescued animals, or the relevance of animal’s value, such as in Wayne’s own conviction at trial after rescuing Rain, a baby goat with pneumonia. (Another upcoming test will come from my own charges of burglary and theft in association with the rescue of beagles from a breeding and testing facility in Wisconsin, each valued at $1200.) In the future, activists may be able to set themselves up for success by rescuing animals whose urgent medical needs cost more than they are worth to the farm. (Of course, specific laws and jury instructions will vary according to circumstances and jurisdictions, and I’m writing this from the perspective of an activist and not an attorney or legal expert.)  

Difficulties with OR as a Tactic

Possible downsides to Open Rescue as a strategy could be the cost, the difficulty of replicating the legal strategy, and a risk of an undesirable media narrative. None of these seem insurmountable for a savvy group of activists. 


Costs of the investigation itself can be in the realm of a few thousand dollars- lower if equipment (e.g. cameras) is used for multiple investigations. These include flights and hotels for a small team, a rental car, biosecurity supplies, and vet visits. The legal fees are where it really adds up. Lawyers can cost tens of thousands of dollars, to which we can add the price of specialized investigators or jury studies, additional tens of thousands of dollars. This price might be comparable to undercover investigations, which require a salary for an investigator for months in addition to the equipment and costs associated with preparing the story for release. However, the vast majority of Open Rescues were never prosecuted, resulting in a very low average cost overall. 


Watching Wayne Hsiung represent himself in court, I was struck by the thought that he was the most qualified person in the world for this particular task- a lawyer and practiced public speaker who had been preparing for this moment for years. This might lead one to conclude that others can’t replicate his strategy, but I disagree. While Wayne’s decision to represent himself made for some exciting theater, I don’t believe it was necessary for the verdict. As touching as it was to hear him say to the jury, “I don't actually want you to acquit us on a legal technicality, I want you to acquit us as a matter of conscience” it seems that they probably were acquitted on a legal technicality as discussed above- the piglets didn’t have any monetary value, and perhaps that they didn’t have the intent to rescue when they entered the farm. 

I believe that with competent counsel and no particular gift for public speaking, this case implies that other investigators could have a decent chance of acquittal from serious charges under similar sets of facts. (That’s not to say that any lawyer will do- competent and dedicated activist attorneys are vital and rare. Advice on their selection would easily fill a blog of the same length.) 


A final concern with Open Rescue that I want to address is the narrative put forth through the media. DxE can be considered a liberationist group. That is, they are not interested in lowering the mortality rates of piglets in factory farms or winning slightly bigger cages for egg-laying hens- they mean to advocate for animals as individuals who deserve rights. However, this insistence on liberation over welfare doesn’t always get through to the media. 

Of the Smithfield Investigation, the most widely consumed coverage came from the New York Times, the subtitle of which read, “The Utah trial highlighted what the defendants argued is a lack of transparency for the treatment of animals at large corporate farms.” It also included a discussion of corporate transparency, gestation crates, and a quote from Wayne Hsuing saying “Instead of trying to put us in prison… the better thing to do is just take care of your animals.” Facing a trial and serious criminal consequences, it can be tempting for a defendant or organization to adapt their message to one that may be perceived as more palatable and more likely to win the case and woo the media. 

However, unlike many of DxE’s other Open Rescues that focused on dispelling the Humane Myth, the Smithfield Investigation’s narrative was more focused on corporate lies around welfare. (The company had previously vowed to phase out gestation crates, while its largest facility still used them.) I don’t believe that Open Rescue itself implies a welfare angle if the advocates behind it don’t want one. 



In contrast with undercover operations, Open Rescue allows for a quality of storytelling that allows the audience to identify a single victim to feel empathy for. Discussion of particularly cruel practices or deceptive marketing can be accompanied by the story of an individual who survived, transforming a dark story about corporate wrongdoing into one containing a vision for change. These stories are also strengthened by the honesty of the activists, their willingness to break unjust laws in the open and demand their day in court.

Additionally, Open Rescue allows for the telling of many different stories- ones that may resonate on social media, traditional media, with lawmakers, and for juries, all of whom have different interests. While the media may not pick up every case of open rescue, if we try enough different ways, eventually some of them will blow up. 

Activist Transformation

Open Rescue allows activists to be transformed by what they see. Now, when we speak about animals, we have firsthand knowledge of their lives and deaths. The risk we take in conducting Open Rescue functions as a signal of our commitment, to ourselves and to others. DxE’s mass open rescues and a similar tactic used by Meat the Victims transformed hundreds of activists into people with firsthand experience.

Importantly, this experience is of bearing witness and also of helping. By rescuing animals, or at least stopping the functioning of the facility for some time, activists’ witnessing of violence is accompanied by intervening, leading to more empowerment and less burnout than bearing witness on its own. 

Open Rescue transforms not only the activists’ internal sense of motivation but also their credibility as messengers to the public: from here on, they can attest as eyewitnesses to the barbarity of animal farming. 

Untapped Potential

To date, Open Rescue has done important work at transforming activists, challenging the humane myth, uncovering previously unknown atrocities, and earning a voice in the media, not to mention saving real lives. In the future, Open Rescue could be used in even more creative ways than we’ve previously seen. For just one example, in the context of an animal rights ballot measure, donors to the opposition could be identified and their farms could be investigated by groups unaffiliated with the ballot measure, with investigations published just before election day. This would provide both important publicity for the issue and accountability to those who would financially support an anti-animal position. 

Until Every Cage is Empty

The full potential of Open Rescue as a tactic has yet to be fully realized. While it’s understandable that, in the period of time where many charges were pending and few were resolved, activists moved away from it, the time is now right to reinvest energy in openly investigating violent facilities and rescuing the animals we find there. We hope to see open rescue happen by greater numbers of activists, at greater frequency, and to save more lives than has been possible before. 

The Gist:

While I do feel for the animals that are killed, I feel like hunting and eating meat are connected to us in like a very primal way… It adheres to the natural order of things, to consume meat products, and animal products… We don't cry when wolves eat rabbits… And I think that we are losing sight of our connection and our place in nature as like apex predators.

After interviewing hundreds of ordinary Americans about their views on using animals for food and noticing the themes represented in the quote above, I reread Hatchet, an iconic young adult novel in which a 13-year-old boy named Brian gets stranded in the Canadian wilderness and, against all odds, figures out how to survive. I was struck by how, despite my dedication to animal freedom, I found myself rooting for Brian as he killed and dismembered fishes, birds, and rabbits. For years, I’ve rolled my eyes when people bring up their ancestors or what’s natural to justify eating animals, but in reading Hatchet suddenly I was able to understand something important behind these justifications that had seemed so shallow to me before.  

By imagining a sympathetic character holding those same objections, this essay will explore a strategy for an empathy-first persuasion approach. I’ll present a model for understanding society’s attachment to eating animals as a distant intergenerational trauma response, illustrated by quotes from interview participants in our animal rights messaging study. I’ll share how Brian, Hatchet’s fictional protagonist, helped me see this all more clearly. Most importantly, I’ll give you tools for how to respond when you come up against this in your own advocacy for animals.

Intergenerational Trauma

At Pax Fauna, we believe in storytelling as a vehicle for change, and in Hatchet, we’re invited into Brian’s world. So let’s imagine what it would be like to understand Brian, and in doing so, understand the cultural forces supporting animal agriculture. 

Brian’s Trauma is Our Trauma

I came to see Hatchet as representing something deeper than the exciting adventure book I experienced as a kid. Brian’s situation is an acute version of the situation our ancestors found themselves in for countless generations- often in mortal danger or a few wrong moves from starvation. 

The concept of intergenerational trauma explains how ordinary people who’ve never had an experience like Brian’s could still have the same reaction to animal advocates. First observed in acute historical tragedies- the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide- intergenerational trauma is a phenomenon in which trauma symptoms appear in children and grandchildren of people who experienced trauma. Put simply, trauma is often passed around in society like an electrical signal in the brain- always moving but never gone. One person expresses their trauma in a way that harms another, which can be metabolized as its own trauma. It’s important to understand that intergenerational trauma is not only passed down through abuse or neglect but also by transmitting a worldview shaped by trauma, one that emphasizes fear and victimhood or stoicism and self-reliance6, or even through epigenetics, changes in how the bodies of younger generations express genes caused by experiences of their ancestors. 

It would be great if our lives could be a Disney movie, you know? But it's not. You know, it's just not.

Acting Out Trauma Responses

Killing to Survive

Unfortunately, they still have to be killed. I don't like it. But in order for you to get the nutrients that you need, it's necessary. And I don't think there's really any way to get around it.

Brian was put into a situation where many animal advocates would agree that killing an animal is morally acceptable- it seemed that if he didn’t, he would die. As his eating became routine, I wondered what it would be like for him to return to society after having had the experience of killing and dismembering animals out of necessity. 

If Brian was a target of our advocacy, my guess is that he would have a desperate need to be heard on his experience, his relationship with animals, and the depth of his connection with nature. If we tried to immediately appeal to how unnecessary it is for him now to eat animals, he’d be frustrated with us for not hearing him, and this need to be heard might be so great that it could present as hostility. 

Stuck in the Past

Reading about Brian crash-landing a plane alone into the Canadian wilderness, I found myself viewing his situation in a much different light than I had as a child- by repeatedly coming so close to dying, and by doing so totally alone, Brian undoubtedly experienced a world-changing trauma.  Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD, one of the world’s leading experts on trauma, writes in The Body Keeps the Score, “trauma [is] experienced not as memories but as disruptive physical reactions in the present.” That’s to say that, when coming face to face with reminders of the trauma such as the question of eating animals, Brian might exhibit some dysregulation of his nervous system- strong emotions that, to an outside observer, might seem completely irrational. 

Animal advocates are familiar with this level of objection- people who become angry and argumentative upon learning that you eat differently than them. Trauma educator Sarah Peyton writes about another level of faulty thinking that can be formed through trauma. “[In the face of trauma,] we learn to make unconscious contracts with ourselves that are attempting to keep us safe, but often end up creating self-sabotage and preventing self-kindness.” That is, when, in a traumatic situation, we learn strategies to survive, those strategies often persist past the point that they’re useful. This applies, for Brian, both to the act of eating animals and the cognitive trick of objectifying them. 

The part of Brian that holds trauma (the amygdala5, for you technically inclined) can’t tell time, and remains as if “frozen in time in the traumas [he] experienced.”4 as described by Schwartz and Morrisette, authors of No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model. It wouldn’t know that Brian was safely returned to modern society- it’s still as awake as it was in the woods, watching for danger and prey. When Brian learned to objectify animals as a survival mechanism in the face of trauma, that could have persisted long after his rescue. 

Humans, as a species, are reluctant to change. Because change means something new and new things are scary. And it goes back to our hunter days, in the dark, huddling around the campfires and all that, you know…. Anything new was a threat or a potential threat. And we still sort of have that instinct, you know, baked into our DNA.


When we challenge the moral validity of eating animals, it may sound to some like we are dismissing the entire legacy upon which we’ve built our lives. While we express compassion for animals, they hear disrespect towards the sacrifice others have made for us to be here. When people bring up their ancestors eating meat, indigenous people who hunt, or lions, they’re defending the validity of the very ground on which they stand. We can consider this particular form of defensiveness a deeply held trauma response formed long, long ago. 

I'm questioning… why we're calling [plant-based eating] responsible when, for other cultures, part of their culture is to eat meat. So it's a taking away from their heritage calling this responsible when for them, this is the irresponsible choice of not following what their ancestors have grown up on.

The Path Out 

Trauma needs empathy and warmth to heal. Van Der Kolk writes that “Recovery from trauma involves (re)connecting with our fellow human beings.” To understand what society might need to heal the trauma response of animal exploitation, let’s consider the empathy Brian might need before being convinced to support animal freedom. 

Until we’ve empathized fully with the terror of living in fear of starvation, we can’t address the trauma of killing animals. Brian would still be defensive over his decision to kill animals until he’s fully heard about the desperation that led him there.  

First of all, people have been killing animals since the beginning of time… I just kind of feel like it's just, that's the way it is. Someone's on top and someone's at the bottom.


Brian might also need to be acknowledged for his resilience. He doesn’t regret doing what he needed to do to survive. In fact, he’s proud of himself for the strength, determination, and intelligence he displayed by surviving in the bush with no preparation.  He doesn’t want to abandon his resilience, and no one wants to abandon the resilience it took for their ancestors to survive. When people express an attachment to meat, fur, or other animal products as a cultural symbol of success and abundance, they may need acknowledgment, and even celebration, of their resilience. 

What’s more, Brian feels a profound connection to nature, probably far greater than you or I do. He feels gratitude for the animals he killed and has peace with the fact that he killed them. 

Saying [eating meat is] unnecessary would be unfair to, say, indigenous cultures, because they have a very spiritual reverence and respectful relationship with the animals that they take the lives of. And I think if we listen to indigenous wisdom, we could find a way to revolutionize our relationship with animals that we do kill.

Loss of the Natural World

The final piece Brian might need empathy on, in order to be able to hear an animal freedom message, is his grief at having left the woods behind. He felt connected to nature, and now he’s surrounded by people who don’t understand him and only want to talk about things that seem frivolous to him. In the woods, after a while, he felt in his element. His senses were elevated- he noticed every little detail. In the city, he’s bombarded by noise. 

There is certainly parallel grief held in the collective consciousness. Deep down, many (or perhaps all) of us are mourning our severance with the natural world. We can recognize it whenever people reject modernity for its own sake, such as discomfort with cultured meat or B12 supplements. What would it sound like to empathize with that grief before asking for movement on animals?

Empathy for the Irrational 

In a sequel, Brian’s Return, Brian has difficulty adjusting to modern life. He feels stressed, alienated, and when triggered, viciously attacks a classmate. It isn’t until he meets someone who listens to him with empathy that he’s able to find a pathway out of his distress. 

As tempting as it may be to respond to arguments about respect for nature, culture, and legacy, with another argument, such as by declaring that it’s unnecessary to eat meat in the modern world or by introducing evidence that humans fare better on a vegan diet, we recommend connecting first with the values that the argument is coming from and connecting with those values the best you can. That might sound something like this: 

I hear you bring up lions eating gazelles in nature, and I can respond to that, but first I want to make sure I understand where it’s coming from. Is it important to you to be connected to the natural world? Me too, very much, and I’d love to hear more about your sense of connection to nature… For humans to not think of ourselves as separate from nature? Yeah, I feel that too, like, I feel really sad when people talk about these pie-in-the-sky technological solutions to climate change because I don’t think we can just invent ourselves out of every problem. Is it kind of like that?

Connecting first on the shared values behind the argument, however frustrating, is a way to disarm the defensiveness born from trauma and hopefully, help someone give themselves permission to change their mind. 

If my ancestors didn't hunt, I probably wouldn't be here today. Because I mean, that's what we had to do for survival. But I mean, I think some people would also say that, I mean, it's kind of unethical when we're in a point, you know, in the world where we don't have to do that. It's not like 1850, and I'm, you know, a pioneer in California, killing a bear for meat or something, and it just doesn't work like that anymore. Like, I can go to the store, I don't have to go and shoot an animal or, you know, catch a fish to eat.

Moving Forward

In the author’s note following Brian’s Return, we learn that the author, Gary Paulsen, is a vegetarian. If Paulsen, a vegetarian who believes it’s wrong to kill animals, can write a story so sympathetic to the hunter in our history, surely we can all afford to employ a little empathy in our advocacy.  In an interview on NPR, he said of a time in his life before he even published Hatchet, "And I'd quit trapping because I don't - I decided that it was not correct to kill animals. And I'm not going to get into a big controversial thing, but for me, it's not the right thing to do. I can't - I'm a vegetarian now."

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