Article published in The Journal of Radical Community Work
Roz Adams, August 2014
Imagine parents with the resources to solve conflicts with their kids and partners with win-win solutions; who value their own needs alongside their children’s. Imagine children growing up with the skills to navigate conflict as it arises instead of harbouring old grudges or resorting to the habitual fight or flight. Imagine children who can even put themselves in their parent’s shoes.
This is the vision of Family Fridays, an 8 week course for parents in Gorbals, Glasgow based on the principles of Nonviolent Communication (NVC); the work of Dr. Marshall Rosenberg[i]. It is run by a charity, Bridging the Gap as part of its work to increase Integration across cultures and to support families living in poverty.
Working in Gorbals since 1998, Bridging the Gap all too often witnessed stressed out parents, struggling to support their children and themselves, using power over (“just do it, because I say so”) or power under (giving in – buying them things to keep them quiet). As with most parents, they often expressed their love and care for their children in ways that were confusing (“do as I say” “think for yourself”) and rarely asked for support or got time to themselves. Family Fridays offers a ‘Power With’ Alternative.
The importance of people developing their inner resources as a means to reducing inequality and to improve quality of life is being increasingly recognised[ii] .While poverty is a structural issue, how we survive as individuals often depends on the inner resources we have, so instead of going into shame or blame, we can make choices and speak up for what we value.
The intention behind Nonviolent Communication is to create a quality of relationship between people where everyone’s needs are considered and matter. It uses a broader needs-based approach to understanding behaviour than Abraham Maslow’s (1962)[iii], expanding his focus on survival, protection/safety, belonging, competence/ learning and autonomy to include needs such as creativity, friendship, fun, play, contribution, to care and many more. (for a fuller list see CNVC www.cnvc.org/Training/needs-inventory) These Needs are universal; we all share them, which is useful in understanding what motivates behaviour even when our cultures and beliefs vary. This Needs based approach[iv] to understanding behaviour is more and more widely accepted.
The ‘course’ has gone through many evolutions since its inception 4 years ago. The facilitators have shifted their approach from teaching to facilitation; to opening a space and using empathic listening and basing each session largely on what parents bring to the room that day. We use games, exercises, role play and often work with real life situations. We have taken inspiration from books such as “Respectful Parents, Respectful Kids”[v] and “Raising Children Compassionately” [vi] Crucially the facilitators embody the NVC approach often making their own needs transparent in their choices of what to cover and in how they respond. So for example if parents are talking at the same time in response to a question, a facilitator might say, “it’s really important to me that I understand what each of you is saying, so I can be more confident that what we choose to do next will work for all of you. Would it be okay to slow down and speak one at a time?”.
Family Fridays was first created as a way for people in Gorbals to find common ground across cultures over shared concerns as parents. We have since understood the deep need for many parents to be heard for their own experiences before they can begin to change their habitual reactions into chosen responses. This is the journey from Furious to Curious.
Over the weeks, parents become aware of their longer term vision for their kids, the kind of people they would like them to become and how their own behaviour is the most effective role model in engendering these skills. This includes empathic listening, understanding their own needs, asking for support and creating space so everyone can contribute to finding solutions instead of trying to fix the problem for their kids.
To date 27 parents have completed the course. Strathclyde Police Crime Reduction Unit funded an independent evaluation of the course in its first year. Through individual interviews it found 8 out of 10 parents said the course had improved communication leading to reduced conflict in the home, 8/10 said it had increased their self-awareness, making them more reflective and 6 out of 10 said they had improved their listening skills. An unplanned outcome was that 9 of the 10 said it had increased their social networks. Here are some examples of feedback from parents:
“The empathy thing- we are trying to get into his mind more often. It’s helping us to deal with some of the wee things, taking a step back and putting ourselves in his shoes. I’m trying to listen more and when I’ve asked him, “What’s going on?” it’s been better.”
“Bridging the Gap and this course have really helped me and sent me on a journey in terms of handling things. I used to want to be right, constantly trying to change people’s opinions, change the way they think… It’s opening my mind to having seeds planted and planting seeds in return, more shared; getting past the distasteful language and really see what they are trying to say and allow that to plant in me then plant a seed back.”
“I realise I’m not a bad parent for falling back into my old habits now and again, and I’m not going to beat myself up about it. And I can choose a different path, it’s opened my eyes “
“The top thing I learned on the course was feelings and needs; understanding each other’s’…take a walk in their shoes and find out why they are doing it the way they are.”
One parent described how having a clean house was important to her and she was frustrated when the kids dropped their stuff on the floor, played and ignored her complaints. After one Family Fridays class she told them I would like their support and asked how it could be fun for them too. They put on some music and did the ‘tidy up dance’ together. “It was much better” she said.
Of course, it is not all plain sailing after just 8 weeks, the shift in thinking is hard to sustain. One parent told us, “I’ve got more understanding for myself which will hopefully pass on to someone else. It’s made me look at things a different way. The hard part will be putting it into practice”
Many parents have expressed that while at the time of the course, they found it useful, it has been lonely and hard to continue with this approach when all those around them a doing it the ‘old way’. To support them we have asked previous participants to join the last few sessions of each new course as a refresher. We would like to find other ways which don’t always involve a course and the expense of providing a crèche. Parents who come to the course usually also attend one of our other groups with their children, our community drop-in or our baby and toddler groups. Staff have some training in NVC, as do some of our volunteers, and gradually we are learning to role model these skills while supporting the parents in these contexts. From September this year we are bringing in a worker to explore with parents other creative ways to sustain their learning in the longer term
We would love to see more long term research to evaluate the efficacy of using NVC principles to support children and their parents. There is evidence of considerable success from several individual and some short- term projects. Projects exist elsewhere using the same principles in settings specifically with children, notably in Edinburgh, Scotland, Elaine Fullerton’s research project in an Hope Park Nursery (2007) [vii] and Marianne Gothlin’s Skarpnack Free School in Sweden (since 2008)[viii]. There are also several organisations and trainers teaching NVC to parents who pay for those courses. The only other one to our knowledge specifically supporting parents who are experiencing poverty is Leapfrog in Kircaldy, Fife[ix] who we have worked in partnership with to deliver this work.
[i]Rosenberg, M. B. (2005) Nonviolent Communication: A language of Life (3rd edn). Encinitas, CA:
[ii] Burns, Harry, (2014) Professor in Global Public Health, University of Strathclyde, What Causes Health? (SENSCOT) Available at: www.senscot.net/view_art.php?viewid=17839 (1 September 2014)
[iii] Maslow, A. (1962) Toward a Psychology of Being. Van Mostrand
[iv] Coote, Anna, Basic human needs – what are they really? (New Economics Foundation)
Available at: www.neweconomics.org/blog/entry/basic-human-needs-what-are-they-really (1 September 2014)
[v] Kindle Hobson, Victoria and Hart, Sura (2006), Respectful Parents Respectful Kids, Puddle Dancer Press
[vi] Rosenberg, M.B. (2004), Raising Children Compassionately, Puddle Dancer Press
[vii] Fullerton, Elaine (2008), The development of “Nonviolent Communication” in an Early Years Setting to support conflict resolution and develop an emotional intelligence related to both self and others, (General Teaching Council of Scotland)
Available at: www.gtcs.org.uk/web/files/FormUploads/development-of-nonviolent-communication-in-an-early-years-setting1771_332.pdf (1 Sept 2014)
[viii] Gothlin, Marianne (2009) Skarpack Free School Report, (Skolande.se)
Available at: www.skolande.se/wp-content/uploads/Skarpnack-Free-School-report.pdf (1 Sept 2014)
[ix] Cowie, Paula, Sustainable Communities Initiative, contact Paula for the Leapfrog Evaluation Report
Available at: www.sci-scotland.org.uk/leapfrog.shtml ( 1 Sept 2014)
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