Dear Kairosians

It is not always visible to our Kairos community that our school offers superb academic standards. We have learned that almost all our Grade 7 graduates of last year are not merely excelling in their high schools, but achieving distinctions in English and in the mid-90s in Maths, the two most high-status school subjects for university entrance tests worldwide.

A school is always a work in progress, and we are always refining our strengths and addressing weaknesses. And yet, there is already sufficient evidence that the Kairos model works. Start off slowly and deeply, move into the conceptual thinking of primary school (the famous “formal operations” of Piaget) with care and sensitivity, always paying attention to the child’s emotional experience of the learning process and ensuring genuine understanding, instead of learning the tricks of “getting the answer right,” whatever right might be. Start catching up to the conventional system only once the children have discovered authentic learning attitudes and skills, and are themselves starting to think about their high schools. In my studies in Maths Education at Wits I remember being inspired by a video of a master teacher and a class of Grade 2s explore odd and even numbers. The crux of the video was when a boy experienced an epiphany that a number could be either odd or even, depending how you look at it (3 groups of 2, or 2 groups of 3). Not “correct”, and yet deeply mathematical! This is the sort of inquiry-oriented pedagogy we hold dear in Kairos.

At the same time, we have a cutting-edge curriculum in the social and emotional arena. I think it will help me to summarise the principles here, as a refresher to those who are familiar with them, and a taster for those who are new around here. I was deeply gratified that there was such a significant attendance to our invitation to a presentation of Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication last week, so much so that we able to offer a repeat session. I am no expect in this work, but I have been exploring this field of language since I met Rosenberg in 2004, a meeting which significantly influenced my life and my career. Here is a broad overview of that presentation.

There are ways we communicate that limit compassion, and there are aspects that enhance compassion. By enhancing compassion in our language, we connect with each other more easily, but because of our personal insecurities (usually originating from psychological wounds from childhood), we tend to unwittingly limit compassion despite ourselves. By taking care of our language, and becoming more conscious of our intentions between our words, we can demonstrate more empathy with each other, even in our own families, and thereby connect with them more easily.

The essence of Non-Violent Communication is not in the method, and if it feels like a method it will be inauthentic, and sometimes even sound like one person is attempting to expose the other person how “violent” they are in their language. The intention needs to be to nurture the relationship, with genuine empathy and humility — with love — instead of a subversive, covert intention to shame or appear superior, often subconsciously so. Once the spirit of empathy is there, the method can be particularly valuable to guide a volatile conversation when there is a lot of emotion bouncing around the room.

For example, here are some guiding principles of NVC:

  • I-statements: Instead of implying a denial of responsibility by using pronouns that disguise our personal involvement or collusion in a problem (e.g. they, we, you), I could choose to use the pronoun “I”, and others may choose to follow me or they may choose not to — that is their choice. Avoidance of the I-statement can also be achieved by using the passive voice. (Note: I just did that!) This sounds subtle, but in practice it becomes vividly clear and very useful: notice my I-statements in the “Free choice” paragraph below, and consider how it might sound if I used “we” and “others” instead of “I” and “you”.
  • Free choice: In NVC there is a strong emphasis on free choice, and individual autonomy, especially the free choice to impact another person or oneself harmfully. If I recognise this free — albeit unwise — choice you have, I can connect with you more easily because I am not attempting to control you. If I speak as if I control you, that would be called “violent” from Rosenberg’s perspective . If I speak as if you are free, then I am being empathic in my communication (and if I recognise my own free choice in any situation, I am being empathic towards myself).
  • Observing without evaluating: Instead of offering a complaint of another person’s behaviour, which often includes an interpretation of that person’s intentions or motives, and sometimes a judgment of that person’s whole nature, I could rather choose to offer a strictly factual report about what actually happened, objectively, i.e. what did you do or say, and what did I do or say. It helps to confirm if these “facts” (as we call them in Kairos), are agreed between the people in the conversation.
  • Feeling words without judgements: Many words sound like feeling words, but are in fact camouflaged judgments about the other person, such as “I’m feeling disrespected / insulted / betrayed / bullied” etc. True feeling words are what I feel myself in my personal experience, in my body, heart or mind. An excellent list of true feeling words (from Rosenberg’s website) are available here. It sometimes, but not always, more helpful to recognise another person’s feelings, explicitly, before sharing one’s own.
  • Expressing needs first, not wants: Since we may not get what we want, it is helpful to communicate to the other person what “unmet need” I have been experiencing, because that need is probably a shared need that other person recognises and identifies with: autonomy, peace, belonging, hope, understanding, and so on. Peruse the list of needs words here. Note how expressing these needs is not a want, there is no request from the other person, and if a request is implied, there would be an undertone of linguistic “violence”.
  • Delaying requests until mutual understanding is achieved: Instead of making a camouflaged demand of the other person (so easy to do when the power relationship is unequal such as a parent-child or teacher-child relationship), a request that does not carry the implicit mood of a demand will be helpful, but only after the facts, feelings and needs of each party is heard and understood.
  • Slowing the conversation down: When practical circumstances dictate that it is not reasonable to slow down, the conversation can usually be adjourned to when it is reasonable. More difficult is when there is time, but emotions are running high, and people are communicating from their insecurities rather than with a big-picture and empathic perspective. Slowing down helps to bring the idea of exploring the unspoken feelings and unmet needs of each person so that each other’s experience (what Rosenberg called “what is alive” in us from moment to moment) can be more easily shared and more likely to be listened to.

We attempt to practise these principles in Kairos, and I hope they may begin to percolate into the extended Kairos community of our families’ homes and onward, as I endeavour to do in mine, in service of inspiring the ideal of a non-violent world.

Headmonsterly yours

Marc Loon


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