Lisa Gottlieb on Compassionate and Nonviolent Communication

Interview by Bill Zirinsky

Bill Zirinsky: Lisa, you've been in the community for decades, working and raising a family. You co-founded and ran Selma Cafe. You are a full-time school social worker, as well. For those of our readers who may not know, what was Selma Cafe, why was it created, why did it become such a cool and popular and "talked about" phenomenon -- perhaps the epitome of a certain slice of the Ann Arbor zeitgeist during its heyday -- and what happened to it?

Lisa Gottlieb: Selma Cafe is a non-profit organization that supports local food and sustainable agriculture, created in February 2009, by my then-husband Jeff McCabe and myself. When we started, we had a seed of an idea that included weekly Friday morning local food breakfast parties at our home on the west side of Ann Arbor. Selma grew into a full blooming enterprise, measurably increasing our local foodshed and financially supporting many local farmers and food businesses. Every week, we had a different guest chef who created a menu based on local and seasonal foods. Volunteers would prep and serve the meals, guests would make donations, and we used the money to buy all the ingredients for future breakfasts. We were keeping all the food dollars in our community, which was an important part of our mission. The rest of the money was used to offer loans to local farmers to purchase hoop house kits and our volunteers would build them with the farmers.

After 4 years of weekly breakfast parties, with sometimes 200 guests coming to our home, the city shut us down because of us operating in a residential neighborhood. We moved breakfasts to Sunward Cohousing on a once a month basis. Our last breakfast was April of 2014, and since then, Selma Cafe has been on hiatus.

I think there were several key factors to the success of Selma Cafe, including the growing value in our community of knowing and supporting local farmers and food artisans, the fun and energy of having such a massive undertaking in someone’s home, and a super inclusive and friendly vibe that was a natural part of volunteers all working together with shared mission. What we created with the Selma Cafe community is a powerful example of what can happen when people come together with shared mission and passion, along with delicious food and a lot of joy.  

Bill Zirinsky: And what do you do as a school social worker?

Lisa Gottlieb: I’ve worked for the Washtenaw Intermediate School District for the last 15 years, where I provide school social work services to students in the Washtenaw County Juvenile Detention Center, for the Ann Arbor Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program, and WAVE (Washtenaw Alliance for Virtual Education), a county wide alternative high school program. In addition to direct social work support and special education services, I am a certified Kripalu yoga teacher and really enjoy offering mindfulness meditation and yoga to some of the students with whom I work, especially in the detention center.

BZ: And you've raised kids in Ann Arbor, too?                          

Lisa Gottlieb: Yes, I have two adult children, and I’m fortunate that they both live and work in Ann Arbor. My daughter, Zoe Clark, is executive producer at Michigan Radio (NPR), and the co-host of the weekly radio program It’s Just Politics. My son Nevon Clark has worked at Ravens Club, in downtown Ann Arbor, since they first opened. I’m really proud of both of them, and love having them close by.

BZ: You've become involved in Compassionate and Nonviolent Communication.  Start off by telling us what is Nonviolent Communication (NVC), and who was Marshall Rosenberg?

Lisa Gottlieb: Nonviolent Communication, also known more informally as Compassionate Communication, is a way of connecting with oneself and others with a primary focus on empathy, interconnectedness, and honest self-expression in order to reduce conflict and increase affiliation and connection. NVC consciousness includes the foundational beliefs that all people’s needs matter, and conflict and disagreements can be solved through deep listening, awareness of needs, compassionate understanding and sharing authentically.  Although it is often considered a form of communication that works at a personal and interpersonal level, there is also an important aspect of NVC that encourages reduction of conflict on a much larger scale, from businesses and institutions to global conflicts.

NVC was created by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, who, as a teenager, moved to Detroit a week before the 1948 race riots. He was deeply motivated to look for peacemaking solutions, and earned a PhD in psychology in the 1960s. Eventually his work and studies, including an interest in Buddhism, led to the principles of NVC, and he founded the Center for Nonviolent Communication, where he was the director of Educational Services and was an entertaining and effective teacher for thousands of people over the years. Dr. Rosenberg passed away in February of this year. Currently, NVC has an international presence, with hundreds of certified NVC trainers and practitioners across the planet.

NVC (Nonviolent Communication) has offered me a profound sense of freedom, authenticity, and the potential for deep connection in my relationships.

BZ: You mentioned to me that NVC met many needs for you, for a form of communication that spoke to your intellect and your heart.  How did you first get involved, and did it call out to you right away?

Lisa Gottlieb: The foundational aspect of NVC that brings the focus to empathetic listening--holding a space for our own, and someone else’s experience without judgment or evaluation, is very powerful. I first was introduced to NVC by my former husband about a year after we separated, and I was moved by how our communication changed in ways that were very healing for both of us after we ended our marriage. I was curious about how he was communicating with me, and I resonated so deeply with the empathetic quality of our conversations that I immediately read Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, written by Dr. Rosenberg. That was it. I was really hooked. Because NVC is less a technique and more a practice of connecting empathetically to support interconnectedness, build connection, and create authentic relationships, I have found it to be a powerful agent for personal growth, conflict resolution, and living with more awareness and grace.

BZ: There had already been some NVC activities going on in Ann Arbor?

Lisa Gottlieb: Yes, when I looked around Ann Arbor to see what was happening with NVC, I found a practice group that had been operating for a while, and a few people who were invested in NVC consciousness. I wanted more though. I wanted some intensive training and I was looking for ways to learn NVC, while building a strong, vibrant, local NVC community.

BZ: So, in 2014, you brought NVC here in a fresh way. What kind of response did you get?

Lisa Gottlieb: My first NVC training was in Columbus, Ohio, where I met Jeff Brown, an experienced and skilled certified trainer, and the director of the non-profit Compassionate Communication of Central Ohio. His natural abilities and enthusiasm for NVC resonated with me, and after I returned home, I contacted Brown and expressed my interest in bringing him to Ann Arbor to lead a beginning NVC workshop. Brown, who has lead hundreds of workshops and trainings all over the world, was on for it, and together we planned a two day workshop geared towards those new to NVC. We had over 70 people attend, and ended up with a waiting list. It was clear to both of us that Ann Arbor was alive with interest, and we were pleased with the success of the workshop. This was in May of 2014. That summer, I attended a residential NVC trainer-focused retreat in Northern California. Brown was one of the trainers, along with Francois Beausoleil and Miki Kashtan; all three are very experienced, well respected, effective and engaging teachers. The four of us sat down together and started brainstorming about a year-long intensive NVC pilot program in Ann Arbor. Brown and Beausoleil were committed to leading it, and I agreed to be the local host and training assistant. At that point I decided to start on the path of becoming an NVC certified trainer. The year long program launched in February 2015 with over 35 participants, coming from Michigan and half a dozen other states. I’m thrilled with how quickly NVC is growing in SE Michigan.

BZ: How does NVC weave together the interpersonal and the global?

Lisa Gottlieb: NVC reminds me of my study of Kripalu yoga, and other mind-body and ancient wisdom traditions and teachings. We start at the personal level and work outward in ever growing circles. We explore our own feelings, longings and needs. Dr. Rosenberg used to say NVC is essentially an inside job. We give ourselves empathy and acceptance, and we ask others to help us with empathetic responses and warm support. The circle radiates outward from self. We learn to connect with others in the same way we connect with self, practicing empathy, and searching for connection. The circle continues to radiate out into the world.

BZ: You mentioned to me that NVC isn't just a technique but a heart-opening practice. Please elaborate.

Lisa Gottlieb: Until we can open our hearts to understand and accept ourselves and others, techniques and strategies to attempt to get what we want simply won’t be effective. The words and communication techniques ring hollow. With NVC consciousness, we don’t have to agree or align with someone else’s position to understand them and work towards understanding their experience. Problem solving and solutions come when authentic connection happens.

Rosenberg said, “Every act of violence is an attempt to meet an unmet need.” If we are able to look at our own actions and behavior, our own drives, as well as those of others through this lens, through the lens of compassionate understanding, we can begin to connect in a way that makes room for honest self-expression, and the generosity of spirit that comes from our soft and undefended hearts.

I like to point out that it isn’t necessary to agree with someone to feel empathy for them and their beliefs or actions. If we operate from the idea that we are all trying to have our needs met, and we can understand what those needs might be, we can begin to really see another person for all they are, including their vulnerability, their losses, their sense of hopelessness or despair. When we are regarding who they are with compassion, our own hearts soften, and we can begin to find our way forward.

Of course, sometimes we can do our best, and we aren’t successful. There are situations where beliefs and actions are so repulsive and horrific that it isn’t possible to get to empathy, and, sometimes the people with whom we interact are just too difficult for us. Yet, most of the time, in our day to day lives, we can walk that path of finding connection and figure out solutions. This is true even if the other person we may be communicating with doesn’t utilize NVC, or even know of its existence. As long as I can continue to touch into empathy for the other person, as well as empathy for myself (especially if the interaction creates discomfort, anxiety or stress) there is the potential for connection and change.

BZ: You’ve said to me that an important aspect of NVC consciousness is ‘celebration and mourning’. Please say more.

Lisa Gottlieb: Most of us have been raised in a culture of reward and punishment. We do something “good”, and we are praised; we do something “bad” and we are blamed and punished. We’re trained early on to respond to the external judgements of others to feel safe and included. Our family systems and culture form who we are based on this external evaluation of our worth. This is deeply ingrained in most of us, and we learn to make decisions based on pleasing others and being rewarded, or avoiding blame, shame and punishment. This tends to move us away from touching in to what is alive for us, and often prevents our connection with our own individual needs. We learn to feel satisfied or dissatisfied with ourselves through the eyes of other people and their evaluations and judgments of us.

In NVC, we practice a different approach. When we meet our own - and other people’s needs - we consciously celebrate the specifics of the communication or action, and when we don’t, we consciously mourn what wasn’t effective, and take responsibility for our part, while exploring more effective ways to improve for the future. Here’s a way to look at this concept in practical terms. Next time you think or say something or someone is “awesome”, or “terrible”, perhaps take a moment and consider the specifics of it. Is it awesome because it fills you with happiness, or it inspires you? Is it terrible because you notice sadness, disappointment or even rage associated it with it? When we tune in to our feelings, instead of evaluating what someone else does or doesn’t do, we can more easily connect with what needs are being met, or unmet in relation to our evaluative thinking. Once we know our needs, and the needs of others, we can live more fully and with more attention to discover what moves us, pleases us, or hurts us. We can do this instead of blaming or praising others from an external place of judgement. Along with learning and practicing empathy, learning how to touch into our needs and the needs of others is a fundamental aspect of NVC consciousness.

Until we can open our hearts to understand and accept ourselves and others, techniques and strategies to attempt to get what we want simply won’t be effective. The words and communication techniques ring hollow.

BZ: What is it about NVC that has most deeply spoken to you? And what do you believe that it offers that isn't offered by other tools for interpersonal communication?

Lisa Gottlieb: NVC has offered me a profound sense of freedom, authenticity, and the potential for deep connection in my relationships. It also has been a powerful tool in deepening my ability to help build connection between people who might otherwise be lost in conflict and unhappiness.

It is the foundational parts of NVC consciousness that make it different from other forms of communication I’ve learned previously, including deep empathetic listening to self and others, the belief that we are all connected to each other, and that we thrive when all needs matter.  

BZ: What's next for NVC in Ann Arbor?

Lisa Gottlieb: I’ve recently formed Compassionate Communication of Ann Arbor (CCAA), with the support of Jeff Brown, and Compassionate Communication of Central Ohio as our non-profit sponsor. We have a website and a Facebook page that shares information about NVC happenings in the Ann Arbor area. I’m working towards Ann Arbor being a hub of NVC, and CCAA becoming a group that supports and grows the NVC community in our area. There are currently a number of people in the community leading practice groups and teaching classes and workshops. As part of my certification process, I am teaching beginning NVC workshops, as well as offering coaching for individuals, couples and small businesses. As the year-long program wraps up in November, there are plans for more workshops and classes for those new to NVC, as well as for people who want to deepen their learning and practice.

BZ: Anything else you'd like to tell us about NVC, Lisa?

Lisa Gottlieb: NVC consciousness is a practice that has tremendous spaciousness and acceptance for anyone interested in it to start from wherever they are in their search for an improved relationship with themselves and others, and to gain a sense of hope about the future of our planet. By simply learning to gently make small changes in how we engage with ourselves and others, we can create measurable changes in improving our happiness and the happiness of those around us. I encourage anyone with curiosity about NVC to read a book, go online and check it out, or look into a locally offered workshop or class.

Lisa Gottlieb can be reached at Her blogsite for her work with nonviolent communication is at:
Facebook: Compassionate Communication Center Ann Arbor:

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Posted on August 31, 2015 and filed under Interviews.