Letter to Marshall Rosenberg

I am sad to learn that Marshall Rosenberg, creator of Non-Violent Communication, had passed away last month. He had a big impact on my life, and I had hoped to one day meet him if possible.

Now that definitely won’t happen. It makes me sadder than I would have expected. I don’t usually get upset about celebrities or other strangers dying.

I wrote him a letter a few years ago, and thought I’d share it. He didn’t write back (I didn’t expect him to), and I wonder if he ever saw it and appreciated the impact he had on me or on Node and JavaScript.

Dear Marshall Rosenberg,

I am writing to thank you for Nonviolent Communication, and to tell you about the effect it has had on my community recently. I hope that you will find this interesting and rewarding. I am sure that you are very busy, so no reply is necessary or expected, but if you would like to share any reactions you have, I would be very happy to hear from you.

I am a software developer, working as a project lead on an open source software product. “Open source” is software where the source code is given away freely, and where users often submit bug-fixes and enhancements back to the project. Some of us are paid to work on it full time, but the project depends on the continual input from the broader community.

As you might expect, this involves a lot of people communicating with one another, frequently when they do not already have a pre-existing relationship. As a project lead, I often find myself in situations where some people want a certain feature to be done one way, and others want it done another way. Or, in many other cases, a user may request a feature, but lack the full understanding of why implementing such a feature might be a bad idea. The challenge is to educate them, and perhaps say “no” to their request, in such a way that you don’t lose a potential helper.

Modern software development, it turns out, is a very social activity. However, software development typically does not attract people with any innate knack for social interaction. Many of us (myself included) are introverted, nerdy, and a not gifted at empathy. We all know that “being nice” is important, but most of us lack the skills to know how to do that. As a result, software development communities tend to be rather unfriendly, despite everyone “trying” to do the right thing.

As I progressed in my career, I increasingly found that the skills that got me here are not the ones I need to excel. I became a leader of a popular project because of my skills with computers, but suddenly I found myself in a position where I needed to manage conflict and listen to people!

My partner is a therapist, and turned me on to your book. I can’t overstate how helpful it’s been. You have broken down a surprisingly challenging subject into a system that is simple enough to actually remember when it’s needed. It seems like it should be something we all just know how to do. When everything is comfortable and everyone feels safe, it usually is. But the minute we disagree, or feel threatened, our good sense goes out the window.

I have found that NVC has been incredibly useful in my line of work. Technical skills are easy enough to come by, but being able to really listen to a frustrated user is a bit like having magic powers. I still wouldn’t say that my communication skills are the greatest, but the change has been profound.

Recently, at a conference in Ireland, I gave a talk about creating compassionate communities in tech, and NVC factored heavily into it. I literally told people that if there’s only one thing they take away from my talk, they should buy your book and practice it. I’ve given several technical talks, and some management/community related stuff, but this really hit a chord. If you are interested, you can check it out here: ./index.html

I keep seeing new people on the web mentioning this talk, and how they’ve gotten started with NVC recently. The ripples continue outward.

I am personally grateful for all that you’ve done, because it has helped me improve as a technologist and a leader. Thank you for bringing NVC into the world.

– Isaac Z. Schlueter