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EPALE - Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe


How should I say it? Democracy and the culture of debate

by Maren Lohrer
Language: EN
Document available also in: DE HU LV

Reading time approximately 4 minutes—read, like, comment!

Original language: German

Wherever we look, there is conflict—in family life, at work, in political debates, during seminars at educational institutions. It is a universal social phenomenon. According to the definition of American researcher Morton Deutsch, conflict exists whenever irreconcilable activities take place. Conflicts are unavoidable when people with different interests meet. 

Improving friction management

That said, conflicts often grate on our nerves and we deal with them destructively. Although there are winners and losers, conflicts in themselves are not bad. If they were appreciatively handled, they could drive social change. After all, making the effort to find out why an opponent is behaving one way and not another can be a great learning experience. This means that instead of avoiding conflicts, it is important to find another way of dealing with them, one that is geared towards a joint problem resolution.

How is understanding possible in conflicts? 


Marshall Rosenberg 1990
Marshall Rosenberg; (c) Etan J. Tal
CC By-Sa 3.0

In the 1970s, the American psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg developed his model of “Nonviolent Communication”. This involves sincere communication and actively listening to one another.  

While words can be bridges that connect us, they can also build walls and divide. These two variants of communication and relationship were depicted by Rosenberg as two animals—the giraffe and the wolf. The wolf represents a violent, aggressive approach. People perceive themselves as divided. The giraffe—the mammal with the biggest heart—symbolises, on the other hand, friendly and empathetic, powerful and clear conduct. In his workshops, Marshall Rosenberg simulated how the giraffe and the wolf communicate.

Wolf—insult and attack

Conflicts escalate, the people talking attack each other, use negative sweeping judgements. Feelings and motivations of the conversation partner remain in the dark and words are used to hurt each other.

Wolf techniques include: 

demonstratively remaining silent, accusations, depreciation, making sweeping judgements,

belittling, manipulating, moralising.


Interrupt others!

Criticise others!

Give unsolicited advice!

Analyse and psychologise others!

Overwhelm others with pity!

Don't listen, talk about yourself instead!

Threaten others with consequences!

Giraffe — accept and understand 

With this type of discussion, everyone's feelings and needs can be felt and expressed.

Key features of giraffe language are: 

You tell your conversation partner what is bothering you, without insulting them.

You say what you feel.

You state clearly what you want.

The next level is the 4 steps from Rosenberg.

1. Observation (“I hear/see...“)

  • Observation without judgement: Important, because the person being spoken to will quickly feel criticised by a mixture of the two.

2. Feelings ("This makes me feel...")

  • There is no conflict without feelings. 
  • Our feelings are caused by our needs. It’s not the behaviour of others that gives rise to our emotions, it is our needs. The behaviour of others is just the trigger.

3. Needs (“I need...”)

  • Needs are universal. In a case of conflict, the need fulfilment strategy of one person usually clashes with that of another (not the needs themselves).
  • The key to reaching an agreement is accepting that the other person's needs are valid. Then strategies can be sought to accommodate the needs of both.
  • Basic needs: Sustainment, safety, affection, understanding, participation, relaxation, creativity, identity and a feeling of belonging, autonomy...

4. Request (“This is why I would like/why I’m asking for...”)

  • The request should be clear and specific.

“Cooperation happens when we can rely on our needs being heard, understood and taken seriously. And when we can freely decide how to react to a request,” says Christa Schäfer, a teacher and mediator from Berlin. 

She emphasises that active listening is ideal for creating mutual understanding. “My conversation partner speaks. I repeat what I’ve understood. In doing so I make it short and keep my opinion to myself.” Understanding is not agreement. Actively listening to someone does not mean that you share their opinion. It shows that you are ready to take your conversation partner seriously, which is the first step towards constructive conflict resolution.

Wortbrücke e.V. Maren Lohrer

About the author: Maren Lohrer writes consumer news in plain language for “Wortbrücke e.V.” She has an MA in German studies and political science from the University of Cologne and is a certified mediator (INA at FU Berlin) She is also an ambassador for EPALE Deutschland. 

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  • Tino BOUBARIS's picture
    ... in Zeiten, wo es nicht mehr normal ist, einander zuzuhören und aufeinander einzugehen. Das Konzept von Rosemberg ist eng verbunden mit den Reciprocal Maieutic Approach von Danilo Dolci, das vor allen Dingen in der Gruppenkommunikation gut einzusetzen ist:
  • Christine Bertram's picture
    Danke für den Hinweis, Tino. Gucke ich mir mal an. 
  • Christine Bertram's picture
    Das Modell der Vier-Schritte-Bitte kam mir beim Lesen bekannt vor. Ich habe es innerhalb des (Sport-)Coaching kennengelernt als Feedbackmechanismus. Dass es von Marshall Rosenberg stammt, war mir nicht bewusst. In der Praxis ist es sooo wertvoll.