Pat Dickinson is sitting in a small, bright, modern classroom speaking to a circle of attentive teenage girls. "Sometimes, when I've fallen out with someone, I use these," she says, holding up her hands, each buried in what looks like a child's soft toy.
"This is my giraffe," she says, thrusting out her right hand clad in a forearm-length glove puppet. "And this is a jackal," she adds, raising her left. The girls snigger, uncross their white-socked ankles, shuffle sensible shoes. "The language we've been learning is called giraffe language; that's what we're aiming for," says Mrs Dickinson. "When we're being judgmental, that's jackal talk."
Pat Dickinson is a biology teacher and head of pastoral care at Burgess Hill girls' school in West Sussex, an independent school with fees of more than pound;2,500 a term. The 15 girls circled around her and her colleague Rachel Williamson are training to become peer listeners. On the walls around them are hand-written posters with slogans such as "Building self-esteem", and "Punishment never works". One proclaims:"The highest form of human intelligence is the ability to observe without evaluating."
Another says: "I am responsible for my intention and for what I say. You are responsible for what ears you put on."
Written on the board in bold capitals are the words "Observations", "Feelings", "Needs", and "Requests" - the four key ingredients of "giraffe language", otherwise known as nonviolent communication (NVC), "a clear and effective model for communicating in a way that is cooperative, conscious and compassionate". It developed in the United States in the 1960s, and is now used in schools in Israel, Italy, Yugoslavia, Sweden and Britain.
Pat Dickinson came across NVC seven years ago, and says it's altered her approach, not just to mediation or teaching, but to human relationships. "I am passionate about it," she says. "NVC is the backdrop to everything I do in school. It's the foundation on which I build all my communication."
As well as using the technique to train her peer listeners, Mrs Dickinson says it underpins her attitude to students and colleagues, to writing school reports, and to settling disputes. She has already trained other members of the Burgess Hill staff in NVC, and each autumn introduces all new teachers and parents to it. "It's a wonderful tool," she says. "It's changed the atmosphere here."
NVC was devised by clinical psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. "There's nothing we human beings enjoy more than willingly contributing to another's wellbeing," he says. "NVC suggests the communication that is needed to make this happen. It identifies the kind of cultural learning we've been engaged in which gets us disconnected from all this."
Growing up in Detroit in the 1940s, Dr Rosenberg learned early on about the darker side of human relationships. "More than 30 people were killed in our neighbourhood," he says. "And when I went to school, even my last name could be a stimulus for violence. So I got interested in what makes people behave in this way towards people who are different."
NVC is a way of using language non-judgmentally, and is based on four "ingredients". People learn to state the facts of a situation without interpretation or opinion; they recognise the feelings it stirs in them; what human need they have that is not being met; and what action they want taken to meet their need. It sounds simple, but, as Pat Dickinson says, "the process may be straightforward, but using it takes practice".
Sometimes the process is aided by puppets. "I started using giraffes as a symbol because they have the biggest heart of any land animal," says Dr Rosenberg. "And because they stick their neck out in the service of compassion."
In training sessions a speaker may put on the giraffe puppet to remind him or her to speak non-judgmentally, but the jackal puppet will be produced if language strays into evaluation or accusation. The listener dons giraffe ears, signifying an intention to hear the speaker compassionately.
Dr Rosenberg claims to have used the technique successfully with company executives and police chiefs, Hispanic street gangs and groups of Serbs and Croats. "It can take some time," he says, "but if I can hear what's alive in you, and you can hear the same in me, we'll end up contributing to one another's wellbeing."
Despite his own initial pessimism, in the US NVC proved useful in helping to prepare communities for desegregation during the Sixties; in his work with youths and street gangs; and in difficult schools. Before he knew it he was in such demand that he had to hire staff, and in 1984 he founded the Center for Nonviolent Communication in California.
Eighteen years later, NVC is being offered on five continents by more than 90 trainers, and used by hundreds of volunteers in schools, businesses, healthcare centres, prisons, police forces and community groups. It has been part of conflict resolution strategies in Israel, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Sri Lanka and Rwanda.
Bridget Belgrave is one of six trainers based in Britain. "We run a lot of open programmes and some of the people who come are teachers," she says. "It tends to be a matter of where it catches, although we plan to reach more schools and teacher training."
NVC certainly caught Jane Wheeler, a music teacher at Sarah Bonnell school in the London borough of Newham. Like Burgess Hill, it's a girls' school, but otherwise Sarah Bonnell couldn't be more different from its Sussex counterpart. An 11-16 state secondary, it is about as comprehensive and inclusive as a school can get.
"We have lots of Afro-Caribbean kids, and, because of cultural differences, they can sometimes come across as confrontational," says Ms Wheeler. "Young people rarely have the skills to say what they mean in a challenging situation. NVC has given me ways of hearing in a way I would like to have been heard by my teachers at school. I am much more able to listen person to person now, not as a teacher."
Ms Wheeler was attracted to NVC for personal reasons but found it quickly changed her approach to teaching. "Like many people, I was brought up to use language in a competitive, confrontational way," she says. "I hadn't made the connection that the language I was using was not representing my heartfelt values." NVC, she says, helped her to understand her own motivation as well as her pupils' needs. "I used to pride myself on using carrots, not sticks," she says. "It was a huge shock to the system to learn to encourage them to work for their real needs, not for any rewards."
Unlike Pat Dickinson, Jane Wheeler hasn't used NVC in the classroom in a formal way, although the school did pay for her to attend two courses. Indeed, she's "very wary" of sounding as if she has all the answers. "It's not my role to change anybody's ideas," she says, "although, undoubtedly, it should be part of teacher training and on the curriculum."
For Marshall Rosenberg that would just be the start. He sees NVC as the basis for a far more radical approach to schooling, going beyond the teaching of new communication skills to challenge the structures of education itself. What he terms "life-serving education", or "mutual education", is based on his belief that, "You can't teach anybody anything; you can merely provide opportunities for them to learn things that have been valuable to you."
That radically shifts the relationship between teachers and students, he says, so they work as equals. "The teachers don't tell the students what to learn, they offer suggestions, and define what they think is worth learning to them, but it is a mutual decision. The structures are set up to maintain an independent, co-operative relationship between the students, rather than a competitive one."
In Israel some of this is already happening. Not only is NVC being used to mediate disputes, but in classrooms students are choosing who they want to learn from - and 60 per cent pick other pupils. "Research shows that a student who has recently learned something makes a better teacher of it," says Dr Rosenberg. "Everyone in a class is involved as teacher and pupil, so everybody is concerned with everybody else's learning."
The revolution hasn't travelled that far at Burgess Hill, where some staff are not entirely comfortable with giraffe language. But for those who are convinced, such as Rachel Williamson, it's altered perceptions of themselves, and their jobs. "I wish I'd learned it earlier in my life, never mind my career," says the newly retired English teacher. "It changed how I responded to the class and how I taught. It removes the power in the relationship, and that's what some teachers find difficult. There's far more of a sense of equality. It works because it creates real empathy."
Nonviolent Communication: a language of compassion, by Marshall B Rosenberg, is published by PuddleDancer Press (1999). Life-Serving Education: fostering autonomy and interdependence, by Marshall B Rosenberg, will be published in spring 2003. For more information about the Center for Nonviolent Communication go to www.cnvc.org. To find out more about NVC in the UK contact Bridget Belgrave on 0845 4561050 or go to www.liferesources.org.uk