The premises underlying the practice of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) often stand in stark contrast to the messages we receive in the culture at large - whether from our parents or teachers while growing up, or from the media or other cultural venues for the rest of our lives. They also, often enough, belie what we see around us in terms of human behavior. To take just one example, how much evidence do we see on a daily basis that would support the assumption that human beings enjoy giving? If we just look at how people behave, without adding layers of contextualizing their choices, there’s no question that the conclusion that people are selfish would be much more warranted.
Looked at from this angle, choosing to embrace Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is admittedly an outrageous proposition. Indeed, many people choose a very limited version of this practice, one that focuses pragmatically on seeing it as a set of skills designed to resolve conflicts. At the same time, I see people, repeatedly, be attracted to the all-encompassing vision that is implicitly painted by these assumptions even when they disagree with them. Often enough, I know of this inner struggle people have because they challenge me when I present NVC from the perspective of its underlying principles.
Sometimes the challenge takes the form of questioning whether NVC would work in this or that situation. Part of the difficulty stems from a misunderstanding of what it means for something like NVC to “work.” When parents bring up challenges with their children and express disbelief that it would “work,” it is a code word for “getting my child to do what I want” without recognizing sufficiently that the fundamental intention when bringing NVC into a situation or relationship is about making things “work” for everyone, which would include the child.
At other times, people triumphantly presented “proofs” that NVC doesn’t work. One of my recent entries was about one such example - the fact that “even” people with extensive NVC experience end relationships and go through breakups.
I also have my own anguishing examples: relationships I haven’t found ways of transforming or exiting; sour endings in relationships, both personal and work-related, that left my heart aching for imagining another outcome.
When I started working with NVC in the world, just about 17 years ago, I had in mind that I would reach far many more people and places than I have. In all honesty, I have made a really tiny dent in the world. The people that I have touched, are deeply touched, and I know I have contributed immensely to some few hundred people who love what I do, many of whom are committed, in their various ways, to applying this consciousness in their personal life and in their work in the world. Some of them have reached more people and have made more of a difference than I have, and I rejoice in that. I am thinking, in particular, of my former students who are working in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Cambodia, bringing hope and possibilities to countless people in their region.
Then there are the many people in power I simply don’t know how to reach, or have failed to reach adequately, the most recent example of the latter being Jonathan, about whom I wrote recently.
This latter one, more so than any others, really brings about deep despair for me, because of my extraordinary determination to bring about social transformation without ever resorting to violence or separation.
With all this, why do I continue to dedicate my life so fully to bringing this consciousness and its practices to the world? What even gives me any sense that this stuff can work? One reason is that I am called to do so, and I listen very carefully to what comes to me from inside myself. When I teach, when I support people within organization, when I write, so much of the time I am in that magnificent state called “flow” and then there is simply no question.
The other reason is that I continue to see how applying NVC can and does work, even if not always, and I derive sustenance from the sense of possibility. Here are a few examples.
One entire area of applying NVC principles is in our relationship with ourselves. In some ways, it could be seen as the most reliable path, because it doesn’t require anyone or anything else to change before we can have the change we want. One of my dearest values, a quality I absolutely cherish, is inner freedom, the capacity to respond to what’s happening from within me, based on true choice rather than impulse, habit, “should,” fear, or anything else. Even when we have no capacity whatsoever to change the circumstances we face, we still have choice and freedom about how we respond. Some of the most moving human stories I recall are precisely about such freedom.
Here’s a very simple example of how such freedom can be cultivated with the use of NVC tools: how to liberate ourselves from comparisons. I am neither the first nor the last person that would speak to how debilitating comparisons can be. What could an NVC frame possibly have to add to what’s already been said by so many?
Recently, I talked with a friend whose partner is gearing up for engaging in some artistic endeavors. A few days ago, she saw some videos on YouTube of people who are, clearly, far better than she could ever dream of becoming. Her response was to get discouraged and teeter on the edge of giving up on her dream. As I talked with my friend, I re-framed this event as an opportunity to completely let go of any extrinsic motivation such as fame or success, and instead reflect on what truly is her motivation for pursuing this dream. If she removes the possibility of becoming famous, if she recognizes that she truly cannot get to the level of the person in the video she watched, then the question is whether she still wants to pursue her dream for some intrinsic motivation, to attend to some need of hers. After all, millions of people cook everyday even though they will not become chefs. I know for myself that I cook for other. I enjoy the peaceful activity of chopping vegetables, I enjoy the freedom of making my own delicious food, and, when the opportunity exists, I enjoy the pleasure of feeding other people and seeing them enjoy the food. On a bigger scale, I keep being pulled to compare myself with other people who have managed to reach many more people than me. I do, like my friend’s wife, go through periods of wanting to give up, and I keep coming back to doing this work because of the intrinsic meaning I derive from it, because it flows out of me. And I reconnect and let go of any attachment to outcome. It’s a huge difficult lesson, and it’s also an example of freedom. I, and others, have more of it because of NVC.
One of the most transformative questions I have encountered through learning and teaching NVC is deceptively simple: What would make this situation, or this relationship, as the case might be, work for everyone involved? The core principle that everyone matters, foundational to the vision I carry with me, is one we have forgotten to apply, because we have been raised, for millennia, on the principles of separation and scarcity, with an added dose of powerlessness to make matters worse. Being reminded of the radical possibility that things can work for everyone, even if not in their absolutely favorite way, and being invited to be the author of how to make that happen, restore our faith and empower us to be agents of change.
The path to the solution that works for everyone more often than not starts with letting go of focusing on the solution and shifting awareness, instead, to how to maintain the connection in the face of difference, disagreement, or struggle. I am consistently moved and inspired to see what we can create with skillful use of dialogue tools. However despairing I become about the prospects of large scale change, I have experienced first hand, and seen countless times, how magical this shift in focus can be, anywhere from the most personal and intimate relationships to relationships within groups that work within organizations. My own example is a friendship I have that I am confident would have been lost without the tools of NVC that we both bring to it. What’s lovely in particular is that some of the challenges we’ve had in this friendship continue, and we have woven a thick and solid web of togetherness that surrounds the challenges and holds them together. When they come up, we can point to the many conversations we’ve had and maintain the connection through the awkward moments. We have developed a rich awareness of each other’s sensitivities and our own blind spots because of having exchanged, numerous times, both authentic expression and compassionate presence, the two building blocks of connection. This has helped our own friendship grow deeper, lighter, and more solid, as well as support us in understanding relationship patterns that we each have with others. What a win-win-win!
I don’t usually see people when they are by themselves, without my presence. I tend to see them when they are struggling - when I teach, when I facilitate a meeting or mediate within an organization, or during a coaching call. I have often been told in those moments, as have many of my colleagues, that people would love to take me home with them, so I could stand on their shoulder and tell them what to say… In response, I tell them that there are three reasons why it’s so much easier for me to find the lines to say that elude them. Apart from the very obvious reason that I have more practice and experience in this endeavor than most people, I am also not involved, and therefore I don’t live with the consequences of whatever I would say, making the stakes so much lower for me than for them, who are there with the fallout. Also, and not any less important, the emotional charge - the anger, the fear, the shame, the belief in their own inadequacy or other people’s bad intentions - that they are in when trying to work out a situation is the surest way to rob them of what capacity they have, rendering them, any of us who is involved and upset, as incapable of expressing themselves without blaming the other at all and of maintaining curious empathic presence as before they ever acquired any skill. It still happens to me, with ruthless regularity, being one of the entryways into despair…
We absolutely need others to help us sort the maze of our relationships, both within ourselves and with others. We carry shame about needing support, as if such need is a problem rather than a basic expression of our interdependent nature as human beings. It’s one of the most reliable ways of making NVC work - offering our skills to others who are struggling to communicate. In this moment, sitting here, I wish for myself to have more and more easy access to resting in knowing how many people I have offered this magic to.
I still haven’t found my way to make a dent in supporting systemic transformation anywhere except within our own small organization, BayNVC, and even there it’s been far from what I would most dream of. Depending on the day, I will tell you different stories about what’s in the way or how much hope I have about getting there. What never changes is my complete and total faith about the possibility of larger and larger groups of people finding ways to make ever wiser decisions for the benefit or larger and larger numbers of people and the planet.
And although I have no stories here, no examples of full satisfaction, I have the semi-intangibles, such as when a person in power accepts a collaborative outcome and sees that it works better for everyone, including himself. In none of the examples I have in mind did the person in power have a fundamental change of heart that would lead him to revamp the decision-making structures that he had in place. I nonetheless retain the belief that, over time, if enough people in power have enough moments of seeing that well-crafted, well-facilitated collaborative processes yield better results for all, the tide will shift.
No matter what, however, I find it impossible to imagine that all the people with power, especially those with a lot of power, will shift in this peaceful and incremental way. Dialogue and collaboration, as transformative as they are, are not always possible initially. Especially not when I see so much evidence of the basic life support systems on the planet beginning to collapse already. I see nonviolent resistance as an indispensable part of any attempt to create significant social transformation. Nonviolent resistance, as I understand it, is about standing up to those with power who are not ready to dialogue, who are committed to their own power despite our most well-intentioned efforts to engage with them, who contribute, by the very business-as-usual daily decisions that they make, to this ongoing massive destruction. While I feel repeatedly inspired by the power of nonviolent resistance where it has been tried, I derive even more hope from imagining what these efforts would look like supported by the practices of NVC - within the organizations, between supporters and opponents, in communication with the public, and within each person participating in the struggle. Nonviolent resistance on a large scale, with love, without separation, and with dialogue, or the invitation to dialogue, woven seamlessly into it, could be the beginning of something entirely else.
So I continue.
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Credit: “There is No Free Lunch”, pen and ink with watercolor on paper, 8” x 9.25”, 1989, © Ray Troll