Miki Kashtan Ph.D.

Acquired Spontaneity

Is Nonviolent Communication Practical?

Here are some tips for doing it productively.

Posted May 21, 2012

One of the most common critiques I hear of Nonviolent Communication is that it’s simply not practical. “It would be great if this can work,” the line often goes. “Too bad that in my (school, family, organization) we don’t have the luxury of taking all this time to do all this endless dialogue that it takes to get anywhere. No one would have the patience, anyway.”

Resolving inner conflict

My experience of working with people in diverse situations over the years has shown me that more often than not our inner conflicts are equally if not more distressing to us than our outer conflicts. Inner conflicts take many forms. It can be a decision that we can’t make, a painful inner loop of self-criticism followed by impatience with ourselves for still criticizing ourselves, regret about something we did that we can’t seem to come to peace about, or a host of other equally familiar ones. Even our outer conflicts are often intertwined with our inner life, since our reaction to others is fundamentally more the expression of our own meaning-making than a direct result of anything the other person does.

"Listen to Yourself" by Terry White

Moving from passion to action

I have recently been working with a person, let’s name her Christine, who is profoundly passionate about a national policy she sees as the only solution to a critical problem she believes we are facing. She gives frequent talks about her work and more recently has begun meeting with some government employees. She was directed to me to solicit support in how to craft her message so it is less alienating.

Which request will work better?

Once again, this suggestion rests on a basic NVC practice of identifying a clear and specific action we want people to take whenever we communicate to others what matters to us. So many of us tend to say what we feel passionate about solely as statements. It’s no accident that I often speak of the request part of NVC as the power to create the life we want.

Running meetings

Anyone who’s been in NVC communities for any length of time has no doubt experienced or heard about long, drawn-out group discussions that no one enjoys. I have been in such meetings, and still see them happening. That experience notwithstanding, I have also had the contrary experience, and am confident that applying certain key NVC principles consistently in a meeting yields cohesion, efficiency, and a high degree of collaboration in a group. This topic, in its fullness, is quite beyond the scope of a blog piece. In fact, I am dedicating four days this month to teaching peopleConfluent Facilitation, the name I gave to the NVC-based decision-making process I have created. I am hoping for many people to join, as this is a rare and unique opportunity to learn this. For now, I want to highlight a few of the key NVC principles that allow collaboration to flow efficiently in a meeting. The “how” of these principles is what would go beyond a blog post:

Naming a shared purpose: Just as much as knowing our needs as individuals supports our ability to make life work, naming a shared purpose that brought us together for this meeting supports all of us in prioritizing our own individual wishes within that framework.

Distinguishing between strategies and needs: Just as much as internally or between us we often get stuck in conflicts around strategies and can resolve the conflict once needs have been named and owned, the same is true in a group. When we are able to identify the underlying needs, members of the group can more easily take responsibility for everyone’s needs so they can move toward a solution that works for everyone.

Distinguishing everyone’s needs from everyone’s voice: One of the core principles of NVC is that everyone’s needs matter. This level of inclusion is essential to reach truly collaborative solutions. This attention to everyone’s needs is also one of the stumbling blocks to people’s imagination about how to do it with efficiency. I have found one key to engagement and efficiency in a group context, which is that we can hear and attend to everyone’s needs without having to hear from every single person. We do so by capturing all the needs without repetition, so long as what’s important deep down to everyone is being said, usually posted somewhere where everyone can see. This, in and of itself, tends to save lengthy discussions in which so many repeat what’s already been said.

Distinguishing preference from willingness: As much faith as I have in our human capacity to work together and collaborate, I deeply doubt the likelihood, or even possibility, of aligning our preferences just so with others. My hunch is that the quest for perfect alignment of preferences stems from aversion to conflict and lack of awareness that connection with needs, our own and others’, generates willingness to shift and stretch towards others’ preferred strategy. This clarity can support a significant leap in the effectiveness of meetings. With sufficient attention to putting all the needs on the table and creating shared ownership, most of the time a group can coalesce around a strategy that all can live with, to various degrees of stretching and accommodating, even if it’s not some people’s preference.