Transforming the Social Order Through Personal Practice? (4)

Part 4: The case for nonviolent communication

Posted May 31, 2020

This post is part of a series that emerged from my commitment to support the Nonviolent Communication (NVC) community of practice in reclaiming the vision of radical social transformation that Marshall Rosenberg envisioned when he began sharing the principles and practices of NVC process. In the first two posts, I looked at why the current ways that NVC is shared are unlikely to manifest the deepest potential of NVC as a tool for supporting transformation towards a world that works for all, and some questions to engage with in order to create enough of a shift in current modes of sharing NVC with others. In the third post, I engaged with the first of these questions, and I outlined some things that we can do when we are in a position of being a trainer, coach, or consultant.

Now I want to look at that role itself.

Transcending the Workshop Model

In this post, I engage with the second of the questions I laid out earlier: How do we contribute with our bodies and souls to embedding nonviolent communication practices within the communities we form and live within?

Over the years, I have more and more doubts about whether the role itself creates a limit on how much of a change we can actually create. Early on in his work, Marshall Rosenberg clashed with some colleagues, because he wanted to make the knowledge he was gaining through his work as a psychologist with children who didn’t easily fit in the existing educational system widely available. He wanted to give the work away.

To this day, some NVC trainers and practitioners continue to want that. This is precisely why some of us are drawn to gift economy approaches, and why I make so many resources available to anyone, without any request for money. And at the same time, I fully understand the pull to make a profession out of NVC practice: People, myself included, want to be able to sustain themselves while doing this work.

These dual pulls have created an ongoing tension within the loose community of NVC practitioners. I don’t pretend to have easy answers to any of the questions I am aware that this raises; these dilemmas are inherently persistent within a capitalist world. I want to name some of them and also speak briefly about what some alternative pathways can be.

Hasib /Creative Commons License By ND/2.0
Source: Hasib /Creative Commons License By ND/2.0

One of the issues that arise relates to money. From the moment I started working with others as a practitioner, I was deeply troubled by the idea of being paid to do work that feels utterly sacred to me. I have talked in the first post of this series about what I see as the inherent contradiction between the focus on needs and the ways of capitalism. What it actually means in practice remains unclear to me.

For example, some NVC trainers have other work that is their livelihood and offer NVC practice groups free of charge. Others, myself included, are dedicating our entire work life to bringing NVC to the world and have no other means to sustain ourselves. What can then be done to sustain us?

One of the answers and practices I personally have adopted is to move continually in the direction of relying more and more on gifting rather than exchange as a way to sustain the work I do. Still, while this is a path, it neither is available to everyone in all contexts, nor does it address other limitations of the relationships that are formed when one person is in the role of trainer, coach, or consultant, and others are the recipients of knowledge and practices from that person.

One of those limitations is that such relationships mimic all too easily relations of power that exist within society at large, leaving both the person who, for example, offers the workshop and the people who participate less able to relate to each other in their fullness. Participants remain at least slightly disempowered, and the person leading the workshop remains alone, no matter how much, like me, they are committed to vulnerability and transparency.

We cannot, individually, transform the structures that maintain the destruction of life on planet Earth. Teaching NVC workshops, with its focus on individuals sharing with individuals, doesn’t provide enough of a foundation for disrupting business as usual.

We also cannot create large-scale change as lone communities. While creating little islands that extend beyond our individual lives while also aiming to de-socialize ourselves away from the training and conditioning we’ve received in existing systems provides a bridge to a new layer, it is not the layer itself. We are all embedded in communities that are often invisible or made impotent through stripping us of material intertwinement. I see some potential, as yet little-tapped, to create a different type of ripple from a different type of engagement.

 Michael Levine-Clark/Creative Commons License
Source: Michael Levine-Clark/Creative Commons License

When we embed ourselves within a group of people with a shared purpose—be it creating a collective of practitioners, an experimental school, a live-in community, or a production facility—we become part of an emergent field of exploration rather than a solitary perceived fountain of knowledge. This is especially so when, within whatever community we find ourselves in, we also tackle the immensely challenging task of aiming to find the willingness and capacity to share more emotional and material risks with each other, liberating ourselves bit by bit from full individual dependence on market forces to satisfy our basic needs. Our NVC practices then become valuable resources to bring to navigating our differences, deepening our freedom, creating and attending to our systems of agreements, and more.

Once again, practicing NVC becomes a living experiment in truth, as it was for Marshall, rather than a codified set of practices that are passed on as “the way to do things,” which usually happens in workshops. I have more trust that this approach will continue to pull us out of our social conditioning and into laying micro-foundations for a social infrastructure for the future.

Even as the work of personal liberation is foundational to everything else we do, and the more aware and committed relationships and communities we build on this foundation provide support and resilience, neither will in and of itself have the power to transform social structures. The next and last post in this series continues broadening the scope of NVC practice and addresses how we can embody and apply the principles of NVC beyond the confines of the individual level by extending beyond the limitations of dialogue as a tool for transformation on a larger scale.