Transforming the Social Order Through Personal Practice?

Part Five: The case of nonviolent communication

Posted Jun 29, 2020

This post is the last in a series grappling with the relationship between the radical roots of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) in the vision and applications of Marshall Rosenberg when he first developed the practice decades ago. With the fourth post, I completed the exploration of what can be changed in individual and community ways of applying and sharing NVC. In this post, I turn my attention to applying NVC beyond the level of individuals and groups, and, most especially, beyond dialogue as its only form, to attempts to create systemic transformation on the largest scale possible.

Beyond Dialogue: Nonviolence in a Violent World

In this post, I engage with the second of the questions I laid out earlier: How do we branch beyond interpersonal dialogue as the only method for creating change?

NVC, as it’s currently practiced and taught in much of the world, especially in places that benefit the most from current global power structures, is primarily focused on the intra- and interpersonal dimensions. In NVC workshops, we learn tools for inner practice that can liberate us for more choice and more compassion. We also learn tools for interpersonal practice that can support conflict resolution and connected pathways to change. Again, without active attention to branching out beyond the individual level, NVC practitioners will remain unaware of the limitations of this kind of dialogue.

NVC can clearly lead to both internal and interpersonal change when there is a shared willingness to engage and some, even a tiny amount of, mutual goodwill. What happens, however, when a willingness to engage, trust, or goodwill are absent? In our current global context, all three are dangerously low. We cannot rely on dialogue alone in a violent world.

From my research, it appears that nonviolence was the predominant way of living for humans for most of the apparently 300,000 years of our living until about 7,000 years ago in some places and, in some others, only centuries or even decades ago. And yet these societies often crumbled when invaded. There are many reasons for this, and one of them, I believe, is that they were unused to engaging nonviolently with those who engage violently.

Enough Project
Source: Enough Project

NVC practitioners can find amazing capacity to transform relationships with friends and family, even to connect and create togetherness across vast political or cultural differences, and in this way, increase trust. I am aware of a few such stories, which include engaging with someone who is actively trying to kill the person in front of them, let alone trying to subjugate or exploit millions of people. No matter what needs the people who did the invasions that have wreaked havoc on the planet had—which I assume were exactly the same needs as I have—dialogue would not have been enough to create change in those circumstances.

For dialogue to work, again, there needs to be a willingness, even small or partial, to see the person seeking dialogue as human, as worth investing in, as even existing. So often, these were not the conditions that nonviolent cultures experienced in dealing with colonizers. Indeed, there are multiple stories of indigenous populations offering warmth, reconciliation, even support to colonizers, only to be imprisoned, killed, and/or exploited. They misread the colonizers and couldn’t have understood them, as there was no context of colonization in most of the world when Europeans began to arrive in other continents.

This is part of why Marshall didn’t limit his presentation only to dialogue and instead included the protective use of force in his teachings: the force we use to protect life, not to punish, shame, or hurt anyone when the stakes are extremely high is part of including ourselves in the circle of nonviolence. Teasing out what it means and what it doesn’t mean, especially in the context of large movements, is one of the big tasks that Marshall left to us, to which I return below. Without finding our answers and enacting them, we can easily be in dialogue while the planet burns up, and millions are still hungry.

If we stick with dialogue alone while the harm continues, our children, if not we ourselves, are likely to see the end of human life. Some communities are already in collapse because of how some of us, myself included, are living. I want us to be able to look at the challenge directly and not shy away from the reality of it. To the extent that dialogue becomes, implicitly, the only method that is seen by NVC practitioners as caring for everyone, NVC loses its capacity to be a tool for those whose lives are directly on the line and those who directly act in solidarity with them.

Clearly, one of the results of patriarchal conditioning is that we respond by escalating, and most of us deeply underestimate the power of dialogue to create change. At the same time, relying only on dialogue doesn’t demonstrate a true understanding of the immensity of the systemic challenges we face globally. Gandhi and MLK never lost sight of this dual clarity and continued to dialogue with those in power, even while engaging in significant civil disobedience, also designed to shift the options and enhance the pressure on those in power to come to the table to dialogue and create change.

Simplicity and Complexity

I want to end by looking at the task of what it would take to restore NVC to its radical roots. We don’t and can’t know why Marshall didn’t write the book about social change that he longed to write, the one that would offer something as simple as the basic practice template. I don’t believe the reason is that the practice template for interpersonal dialogue, with observations, feelings, needs, and requests, is all he wanted to leave behind. My own guess is that he didn’t write it, because he hadn’t distilled it sufficiently to be able to capture it in a simple form.

He did leave a heap of pointers and placeholders, in the form of sentences here and there, in workshops, interviews, and conversations that people remember. When I look at the totality of his uncodified statements, it is unmistakable to me that he never stopped searching for additional ways of engaging with NVC as a socially transformational practice. It is our task, those of us who ache to complete and make available the work he started, to develop these incomplete references enough to be able to reach simplicity.

Some of us have access to early work—workshop notes, booklets that are no longer in print, and segments of early newsletters that describe what he did. What would it take to review all of his work, especially those early pieces, pull out of it quotes that are such pointers, catalog them, and maybe then see what we can collectively do to codify those parts?

This is not the only question that I am left with as I wrap up this mini-project. The possibilities that appear if we truly take on this project are of vital significance to me in times of global crisis. As often, the first layer is even more questions as we develop NVC to its most radical and practical potential: What would a fully needs-based, nonviolent civil disobedience campaign look like at this time?

Will we find simple enough and robust enough practices that reliably increase our capacity to mourn, celebrate, and act in community? Will NVC, when radicalized again, support us in such necessary endeavors as reclaiming the commons, restoring dignity to work, taking learning out of schools and into the community, radically transforming how we engage with conflicts and restoring the flow of resources necessary to sustain all life? I don’t know the answers. I do know that I want companionship in looking for them.