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Thoughts on Nonviolent Communication and Social Change


See Nonviolent Communication


by Tom Atlee


Nonviolent communication (NVC) is normally used to improve interpersonal relations and further the satisfaction of individual and mutual needs. It can also be used as a form of spiritual practice. Since it powerfully taps into some very basic realities of human existence (such as the role of "needs" in life), I find myself wondering: How might NVC be used as an approach to social change? Here are my initial thoughts.

1. We might try applying NVC understandings at the whole-system level, to help whole systems (e.g., communities, societies) satisfy their needs. There are two broad sub-categories of this:

a) We can consider the "needs" of a system to be the collective needs of the people who live in that system -- and the "satisfiers" of those needs (what NVC calls "requests") to be the social structures, processes and programs that help satisfy those needs-of-all-the-people. The questions then becomes: How can diverse subcommunities and stakeholders within a community or society find satisfaction together within the limited resources available? How can the needs of whole communities of people best be tracked and satisfied on an ongoing basis? The work of Manfred Max-Neef may be useful in this. The entirety of sociology, economics, governance and political science could perhaps usefully be reframed in these terms (i.e., the dynamics undergirding NVC, applied collectively).

b) Alternatively (or additionally) we could consider the "needs" of the system in terms of the needs _of the system itself_ -- as a living entity. This requires a much higher level of sophistication to explore; the ability to think systemically (rather than thinking of systems only as collections of individuals with their own needs all added together). I know this has been studied for smaller systems (groups and families) by organizational development consultants and family systems therapists. I don't know of anyone who has spoken in these terms for whole societies. Examples of the systemic needs of a system might include sustainability, diversity, information flows, identity, shared values... [For more on this, see the Commentary below.] Examples of inquiries that might relate here: What would an empathic NVC dialogue look like between activists and the society as a whole, in an effort to clarify the society's needs and satisfiers? What would the societal equivalent of an _ongoing_ NVC dialogue look like: How would a society best track its own needs and requests (isn't this, after all, what a political/governmental system should be about)? In a sense, these questions overlap strongly with my own inquiries about collaborative/ holistic / collectively intelligent politics, governance and activism. What do NVC theorists and practitioners have to bring to that inquiry? Another way to put it: What structures, power relationships, processes, information flows, cultural assumptions, educational patterns, etc., would produce a society capable of regularly identifying its needs (both [a] and [b] forms) and the satisfiers of those needs -- and instituting those satisfiers so that those needs are met? This is a truly expanded level of NVC political theory and praxis...

2. We could apply NVC training and conflict-resolution in specially-targetted ways to

with the explicit intention of empowering them toward greater effectiveness in their good work for the world. This could manifest as a pro-active strategic capacity-building effort and/or as a responsive missionary trouble-shooting effort.

3. Alternatively, we could target the application of NVC empathic practice on those individuals or groups who have the greatest negative impact on the world (from powerholders to terrorists to investor groups to academics and scientists), with the intention of releasing whatever negative energies are compelling their destructive behaviors. There was once a peace group that broke up into teams, each of which "adopted" a nuclear decision maker. Some members of each team read everything the decision-maker wrote and began a compassionate correspondence with him, even going to speeches where they asked compassionate strategic questions and talked with him afterwards. Others in the team found out who his barber was, who took care of his kids, etc., and began talking to those people, in an effort to shift the context in which the decision-maker lived. I don't know what happened to these efforts, but they are thought-provoking in this context.

4. We could create forums in which NVC moderators help those who are embattled (WTO delegates and demonstrators; pro-life and pro-choice activists; etc.) to come to terms with each other. This could be done in the style of the organization Search for Common Ground, that uses a process called mediated dialogue, and videos the interactions of such implacable foes as they come to understand each other through their differences to discover their common ground. SCG then uses the videos broadly to spread a sense of resolution and possibility. NVC would have a somewhat different approach, but the idea of promulgating specific archetypal NVC dialogues through broadly distributed videos could prove just as useful for NVC as for SCG.

5. We could network NVC with other similar processes and approaches to build a broader agreement on what the important underlying principles (dynamics, understandings, values, etc.) are that make these approaches "similar," so that they can all see their relative value, and so that different practitioners can call on each other in specific situations where their expertise would be most helpful, with full confidence that the overall positive direction of the work would be maintained. To me the set of "similar" approaches includes most respectful (especially empathic) dialogic forms and most theories and methodologies of self-organization. Much of the co-intelligence hodge-podge of processes could be included in this category. An example of a shared underlying principle would be the principle of "reflection" or "mirroring" what the other side is saying (or trying to say), in an effort to understand them and have them _feel_ they are really understood. This principle is central to NVC, SCG's mediated dialogue, active listening, and dynamic facilitation, to name just a few.

6. .... [I am sure there are dozens of other approaches that could be taken....]



Since "a system" having needs seems so abstract, I want to first explore the nature of "the needs of a system" -- as in (1b), above.

An example of a social-systemic need might be "shared values". Although each individual in the system needs to have values of their own, to guide their lives, the "sharedness" of (or conflict among) those values, person-to-person, has far greater impact on the health of a collective (family, organization, community, society) than it does on the individual people involved. A system characterized by shared values will be far stronger and healthier than a system where the values are fragmented. (If we express that need as "internal values-coherence", then we could say that individuals have that need, as well. But the creation of "internal values-coherence" in an individual and in a community are very different activities. The uncovering of "internal values coherence" as a need of a particular community -- and the facilitation of such coherence in that community (the meeting of that need) -- would be powerful social change work that, at the societal level, seems to me exactly analogous to what NVC currently does at a personal and interpersonal level.)

NOTE: This says nothing about the moral character of the shared values, which could be racial purity and obedience to authority as much as democracy, respect, or compassion. The question of WHICH values are shared is a moral one. The issue of "shared values are needed to sustain a society" (or any social system) is a practical one. If there are NO shared values, a system cannot function, because the parts of the system have no basis for working together. So in most cases, the more values are shared, the better a system can function. Of course there are exceptions, so this principle is true only up to a point. Clarifying what that point is [such as which shared values can destroy a system], and the dynamics which operate before and after that point is reached, is part of the work needed to clarify what the needs of the system are, and how to best meet those needs.

This raises the issue of whether a Nazi society could be considered "functional"? For the purposes of this exploration, I'm suggesting that a thoroughly nasty evil society could be considered functional, just as a very despicable person can be bodily healthy and functional (surviving in their daily lives). These are two semi-independent variables. Some of the most loving people are physically a wreck and can barely organize the logistics of their days, and some of the most benign societies can't adapt or respond to changing circumstances and, as cultures, vanish [as many Native societies did]. Ultimately, any evil society (or individual) will probably have fixed ideas and internal structures and processes that keep them from adapting well to change, which will undermine them in the end. But that is true of most "good" societies, too. To claim that Nazi Germany wasn't highly functioning is using one's moral emotional response to shut down one's perceptions of the various ways Nazi Germany WAS highly functioning, even though we hate how well it worked at what it did. To a certain degree, Hitler consolidated his power by putting the unemployed workers from the depression back to work, and the trains ran on time. He met real needs of the common people, and they supported him. The previous non-Nazi society couldn't deal with those problems. To ignore those functional qualities of Hitler's society is to blind ourselves to how attractive that option is for people in desperation.

We can also explore whole-system needs by exploring the needs of our whole selves as whole systems. I (as a whole body) need oxygen. Every cell in my body needs oxygen. I, as a system, share this same need with every (individual) cell in my body. We meet this need together.

But my cells and I have needs that are different, as well. I (as a whole person) need recognition, as well as oxygen. Each cell in my body doesn't need (as far as I know) recognition. But many cells in my body need to be totally immersed in liquid, while I would actually be damaged if I were totally immersed in liquid.

Systems theory teaches us
1) that different levels of system (e.g., cell, organism, group, society) are characterized by "self-similarity" -- that is, analogous, similar patterns that show up at every level
2) that there are also "emergent properties" which appear at certain levels of complexity in the evolution of systems, that are not present at lower levels of complexity. One dramatic example is water. A water molecule is more complex than its components, hydrogen and oxygen. It has properties (such as wetness at room temperature) that are not characteristic of oxygen and hydrogen (which are gasses at room temperature) -- even though it has nothing else in it but hydrogen and oxygen. The whole is greater than the mere sum of its parts.

Some people say that self-reflexive consciousness is a property that emerged from the complexity of our brains and societies. While this is a hotly debated point, it is a powerfully thought-provoking example of an emergent property.

Some people believe that only reflexively-conscious entities (perhaps only people) can have "needs." But (in my view) trees, people in comas, wetlands -- at the very least, anything that's alive, to the extent it's alive -- has needs. And, to me, living systems like communities and societies fit that category: they are alive and can have needs.

I have a very strong hunch that many specific "needs" tend to be emergent properties which are characteristic of specific levels of holon complexity. Unfortunately, I don't know of anyone doing research or thinking which focuses on this. Given the importance of "needs" in NVC, I would hope that an NVC-trained systems-thinker would pursue this inquiry intensively.


Theory and Practice

Some folks wonder if this is all just theoretical, whereas what we need is practical know-how.

I question that dichotomy. Practice is pursued within the context of theory. When someone says they want practical stuff, not theoretical stuff, what they usually mean is they want to practice within the realm of already-developed theory (in this case, regarding what constitutes effective, helpful, meaningful human communication, etc.). It is not a question of theory versus practical, but of which theory we're going to practice within, and whether any new theory is needed.

I would say that much could be learned by trying to apply NVC to higher levels of system (like society). This effort may require modifications or expansions of NVC theory. I would expect that that would result in a broader field of application.



I propose that, if you want to do social change, the question of leverage is a major one. For any given effort exerted, how great an effect can one expect? I submit that there are levels of leverage. Here's one off-the-cuff grossly oversimplified version of such a spectrum:

a) relieving individuals of personal pain

b) re-orientating relationships and groups toward self-motivated, self-organized action on their own behalf

c) helping communities organize themselves and function better for whatever they want to do

d) setting up social institutions which increase the likelihood that an entire society will notice social problems and opportunities as they emerge, reflect on them, creatively address them, and successfully review the results of their actions, modifying their ideas and behaviors as necessary.

I suggest that there is more developed workable theory and practice for the lower levels of this spectrum (a, b) than for the higher levels (c,d), while successful action taken at the higher levels will have a greater and more lasting impact than successful action taken at the lower levels. This greater impact constitutes "higher leverage". This is not a matter of theory OR practice, but of theory AND practice at various levels. And where theory and methodology are undeveloped, they need to be developed. Whether NVC and its allies have any interest in higher leverage, I don't know. But it is there for the developing, for whoever is interested (as I am).

I understand that Marshall wants to do NVC with individual leaders working in leverage-capable institutions. While working with individuals is inevitable, I question whether SIMPLY finding key institutions and then finding key individuals within those institutions and then applying NVC to them to help them meet their needs, will result in the transformation of society in any significant way. If a company depends on its investors, and that company's Board is required by law to give those investors a good return on their investment (called "fiduciary responsibility"), and those investors are making a fortune using sweatshop labor, and you have an NVC conversation with that company's CEO, and that CEO is totally transformed and decides his company shouldn't use sweatshop labor anymore, then the Board will simply replace that CEO -- because this version of capitalism REQUIRES maximizing profit, and that dynamic won't change until you change the nature of the system, itself. I'm not suggesting that all corporations run like that, or that all corporations need to do damaging things in order to fulfill their fiduciary responsibility; I am suggesting that the changing of individuals is not a universally high-leverage approach, and that more often than not the problem is in the system (e.g., the use of distorting economic indicators like GDP), not the individuals.