December 8th, 2012

NVC is for getting beyond NVC

What is NVC for?

Although I’ve studied, practiced, and taught NVC for years, lately I’ve been revisiting a basic question: What is NVC for?

One possible answer is that NVC is for more effectively inspiring people to do what we want them to. Before you object (and I hope you do), please note that I said “inspiring”, not “coercing”. Our prevalent domination-oriented culture teaches us to coerce others into doing what we want by holding up standards of behavior and morality, sometimes revealed in words like “should”, “responsibility”, “right”, and “rights”. In contrast, NVC teaches us to inspire others by revealing our feelings and needs and then enable others to help us by expressing objective observations and making positive, specific and doable requests. To use a popular example, you might be tempted to say “You lazy slob; pick up your own socks; what do you think I am – your slave?” With OFNR under your belt, if you’re focused on getting people to do what you want, you might craft something like the following:

  1. When I see your socks on the floor at 2pm for the 97th time this year (according to my detailed records),
  2. I feel irritated, disgusted, and stressed out,
  3. because my needs for order, consideration, and cooperation are not met.
  4. Would you be willing to put your socks in the laundry within the next 30 seconds and swear to me on your grandmother’s grave that you will never leave your socks on the floor again?

And maybe you’d be wondering why people who hear this sort of NVC-speak still aren’t (joyfully) inspired to help you.

Or maybe you’ve gone deeper with NVC and are in the process of voluntarily surrendering the goal of getting people to do what you want – I hope without giving up on your well-being. I prefer this second game to the first one, as I like the spiritual depth and empowerment of this shift rather than improving my skill at getting others to do what I want. (I’m glad I’m not alone in this preference. “To practice NVC, we must completely abandon the goal of getting other people to do what we want.” – Marshall Rosenberg) When I’m trying to win the first game, I’m still a sucker for the whims and chosen focus of other people. Ultimately, they get to decide what they do, and I want to be okay with whatever they decide. I want to live in a wide-open space of possibilities for surviving and thriving in my life. I also want to genuinely enjoy another person’s “no”, as an invitation for me to widen my awareness of and deepen my connection to that person’s perspective and well-being. It’s not that I’m willing to compromise my own well-being in the process. Rather, I intend to keep broadening my own options for self-care. I also intend to keep expanding my notion of my “self” from the cultural norm of an individual person separate from other people and separate from the organic world from which this individual self has temporarily emerged.

So, what is NVC for? In this post, I want to suggest to you an odd idea: NVC is for getting beyond NVC.

A linguistic antidote

Marshall Rosenberg shaped (and evolved!) NVC based on his realizations about how the language patterns of our culture lead us away from self-knowledge and compassion for each other. Through many generations (across perhaps 8,000 years) of pervasive influence, the language we grew up hearing and then speaking has shaped not only the beliefs we hold, but even the questions we ask and the pool of answers from which we choose. (“The answers you get depend upon the questions you ask.” – Thomas Kuhn)

The classic NVC language (a fill-in-the-blanks “OFNR” formula of observations, feelings, needs, and requests, as above) sounds artificial to many people, and indeed it is artificial, in the sense that it’s a deliberately constructed form. What’s harder to see–unless you’ve practiced alternatives–is that the mainstream form of communication we hear around us is also built on formulas and is also a construction. For instance, there are the formulas/patterns for reinforcing externalized standards of behavior, which we haul out in order to pressure others to behave as we want them to. (“It’s the least you could do after all I’ve given you.” “It’s your responsibility.” “That was impolite.”) Learning a second language enables us to see the one we previously took for granted. Since the first language acts to oppress us and leads us to disconnection from ourselves and others, it’s vitally important that we become aware of that language, so that we can make conscious choices.

As I understand it, Marshall Rosenberg’s intention for NVC was that it serve as an antidote to the domination-oriented language of our culture. When it’s working well, NVC can help us notice our subtle and pervasive cultural programming–a sort of counter-brainwashing–and make choices more in keeping with our personal values. This intention raises a few questions in my mind:

  • How can I tell when this particular antidote is working well and when poorly in myself, and how can I help my students make this evaluation for themselves? Several of the posts in this blog are about how to get unfooled in one’s NVC practice.
  • How can we shift our practice to make it more effective?
  • How can we evolve NVC so that it is more effective for all or some of its practitioners?
  • What practices besides NVC work for the same purposes?

These four questions all relate to the goal of deprogramming, i.e., neutralizing the effects of cultural conditioning. Many of the posts in this blog relate to these questions.

A bigger question, however, remains: do we want to stop at undoing our linguistic programming? For me, the answer is “No”. I want to go further. Moreover, as I described earlier, I had the great fortune of having parents who clued me into conscious relationships and use of language.

Which brings me back to my answer to the question of what NVC is for.

NVC is for getting beyond NVC.

Although most of Marshall’s teachings are about how to practice NVC, he sometimes discusses NVC’s “spiritual” foundations and motivations. Below is a passage in which Marshall describes what NVC is for:

It’s very easy to think that Nonviolent Communication is the goal.

I’ve altered a Buddhist parable that relates to this question. Imagine a beautiful, whole, and sacred place. And imagine that you could really know God when you are in that place. But let’s say that there is a river between you and that place and you’d like to get to that place but you’ve got to get over this river to do it. So you get a raft, and this raft is a real handy tool to get you over the river. Once you’re across the river you can walk the rest of the several miles to this beautiful place. But the Buddhist parable ends by saying that, “One is a fool who continues on to the sacred place carrying the raft on their back.”

Nonviolent Communication is a tool to get me over my cultural training so I can get to the place. It’s not the place. If we get addicted to the raft, attached to the raft, it makes it harder to get to the place. People just learning the process of Nonviolent Communication can forget all about the place. If they get too locked into the raft, the process becomes mechanical.

Nonviolent Communication is one of the most powerful tools that I’ve found for connecting with people in a way that helps me get to the place where we are connected to the Divine, where what we do toward one another comes out of Divine Energy. That’s the place I want to get to.

As I understand this passage, Marshall is saying that (a) NVC is merely a means to an end, and (b) at some point in our development, NVC becomes an obstacle, hindering the continued development that NVC was meant to begin. (“Nonviolent Communication is a tool to get me over my cultural training so I can get to the place. It’s not the place. If we get addicted to the raft, attached to the raft, it makes it harder to get to the place.”) Consider that when you attended third grade, your goal was to learn and progress out of third grade. You did not spend year after year getting better at the third grade curriculum. In the same way, the NVC language has a limited purpose: it is just a language-focused stepping stone–useful to some–for counteracting some of the harmful language-infused effects of our culture. Once the purpose is accomplished, we’re ready to leave it behind. As in the parable, hanging onto the raft (including OFNR) retards our further progress.

What is beyond NVC?

If NVC is a collection of techniques for language and communication, what is beyond NVC? Or, in the framework of the Buddhist story above, what is the sacred place (as opposed to the raft)? I see many hints within Marshall’s teachings, but confusingly, these hints are sprinkled among a raft of communication techniques, and so are easily missed or ignored.

Others have written more directly about this sacred place that is beyond NVC, especially spiritual/mystical writers. My favorites include Eckhart Tolle, Alan Watts, and Joel Goldsmith, as well as the Sufi poets Rumi and Hafiz. Eckhart Tolle uses the term “Presence”, which I like very much.

Describing this sacred place in a blog post raises difficulty for me. I know the experience of Presence, and I love dialog with others who’ve experienced it. When I try to define it via written monologue, words elude me.

October 30th, 2012

Presentation vs transformation

Although I see some value in communication techniques such as NVC’s four steps, I also have serious concerns about hazards of teaching and studying such techniques, including the loss of accurate feedback crucial to achieving the transformation that NVC was intended to support. In this blog post, I’ll try to shine light on these hazards and suggest directions for NVC’s evolution. I’ll also share some of my own background, to give you some sense of how I came to see NVC as a beautiful work-in-progress and what motivates me to want to encourage it in the directions described in this blog.

Early inspirations

In late 2002, I encountered Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC), and since early 2005, I’ve led NVC workshops and practice groups and have coached individuals and couples. When I found NVC, I was thrilled, because it fit so well with the way I looked at life and relationships. For instance, I already recognized that most “feeling” words used in popular communication are not feelings at all, but fantasy projections.

I primarily thank my parents for my perspective on and interest in intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships. When I was 11 years old, the second youngest of six children, my parents began a long series of family meetings, once per week after dinner. Together, we read aloud from one book after another about what goes on inside of relationships, and applied the principles we learned in order to work through our own challenges with each other–especially the chronic strife between me and my two older sisters. (The books I remember reading together are “The Mark of Cain: an Anatomy of Jealousy”, “TA (Transactional Analysis) for Families”, “I’m Okay, You’re Okay”, “Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am?”, “Games People Play”, “Hope for the Flowers”, and “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”.)

I did not appreciate until much later how unusual it was to be brought up to look deeply within myself and within relationships. As an adult, I rarely found others who shared my outlook, though I found indifference and opposition. Finding NVC, first in Kelly Bryson’s “Don’t Be Nice, Be Real” and then Marshall’s “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life”, was a tremendously exciting discovery for me. Here was someone else who knew what I knew and had researched, articulated, and applied the insights in very challenging situations! I noticed Marshall’s communication suggestions (OFNR, etc) of course, but what really grabbed me was the underlying philosophy and inner path–a sort of detox program to counteract culturally inherited thought patterns that disempower us and create separation. How great it would be to connect with a community of others on this path!

Doubts and disappointments

After a couple of years, however, I had become disenchanted with much of what I witnessed in the teaching and practice of NVC. What I increasingly noticed from teachers other than Marshall was a focus on NVC as a set of communication techniques and tools, e.g., the OFNR formula (observations, feelings, needs, requests) and advice to study and use feelings and “needs” lists. I’ve always seen those external “process” details as inessential and dispensible, and my sense has been that Marshall offered them only as training wheels to help people shift out of some cultural habits, to then be cut loose as people begin to recognize and then release habits of coercive thinking and relating. See the Marshall quote in Missions, cats and rafts. (I also became discouraged with the focus I saw on perpetuating a particular stage of development of Marshall’s principles and practice of NVC, expressed for instance as the goal to “Ensure that the next generation and succeeding generations are taught NVC in a way that preserves and protects the integrity of the NVC process.” I saw the potency of NVC as having come from a long evolution of Marshall’s understanding, and so of course I want to participate in its continued evolution, not to preserve and protect something static.)

I’ve wondered for quite a while now whether it’s a good idea to offer these training wheels even to NVC beginners. These days, I lean toward seeing these training wheels as an unfortunate choice. I still love NVC as an inner path, but I don’t ever recommend teaching or practicing NVC as communication method, i.e., as way to talk with other people. In this blog post, I’ll suggest how the popular “outside in” (communication-focused) approach to NVC interferes with what I understand to be the goals of NVC, and I suggest instead that NVC be practiced only “from the inside out”.

Suppressing symptoms

I usually see NVC taught as a way to communicate, with a subtext of personal transformation. I’m sympathetic with the idea of communication techniques, as much of the communication I hear inspires my hair to stand on end! I wonder, however: are the fundamental problems here really communication problems, and so can they really be solved by addressing communication? Maybe instead communication is a symptom. As with physical health issues, addressing symptoms can bring some welcome temporary relief but are unlikely to resolve the underlying issues. For sustainable well-being, I have to go deeper to the internal sources of the external symptoms.

As with physical health, I worry that the standard approach to teaching NVC (focusing on the symptoms of external communication habits) sometimes does considerable harm exactly because it suppresses symptoms. Those symptoms serve a valuable purpose of alerting me to my internal state, directing my attention inward. If I suppress outward symptoms, I’ve lost information that is vitally important to my well-being. (Imagine taking a cough suppressant for tuberculosis.) I get an illusion of health, which is comforting but makes it more difficult for me to navigate toward genuine health. (I squirm when I hear the NVC-ers say “that meets my need for reassurance”. While reassurance is comforting, I prefer reality.)

Confusing cause and effect?

Like other outer forms, NVC’s forms are more concrete and measurable than the inner development they were intended to support, and so provide more immediate gratification.

I wonder whether there is a tempting fallacy of cause-and-effect at work here. Suppose you watch and listen to someone who appears to have found inner peace and whose interactions with others appear to be more intimate and less wrought with pain and confusion than yours. Imagine that this person can connect with others who are hurting and angry, while keeping an open heart to those people’s pain and confusion without getting dragged in, i.e., while maintaining a deep inner anchor. Suppose also that you notice some odd aspects of the way this peaceful person communicates. It’s easy to assume that these outer differences are responsible for the inner peace, and if only you could imitate and master these new outward forms of acting and relating, then you could develop the same inner peace and strength. Not only is it easy to assume; it’s also appealing. We’ve been through schooling and other learning experiences, and we know that we can memorize new information and master new skills if we apply ourselves.

There is, however, another possibility: instead of the outer skills and techniques bringing about peace & strength, they might instead be just one person’s outward symptoms of an internal transformation. They’re not at peace because they talk oddly. Rather, they talk oddly because they’re at peace.

Thought streams

From another angle, I want to suggest that peace and turmoil flow from how we engage the thought-streams within ourselves. Those thought-streams include what we think about ourselves and about others, including the reactive thoughts that arise when hearing and seeing others. For instance, if someone calls me “inconsiderate”, I might notice a proliferation of thoughts within in me, such as “I’m a selfish jerk”, “She has no business judging me”, “Maybe I am too self-absorbed”, and “She thinks she’s the center of the universe”. As long as I’m grappling with such thoughts and their emotional impact on me, there’s not much I can do in an outward communication that is both connecting and authentic. I can admit that I’m too distracted with these thoughts to engage with the other person. (In contrast, I could easily engage with their thoughts or with my thoughts about their thoughts.) I can also investigate my thoughts and the tender places they touch, either on my own or with a supportive and centered friend. On rare occasions, I might even ask help from the person whose (real or imagined) thoughts I’m reacting to, but this choice relies on ninja-level skills in one or both of us.

Losing valuable information

Focusing on the outer forms is not only insufficient and unnecessary, it can also be harmful. First, it’s a distraction: it’s easy to get distracted by this outer form and allow it to siphon energy away from internal transformation. When practicing NVC “from the outside in” (focusing on communication), we can also lose access to valuable information about our inner states and cultivate distrust from others.

As I mentioned above, working on changing outside behavior–especially in our use of language–destroys a very useful benefit of speaking in a less deliberately sculpted way. When we are not struggling to filter and shape our outward behavior, that behavior can accurately reveal our inner state. Such transparency leads to well-founded trust from others. Moreover, it is vital feedback about how we’re progressing internally. Worse, we rob ourselves of a formerly dependable means of seeing where we are and whether we’re getting closer or further from the inner peace and strength that we seek.

Cultivating distrust

When we force our outer behavior out of sync with our inner state, others will pick up on the incongruity, either consciously or unconsciously. Sometimes people get annoyed at hearing NVC-Speak, and I suspect that this annoyance often has a large component of distrust. Maybe also discouragement at the prospect of having an additional layer of presentation to work through before finding a genuine connection.

In 2004, I attended a nine-day, residential “international intensive training” (IIT) in NVC. In an opening session, Marshall Rosenberg asked the roughly 70 attendees what they wanted to get out of the time together. More than half of them answer some variation of “fluency in the language of NVC”. Given my experiences with many teachers and students of NVC, that memory has troubled me ever since. Without a dependable foundation for sorting through our own thoughts and distinguishing truer from less true ones, I worry that fluency leads to misdirected confidence, removing motivation to look deeper. I worry that communication technique proficiency addresses presentation more than transformation.

What about communication?

While I love the principles underlying NVC, I don’t recommend it as a way to talk with others. You might be wondering then what I do recommend. Simply don’t talk with each other? Or go on talking the ways we used to?

Once our inner landscape is sorted out, and we’ve come to more clarity and expansiveness about what’s true and what matters inside ourselves, we will naturally (not artifically) speak differently. Why? Because when we drop formulas, our words tend to reveal the truth of what we’re thinking.

There are some general communication skills that help in most situations whether we’re after on heart connection or less personal goals. For instance, try to find out what the other person heard what you intended to convey. Ambiguity and unconscious assumptions can be difficult to notice without checking. Similarly, check whether what you understood was what the other person intended to convey. (As George Bernard Shaw quipped, “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred.”) How often to make these inquiries? It depends on how accurately you and the other person tend to understand each other. You may have to perform some experiments to get a sense of this accuracy level. It also depends on how important the understanding is to you.

Another suggestion: since NVC does have its own jargon, practice not using it. Jargon can help make our expressions more efficient, but it can also make us think we understand something that we don’t. If you cannot find a way to say what you want without using NVC jargon, then you may not get it as well as you believe you do.

September 27th, 2012

Doubting the NVC needs list

“The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the oceans was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.” – Daniel J. Boorstin

Guessing others’ feelings and needs

In NVC, people are taught to make guesses about the feelings and needs of others. They’re encouraged not to believe these guesses to be true without getting verification. Often our first guess won’t be right, but even putting one out there gives the other person something to test against, perhaps leading them closer to self-connection. In this way, step by step, we both get closer to the heart of the matter. If we believe our first guess, then that belief will interfere with the process of getting to the truth with depth and accuracy (for both of us).

What about our own needs?

Now, let’s consider a different scenario, which is tuning into our own feelings and needs. For this purpose, NVC teachers (and Marshall Rosenberg’s book) offer a list of feelings and a list of needs. Students are often told to consult those lists, asking themselves what fits. I want to suggest to you that this advice is deeply problematic just as when trying to understand another person: we’re tempted to believe our guesses and thus miss deeper and/or more accurate truths.

In my experiences with NVCers, whether brand new or with years of experience (and validation labels), I almost never believe that their own first few attempts at identifying their needs are close to hitting the nail on the head. I also suspect that the use of an an NVC “needs list” tends to muddy the waters by lending an element of false reassurance, thus discouraging them from continuing their search.

Hazards of believing in an NVC needs list

A danger of approved NVC needs lists is that they tend to vindicate our jackals. (“Jackal” is Marshall’s term for a culturally inherited mindset that justifies certain claims and obligates compliance, according to externally established rights and standards.) When we’re triggered, jackalized/externalized interpretations resonate strongly. In such cases, people often gravitate to choices like “consideration”, “respect”, “cooperation”, “consistency”, “appreciation”, “honesty”, and “safety”, which are easy to interpret as being tied to changes in other people’s behavior. For instance, if I’m frustrated with my child and I think I’m having a “need for cooperation”, I may well instead be attached to getting my (otherwise self-directed) child to pitch in with my way of doing things. (You can find more examples in the posts Distracted by faux needs?, Vague demands and “honesty”, and Distinguishing needs from vague demands.)

Vindication is satisfying but doesn’t get us liberated from attachment. Because of this satisfaction, the supposed need may get a resounding “Yes!”. However, when you’re in an attached/constricted emotional state, if a suggested need doesn’t challenge your attachment, it’s likely to be a red herring. Such challenges can be unpleasant, because they ask us to surrender our attachments, sometimes before we’ve quite seen other ways to nurture our well-being. Or, as Gloria Steinem put it, “The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.”

When we get fooled by the words on the needs list, we can be worse off than before, simply because we are less curious and so less motivated to keep looking for the truth that will set us free.

Getting unfooled

How can you get unfooled about your needs? Here are some suggested questions to ask yourself:

  • Are you believing what comes into your head (from memory or a written list)? Remind yourself that you’re just guessing. Hold your guesses with curiosity–as possibilities to be investigated. Cultivate your capacity for doubt, i.e., for seeing a possibility without believing it and without rejecting it.
  • Does your “need” justify what you want (the particulars), or does it help you surrender what you want, releasing you into a larger space of possibilities? Check in to see whether you are getting freed from attachment to someone else changing their behavior.
  • Is your range of possible strategies/requests narrow? Imagine five very different ways to meet a guessed need, none of which involve the person or behavior that you’re currently focusing on. If you’re unsatisfied with those alternatives and so still have attachment to the original particulars, then you’ve probably not gotten to the heart of the matter.
  • Check whether there are riders/qualifiers indicating strategy-attachments. For instance:
    • Not just “trust” but “trust that …”?
    • Not just “consideration” but “consideration for …”?
    • Not just “appreciation” but “appreciation for …”?

See the post Distracted by faux needs? for more on getting unfooled.

Using a needs list with others

Just as I want to avoid offering my own jackals a tasty menu, I avoid offering the same to other people’s jackals. Several years ago in coaching & teaching, my partner & I started noticing that clients & students tended to leap at some words on the needs list we offered them. I’ve mentioned some of those words above: “consideration”, “respect”, “cooperation”, “consistency”, “appreciation”, “honesty”, and “safety”. They latched onto those choices with what we took to be a sense of vindication. We then started removing those words from the lists we printed. It’s not that I believe that none of those terms can be used to denote universal “needs” (aspects of our well-being, freed from attachment to particular people, actions etc). It’s just that I almost never believe that these words are actually used that way.

Your NVC needs list doesn’t exist

There are no needs on your needs list. There are only words. Needs are not words.

Words have many meanings and shades of meaning. When we’re in a clingy space (mired in the energies of attachment, desperation, and demand), we gravitate toward clingy meanings of the words. None of those meanings are needs, so when we’re in that space, the list contains vague demands and justifications for those demands, plus a few choices that are unappealing from that space, like self-acceptance, unconditional trust, and inner peace.

When we’re in an expansive (rather than clingy) space, it’s as if the list suddenly changes to contain actual needs, i.e., universal aspects of well-being, unattached to particulars. So, when we most need the help, the needs list vanishes and is replaced by vague demands and vindication. In this way, the list can mislead us, giving a false reassurance that we’re on the track to liberation. I’ve seen this effect over & over, and I’m concerned that it’s actively reinforced by mainstream teaching and practice of NVC.

As an antidote, I recommend cultivating doubt (uncertainty/curiosity/openness) and the other steps above to get unfooled.

I would love to hear how this post touches you. In particular, have you also noticed hazards I describe when using an NVC “needs list” with yourself or with others?

January 13th, 2011

Embracing criticism, loving myself

I’ve been exploring an idea for the past few years that I’d like to share here.

The idea is that I never react to others’ criticisms, only to my own (self-criticism). When someone says something that resonates with my self-critic, that self-critic is activated (resonance). It’s due to that resonance that I classify another’s words as criticism, rather than praise, playful banter, or some sort of emotionally neutral information. Thus when one of my internal critics wakes up in resonance with another’s words, that critic reminds me about the corresponding still-unloved part of myself.

My personal goals include wholeness and unconditional self-love. In other words, I want to own and cherish all aspects of myself. So a current practice of mine is to embrace the criticism as much as I’m able, instead of trying to neutralize it through self-protective reactions or empathy for the other person. This inner practice is very difficult for me. I’ve spent a lot of my life insulating myself from others’ criticisms, and am finding it a tough habit to break. I’m making slow & steady progress. It took me a while to notice that some of Marshall’s techniques for neutralizing judgment & criticism were feeding a personal pattern that I want to move past. (For instance, never hear what a jackal-speaking person thinks of me.)

How does this practice (expanding self-love through embracing criticism) relate to NVC? I don’t see it in Marshall’s teachings. To relate to NVC, I’m now thinking of the practice as “fifth pair of ears”, besides the inner & outer jackal and giraffe ears. The new pair is an inner pair, and there’s a corresponding outer pair as well.

As with criticism & insults, similarly with praise. When I’m uncomfortable with someone’s praise, I can usually find a way to release my resistance and own the praise.

For instance, when someone says to me “You’re inconsiderate” or in NVC-ese “That doesn’t meet my need for consideration” (yuck), at first I have an ouch and then defensive & offensive thoughts. I could turn my mind toward the idea of “unmet needs” and look for empathy for myself and/or the other person. My new practice (in addition to the jackal & giraffe ones) is to ask myself how I can honestly own the assessment of me as inconsiderate. Eventually, when my emotional turmoil recedes, it’s so easy to see that the “criticism” of me is right on. After all, when I focus my attention on one thing, I often lose sight of other things. And so of course I’m inconsiderate. The praise “considerate” is also accurate, as I’m almost always considering something. (Since it’s a big universe—and there are lots of others real or imagined—I’m much more inconsiderate than I am considerate.)

My experiments with embracing criticism are connected with another long-term project of mine, which is to unconditionally embrace Reality. In other words, developing my ability to love What Is, dropping any resistance. (I distinguish wanting reality to be as it is from wanting reality to stay as it is. The former is about the present.) Since the world is full of people whose words awaken my inner critics, it’s important for me to find ways of benefiting from those people and appreciating their gifts to me. As with self-love, I’m lousy at reality-love. And maybe these two projects are really the same project. Work(s) in progress.

March 9th, 2008

Beyond rules and guidelines

Recently, the moderator of an NVC-related mailing list I’m on wrote up a draft list of “guidelines” for the group to follow. (I don’t mean to single out this fellow. He just happened to provide a recent example of an issue that has been on my mind.) The list addressed some behaviors that he and some other took issue with (discussion focus, forms of humor, and “following standard ethical procedure” of citing articles, etc.) Predictably in an NVC crowd, a few folks (including me) wondered whether these guidelines were requests or demands and expressed concern about the use of domination tools. The moderator replied that the guidelines are requests that meet needs like respect & efficiency. And that if folks do otherwise, “then you know there are people whose needs you may not be meeting.”

I suspect that this person is making some assumptions that I don’t share, namely that his proposed strategies are actually more effective at meeting needs than other strategies, and that his strategies don’t also interfere with needs being met.

I figure, however, that the opposite strategies must meet needs as well. Otherwise, people wouldn’t be doing them.

It occurs to me that all sets of rules or guidelines have this same problem: they support needs sometimes in some ways and interfere with needs sometimes and in some ways. Another example is CNVC’s strategies around other people’s use of the name “NVC”.

Here’s an idea for a more alive approach to address clashing preferences:

  • Use a living, collaborative medium, like a wiki page. Expect an ongoing evolutionary process, not a static conclusion.
  • Jot down what behaviors you sometimes like and which ones you sometimes dislike, say which is which and why.
  • Invite others to contribute to these lists as well.
  • Deal with stuff as it comes up instead expecting to control it in advance.

I expect and hope that some behaviors will show up as both liked and disliked (even by the same person), and I believe this intersection will be where the most value comes. In fact, I’d be very surprised to learn of any behavior at all that’s worth writing down in one category (Like or Dislike) and not also in the other. After all, if everyone agreed, then either the behavior would always happen or never happen. In either case, there’s no point in mentioning it.

This last point gets me most clearly to one of the essential pitfalls of the whole idea of rules or guidelines (part of the game of Preserve & Prevent). They record thin slices of creative tensions among strategies. The matching counterpoint strategies are omitted, and more importantly, so are the “good reasons” (needs met) by both sets of strategies. And so the beautiful dream of “all needs fully met” is short-circuited, and we settle for and propagate the same old either-or, win-lose-compromise thinking and living we were inculturated with.

I’m going for the dream. Want to join me?

February 3rd, 2008

Distracted by faux needs?

In NVC circles, I often hear what I understand to be strategies described in “need” language. For me, the very heart and power of NVC Consciousness grows out of deep connection with Universal Needs and release of strategies. When I think I see strategy masquerading as needs, I’m concerned that the speaker and listeners are unlikely to find the sacred place, simply because they think they already have. When the speaker is someone who teaches NVC (whether certified externally, internally, or neither), my urge to speak out is especially strong, in the hope of contributing to their students’ lives as well.

Over the last few years of exploring and discussing CNVC certification, I’ve been particularly surprised and concerned when what I hear described as “needs” more often match what I understand to be strategies instead, and correspondingly how rarely I hear what I recognize as a pure & genuine Universal Need.

For concreteness, I’d like to mention a few recent examples from an NVC mailing list. I am in no way meaning to single out these two people. They just happened to provide recent examples.

One wrote:

I have a need for clarity and connection regarding the certification process and am very hopeful that my needs can be met.

I can relate to clarity and (particularly) connection as (universal) needs if taken by themselves. I strongly suspect, however, that the writer meant something specifically connected to the strategy of certification, and more specifically yet, to CNVC certification. From the place of Needs, clarity and connection can be fulfilled by means that have nothing at all to do with certification.

Because the distinction can be subtle and old habits persistent, I like to use this test: discard any qualifier following the needs, e.g., stop after “clarity and connection”, with no “regarding”, “about”, “of”, “for”, etc. Then add back an inverted/released form of the qualifier, as “and I’m totally fine with those needs being met without …”. Then listen to my body telling me whether I’ve just spoken truly or not. For example, I might say

I have a need for clarity and connection, and I’m totally fine with those needs being met without any information or forward movement on the certification process.

If my body says “Yes”, I celebrate my power, freedom, and abundance. If my body says “No”, I thank it for helping my mind out of its temporary delusion. Dropping the pretense of having found the sacred place of NVC Consciousness, I get to continue on my journey.

(Note: if you get overwhelmed or lose interest/joy in following the additional examples below, please skip to the request at the end of the post.)

For a few more examples of what I understand to be strategies masquerading as needs, here is a passage from another recent note from CNVC folks:

We have been wrestling with the balance between

the need to ensure the integrity of NVC — of who is teaching it and how it is being taught, and the need to see NVC demonstrated in the lives of the trainers


the need for consistency in standards to ensure the above two needs.


We are aware that we need more assessors world-wide and are working on this evolution of the new assessor training.

In all of these “need” descriptions, I hear strategies instead. I long for the pure Gold I’m confident lies buried — for the power, freedom, and inspiration I experience in deep exploration of underlying needs and release of strategy attachments.

In the first statement (“the need to ensure …”), I’m not sure whether the need was thought to be ensuring or integrity. “Ensuring” (applying will and effort toward) is always a strategy, in my understanding. “Integrity” I hear as a need, but then come the qualifiers: “of NVC”, “of who … and how …”. To the writers, I offer the Body-Clarity test:

I have a need for Integrity, and I’m totally fine with meeting that need independently of strategies involving the whos, hows and whats of teaching NVC.

Then ask the body for feedback. If it says “No!” then delve deeper for the Needs.

For the next one, “the need to see NVC demonstrated …”, I have a harder time confidently guessing the underlying need. Maybe it’s meant as additional strategy for the the same needs supported by strategies of who, what & how.

Next, “need for consistency in standards to ensure …”. If I took the language literally, I might think of “consistency” as the need. However, I understand consistency to be just a (useful as well as detrimental) strategy, and here there’s the additional qualifier “in standards”. The “to ensure”, confirms for me that consistency is in service of (i.e., is a strategy for supporting) the previous “needs” (what I’d describe as spoken strategies and unspoken and perhaps unidentified needs).

Finally, “we need more assessors …”. In this case, I’m guessing that the writers didn’t even intend the word “need” in the NVC sense. In case anyone was writing or reading this statement as a Need in the NVC sense, I’d suggest reconsidering assessors as a strategy to support the strategy of certification. Even within the strategy of assessment, there are naturally scalable alternatives to more specific strategy of a centralized, top-down approach. (See, e.g., the “Emergence of NVC” vision.)

Several other posts on this blog provide more background and examples of this perspective on faux needs.

Please try out the Body-Clarity test described in this post, and share your experience as a comment to this post (or just to me if you’d prefer more privacy). As well, please share any insights, techniques, celebrations or mournings about encountering and navigating past faux needs. With each other’s help, I believe we can get more adept at finding and living in the sacred place.

September 5th, 2007

Vague demands and “honesty”

I wrote about “vague demands” in an earlier post. A vague demand is an expression couched in NVC need-style language that masks moralism and demand. (For example, “that doesn’t meet my need for fairness”, or “accountability” or “respect”.) Most of what I hear from NVC practitioners (including teachers) when dealing with or coaching someone triggered are what I call vague demands.

A reader responded to the earlier post, and I understand his comments to say that that such remarks are expressions of “honesty”. I’ve heard that term used in this way before, and I’d like to suggest another viewpoint. Of course, one can express one’s opinions & judgments with “honesty”, but I don’t think that’s what Marshall had in mind when teaching about honest & empathy, and I certainly don’t think that kind of honesty helps to nurture inner & outer connection, leading to hearts awakened to joyful giving & receiving at a deep level.

I expect people to go through stages of deepening into NVC Consciousness, and perhaps NVC-sounding vague demands represents some progress. I’m not really sure it does, however, as I’ve so rarely heard practitioners (externally certified or otherwise, even certification assessors) get beyond that stage. Moreover, I see teaching and teaching materials propagating & reinforcing vague demands as if they were the real connecting stuff of Life. See today’s “NVC Quick Connect” newsleter for some examples, as well as the widely-circulated document on translating faux-feelings to needs, developed collaboratively at an IIT. My partner Holly had more to say about these issues today in a post called “Sounds like NVC, must be NVC …?” I recommend her post.

With help from Holly, I got it today that I’m especially distressed when NVC teachers use & teach vague demands. NVC as Marshall teaches & demonstrates (most of the time) is the approach I’m most inspired about and confident in, for solving the “significant problems of our time” (as Einstein put it). I want to see NVC’s potential power & depth shared effectively, and so I care a lot about what the teachers are modeling and teaching.

Holly & I came up with a simple test for whether we’ve really connected with a Need. The test is “Heart opening or heart closing?” For us and our students, this test helps us not to settle for NVC-sounding head stuff, and keep looking for the real gold. We’ve also realized that the whole idea of teaching & learning how to talk is almost guaranteed to lead to vague demands, because it’s so much easier to change words than change consciousness. So we no longer teach the four-step process, and instead re-interpret observations, feelings, needs, & requests as tools for clarity and self-connection. Once one makes the inner shift, we recommend speaking without conscious effort. Without the shift, the effort just clouds our awareness of our unawareness.

July 30th, 2007

Abundance and Scarcity in the Consciousness and Practice of NVC

In my understanding, NVC Consciousness looks at the universe as abundant. Needs may be met in an infinite number of ways, and NVC theory sees needs as never being in conflict. What interferes with our experience of abundance is attachment to strategies. The only reason I know for attaching to a strategy is that one holds internal belief in scarcity rather than abundance.

When I listen to people who have learned NVC, I often hear them express emotional upset and state that an action failed, fails, or would fail to meet a particular need, as in “That doesn’t meet my need for X”. My hunch is that, though couched in NVC-like language, this pattern always reveals a fundamental departure from NVC Consciousness. I interpret such statements as placing importance on a strategy and on lack. I suspect that when someone says “That doesn’t meet my need for X”, s/he usually really means “That prevents my need for X being satisfied”, or at least “That interferes with my need for X being satisfied”. In contrast, my understanding of NVC Consciousness implies that no action or strategy can possibly interfere with a need getting met, considering the abundance of other ways to meet the need. (For related comments, please see Distinguishing needs from vague demands.)

Going further out on a limb, I propose that (in contrast to typical NVC teaching) emotional upset is typically not caused by unmet needs, but rather by belief in scarcity and interpretation of a situation as evidence of scarcity. Consider as an alternative this quote from Thomas Edison. Someone asked him didn’t he feel bad to have failed two thousand times to make a working filament for the light bulb. He responded “I did not fail two thousand times. I merely found two thousand ways not to make a light bulb.”

It occurs to me that the word “need” for the central principle of NVC encourages scarcity thinking, in that “need” has the connotation of “don’t have”, or “lack”. My impression is that Marshall’s concept is quite the opposite meaning, as in a “fullness”, “richness”, or “blessing”.

Here is a suggestion for how to help shift from lack to fullness in your collaborative conversations. Instead of saying “that doesn’t meet my need for X”, try out one of the following.

  • “I can see how that would meet your need for X. I’d also like your help in working out how to also meet my need for Y.”
  • “I’d like to meet my need for Y by doing [name conflicting strategy]. Would you be willing to collaborate with me on finding other ways to meet your need for X?”

Please let me know what you learn from this experiment. And, as always, I’d love to hear what my post stirs up for you.

June 29th, 2007

Using the name “Nonviolent Communication”

On a mailing list I joined, people brought up their discomfort about using or about not using the term “Nonviolent Communication” (or “NVC”) in their workshop title, as requested by CNVC. I’m writing this blog post in response, so that anyone can read it and participate in a conversation.

The request about not using “NVC” is just a request, right? I’ve pondered this request at length and concluded that (a) I don’t hear an underlying need (despite some pseudo-need language on the site and expressed in person), and (b) clear expression/understanding is better served by my using the term “NVC”, since it clearly conveys what I teach. And I know that whatever the underlying needs are, they can be met with strategies that don’t interfere with my clear expression (and contribution) and my students’ clear understanding (and improved lives). So I decline CNVC’s request, and I use the term freely. If folks in CNVC want to engage in a giraffe dance with me (aimed at connection and meeting all needs fully), I’d be delighted, and I think the organization and I would both benefit.

I have heard the claim that people who hear that someone teaches “NVC” (or “is an NVC trainer”, to use static/to-be language) will assume that the person is certified by CNVC. I don’t believe that claim at all. If I tell you I’m playing Beethoven, would you assume I’m certified by Ludwig van himself, or by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra? Of course not. Certification is just certification. Certification is not NVC. People won’t confuse the two unless their cultural context encourages that confusion. I choose to contribute to clarity, not participate in confusion.

As NVC practitioners, we know that granting a request quickly can result in missing opportunities — opportunities for deep connection at the needs level and consequently meeting needs more effectively than the original request would accomplish. I want to see a deep re-examination and open (to all) dialog about the needs behind CNVC’s strategies of certification and of not using “NVC” in a workshop title. If there were such a re-examination, I’m guessing the beginning would contain familiar old statements like “integrity of the NVC process” or “respect for the copyright”. Given words like “integrity” and “respect”, such statements can be confused with needs, and I imagine a lot of learning and depth would come from dispelling those confusions and going deeper.

Maybe you’ll connect with what I’ve said above, and maybe not. In either case, here’s another angle on the issue — one of my favorite quotes, straight from Marshall’s mouth:

Please do as I requested, only — only if you can do so with the joy of a little child feeding a hungry duck.
Please do not do as I request if there is any taint of fear of punishment if you don’t.
Please do not do as I request to buy my love, that, is hoping that I will love you more if you do.
Please do not do as I request if you will feel guilty if you don’t.
Please do not do as I request if you will feel shameful.
And certainly do not do as I request out of any sense of duty or obligation.

I’d love to hear what’s touched in you in reading this post. If you’re willing to share your response as a comment in this blog post, that’s my preference. If you’d like a more private conversation, you can email me directly.

April 29th, 2007

Trust vs “Trust that …”

I’m reading Alan Watts’s book “The Wisdom of Insecurity” (1951). The following passage touches the heart of what I wanted to get at in my post “Trust that …”

We must here make a clear distinction belief and faith, because, in general practice, belief has come to mean a state of mind which is almost the opposite of faith. Belief, as I use the word here, is the insistence that the truth is what one would “lief” or wish it to be. The believer will open his mind to the truth on condition that it fits with his preconceived ideas and wishes. Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go.

What Watts calls “faith”, one might also call “Trust”, and what he calls “belief”, one might call “trust that …”. In this sense, “Trust” does not depend on someone acting a certain way and so is re-aligned with what we call “needs” in NVC.

March 6th, 2007

Distinguishing needs from vague demands

I often hear from NVC folks (including externally certified trainers) phrases of the form “That doesn’t meet my need for XYZ”, where XYZ might be “respect”, (emotional) “safety”, “honesty”, “integrity”, “mutuality”, “autonomy”, “appreciation”, “consideration”, “accountability”, “trust”, “being valued”, etc. Occasionally the needs might even be “learning”, “connection”, “order”. Most of the time, especially with the former list of “needs”, I do not believe the speaker is really connected with her or his needs and speaking from needs consciousness (in the NVC sense). Instead of needs, I hear vague demands.

The energy of an NVC expression of need differs fundamentally from that of demand. With demand, the statement is directed at another person. For instance, “That doesn’t meet my need for respect” directed with anger at another person, as if the other person should be meeting that need for the speaker. Or directed in fear, as if the other person is in any way necessary for the fulfillment of the need. In contrast, when I connect deeply with my need, I know that the need can be met in an infinite number of ways. With that understanding, I release any illusion of dependence on another person’s actions.

It is possible that a statement like “That doesn’t meet my need for XYZ” is simply an inner observation, with no blame, demand, or expectation. In that case, the speaker’s energy (conveyed in voice tone, facial expression, and body language) would be quite different.

Here’s a simple test to distinguish an inner observation from a “vague demand”. Follow the phrase “That doesn’t meet my need for XYZ” with the phrase “… and I’m totally fine with meeting that need in other ways.” See if this combination rings true and has a sense of spaciousness around ways to get the need met and peaceful acceptance of the other person’s action. Otherwise, dig deeper for the need until the other person and his/her actions play no role, and try the test again.

Why did I give two lists of “need” words above? Because I almost always hear the words in the first list as vague demands rather than needs. I’ve heard the term “extrinsic needs” vs “intrinsic needs” for the distinction I’m describing. I prefer the descriptiveness of “vague demand”, reserving the word “need” for the NVC sense of universal needs, unattached to any strategy (person or action). As with “vague requests”, the listener doesn’t know what actions could help meet the need, and as with “demands”, the listener is unlikely to feel inspired to want to help.

March 2nd, 2007

Why I care about being and doing

I’m fascinated and very excited about sociocracy, having participated in a weekend workshop led by John Buck (assisted by Mitch & Osa). John stayed at my house for the weekend, and we clicked deeply and had long animated talks of mutual interest, including the discovery that both of us develop and teach “empty tools” with beautiful, powerful underlying theories. In addition to NVC, I do research in computer science, especially in language design, and with a focus on issues of “being” vs “doing”. (Here are some visual examples. More info and a publication list link on my home page). In listening to John in the workshop, I lit up, noticing how the spirit, intention, and logic of sociocracy brings my two chief interests together.

I joined a sociocracy e-group recently to get some help in understanding about where our group’s recent steps in sociocracy implementation match the understandings and practices of folks more steeped in sociocracy theory & practice. I shared my questions in Trouble at the beginning. Sharon V’s responses to that those questions have already been very helpful to our (NVC) organization

Next, I noticed my inner dissonance around language use, as described in Getting past labels and more clearly in Being and doing in the language of sociocracy. Much of my computer science research is focused on the question of being-vs-doing. That same distinction is a very important tool in NVC, but with an opposite emphasis. And again in Buddhism and meditation. Now I’m tuning into the sociocracy again, and I notice this apparent contradiction of using words that say what people are when trying to describe what they do. So I’m fascinated with the question of what’s going on here. What is by conscious choice and what is unconscious habit?

I want to shed light for me and stimulate curiosity and collaborative exploration. My desire is to participate in the evolution of both NVC and sociocracy and a deep synthesis of them. My hunch is that the style of language & logic design research that I’ve been doing for the last 20 years could make a valuable contribution to the theory and practice of sociocracy. Besides live & teach NVC, what I do well is create languages of being where others typically choose doing, and then demonstrate how the being-oriented (“declarative”) languages have much stronger compositional properties than the traditional doing-oriented (“imperative”) languages. It struck me (pow!) only a few days ago that the benefits of compositionality for software creation very well might translate into the realm of collectives that have vision, mission, and aim. In software, compositionality is crucial in maintaining clarity and simplicity and correctness (behavior meeting specification), while scaling up. Languages and designs that have weak compositionality (particularly, traditional doing-oriented languages & designs) tend to have lots of bugs and performance problems. I’m guessing that something similar is true for human organizations.

At first, in writing Being and doing in the language of sociocracy, I was seeing the two options of “people are” (Facilitator) and “people do” (facilitating). Then it occurred to me that “functions are” (facilitation) is a third option. My guess is that this third option is the most powerful place to reason, speak and compose, in the arena of life that sociocracy addresses. If I hadn’t written the “Being & doing” post, I don’t know if & when that piece would have clicked into place.

Now I imagine taking the deeply life-centered values of NVC consciousness, and all I’m learning about evolving its theory & practice to fulfill those values more deeply and consistently, and bringing that consciousness and skill into the wisdom, logic, and methodology of sociocracy, and I about burst with inspiration.

March 1st, 2007

Examining and evolving sociocracy

The post Being and doing in the language of sociocracy contains a note I sent to a sociocracy yahoo group. The moderator did not allow that note to appear, saying

The purpose of the list is to learn how to apply sociocracy. I don’t see in your messages any interest in doing that.

and later

The direction of your comments on language I find unhelpful and off topic. You posted them once and no one commented. I suggest you let the issue die there. Your second post does not add anything.

So, I am now looking for a forum of people interested in examining and evolving the theory and practice of sociocracy, rather than just how to apply the current state of understanding. If you know of any such forum, please let me know.

March 1st, 2007

Being and doing in the language of sociocracy

Here is a note I sent to a sociocracy yahoo group (and blocked from appearing there). It’s a follow-on to the post Getting past labels.

I experience an inner dissonance when I compare the sociocracy’s intentions with its language. If I understand Sharon below, sociocracy aims at clarifying what people agree to do (“roles and functions”) rather than what they are (identity/status). In contrast, in English at least, the language of sociocracy labels people rather than activities, i.e. it says “Nancy is the Facilitator” (or “Bookkeeper”), rather than “Nancy facilitates ” (or “keeps books”), or “Nancy’s role is facilitation” (or “bookkeeping”). Moreover, I notice the habit of capitalizing the people-labels, which I further interpret via my English-language lens as giving weight & importance to the people label. In English, I think capitalization is used mainly for identity. Given that English is not the native language of sociocracy, I wonder if perhaps the people-labeling and capitalization are accidental or intentional. In talking about people and actions, here are three choices. (Are there more?)

  • Say what someone is: “Nancy is the Facilitator” .
  • Say what someone does: “Nancy facilitates” (or “keeps meetings on track”).
  • Say what a role/function is: “Facilitation consists of task focus and participation monitoring”.

I think of these choices as (respectively)

  • language of being for people,
  • language of doing for people,
  • language of being for functions

I would expect that sociocracy would want the second and third choice rather than the first one.Why do I care about this language issue? Because at odds with the intention of sociocracy (and NVC) are strong ego (identity/status) habits. I want to support putting the intentions into effective practice by undermining the old habits and nurturing new ones, via some awareness and verbal skills. Since language influences thinking so profoundly, I like to consciously align language with intention as well as possible. The language shift I’m suggesting aligns better for me than what I’ve been hearing (including in Sharon’s note below).


February 28th, 2007

Why I care about NVC organizations

Some reflections on why I care whether psncc/nwcompass (and cnvc) adopt a more expansive and inclusive orientation and let go of “quality-control” measures like certification.

I want to support the living & sharing of NVC Consciousness much more than any particular form/process. The “sacred place” rather than the “raft”. (That’s what I teach & coach, and I am applying and co-evolving tools & principles from the NVC theory & process to do that. I’m confident Marshall would be delighted, though I’m not sure about others.) I also want to contribute to the spread of this consciousness and skills to support it in a way that is more effective and more harmonious with that consciousness than I see the current top-down quality-control strategies being. And I want all trainers to have support through the valuable communication resources (web site, & mailing list) that psncc/nwcompass has accumulated, whether those trainers are certified externally or internally to be ready to train. And I want there to be a community of mutual learning among these trainers, in which each of us experiences others’ trainings, learns and offers feedback and interaction about the feedback. If we did that, I believe the worries about “quality” (whatever that could mean) would simply disappear. If the feedback were held a mutual conversation rather than an evaluation, we’d all learn.

I re-read the psncc vision/mission statement, and I really do not know whether the mission was written with intent to embrace evaluative quality-control. I also don’t know whether the mission was intended to embrace the continuing evolution of understandings and methods for supporting living in the Sacred Place. I really do want to know. Perhaps the answers are yes to quality control and no to evolution, which would help explain why I’ve been so uncomfortable in the group. I wrote a bit more detail in Missions, cats and rafts. I know that my heart is with the Sacred Place, and I trust Life’s billion-year-old model of evolution and peer-level feedback (see Emergence).

February 26th, 2007

Missions, cats and rafts

Here is our NVC group’s vision and mission statement:

Northwest Compassionate Communication is a regional non-profit association of people who envision a world in which all needs are met compassionately. Our mission is to contribute to this vision by living and teaching the process of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), which strengthens the ability of people to connect resolve conflicts.

One thing I read in this statement is “teaching the process of NVC”. In that statement I can see a basis for “quality control” (standards, certification etc) as a strategy to make sure it’s really the NVC process that gets taught and to make it clear to all who is teaching the “real thing”, as opposed to things, such as astrology, crystals, or NVC consciousness. (Note that “quality” and “control” are very counter-NVC notions).

The Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC) has its own statement. In discussing CNVC’s goals of certification,

One is to ensure that the next generation and succeeding generations are taught NVC in a way that preserves and protects the integrity of the NVC process.

Personally, I do not believe in the existence of “the NVC process” as a static thing. Rather I see the process as itself being in process, with Marshall giving most of the evolution and now some others of us joining along. Something I do not see in this mission statement is evolving the NVC process, so that it more and more fully supports NVC Consciousness. I don’t know whether more than a very few of us in this area are really interested in doing that. If the mission statement referred to “NVC Consciousness” instead of “the NVC process”, maybe we’d be playing a different game.

I notice myself at times getting swept into an old argument habit. Then I’m looking for ways to prove I’m right, to win the debate, and get the prize. When I look at that, what I really want instead is clarity & openness. I want simply to express what game I’m interested in playing in ways others can understand, listen to them express the games they want to play, and see whether there’s a big enough overlap so that we’ll both enjoy playing together. As Miguel Ruiz says in “Mastery of Love”

Let’s imagine that you get a dog and you love cats. You want your dog to behave like a cat, and you try to change the dog because it never says, “Meow.” What are you doing with a dog? Get a cat!

So, maybe what I really want to revisit the mission statement and see who really does want a static NVC process and who wants an evolving one. (See Emergence of NVC.)

I’ll end with a quote from Marshall Rosenberg, taken from this dialog:

Q: What are some frequent mistakes you and others make when trying to use the NVC process?

MBR: One more mistake we make–especially when we’re new to the NVC process–is to think that the Nonviolent Communication process is the goal. I’ve altered a Buddhist parable that relates to this issue. Imagine a beautiful, whole, and sacred place. And imagine that you could really know God when you are in that place. But let’s say that there is a river between you and that place and you’d like to get to that place but you’ve got to get over this river to do it. So you get a raft, and this raft is a real handy tool to get you over the river. Once you’re across the river you can walk the rest of the several miles to this beautiful place. But the Buddhist parable ends by saying that, “One is a fool who continues on to the sacred place carrying the raft on their back.”

Nonviolent Communication is a tool to get me over my cultural training so I can get to the place. It’s not the place itself. If we get addicted to the raft, attached to the raft, it makes it harder to get to the place. People just learning the process of Nonviolent Communication sometimes forget all about the place. If they get too locked into the raft, the process becomes mechanical.

The Nonviolent Communication process is one of the most powerful tools that I’ve found for connecting with people in a way that helps me get to the place where we are connected to the Divine, where what we do toward one another comes out of Divine Energy. That’s the place I want to get to.

February 25th, 2007

Getting past labels

This post is based on a note I sent to the sociocracy Yahoo group. I’m editing and reposting here for wider access.

Someone asked the following question:

NVC conveys the message that putting labels on people is not helpful for a connection on the level of needs.
I somehow have the impression that in a sociocratic organization it is necessary to put labels on people in order to build a structure.
I am a certified trainer.
I am in certification process
I am a volunteer
I am a member of …

Is it really necessary to look at what people ARE instead of what they are feeling and needing in the moment?

I love this question, as I am also concerned about old thinking habits.

I do not see any benefit in using labels in sociocratic groups. On the contrary, I expect our thinking and communicating is more clear when we talk about what we do rather than what we are. We could experiment with this theory by trying it out on some examples in a sociocratic context.

I prefer action language and relationship language over identity & status language, so I like NVC. Sometimes a label can serve as a clear short-hand for action or relationship, but given our cultural programming, identity and status creep in out of unconscious habit. For instance, in our NVC group, some of us use the word “trainer” to mean simply somebody who trains (short-hand for an action). Others use it to mean someone who has gone through an external approval process, and I interpret their use as being about identity & status, and perhaps a bit about relationship. Of the latter group, some of them mean one approval process and some of them mean another. See Comments on the word “trainer” for more about this topic.

In a sociocratic circle, we may agree to (temporary) “roles”. It is easy to fall into the habit of using people-nouns like “Bookkeeper”, “Secretary”, or “Facilitator” for these roles. Doing so can trick us back into using static identity & status language. I prefer labeling the tasks (actions) rather than the person. For example, in English, I would say “facilitating” (or “facilitation”) instead of “facilitator”, “bookkeeping” instead of “bookkeeper”, and “training” instead of “trainer”.

One of the lessons I get from Eckhart Toelle is that identities feed ego / separation. If I get a sense of personal importance out of a label, then my ego is being fed, and I would expect the group’s creative flow and accomplishment to be harmed. If I say I am “Chairperson”, “Trainer”, or “Secretary”, I am much more likely to get confused and think I’m talking about what I am. Then my ego gets interested, so I start taking things personally, and the group suffers. If I say “facilitation”, “training”, or “handling notes”, I am more likely to remember that what I (temporarily) do is not what I am, which is less interesting to my ego.

Some people defend people-labels as making our communication more concise and efficient. On the contrary, I find action language able to be consistently clearer and at least as concise. I also find it more difficult to get there sometimes, and I believe my difficulty is temporary and entirely due to my old habits and having heard labeling all of my life. Every time I make the effort to shift to clear & concise action language, I enjoy the result. And the practice makes it easier for me to speak what I really believe.

February 24th, 2007

Clear aims

I asked two specific questions on the sociocracy Yahoo group, regarding Trouble at the beginning. First,

Q: Does a circle define criteria for who in an organization is welcome to participate (and thus be heard) and who is not? Or instead, do people self-select, based on whether they embrace the circle’s aim? If the former, wouldn’t the circle fail to meet needs, simply by excluding those who would object to policies that don’t support them.

A: In volunteer organizations or cohousing, where a choice excludes people who are already members of the organization, this is a crucial question. In cohousing, self-selection is the rule.

A: The larger organization should have membership criteria and an aim.
Then when the larger organization creates two circles, it should assign aims and the aims would, in part, determine the membership criteria.


Q: Does a circle define its aim, or does an aim define a circle? (Which comes first?)

A: The aim is defined by the “higher” circle when the “lower” circle is formed. The aim defines the circle.

What I’m getting as the most important piece is that defining aim is fundamental at all levels, and are to be decided by a higher circle in forming a lower circle, rather than by the lower circle itself. Any decisions & actions (norming & performing) that happen without crystal clear aims are bound to generate confusion & disagreement rather than harmony & progress. I guess that’s where we are.

My recommendation is that we say “oops” and take a few steps back to get on track with sociocracy. Specifically, I’d like to see a clear aim for the overall organization and then clear aims for one or more circles.

My hunch is that different people interested in the “Training Circle” have different aims in mind. By clarifying these different aims, I expect that at least two circles will arise rather than one, and those circles will operate more efficiently than one multi-aimed circle, in which different members are focused on different aims. Maybe one circle will address emergence/evolution or supporting those who share NVC, while another addresses “quality” control (“preserving the integrity of the NVC process”). I expect these two circles to have contradictory wishes about accessibility of the organization’s web site and mailing list.

How would we resolve potential strategy conflicts between “evolution” (or “support”) and “preservation” circles? Perhaps through clarity of aim of the higher circle, which is the top circle in our case. What is our organization’s aim? Does it embrace evolution & preservation, or do we want to split it into two different organizations?

February 23rd, 2007

Some comments on the word “trainer”

For as long as I’ve been actively involved with NVC organizations (particularly our local one), I’ve had confusion and deep discomfort around use of the word “trainer”. There’s a strong dissonance between what I understand people to mean and what I understand of NVC consciousness & theory. I have two objections to the uses I’ve been hearing.

  • The word “trainer” is a label. I’d rather practice what I believe and teach about labeling. And when I run into difficulty expressing myself clearly & succinctly without labels, I’d rather go through the effort of retraining myself into new habits than reinforcing old ones. I made this effort with the Emergence vision. It was hard for me and well worthwhile. (I don’t like compromise.) Not only did I get the practice (and it gets easier every time), but I believe the document came out more clearly and concisely as a result. The reason I care about other NVC folks’ use of labeling is that I long for community support in deepening, integrating, and strengthening the new consciousness and habits. It’s easier for me to speak Jackal because I grew up with it, but not because Jackal is a more fitting language for what I want to communicate. With practice, Giraffe is becoming easier & easier. Statements like “it’s easier to label” (or clearer, more succinct, etc), “compromise is necessary”, or “violence is inevitable to resolve conflicts”, are self-fulfilling prophecies. More precise and life-connected would be “I have a habit of labeling, so I can do it with little conscious effort”.
  • I hear some (not all) NVC folks (included both labeled-in and labeled-out) consistently use the word “trainer” not in the simple & direct sense of the word as “one who trains”, but rather in an indirect sense of someone who is approved by others to train. Despite what I said above, I’m relatively comfortable with the direct usage of the word, as I hear it to be simply shorthand for saying what what a person does. I strongly dislike the implicit approval usage, because (a) it eliminates a simple word for a meaning I care a lot about, namely one who trains, and (b) it disguises the fact that external approval is involved. I’m highly suspicious of unconscious habits in relation to external approval systems, so I want language use to be very explicit in such a case, as support for us to live in partnership consciousness rather than domination.

I understand the implicit-approval usage of “trainer” as being in direct conflict with a deep teaching of Marshall’s. He shifts labeling language to relationship language, such as reflecting “That’s a terrible picture” into “Oh, you don’t like the picture?” I’ve heard him call that principle “Never let somebody in authority tell you what you are”. (For instance, “you’re a trainer”.) Marshall’s reframe counteracts the basic Amtsprache trick of using language that obscures personal connection and responsibility. As I understand Marshall’s teaching, applying or withholding the label “trainer” but really meaning approved-by-someone trainer is telling them what they are. I’d rather hear an observation or a feeling or a need. A more life-connected alternative might be “I trust that person to present NVC in a way I agree with.” Do you feel a difference?

Even saying “certified trainer” is still Jackal-speak in my understanding, in that it (a) labels what someone is rather than what they do, and (b) replaces a conscious & visible labeler (an NVC organization or assessor) with a statement of what someone is, by virtue of unspoken authority. The label and doesn’t say certified by whom. (For example, I’m certainly certified by myself and my students.) A clear observation would be “I heard that CNVC certified Suzy”. Still — yuck; I’d rather just remove my personal energy from the whole external approval mindset and focus on support, learning, evolution, and community.

I’ve wanted to raise awareness and promote change about these issues around in our local NVC organization. My first attempt was to model different word choices, avoiding the word “trainer” altogether, even in its relatively direct meaning of one who trains. I’m discouraged about this approach. Now I wonder if a more effective strategy to get the language shift I’m wanting is to simply use the word the way I want to use it (the direct & conventional English meaning of one who trains, i.e., do rather than be) and allow cognitive dissonance in others to help from there.

I have a request and an offer. The request is to let me know whether any of the above resonates with and inspires you and if you would like to join me in community around using practicing label-free, clear & succinct communication. Given my experience and interest, my offer is to work with you to eliminate labeling from your own communications while improving clarity & conciseness. My needs-payoff includes community, play, learning, and integrity (living what I believe).

February 23rd, 2007

Trouble at the beginning

Last spring our local NVC group ventured into sociocracy. At a group retreat, the group made some specific decisions in how to move forward. (I had other plans and missed this meeting.) Through a number of email messages and conversations, I’ve come to believe that the group’s implementation of sociocracy is proceeding in ways fundamentally at odds with the intentions of sociocracy, in hearing and addressing the needs of everyone affected by created policies. In this note I want to lay out some of my current understanding of what’s happening and to look for how to get the process back on track. In particular, I want to develop more clarity about how I might most helpfully contribute. Here’s a partial description of what has happened, as I currently understand.

  • The group decided to disband the existing “core team” and to create two new sociocratic circles, called the “Training Circle” and “Compassion University”.
  • It was agreed that the new circles would define their own aim.
  • It was agreed that “Each circle will create membership criteria to be presented to the GC [General Circle] for consent that they are congruent with the aims of the organization.”
  • A first phone meeting was called privately for a limited group of people, coinciding with the old “trainers” group (including only trainers approved by the local or global NVC organization and excluding other trainers and other group members), plus Sandy, our executive director.
  • An early agenda item called “sociocratic consent Sandy member of TC” had the description “as I understand the agreements from GC: Sandy can choose to be part of any circle, given the circle gives consent”.
  • The next agenda was called “NCC affiliated trainers”, described as “Discussion on if and what are criteria to join training circle.”
  • The meeting did take place, involved paramount objections from Sandy, and left most or all agenda items unresolved and raised some upset.
  • An invitation, this time public, was issued for others to join the next meeting.

As I’ve reflected over reports of what was said and agreed to at the retreat and the phone call, I notice some things don’t make sense to me. I offer these puzzlements up for discussion, as a starting point for helping us better understand our intentions and how to support them consistently.

  • I don’t understand what it could mean to say that a circle creates its own membership criteria. After all, a circle’s decisions are made by its members. Who is there to decide on membership criteria before such criteria exist? In this case, as far as I know, some people (the formerly-approved “trainers”) were spared the consent process.
  • Similarly, I don’t understand how a circle can choose its own aim. How can a circle exist without an aim? I don’t understand how one could decide whether to form and/or join a group without having the aim defined first.
  • I don’t understand how a circle can define exclusion criteria while staying with the intent of sociocracy. I understand the purpose of sociocracy as being a way to make sure all needs (related to a given aim) get addressed and supported as well as possible, even the needs held by a minority. Now imagine a circle that is allowed to both (a) have power (e.g., who gets promoted on the group web site and who doesn’t), and (b) exclude some people who embrace the group’s aim (e.g., supporting those who share NVC). I don’t understand how exclusion can have any effect but to defeat the effective, sociocratic approach to fulfilling the aim.

I suggest the following solution to these quandaries:

  • Anyone can define an aim and propose creation of a circle. (Aim first, then circle.)
  • If such a circle forms, then everyone who says s/he embraces the aim is invited to participate in the circle. (No membership criteria to be defined by a circle that doesn’t yet exist.)

I’d like some feedback about how this solution fits with successful sociocratic experience.

The title of this post comes from the name of an I Ching hexagram (also called “difficulty at the beginning”).

Trouble at the beginning

I love the discussion here (in the section called “Trouble at the beginning”) as it relates to our group’s transition and learning process.

February 23rd, 2007

Promises, predictions, and wishes

Sometimes people practicing (even teaching) NVC say things like “I want you to do xyz from now on”, or “I want you not to do xyz again”. Or they may cloud the issue even further by saying something like “I want to trust that you won’t do xyz again”. (See “Trust that”.) Marshall generally recommends making requests present, positive, specific, and doable. So do I. The whole idea of a future request or commitment is at odds with spontaneous, living Choice. I don’t know whether many NVC folks get that. I’ve watched Kelly Bryson handle a future request in a group, and he certainly gets it. If I say yes to a future request, then am I duty-bound to do it and wrong to make a different choice?

One response to “I want you to xyz from now on” (or “I want to trust that …”) is simply “Oh”. It’s not really a need or a request, but rather what Marshall calls a “wish”, so I probably don’t want to respond as if it were a request and feed the speaker’s or group’s confusion. If I’m in an empathic space, I might try to tune in through the wish and guess at a present feeling or need. Or if I’m more interested in getting the exchange unstuck, I might ask “And what is it you would like from me right now?”. I’ve watched Marshall do that when someone is consuming group attention without getting to a request. Usually the person doesn’t know, and then I might say “I’d like to move on then, and I invite you to make a request later when you figure out what it is.” Or in the “trust that” example, the person might make the request for the future. In that case, I like the response “Right now I cannot predict what will be my best choice in the future, so I don’t see how I could honestly do as you ask”.

I like to hear all promises as predictions, and since predictions are iffy so are promises. A more useful request would be “Please let me know now if you can foresee any reason to do xyz again in the future”. Another is “Please let me know what your intention is right now about doing xyz again in the future”. And the answer might be “Right now I have no intention one way or the other. My choice will depend on circumstances.”

February 22nd, 2007

“Trust that …”

I usually don’t buy “trust” as a need. One clue is that I usually hear “trust” followed by “that”, which certainly gets into strategy-land. For instance, “I want/need to trust that you’ll hear and value my needs.” Trust doesn’t fit for me for several reasons.

  • My trusting is entirely up to me.
  • “Trusting that” may be a poor choice, i.e., out of sync with reality.
  • I hear “trust that” as NVC-speak (not NVC-heart) for an attempt to get a static guarantee (nail down the future) and thus go against living, spontaneous Choice.
  • I suspect that every question of “trust-that” can be laid to rest with a single generic answer:

    You can trust that I will XYZ, exactly when doing so is the best way I see to get my needs met at the time.

  • A living alternative to “I want to trust-that you will XYZ” could be “I want to collaborate in exploring how you choosing to XYZ will meet your needs.”

Afterthought on February 26: I’m guessing that “I want to trust that you will XYZ” generally means “I want you to XYZ”, where XYZ is a “wish” rather than a request. See Promises, predictions, and wishes.