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?


5 Responses to “Beyond rules and guidelines”

  1. Emma McCreary Says:


    So one thought I have is if you think of a game – there are “rules”, because everyone wants to be playing the same game. The difference is there is agreement – everybody says at the beginning “yes, I want to play that game with those rules”. There are times when I’ve agreed to rules that I would never normally agree to because I recognized that if I wanted to play the game, the game came with those rules. And the rules did inform the game, they were purposeful. The created a container within which to play. Without them, there would be no game. And I enjoyed the game, so I agreed to the rules, without resentment or anything.

    So, there is something about consent and choice that goes into it.

    If you don’t have any guidelines, you don’t meet needs for order and structure and predictability. If one person makes all the rules, you don’t meet needs for autonomy and whatever needs weren’t thought of by that one person. So I don’t want to throw out the whole idea of rules. But I want to change how we think of rules. How we interact with them.

    One thing I notice in our culture is that we are taught to be passive. A person suggest a rule, and we follow along. That was my first response to the “Don’t use the NVC word” guideline on CNVC’s site. I thought “That’s dumb”, but I didn’t even consider really to not do it. Because from my cultural training, that’s rebellion. It’s not creative. It’s silly, immature, lots of things that domination culture says about people who don’t follow rules. But you reframed it for me.

    So changing this pattern means we have to get ourselves out of the submit/argue/withdraw options and act in a new way: active participation. I see the willingness to participate, to dialog, to get involved and get messy with each other as something we can all learn, practice, and promote that will make alternative-to-rules culture work and grow.

    Right now I’m unlearning perfectionism and learning to jump in, mess up, make mistakes, step on people’s toes accidentally so we can have a conversation about where their toes are and where my foot is. Unlearning passivity.


  2. conal Says:

    Hi Emma :)

    Thanks for the game-playing perspective and chiming in in defense of rules of play. I like your distinction between active and passive relationship to rules.

    I’m a little alarmed with:

    I recognized that if I wanted to play the game, the game came with those rules.

    I guess I imagine an unspoken belief that if there are rules in place when I arrive then I don’t get to participate in their evolution, perhaps in some long-awaited change.

    One of my heroes is my daughter Charlotte, who cheats at games regularly. If I haven’t played with her for a while, I’ll forget what a naughty cheating fiend she is. I’ll foolishly assume she’s leaving the written and assumed rules unchallenged, as I and other nice people do. Or when I remember, then part of the game for me becomes keeping a sharp eye on her and trying to catch her in the act. Meanwhile, I’m inspired to cheat as well and not get caught, which helps me break out of my limiting self-image and assumptions. And we have a great laugh!

    Progress — evolution — depends on breaking rules. Put more mildly, Adlai E. Stevenson said

    All progress has resulted from people who took unpopular positions.

    I think you & I are on the same page: “active participation”, rather than the old “submit/argue/withdraw options”.

    Like you, I also enjoy a set of rules that I consciously choose and see value in, to define a space in which to create. For instance, I love Twitter’s 140 character limit, or a conference proceedings’ 12 page limit, or Marshall’s limits of 40 words to convey OFNR and only five words about the past. I love math and severely pure programming paradigms. And I love creating new rules when I want to play elsewhere.

    Best wishes with the toe stepping & resulting connections!


  3. thurid umbach Says:

    Dear all,
    when I read the article beyond rules and guidelines, what hit me most was the idea of missing out the points of possible change by avoiding clashes of rules or people, when trying to regulate any “game” in advance. I loved the idea that the moments of disagreement and discussion are the creative ones, the ones where we might open our hearts and listen to what they have to tell us and others about what we need NOW ( and not at some point in the future or the past). I think Emma’s wonderful image of stepping on each other’s toes in order to find out about other people’s and our own feet goes in a similar direction. Thank you!
    What I believe is a major problem with rules altogether, although they might be quite helpful once you know them: Rules have the power to make people afraid – afraid of not being able to know, understand or follow them. And fright is quite a powerful weapon against any kind of playful creativity. Once you allow to question those rules, you will find that it opens a field of exciting interaction and contact with those around you. How often do we sacrifice this opportunity for the sake of what we sometimes call efficiency?

    by the way: what does “woot” mean? My knowledge of the English language deserted me at that point ;-)

  4. Ged Says:

    I have been thinking about this post (the origional one).
    It seems to me that someone is trying to set up rules, in order to serve life/meet needs.
    This litigious strategy instantly stimulated an uneasy feeling in me.

    I thought;
    “Well we are NVC people, we dont need rules because we have the ability to voice what is alive in us in a non-violent way… rules or laws are outdated/redundant for us”

    There is no way of knowing exactly what gets stimulated in others, but if we can voice what is alive in us then we can connect and play in a fun way.

    It seems that the litigious spirit or the use of rules is needed in a group of people who do not/can not connect with each other, therefore to gauge whether actions are meeting needs instead of connecting with others one connects with his thoughts and beliefs (morals/ethics) or his law book (rules/laws).

    Not only does this not meet the need for connection and growth but the disconnection would (and does) result in people acting in ways that cause harm to others as they dont get the feedback required to trigger the need to help/enrich life (and thus not harm others.)
    Also it opens people up to maipulation by the law-makers.
    And is usually enforced by a retributive justice system (punishing those who break the laws.)

    Such things of cause are required in a dominative system. Think “devide and conquer”.

    One alternative to this would be of cause “facilitate connection”.


  5. Sarah Peyton Says:

    Hi, Conal and everyone –

    I’m inspired to write by the convergence of some experiences and thoughts I’ve been having lately and the written phrase, “Deal with stuff as it comes up instead expecting to control it in advance.”

    I volunteer once a week teaching the convergence of relationship and language (ipnb and nvc) at a women’s prison and one of the things that I hold myself with a lot of self-empathy around is the issue of side conversations while I’m making my offerings. (This is to say, my focus on either the person who is speaking or on the flow of my own speech shifts when there are side conversations, and then I need to give myself support around my desire for clarity and follow-through and ease and my longing to convey and share the beauty and healing potential of nvc.)

    There is a lot of right-wrong thinking about side conversations in the room – even the people who are doing it feel angry and express it if there are others doing it. Proposals are made, accepted, (and then disregarded in practice) that we have one person at a time speaking.

    This last week there was an ongoing murmur from two women sitting immediately to my right.

    I spoke about my own difficulty with focus, and said “and I don’t want to make anyone wrong. The folks who are speaking have needs, too. I’m guessing you have needs for connection, communication, understanding, meaning… What would you like to say about what’s going on for you?”

    It turned out that one of them had had an experience of sharing the visiting room with a woman who was in prison for child sex crimes – that she had been sitting in the visiting room watching this other woman watch her children and was overwhelmed with a need to protect, torn between the desire to take action and her long-term need to conform with the requests of the prison system (to act peaceably) so that she could get out as soon as possible to be with her children.

    This was not an easy situation for me, since the use of children as sexual objects knocks me out of the ball park and getting back to a calm, easy, inclusive and balanced place is a mighty journey. I also mourn for everyone in this story on so many levels, including myself.

    But my experience is less important than my point here – that we might say that side conversations are bad, but if I had given warnings and used power over, or more subtly used power over to stay with the strategy of focus that the majority of the group was asking for, then something incredibly important would not have been held at all. Other things were unspoken, the material I had intended to cover wasn’t covered, I had a hell of a time getting back to some sort of balance, it was in no way a “model class” in which everyone was heard and time was shared somewhat equally, but it was important, and nothing was glossed over.

    It’s not really comfortable, moving into this space – I feel awkward, out of balance, call myself “ineffective and incompetent,” beat myself up afterwards for not being able to figure out how to “hold space better,” and for falling so heavily into my own pain, and then the next week when over half of the class didn’t turn up, there’s the sense that folks are voting with their feet, and the vote is “no.” Simultaneously, the third session is usually when you get the huge fall-out in attendance, I was nominated as volunteer of the quarter at the prison (they have thousands of volunteers), and I consistently held space in my offerings in the world outside the prison where folks expressed gratitude and appreciation. So despite my own negative self-talk, things aren’t as bleak as they feel.

    Dang! It’s important to me, this concept of everyone’s needs mattering – which can be lived to some extent in the strategy of “Dealing with stuff as it comes up instead expecting to control it in advance.”

    I’d love to hear if this contributed, or generates any response in anyone reading –

    Best, Sarah Peyton

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