Nonviolent Communication (NVC)

In 2015, in a time of a lot of transition in my life, someone reflected back to me “you don’t seem to have much awareness of your feelings – i notice you tend to say you feel good or bad”. This simple statement sent me into a deep journey of reflection and reconnection that has radically changed how I experience myself and life, what work I want to do in the world, and onto a deep commitment to connection and nonviolence.

For me nonviolence is about noticing and welcoming all parts of myself, and of others, to the best of my capacity. I don’t always have the space or conditions or awareness to do it, and that too needs gentle recognition and acceptance.

I want to live in a world where all needs matter, where I care for other people’s needs and my own in the same breath, and look for strategies that will work for all, so we can all be free and well and thrive.

A key part of my journey has been finding Nonviolent Communication (NVC), developed by Marshall Rosenberg. His work builds on a legacy of nonviolence movements, the work of Gandhi and Martin Luther King and many more who see that prioritising the needs of some over others is violence, that nonviolence is not about ‘not being violent, but an active resistance to injustice, and an intention to see the humanity of all.

Part of Marshall’s gift was articulating that at the core of all of our actions are common human needs – that violence is a ‘tragic expression of unmet needs’. He shows how we experience pleasant feelings when our needs are met, and unpleasant feelings when our needs are unmet. We will find any strategy we can to get our needs met, especially when we are in pain (emotionally or physically), or not feeling safe. Often these strategies are found when we are young and we continue them as patterns in our lives, long after they serve us. Often we don’t even know what motivates our actions, it’s just what we do, how we are.

Much of our communication and thought patterns centre on these strategies rather than the feelings and needs underneath, and this is the root of many of our conflicts and inner struggles. When we can connect with our feelings and needs and those of others, we come back into connection and from there are more able to find strategies that work for all. We can also reconnect with our choice and autonomy, to make requests, to say no, and to go to mourning when our needs aren’t met rather than to blame.

This is a world beyond right and wrong, where we see our judgements are patterns of our mind that hide within them beautiful needs that want attention. NVC gives us a new understanding of our inner worlds, and tools to help us understand ourselves and communicate in way that is more likely to bring connection. Often it is understood as a language, a set of steps that can aid communication, but at the core is an intention to move towards a world where all needs matter, and to connect at a deeper level with ourselves and each other.

So what does this have to do with groups and social change?

I work in and alongside many different groups and organisations working for social change, and so often following the beautiful intention and common purpose of the groups is made difficult because of all the internal and inter-personal struggles that emerge. Especially with such urgency in our work, with the multiple crisis looming from climate change to racism to inequality and homelessness, we can feel as if there is not time for our own needs, and for listening to where others are struggling, that we have to push on.

I see the cost, in burnout and exhaustion, in conflicts and tension that goes unresolved, in people sensing they are being excluded and devalued, in ways of working that centre some needs over others. I see how groups try to care for each other, to include all needs, but don’t know how, and often miss each other. I feel sad when people leave movements or push themselves beyond what feels good, when it seems it’s ok to sacrifice some for the sake of the cause. I so value the vision of nonviolence and ‘Beloved Community’ – all needs matter, including our own.

And so, I am passionate about bringing this understanding, my energy and many of the brilliant tools out there to support groups. It might be explicitly NVC we want to bring in, to find easier ways to communicate what is going on and work out requests. It might be more about finding decision making tools that work for all and value outliers so that the needs of people who are often marginalised are included. It might look like exploring different ways to find solutions so that people who have more capacity in visual arts, metaphor, story telling, body sensing or movement can bring in all their insights alongside those whose strength is more in thinking and analysis. And it might be supporting conflict resilience – stepping towards conflict with care, setting up restorative systems or bringing in mediation or restorative circles.

Find out more

There are so many fantastic people out there developing the work Marshall started, and freely available resources to learn from. Below are links to some resources and some of the people I most enjoy learning from, and you can also find out about the nonviolent communication (nvc) work I do with others in and near Hebden Bridge through here.

If you are interested in how nvc can support your organisation, please get in touch.

Inclusive decisions with Convergent Facilitation

A challenge and opportunity that rises to the surface as we look for ways to create change together is how we can make decisions that work for all. In the effort to hear and value different perspectives and share power, there can be slow and painful processes to reach consensus that can feel frustrating and unworkable.

I feel really fortunate to have trained with Miki Kashtan on the process she has developed based on nonviolence principles called ‘Convergent Facilitation’, and have since used it with groups including GM Homelessness Action Network, and Extinction Rebellion UK.

The key difference with this way of coming to agreement is the hearing all of the needs, what matters to each person, and from there finding solutions that meet all these needs. A decision is made once all in the group have genuine willingness to go forwards (rather than seeking their ideal preferred option, or giving up on their needs to reach consensus).

(I learned an analogy for this process from Paul at Navigate that i like – making a list of ingredients and checking for allergies; coming up with recipes using all the ingredients; and then agreeing together on a recipe that really works for everyone – explained here.)

Phase 1: Finding criteria (listing ingredients and identifying allergies)

The first part of the process involves hearing from different perspectives what is important, what matters about this for different people, and finding a set of criteria that they all agree to. In this process, the criteria are called ‘noncontroversial essence‘ – detailed enough to contain the essence of what matters, broad enough that all in the group are willing to adopt the criteria. This alone builds trust and a sense of working together towards a common goal.

Phase 2: Creating proposals (developing possible recipes)

The next phase is a common mission for the group, to creatively explore ideas for meeting these criteria. Objections are invited in, seen as a gift to the group, a way to see another valuable perspective that was missing, the gold that makes what is agreed more likely to work.

Phase 3: Making a decision (choosing a recipe)

In this phase, we look for willingness from everyone in the group to adopt or adapt a proposal that works for all. We rate and analyse the proposals as a group, to find a good place to start, and then seek objections to see if there are criteria that are not met, and get suggestions from the group to improve it. This process continues until there is genuine willingness, or an alternative decision is reached.

In addition to building trust, and enabling groups to find a way forward through complexity, what i love about this process is how it gives people an experience of a different way of being together, to know that it is possible to find solutions that work for all, that it can be win-win. It also surprises me when i see that setting specific criteria actually invites more creativity and togetherness rather than constraining anything. Wrapped into all this is awareness of power and privilege, making sure everyone is empowered, that their needs and concerns are heard and valued.

Find out more

I would love to see more structures and organisations opening up to making decisions together, beyond consultation, to deeper collaboration, and I am curious to understand what the blockers are. Here’s one example from the GM homelessness network. If you are facing challenges around making decisions that work for all, feel free to get in touch.

A previous version of this article was posted on reconnect.works – our initiative to support collaboration, based in Hebden Bridge.