Is NVC Practical?

by Miki Kashtan

One of the most common critiques I hear of Nonviolent Communication is that it’s simply not practical. “It would be great if this can work,” the line often goes. “Too bad that in my (school, family, organization) we don’t have the luxury of taking all this time to do all this endless dialogue that it takes to get anywhere. No one would have the patience, anyway.”

I have my thoughts about why working things out for everyone’s benefit takes as long as it often does and how to shift out of those challenges. I plan to write about it in a blog post soon. For now, I want to highlight three areas in which I see the use of NVC as directly contributing to movement. So practical, in fact, that I sometimes wonder how anyone can get anything done without this support.

Resolving Inner Conflict
My experience of working with people in diverse situations over the years has shown me that more often than not our inner conflicts are equally if not more distressing to us than our outer conflicts. Inner conflicts take many forms. It can be a decision that we can’t make, a painful inner loop of self-criticism followed by impatience with ourselves for still criticizing ourselves, regret about something we did that we can’t seem to come to peace about, or a host of other equally familiar ones. Even our outer conflicts are often intertwined with our inner life, since our reaction to others is fundamentally more the expression of our own meaning-making than a direct result of anything the other person  does.

I have seen both myself and others reach fast and lasting relief, even from ongoing issues, by applying the core practice of NVC which makes everything else possible: being able to name and make full emotional contact with the needs that give rise to the various thoughts, images, inner demands, judgments, or even fears that we carry internally. When I was agonizing for weeks with the decision about whether or not to continue to lead the BayNVC Leadership Program, I went back and forth without much progress until I listened fully to all the different voices inside myself. Once all the needs were on the table, I was able to make a decision easily and gently in less than an hour. What makes this possible, in my experience, is overcoming any reluctance to listen seriously to what any part in me would want, which allows synergy and internal coherence to emerge.

Moving from Passion to Action
I have recently been working with a person, let’s name her Christine, who is profoundly passionate about a national policy she sees as the only solution to a critical problem she believes we are facing. She gives frequent talks about her work and more recently has begun meeting with some government employees. She was directed to me to solicit support in how to craft her message so it is less alienating.

One of the main pieces of feedback I gave her was that her talk lacks a clear focus on specific action. She provides ample evidence for why the issues she is working with are so crucial and paints a clear picture of what things would look like if her policy recommendation were adopted. She doesn’t give people concrete steps for action. The uncomfortable truth is that if she is not talking to the person who has the power to make the particular change she wants, her audience’s action cannot be the policy itself. They cannot enact it. That doesn’t mean they cannot do anything that would increase the likelihood of this change happening. Once she recognized that the actions would be different depending on who her audience is, she was able to name what she really wanted people to do to support her approach. I am now confident that her talks will be more effective in the most practical sense of the word, and she is wholehearted about trying it out.

Once again, this suggestion rests on a basic NVC practice of identifying a clear and specific action we want people to take whenever we communicate to others what matters to us. So many of us tend to say what we feel passionate about solely as statements. It’s no accident that I often speak of the request part of NVC as the power to create the life we want.

Running Meetings
Anyone who’s been in NVC communities for any length of time has no doubt experienced or heard about long, drawn-out group discussions that no one enjoys. I have been in such meetings, and still see them happening. That experience notwithstanding, I have also had the contrary experience, and am confident that applying certain key NVC principles consistently in a meeting yields cohesion, efficiency, and a high degree of collaboration in a group. This topic, in its fullness, is quite beyond the scope of a blog piece. In fact, I am dedicating four days this month to teaching people Confluent Facilitation, the name I gave to the NVC-based decision-making process I have created. I am hoping for many people to join, as this is a rare and unique opportunity to learn this. For now, I want to highlight a few of the key NVC principles that allow collaboration to flow efficiently in a meeting. The “how” of these principles is what would go beyond a blog post:

Naming a Shared Purpose: just as much as knowing our needs as individuals supports our ability to make life work, naming a shared purpose that brought us together for this meeting supports all of us in prioritizing our own individual wishes within that framework.

Distinguishing between Strategies and Needs:
just as much as internally or between us we often get stuck in conflicts around strategies and can resolve the conflict once needs have been named and owned, the same is true in a group. When we are able to identify the underlying needs, members of the group can more easily take responsibility for everyone’s needs so they can move toward a solution that works for everyone.

Distinguishing Everyone’s Needs from Everyone’s Voice: One of the core principles of NVC is that everyone’s needs matter. This level of inclusion is essential to reach truly collaborative solutions. This attention to everyone’s needs is also one of the stumbling blocks to people’s imagination about how to do it with efficiency. I have found one key to engagement and efficiency in a group context, which is that we can hear and attend to everyone’s needs without having to hear from every single person. We do so by capturing all the needs without repetition, so long as what’s important deep down to everyone is being said, usually posted somewhere where everyone can see. This, in and of itself, tends to save lengthy discussions in which so many repeat what’s already been said.

Distinguishing Preference from Willingness: As much faith as I have in our human capacity to work together and collaborate, I deeply doubt the likelihood, or even possibility, of aligning our preferences just so with others. My hunch is that the quest for perfect alignment of preferences stems from aversion to conflict and lack of awareness that connection with needs, our own and others’, generates willingness to shift and stretch towards others’ preferred strategy. This clarity can support a significant leap in the effectiveness of meetings. With sufficient attention to putting all the needs on the table and creating shared ownership, most of the time a group can coalesce around a strategy that all can live with, to various degrees of stretching and accommodating, even if it’s not some people’s preference.

In a world of scarcity, separation, and powerlessness, our willingness easily gets stunted, and we mistake compromise or resignation for pure willingness. Willingness is a true expansion of our human heart in the desire to make things work for others as well as ourselves. Willingness is the lubricant of collaboration. It is more available to us to the extent we know that our own needs are considered. When what’s important to us is considered by others, when we know we matter, we shift easily from “Why should I?” and “What’s in it for me?” into “Why not?” There is no reason I see why we can’t reliably create this shift on a global scale and reawaken to the limitless possibilities of our human goodwill.

4 thoughts on “Is NVC Practical?

  1. Robertaindia

    great useful important i am taking this ( you! ) to the west bank tomorrow morning and to the Jewish quarter of the old city tomorrow evening!!!!!!!…adding–naming a shared purpose creates consciousness and connection of interdependence…we share the same needs.partnership.. stepping into a collective consciousness that is a shift from our habitual societal me me me ( scarcity, separation,

  2. Diane Emerson

    Thank you, Miki. As an activist, I am often involved in meetings of one sort or another. I now feel encouraged to bring these concepts to the meetings I attend. It's going to be fun to see the shifts take place!

  3. J McElhaney

    I really enjoy delineating specific examples of how NVC is practical. I would add that I also see it being practical in interpersonal situations. An example: I heard a comment about my driving. Before NVC, I would probably either go into a lot of judgment of myself or of the other person (guilt/shame/blame). What I did this time was take a breath, tap into my needs (to have understanding


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