One of the questions that keep coming up in discussions within the community of Nonviolent Communication trainers is how to become more effective at bringing Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to a level where it may support significant cultural change. Most recently, someone calculated that in order to train, for example, the UK armed forces, it would take 7,000 training days just for a basic level of training of 12 hours in groups of 50 people. This calculation helped me reach even more clarity about a question I have been wrestling with for a long time. The starkest way of framing the question is this: can the training model be a strategy for social or cultural change?
Workshops and Culture
Although much of what I write about below is about NVC, my fundamental question is far beyond NVC. I see it as being about any attempt to create fundamental change using a model of change that focuses primarily on individuals changing their behavior or ideas.
Seeing the numerical analysis above immediately suggests to me that the training model is limited, not just that the number of existing NVC trainers is small. There are several reasons for this. The most obvious, given my sense of the urgent need for transformation in the world, is that I simply don’t believe that we can reach enough people fast enough in this way. This is one of the reasons why in my own work I am focusing on understanding how to change structures and systems. That is not a substitute for personal transformation. It just makes it easier.
Even when we expand the training model beyond public workshops to include media, training within organizations, and bridging cultural differences with new approaches, we are still talking about reaching individuals. Even if we become dramatically more effective at reaching more and different people we still have a major question to attend to: what is it that we are asking people to do once they are exposed to our message? This question, which has haunted me for year now, applies to NVC as well as to any other method that attempts to effect cultural change through individuals.
The question is not so much whether we ask them to attend a workshop, read a book, or participate in a restorative circle. Rather, I mean this question more in terms of what we are asking them to do within themselves and in their lives once exposed to our message.
Right now, the way I understand things, choosing to embrace NVC in full puts us up against extraordinary obstacles in terms of the cultures and structures within which we live. It requires a high degree of courage and of willingness to go against the grain of so many norms and habits. It is entirely unsurprising to me that the majority of even those people that are exposed to transformative messages like NVC embrace them only partially. Even those who truly love NVC, who truly see the potential for making life work so much better for everyone on the planet including other forms of life, rarely go all the way.
What I mean by “partially” is quite wide ranging. It can mean only embracing NVC with some people. I know I often hear people say things such as: “I can do this with my partner and children, not at work” or “This is all nice and good, and still there are some people with whom you have to use other methods.” Just recently, when I offered myself to mediate a conflict, the person I was talking with, whom I know to be a major fan of NVC, referred to it as only a tool among others, and that adversarial approaches still have a place.
Embracing NVC partially can also mean embracing only some aspects of it and not others. Some people focus only on changing relationships with people without changing their fundamental orientation to life. Or doing deep inner work on self-acceptance while continuing to have beliefs about people “deserving” certain responses, or things being “worth” something, as in with money. The worldview that NVC, and the shift to nonviolence more broadly, spells is radical and at odds with the culture at large. I have no difficulty understanding why anyone would stop short of taking it on everywhere, with everyone, all the time.
I know that I, too, with all of my commitment to leave no stone unturned, stop short in some places. For me, it’s about not knowing how to do certain things, such as change how I do money, as an island within a system that hasn’t changed. For others, it may be about the extraordinary effort it takes to create such inner changes. Whatever the reason, I see the phenomenon clearly.
Conversely, if and when any system changes, even if only temporarily, the gap between the individual and the culture is not so huge. Then, it doesn’t require as much courage, effort, vigilance, and practice to embrace NVC in full. The people who participate in Restorative Circles, for example, have no reason to buy into an entirely different worldview. It is the process and the system that surrounds it that create the outcome, not any particular personal commitment on the part of participants. When people in Porto Alegre are invited to participate in determining their budget, they don’t have to oppose the system in order to make their voice known. When collaborative management norms are established in an organization (assuming that ever truly happens, sigh…), people don’t have to face the risk of losing a job if they have a dissenting perspective.
I am not by far advocating working only on structural change, as the many revolutions that have taken place historically have demonstrated to me sufficiently that the personal dimension is equally irreducible: just because a structure changes it doesn’t mean that an individual within it has changed. It only means that it’s easier for that person to change. I want to create a model of change that doesn’t require each individual to work so hard to create change within and around themselves. That is what structural change can achieve.
Can Personal Change Be Radical Enough?
When Marshall Rosenberg was teaching us about social change, one of the aspects of it that he stressed repeatedly is a distinction between radical and peripheral change. He told stories about group after group that was investing major efforts into creating change in a system that was a specific policy change, for example, which could be subsumed within the existing way that the system functioned. That meant, among other things, that if the person in charge of the system in question was replaced, the entire outcome of the campaign could be easily lost. This was what he referred to as peripheral change. He contrasted it with changes that affect how the system functions, especially how decisions are made, and referred to those as radical changes. Ever since integrating the significance of this distinction, I have always been asking myself, in every situation: what is the most radical outcome that could happen in this situation, and what can I do to bring it about?
This brings me to another dimension of the training model dilemma that is specific to NVC. A few years ago, my sister Inbal and I collected what we saw as a bunch of very different approaches to how NVC is shared and what aspects of it are emphasized. For example, NVC can be shared as a path to self-connection, or as a way to hold everyone’s needs with care. Both are true to the underlying spirit of NVC, and they are nonetheless different. In this context, the question for me is whether certain ways of sharing NVC are more or less conducive to creating change that has a chance of affecting the culture.
I confess to being biased in this exploration. I have a belief, which I hold with some humility (though probably not enough), that focusing on NVC as a path of compassion towards self has only limited potential in this way. In other words: it seems to me that individuals can freely grow their self-compassion without needing to challenge the systems that surround them, the norms of the culture in which their live, or even their own belief systems about life. On the other hand, when I look at what it takes to reclaim a full sense of choice and freedom, I see that path as more likely to collide with the norms of pervasive powerlessness that we all live within. Similarly, focusing on caring for everyone’s needs challenges the fundamental isolation and separation that are so endemic in modern capitalist cultures. I imagine that having identified separation, scarcity, and powerlessness as the core elements of a mindset that perpetuates the destruction I see happening all around us, I would naturally be drawn to finding ways of sharing NVC that specifically challenge those deeply held premises. I still don’t know whether this focus is more likely to lead to cultural change through individuals embracing it than other approaches to sharing NVC.
Returning to Not Knowing
Clearly, I haven’t found an answer to my own many questions. Part of my work, especially when writing, has been to continue to engage with the questions, to keep exploring, to find bits and pieces that make sense to me. I hope I will never give up on the search just because I don’t know yet. Moreover, as I have said repeatedly, I aim to cultivate not knowing as a spiritual path, as an active attempt to respond from a place of humility, which is not my most spontaneous trait.
With not knowing, I still try to maximize my effectiveness any way I can think of. I keep searching for opportunities to affect an entire system. I haven’t yet found any that are on a significant scale. Whenever I have an interaction with a system or structure, I aim for the most radical change possible, and often that means looking at how decisions are made. I am not surprised that people with power show little interest in touching their decision making systems, and that people within systems and organizations who have less access to power are excited about the prospect of looking at decision making.
I also have some growing trust that certain individuals have more of a chance of affecting systems than others. Without attempting to be exhaustive, some examples would be formal and informal leaders, facilitators and mediators, and strategic thinkers within social change movements. This is why I am less and less inclined to do general workshops for the public, and am more and more interested in creating offerings that would appeal to those who are positioned to create change if they become interested. I have a little bit more hope for change with that focus.
I am not proposing ending NVC workshops, and I anticipate continuing to offer them alongside my unceasing efforts to find ways of working with whole systems. What I want to get better and better at is learning how to become more strategic in terms of who I train when I choose to do so, and what specific aspects of NVC I would want to emphasize so that each individual who attends any event of mine has the most chance of having the most effect in their world. The rest, I am in full acceptance of the fact that it’s not up to me.