Nonviolent Communication™ and Social Change
“It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
What is the relationship between Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and creating positive social change? How does NVC help us to contribute to positive social change?
Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s dream was for NVC to contribute to creating a world in which everybody’s needs could be met without violence.
This would require significant changes at the individual, family, community, and societal levels — and Dr. Rosenberg wanted NVC to contribute to that positive change.
He said that if we use NVC to help people feel better about participating in life-alienating systems and structures, we’re merely using NVC as an anal-gesic — and he wanted NVC used for peoples’ liberation.
Why is Social Change Important?
As humanity we find ourselves at a time of unparalleled crises and opportu-nities.
Global problems such as climate change and species extinction require humans to become excellent at cooperation and collaboration — areas in which NVC shines.
Though change is needed at the individual level, it is equally or more need-ed at the level of systems and structures.
Many of the systems and structures in today’s society were handed down to us by well-intentioned elders, but for a world that is much different now than then.
One simple yet significant example is our economic system.
Our current economic models were created when the Earth seemed infinite in terms of resources and in terms of its ability to absorb pollution.
Mainstream economists today have no way of accounting for the “free” ser-vices a forest provides: giving us clean air, purifying the water, housing bio-diversity, preventing flooding, landslides, and erosion… and so much more. The only way our current economic models value a forest is monetarily via extraction of forest resources, or charging people to visit it (eco-tourism) which has its own carbon footprint and other limitations.
Therefore, leaving a forest standing has built-in economic disincentives.
Our economic system, simply by virtue of being set up the way it is, in-creases polarization of wealth. You could say trickle down economics does not exist, and instead what we see is trickle-up.
Our economic system, simply doing what it does, destroys ecosystems and other species in ways that also have dangerous repercussions for humani-ty.
And the economy is simply one area in which systemic change is neces-sary.
Social change is important in order to shift collective systems and structures to protect human and non-human life on the planet. NVC gives us tools to make these transitions more smoothly, in a way that can include the voices of marginalized groups, and with the least violence possible. We’ll return to systems and structures below.
What Stops Us From Getting Involved and Making a Difference?
Usually what stops us from getting involved, at an individual level, is some form of fear.
The fear that stops us could look many ways, and it’s not necessarily a fear that something bad will happen to us.
For example, sometimes fear keeps us stuck in a job that requires all of our energy. We fear for our financial security and then we have no energy to be involved to make a positive difference.
Fear is sometimes also generated by our own limiting beliefs; “I can’t,” “it’s too big,” “it’s overwhelming,” “I don’t know what to do,” “I don’t know where to get involved.” We have these kinds of limiting beliefs, and very often they generate fear which stops us from even taking the first step to explore get-ting involved to make a difference.
How we work with this in NVC is that we listen to the voice of that fear and give it empathy. Once we hear the needs behind it (for example, safety & security) then we can begin to explore other strategies to meet all of our needs, including meaning, purpose, and contribution.
What Can We Do to Be Able to Make a Bigger Difference?
Something we can do inside ourselves to get involved and make a bigger difference is to work through our “stuff.”
This includes our limiting beliefs, but can also include, for example, working through grief.
When we have unprocessed grief it weighs us down, and we move through the world with a sense of heaviness. If you allow yourself do your grief work, afterwards you’re not weighed down so much, and you’re a little bit lighter and more present in the world.
When we give ourselves permission to do our grief work, it clears out space inside for more joy to come in later. Our capacity for joy is limited by our ca-pacity for grief.
Those of us who want to make a difference also need to work through shame and guilt because, for many of us, that’s the number one thing that will stop us.
As soon as you hear a judgment from the outside that lines up with a judgement you have of yourself, that can be excruciating. The more you can work through any judgments that you have of yourself, the less outside judgments can hurt you.
Working through any and all self judgments is going to free up a lot of men-tal and emotional energy for you to be able to contribute toward positive change.
This is part of the inner work NVC contributes to that can help us expand our capacity to make a positive difference.
Every religion in the world, every wisdom tradition, has some version of “know yourself.” And so the questions “What is motivating me right now?” and “What do I want?” become very valuable questions.
At a certain level none of us chooses what is true for us; instead, we look in-side and are honest about what we find there.
So, ask yourself, “what do I want?” and see what comes up. If you don’t al-low yourself to have the answer, look at guilt, shame, or other limiting be-liefs.
Some of the interior work you can do to be a more powerful leader for posi-tive change is knowing yourself and working through any unresolved is-sues. NVC helps us develop greater interior clarity, which in turn contributes to our relationships and to our ability to be of service.
NVC, Perspective, Self-Connection, and Social Change
Another limitation people who want to make a difference encounter is when they believe that what they are working on is the most important thing. Some people working on climate change say that’s the only important thing, while others working on habitat restoration say that’s the only important thing. The same is true for many people working on food security, transportation is-sues, etc. The point is, it’s all important and the change needs to happen on all levels simultaneously.
The bickering among changemakers appears almost like an autoimmune disorder of the Earth. One of things we need to recognize in our interiors is that there’s an ecology of change agency. There’s a niche for every type of positive change from prison reform to working with disabled children. They’re all important.
A conundrum that can show up when we combine our intrapersonal work with a desire for maximal effectiveness, is the question “am I working on root cause or am I working on symptoms?” Besides the fact that there is an ecology of change agency, we’ll probably be more effective if we focus on causes rather than symptoms, or symptoms of symptoms.
Regardless: the action you want to take in the world will come from your own self-connection. Your interior clarity — your “interior guidance system” — will guide you regarding what to focus on.
A valuable and often life-changing key is finding the place where the world’s highest need and your deepest longing come together. If you can find that intersection, then you’re set up to make a meaningfully positive difference.
How are Social Change and Communication Related?
Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D. saw an important relationship between communication and social change.
He used to say that social change is created through “any given number of NVC conversations.” What he meant by that is that if you want to create change in your neighborhood, in a local institution, in local government, in an organization, you don’t do it by yourself. It requires conversations, en-gagement. If you want to create social change, how do you get access to people who have their hands on the levers of power? And when you get ac-cess to somebody who is in a position of power, how do you make best use of limited time in a conversation?
If you want to talk to someone in a position of power who has a very differ-ent belief system or worldview from your own, you may need empathy be-fore that meeting or conversation, in order to break down or dissolve any “enemy images” you have of this person. Humanizing them is positive for many reasons, including making best use of limited time in a conversation. If they experience you as seeing their humanity, and as genuine, and you’re able to end the conversation with a concrete, actionable, doable request — then you’re much more likely to get the kinds of results for which you’re looking.
NVC and Political Rhetoric
One area that is easy to overlook when discussing social change is political rhetoric. The way leaders communicate matters! Principles and integrity do matter, and have real consequences.
Communicating using violent language inflames tensions. And to be clear, by violent, we mean language that includes: judging, criticizing, denigrating, name-calling, blaming others, avoiding responsibility, placing demands, and justifying violence against certain groups.
NVC would tell us that people on every part of the political spectrum are, at the deepest levels, motivated by Universal Human Needs. When we con-nect with those needs, we see each other’s humanity.
If we can let go of specific strategies or tactics — while acknowledging and honoring the needs — then we can explore other strategies that are mutu-ally agreeable and mutually beneficial.
For the sake of future generations it is incumbent on our leaders to find ways to shift our politics and our governance from an adversarial paradigm to a more generative, integrative, and collaborative approach.
The Importance of Nonviolent Social Change
The problem with social change that is perpetuated by violence is that it is not sustainable. (There are other problems, such as those acting violently losing both integrity and allies when they justify their means with the ends they seek.)
Those on the receiving end of violence will remember and resent it, and this by itself leads to a less stable society.
When change is effected from a compassionate place, from a place in which everyone’s needs are valued — and when it is done via a process of inclu-sive, collaborative inquiry and conversation — we find that that co-created solutions are more durable.
When there is both integrity and inclusion in a process, there will be less blowback, foot-dragging, sabotage, or unnecessary drama.
Why is personal change not enough to change society?
Personal and interpersonal change are necessary but not sufficient for last-ing, positive social change. We must also attend to systems and structures.
Systems and structures go far beyond the interpersonal realm. These are the physical spaces, institutions, organizations — as well as policies and procedures — in which we find ourselves embedded.
A simple example:
If you want to recycle something at many airports, it’s simply not possible! In many places there isn’t a system or a structure to do that, there’s just a trash can. But at the Seattle-Tacoma airport, next to every trash can there are re-cycling bins. Somebody instituted this structure to make it easy to recycle in SeaTac Airport. That didn’t happen because one person went out and bought recycling bins and set them across the airport. This was a policy de-cision made at a certain level of leadership. Like many decisions, it was probably made by a group of people sitting around a boardroom table. Somebody had the courage to bring it up, and the decision was subse-quently made to have recycling bins at Seattle-Tacoma airport.
This is only one example of a simple structure that contributes to many peo-ple being able to do something positive, or at least mitigate negative impacts from their behavior.
Dr. Rosenberg was fond of mentioning Philip Zimbardo and the Stanford Prison Experiment. In this experiment, students were given different roles within a prison structure: they were either prisoners or they were prison guards. One of the outcomes of this study showed that the context and physical environment in which we find ourselves goes a long way toward shaping our behaviors and our identity. The students who were in the role of prison guards, when given orders by their “superiors” in this context, were willing to do cruel and inhumane things because the context both made it safe to do so and pressured them into doing so.
Systems and structures are the reason why we have global warming and climate change. Our current transportation systems and structures are based on fossil fuels and the internal combustion engine. Systems and structures are the reason the laws are what they are. Consider this: If an in-dividual wanted to make a species extinct, they would have a very difficult time. But as a society, we’re incredibly efficient at it!
We can have systems and structures that disconnect and alienate us from life, and we can have life-connected, life-serving systems and structures.
How do we change systems and structures? We get involved and gain ac-cess to people in positions of power, or we get involved to the point where we can access the levers of power.
Systems and structures change through active conversation with and among people who have the authority and resources to take action.
Nonviolent Communication helps us create the quality of connection out of which we can have difficult conversations about changing systems and structures in a way that is more likely to lead to mutually agreeable out-comes without people needing to fight or become enemies about it.
Facilitate Communication and Compassion in Social Change
People who want different kinds of social change — and people who resist social change — are driven by what is important to them. At a deeper level, we refer to these in NVC as Universal Human Needs.
Social institutions, systems, and structures are sets of strategies intended to meet needs.
By connecting with each other at the level of needs we can see each other as human beings and understand each other’s deeper motivators. By sepa-rating the needs from the strategies we can together explore strategies of mutual benefit.
We have many anecdotal stories of NVC practitioners turning enemies into friends through the process of empathy and honesty. Part of the trick of NVC skills when we’re applying them to positive social change is learning how to persist in challenging conversations. How do we sustain difficult conversations so that we can get through to the other side where there’s more connection, more mutual understanding, and an increase in trust and goodwill?
Ultimately, what we’re doing with the powerful interpersonal skills that NVC gives us is we are strengthening community. Healthy community involves constructive and effective power-sharing. In life-alienated, life-disconnected communication we talk about power-over. In NVC we talk about power-with. We are much more powerful with power-with than with power-over.
Besides working with people with different views and beliefs — another im-portant question when engaging in NVC for positive social change is “How do we build our own network and our community of allies, so that we can have the support we need while we work toward having a greater positive impact?”
Dr. Marshall Rosenberg and Three Crucial Questions on NVC and Non-violent Social Change
When discussing positive social change, Dr. Marshall Rosenberg used to encourage us to re-think our individual and collective responses to some important questions that our culture answers in somewhat peculiar ways.
The first cultural story we need to question is the one that answers the question “Who are we?”
Who are we as human beings? Are we merely citizens who have the right to remain silent and the right to refuse to vote? Are we just consumers? Are we only replaceable cogs in an economic machine for the purpose of in-creasing GDP?
Who are we?
The second crucial question is “What is the good life?”
What constitutes a good life? Is it the images that we see in magazines, online, and TV ads? Is it the person lying on a rubber floating raft in the mid-dle of a swimming pool, in the sun with a drink in their hand? Or — to para-phrase Will Rogers — is it spending money we don’t even have, on things we don’t even need, in order to impress people we don’t even like? Is that the good life?
What is the good life?
Our collective answers to these questions — “who are we” and “what is the good life” — are what is driving unnecessary consumption which in turn is driving global warming, climate change, and the destruction of habitat. The consumer culture of “more, more, more and never enough” is part of what is destroying our very own life support systems. These are two very important questions the answers to which we need to reimagine. Who are we? and, what is the good life?
A third valuable question is “what is our shared destiny on this little blue ball hurtling through space?” This last question brings into focus that we truly are all in this together, which itself can bring great clarity to our thoughts, in-tentions, and actions.
NVC can help you get more clear inside yourself about what you want and can help you work through thoughts and feelings that otherwise would be holding you back.
NVC also gives you powerful tools for having courageous conversations to connect with people over a shared goal or purpose.
And with regard to positive social change, NVC gives you tools for gaining access to and then having powerful conversations with people in positions of power.
Without NVC, social change can become adversarial. It becomes about combating the other side. We will physically block or fight against some-thing. NVC does distinguish between protective use of force and punitive use of force, and sometimes we need to use physical force in order to pro-tect life.
Without bringing an approach like NVC to bear on positive social change, we could all end up doing battle even if it’s litigation in a court. These adver-sarial approaches don’t usually give us the lasting results that we’re seek-ing. If we’re battling it out in court or in a legislature, when a different party is in power, they undo the previous approach, bring in new legislation, and as a society we take two steps forward and one step back.
In adversarial approaches we don’t make as much progress as we can when we come together, get on the same page, and then act. The latter is much more powerful, and NVC gives us the tools to be able to create that.
Dr. Rosenberg’s advice on positive social change, his methodology called NVC, and his recommendation that we re-ask these fundamental questions are a powerful contribution to those of us wanting to leave the world better than how we found it.
Puddledancer Press Books About Social Change
PuddleDancer Press is the foremost proponent and publisher of books on Nonviolent Communication and positive social change. NVC has shown time and again that human beings are capable of collaboratively crafting mutually beneficial solutions.
Because of the trust-building process involved — and the fact that the solu-tions include everyone’s buy-in — using NVC to assist us in creating posi-tive change predictably gives us outcomes that meet a greater number of needs and are more durable.
Our books on positive social change can help you:
- Create exceptional personal and professional relationships,
- Offer compassionate understanding to others,
- Know when and how to ask for that same understanding for yourself,
- Prevent and resolve misunderstandings and conflicts,
- Speak your truth in a clear, powerful way more likely to lead to harmony than conflict,
- Create mutual understanding without coercion.
Whether you are a long-time student — or are brand new to NVC — Pud-dleDancer Press has the educational resources, including the books on so-cial change, to help you grow your emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and communication prowess.
Check out our catalog of books on social change… and give yourself the gift of Compassionate Communication!
More information on Books about Social Change
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There is a wealth of information on Nonviolent Communication – in articles and videos. Of course we endorse all of Marshall’s sharing’s, however, there are many transcripts and videos created by others. Due to limited resources we do not verify the full accuracy of any particular video or articles created by others, even though there is plenty of wonderful and educational information on the web.