Social Change Through NVC

"NVC" is Nonviolent Communication -- an approach to living developed by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. Rosenberg did give give rousing speeches at political rallies, or organize marches, boycotts, sit-ins, or hunger strikes. Yet his work treats of the essence of violence and nonviolence, and it paves the way for profound social change.

Rosenberg has outlined a simple – deceptively simple, for it is very challenging -- four-component process for both speaking and listening. It doesn’t seem that complicated or hard. Our lives subject us to stresses and conflicts, and we are prone to respond a heart-hardening that is no easy matter to train out of us. Without intentional practice, our "jackal voice" (small, mean, focused on self-protection) tends to win out over our "giraffe voice" (big-hearted).
  • Observation: to notice without mixing in evaluation of what we’re seeing;
  • Feeling: to identify a true emotion without mixing in blame or criticism;
  • Need: to separate the universal human desires, the things everyone wants, from particular strategies for getting them;
  • Request: to be able to ask and not demand.
(For a tad bit more -- say, 700 words -- of an intro to NVC, SEE HERE.) These are subtle skills. It’s no wonder that our Gandhis, our Martin Luther Kings, our Aung San Suu Kyis have been so rare in human history. The extensive spiritual training and depth they each had allowed their hearts to soften and become wise enough to lead their heads. The teachings of a faith tradition alone don’t magically make it happen. It also takes deep commitment to the vision the teachings point to.

The vision is creating a quality of connection among people that supports getting needs met through natural giving. The vision is a focus on two questions: what is alive in me and alive in you – and how can we contribute to making our lives wonderful.

There are resources available to us that weren’t available in Martin Luther King’s time for realizing his dream of peace and justice – and the resources of the teachings and methods and commitments Nonviolent Communication are, to my mind, the most significant, and the most promising hope for nonviolent social change.

There is much to learn here – a lot to take in and practice and internalize. I’ll share one story to convey a taste of it. This is Marshall Rosenberg in his book, Speak Peace in a World of Conflict.
“I was working with a team of minority citizens who wanted to change hiring practices in the health services department of the city of San Francisco.These citizens felt that the hiring practices were oppressive because they discriminated against certain people. They wanted me to show them how Nonviolent Communication could be helpful to them in getting their needs better met. For three days I showed them the process and how it could be used – and then they were to go out that afternoon and come back the next morning, and we would see how it went. The next morning they came back very discouraged, and one of them said, ‘We knew it wouldn’t work. There’s no way to change the system.’
I said, ‘OK. I can see you’re really discouraged.’
‘Yes, yes.’
‘So, tell me what happened so we can learn from this.’ The team of six of them had gone into an administrator’s office, and they told me how they had used Nonviolent Communication very well. They hadn’t gone in and diagnosed the system as oppressive. Rather, first they had made a real clear observation of what was going on. They identified the law that they felt was discriminatory because it didn’t allow for the hiring of certain people. Second, they expressed their feelings, how painful it was for them because they needed work and equality. They believed they could do this work, and it was painful for them to be excluded. They made a clear request of the administrator, saying exactly how they would like to see the hiring practices changed to better allow for them to be hired. They told me how they said it, and I was very pleased. They incorporated beautifully the training we had gone through. They had stated clearly what their needs were, what their requests were, and they didn’t use insulting language. I said, ‘I like how you expressed that. What was his response?’
And they said, “Oh, he was very nice, you know. He even thanked us for coming in. He said it’s very important in a democracy that the citizens express themselves, and we encourage that in this organization, but at the moment your request is quite unrealistic, and I’m sorry that it won’t be possible right now, but thank you for coming in.’
And I said, ‘Then what did you do?’
‘Well, we left.’
I said, ‘Wait a minute. Wait a minute. What about the other half that I showed you? How to hear behind the bureaucratic-ese to what was in his heart, what he was feeling, what his needs were? Where was that human being in relationship to what you wanted?’
One of them said, ‘We know what was going on in him. He wanted us to get out of there.’
‘Well, even if that’s true, was going on in him? What was he feeling? What were his needs? He’s a human being. What was that human being feeling and needing?’ They forgot to see his humanness because he is within a structure. And within the structure he was speaking structure language, not human language. As Walter Wink points out, organizations, structures, and governments have their own spirituality. And within those environments people communicate in a way that supports that spirituality. Nonviolent Communication shows us a way, no matter what the structure, to cut through it and see the human being within it. I could see that I hadn’t trained them well enough on how to do that, so we practiced. We practiced how to hear the needs behind all that bureaucratic language, how to see the human being and make a connection that strengthens our ability to work toward social change with that person. After our training at that level, they made another appointment with this man. And they came back the next morning delighted. When they saw what was behind his messages, they saw that he was scared. He actually shared their needs – he didn’t like to see how this law was discriminatory – but he had another need: to protect himself. And he knew that his boss would be very upset with this suggestion, because his boss was vehemently opposed to what they were after. He had a need to protect himself, and didn’t want to go to the boss and help them make the change. Once this team of citizens saw what his needs were, they worked together, but in a way that got everybody’s needs met. What happened is that he mentored them. He led them through what they would need to go through to get what they wanted, and they met his need by protecting him, by not letting anybody know that he was mentoring them. Eventually, they all got the change in the structure that they wanted. Effective social change requires connections with others in which we avoid seeing people within these structures as enemies – and we try to hear the needs of the human beings within. Then we persist in keeping the flow of communication going so that everybody’s needs get met.”
I don’t know if this nonviolent social change will happen, but I know that it could. And I know that if it does – if we shall overcome -- it will happen because we learn the skills to hear each other with compassion.

Our Unitarian Universalist history from the 60s shows us that it’s not enough to want to be compassionate, to want to stand for justice. We have to learn how. We have to learn the skills to hear each other with compassion.

Cognitive brain learns quickly. Limbic brain is slow and needs a lot of practice, and it’s limbic brain that needs the training. There are weekend workshops that we could have here. We could create practice groups meeting monthly to gradually hone the skill of hearing each other with compassion. We can make that happen if we want to.

Tell me. Shoot me an email, give me a call, catch me after the service. If we have the interest, we’ll make it happen.

Compassion is a path. On that path, we’ll go together to that land where there’s justice, where there’s freedom. Come with me to that land.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Nonviolent Social Change"
Previous: Part 2: "The Essence of Violence Is in the Heart"
Beginning: Part 1: "To Hear Each Other with Compassion"

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