If they are not already familiar with his approach, I think many in our network will be interested in how Marshall Rosenberg viewed social change—or social transformation, as he increasingly referred to what he wanted to see.  One reason Marshall decided to call the process he created Nonviolent Communication is because he wanted to link his work to the nonviolent social change work of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Marshall was working on a book about the topic but never had a chance to finish it.  He did, however, regularly present sessions on social change at IITs and I was fortunate enough to take part in some of these. What follows is a summary of what I heard and a few additional comments to fill in the picture.

First, though, I want to preface what follows by emphasizing that fundamental to NVC is the process of creating and maintaining a certain quality of connection, based on what’s alive in oneself and others, prioritizing a heart to heart connection that is quite incompatible with attachment to a specific outcome. This involves trusting that the NVC process will result in a resolution of conflict that is acceptable to all concerned. 

Marshall clearly was interested in addressing not just hurtful actions of individuals but also structural, systemic, factors that impede meeting needs and hence contribute to unnecessary suffering.  He sometimes made this point by distinguishing between (a) rescuing babies from the river water and (b) going upstream to prevent them getting thrown in the water initially. 

Marshall asked participants in the IIT sessions to begin by identifying a law, policy or practice that they would like to see changed and how they would like to see it changed.  Presumably, someone would want such a change because one had some painful feelings and unmet needs in relation to the current structure(s).

I suppose at this point one might want to get empathy for that pain and explore various ways the structure(s) could be changed that would better meet our needs. This could lead us to have at least an initial proposal for change, i.e. a request. 

If we’ve gotten sufficient empathy, we might also want to give some thought, make some empathic guesses about, the needs that people are meeting with the law, policy or practice we’d like to see changed. 

Next, Marshall asked us to get clear about who has the power to make the change we desire. This could be a single individual or some group, perhaps a governmental group or corporate board or, in some cases, the voting public.

The next step is to create a plan for how to gain access to that individual or group. Gaining access might be the most difficult part of this process but is obviously a prerequisite for having the kind of giraffe dialogue(s) that we’d want to have and that could lead to finding a way to meet all of the relevant needs. We might be clear about our own needs initially, but probably not fully aware of the needs of those who created the law, policy or practice we’d like changed and who may well be resistant to the change we seek because they don’t (yet) see a way to meet their needs except by preserving the status quo.  So we aim to have a giraffe dialogue with them–or more likely, a series of giraffe dialogues with various individuals--e.g. the representative of such a group and possibly our own associates who may want to be sure that we don’t lose sight of their needs. Years ago I was a member of our teacher union’s negotiating team and recall that as much energy was devoted to negotiating with other team members as with the representatives from management. In such situations there are not only likely to be many needs involved, all of which we’d want to recognize and honor, although we might need to explore the order in which to meet them. Also, since there are always many ways to meet any need, we’d want to seek agreement about which strategies to adopt for doing so.

In such dialogues we would strive to empathize with the others, making sure we accurately hear their feelings and needs; and express our own observations, feelings and needs, and propose some new policy or practice (a different way of operating) that meets our needs and the needs of the relevant others.

Along the way, we are likely to run into various obstacles and so want to make sure we have a support group to give us empathy (and perhaps information) to deal with the obstacles.

One obstacle is our own enemy images. We need to dismantle those as soon as possible so we can approach the individual or group (that can bring about the change) with respect and empathy.

We also don’t want to assume that our initial proposal is going to be the best we (together) can come up with. Otherwise we will likely come across as making a demand rather than a request, being concerned only that our needs are met rather than genuinely interested in the others’ needs also being met.

If we are successful in these giraffe dialogues I think it quite likely that what will emerge will improve on our initial proposal, reflecting the creative thinking of both ourselves and the others involved.

This entire process is likely to take more time than we’d like but it is also likely to result in changes that are willingly supported by all concerned, agreements that are likely to be kept, and long-term trusting relationships.


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