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NONVIOLENT COMMUNICATION IN ORGANISATIONS: moving from a mechanistic to a systemic view by Gina Lawrie
The purpose of this article is to outline the process of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), and to describe some of the ways I believe it can help individuals and organisations to be more connected and build the sort of communities we would like to inhabit in the new millennium. If, as result of reading it, you are either interested in finding out more about NVC or you take away an insight that could make a small difference in your life, I will be satisfied.
Setting the Scene
In communication workshops that I run in organisations, I often ask people to describe the characteristics and qualities of communication that they enjoy, find satisfying and motivating. I then ask them to describe the characteristics of communication they do not enjoy which leaves them feeling unsatisfied and lacking motivation. Participants then cluster the ideas under the two headings. This works well on post-Its. Sadly, when I ask,many people say they experience most communication at work as displaying the group of characteristics they don’t enjoy. It can be fascinating to consider why so many of us continue to operate in ways that don’t bring us enjoyment or fulfilment but I am even more interested in how to change this. Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a simple, yet powerful tool which provides concrete steps to create communication that is both enjoyable and effective and thus of benefit to both individuals and organisations.
The Process of Nonviolent Communication
NVC is a model of communication developed by Marshall Rosenberg (1999) in response to violence he witnessed in the USA in the 1950’s. He searched for a way to help people to communicate with respect, compassion and honesty and thus gain more enjoyment out of life.
Learning this process is like learning a language, the language of compassion, and this involves unlearning the language that many of us have been brought up with which is based on judgement, blame and being right!
The language of NVC is designed to help us express our feelings and needs clearly in such a way that we and those listening to us can connect more easily with these aspects of ourselves. Training in NVC builds our awareness of how to stay connected to the humanity of ourselves and others. It offers specific tools for staying in this mode even when things get tough, when conflict is in the air, or when the other person does not know the NVC process.
There are four steps which together increase the likelihood that communication will be expressed and received with compassion and that those involved will get their needs met:
1) OBSERVATION. Observations are expressions of what serves as a stimulus for our reactions. The closer we stay to concrete and specific descriptions of the sort that would be captured by a video camera, the more likely we are to be heard. The challenge in this step is to separate observation from evaluation, judgement or interpretation, e.g. “When I see you sitting behind your desk on the ‘phone moving papers and swearing....” rather than “When I see how harassed and disorganised you are”. You can imagine how the latter comment mightlead to a defensive or attacking response and using NVC, we aim to express ourselves in a way most likely to be heard with compassion rather than defensiveness. 2) FEELINGS In our western culture in particular we often express thoughts or judgements rather than our emotions because of the language we have learned. So in NVC we express an emotion such as “I feel upset / worried / pleased “ rather than, “I feel that .....” or “I feel like...........” . Training in NVC extends our feeling vocabulary and helps us connect with our emotional selves. 3) NEEDS Many of us are even less articulate when it comes to expressing needs. Our culture tends to teach us to associate it with being selfish or “needy”. The most powerful insight I obtained learning NVC was the causal link between feelings and needs. To recognise that my feelings are not caused by another person’s actions, but by whether or not my needs are being met. So, in NVC we would say: “I feel ...... because I need/would like.... and then express a core human need, which may be physical, social or spiritual, e.g. food, warmth, company, support, peace, beauty. By expressing a general need which all humans have we leave out any specific people or circumstances and this creates an openness as to how the need may be met. An example is: “I need honesty and mutuality in my working relationships” rather than, “I need you to stop covering up what’s really going on”. It is at this step of connecting at the level of needs that resolution of conflict or prevention of potential conflict becomes possible. 4) REQUESTS The last element is to state what we would like to happen and by whom that would meet our need. In this step it is very important to be very specific and also state the request in the positive, e.g. “Would you be willing to type this report by Friday at 10 am?” There are two directions of the NVC process that both use these four steps: expressing and receiving. Our aim is to create a communication dance where one person expresses themselves then listens for the four steps in the others response, even when feelings and needs are deeply hidden in the language they use. This is the outer process of NVC. What often gets in the way is our own inner dialogue. This may be the judgements we make about others e.g. “He should be more considerate and it’s not fair that he always gets his own way!” or the judgements we make about ourselves, e.g. “I’ve messed up again, what an idiot I am, I’m just not up to this type of work!”. These judgements are a sign that we are not connected with our own feelings and needs and hence we will not be able to connect with others, either to express our feelings and needs or to hear those of the other person. To shift this and get us connected to our feelings and needs we use the inner process of NVC, applying the four steps within.
Let us take an example: I am running a workshop and one of the participants says, “This isn’t relevant to the real work situation”. I may judge them as ignorant, arrogant or uncooperative which will probably result in me attacking them, albeit in a subtle way. Alternatively I may judge myself as incompetent, having misjudged my audience and this is likely to result in me becoming defensive. In either case, I could be on a road to further disconnection with that participant. To avoid this road, I can apply the four steps of NVC to connect with my own feelings and needs and notice that when I hear the participant say “This isn’t relevant to the real work situation”(step 1), I feel anxious and nervous (step 2) because I would really like to contribute to the learning of all participants and because I need acknowledgement for the experience I bring and trust that my workshop design will fulfil the objectives we set (step 3). So what I would really like right now is to find out what would help this participant see the relevance (step 4).
Now, I am free to return to the outer process and begin to ‘dance’, by saying: “So are you feeling worried because you would like to know that spending this time at this workshop will make a difference to the real issues you face at work, and would you like me to tell you the way in which I see what we are doing as relevant?”
If the participant remains frustrated and says some more that I could interpret as critical, I may need to go back to the inner process and hear my own feelings and needs again, then back to the outer process, continuing to hear their feelings and needs. My experience is that when I apply NVC to my inner process, getting in touch with my feelings and needs brings about a shift in my energy away from judgement and blame. This allows me to express myself without any hint of that judgement creeping through so that I am more likely to be heard compassionately by the other person. Or it allows me to hear the other persons feelings and needs with compassion. There are some general guidelines for choosing which side of the dance to start with. In many cases, it works best to start with hearing the other person because that increases the chances of getting heard oneself. Describing the process in this way seems far from truly portraying what is involved. Seeing it in action and trying it out brings it to life in a way that words on a page cannot. As I mentioned earlier, learning NVC is not easy and becoming fluent in any new language takes practice but I see it as the most powerful approach in my consultants toolkit to help managers and staff to create the sort of organisation in which they wish to work.
So now I will turn to the application of NVC in my work and give you a variety of references at the end and ways to find out more if you are interested.
Observations from my Work
I have been working as an organisation consultant helping managers bring change to private, public and voluntary sector organisations for 15 years. I am well aware of the range of fads and fashions in change programmes and have been influenced by some. I am also very aware of their lack of success. One of the key reasons in my experience is that people may change at an intellectual level, but not at an emotional level. As a result, their behaviour is often inconsistent. Managers often do not model the behaviour they espouse and staff are unclear what grand statements of values such as “ effective teamwork”, “continuous improvement”, “empowering our staff” mean they will DO differently. I have found the model of NVC helps managers and teams to understand where judgements they make of themselves and others blocks changes in their behaviour. It also provides a concrete framework for making changes.
It is rare to find organisations in which feedback is given and received skilfully and yet, without it, how can we expect people to change their behaviour? If only “good news” is delivered, it is difficult to trust the conveyor of news and if only “bad news” is delivered, people feel demoralised and unmotivated. NVC provides a framework for the giving and receiving of honest, balanced and constructive feedback. By telling the other person how we feel and what need of ours is met or not met when we observe their behaviour, feedback becomes more meaningful and is easier to hear.
In the field of organisational change there is an increasing recognition that the context is global transformation. This has a number of aspects such as: globalisation of the economy, the explosion of communication and information technology, shifts in value systems, increased scientific knowledge about chaos and complexity, ecological crisis and a reassertion of human spirituality. The essence of any transformation is a dichotomy between the excitement of creativity, opportunity and liberation and the fear of change, loss and threat of unpredictability. People managing and working in organisations are struggling to understand, to find new ways of perceiving based on new paradigms and to learn the skills to survive and thrive. These are the life skills of NVC.
Moving from a mechanistic to a systemic view of organisations
The metaphor of a machine has been used to understand and to structure organisations since the 1950’s. The characteristics associated are: routine, efficiency, predictability, division of labour and a static nature. These characteristics are fine for organisations whose tasks are simple in stable environments. There are not many of these nowadays and the price we have paid is dehumanisation of people in the workplace. As a result, many have become alienated from nature, from each other and from themselves. As organisations become increasingly complex and the rate of change increases and things are less predictable there has been frenetic activity, but often the activity is “more of the same” and the result is failure or burnout.
Now we are seeing a transition to the use of a different metaphor, that of the organisation as an organism, a living system. This metaphor has the advantage of recognising the organisation as an “open system” in relation to its environment, the influence of life cycles, issues of survival, the concept of organisational health. The characteristics of organisations seen in this way are creative, responsive and dynamic. With this viewpoint caring, feelings and ecological and spiritual awareness can become part of life in an organisation and human beings can again be fully themselves at work. Our interconnectedness with each other and the environment is acknowledged. NVC is a way of encouraging this transition by connecting to our inner selves, to each other and to the environment around us through identifying how we are and how others are in terms of feelings and needs, and how we can better collaborate with each other to meet more and more needs and to increase satisfaction and fulfilment.
We might think that it would be easy to make this paradigm shift, however, this is not proving to be the case because increased interconnectedness and complexity in organisations brings increased uncertainty and resulting anxiety. Uri Merry (1995) has pointed out that if the quality of relationships does not match the degree of interdependence, if we do not behave in a more responsible, cooperative and empathic way, uncertainty will increase even further and conflict, crisis and domination will ensue. NVC gives us a language which enables us to connect and build relationships at this empathic level, providing the foundation for working with diversity and uncertainty. NVC can help leaders of organisations who experience a particular challenge to shift within themselves and become less reliant on formulas and programmed change and to tune in more to their own judgement and intuition. Leaders need to be free to make choices and decisions based on the present not on past expectations or constraints and to move from management by fear and blame to management by collaboration and respect. This can be developed by NVC training.
My work with NVC has taken me on a journey of personal transformation and given me the tools to fill many gaps I had previously found in my personal development work. The application of the four steps to connect with myself has helped me to ease up on the judgements I make of myself as well as of others. I have found myself handling situations of conflict and aggression in ways that I am proud of and being able to facilitate increased understanding between people has increased my confidence in such situations.
As a consultant, my role is to influence and facilitate; ideas of “managing” change are not compatible with seeing the organisation as a living system. In this role, I can make the greatest difference by being fully present, giving my attention in order to connect with people and help them to communicate with each other in ways that are satisfying and motivating: NVC helps me to do that by putting me in touch with my own and others present feelings and needs. I am finding that it is a very powerful tool to help people in organisations to achieve the transformation I have been describing in this paper.
Gina Lawrie has a background in psychology, social work and management development. She is an experienced organisation development consultant working in public, private and not for profit sectors. Gina works with the Centre for Nonviolent Communication as a certified trainer and seeks to apply the skills of NVC in both her work and personal life.
She can be contacted on Tel:01252 728242, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.ginalawrie.co.uk More information about the Center for Nonviolent Communication can be found at: http://www.cnvc.org/
References: Belgrave, B. Communication That Simply Works. Organisations & People, August 1998 Vol 5. No 3, pages 27-32 6 Belgrave, B. Workbook: NVC - Key Ingredients. Organisations & People, February 1999 Vol 6. No 1, pages 29-33 Merry, U. (1995) Coping With Uncertainty: Insights from the New Sciences of Chaos, Self-Organization, and Complexity. Praeger, Westport, USA Nixon, B. (1998) Making A Difference: Strategies and Real Time Models to Transform Your Organisation. Gilmour Drummond Publishing, Cambridge, England. Rosenberg, M. (1999) Nonviolent Communication - A Language of Compassion. Puddledancer Press, Del Mar, Calif: Audiovisual materials available online from www.Life-Resources-shop.com or 0845 458 0996
POINTS FOR TRAINERS • Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a simple yet profound communication process which helps to create communication that is both effective and enjoyable. It was developed by Marshalll Rosenberg whose work grew from his experience of interracial conflicts in Detroit, USA. • NVC can be of benefit to individuals, teams or groups and organisations and provides a framework for behavioural and cultural change. • Learning NVC is like learning a language and also involves ‘unlearning’ habitual ways of communicating which prevent connection between people. • NVC is particularly effective in helping us to manage conflict and difference, increasing the likelihood that the needs of both people in an interchange will be met. It is also effective in developing strong relationships for teamwork. • Nonviolent Communication training is available from trainers certified by the Center for Nonviolent Communication. There are approximately 60 trainers providing training and mediation in 25 countries worldwide, in organisations of all kinds: businesses, schools, prisons, healthcare providers as well as families and couples. Published in: Training & Management Development methods, Vol 14, 2000, pp4.01-4.08, MCB University Press, 0951-3507