NVC at Work: Transforming Society by Transforming Organizations

When I first became an an NVC trainer, I was motivated to work with nonprofits and social change organizations. I had seen how progressive causes—with admirable goals and intentions—were struggling to work and communicate effectively and, as a result, to achieve their goals. Many progressive causes, at least in the United States, are still using organizational and communication practices based on hierarchy, enemy images, and power-over. These are the models familiar in our culture. For some movements (such as the Labor movement in the US) making use of enemy images historically has been a key organizing strategy. As an old Labor song goes, “Which side are you on?” and refers to “company goons.” While I question the effectiveness of this approach (and also have enjoyed it at times!), I can also see what motivates it: a desire/call for empowered action, clarity/immediacy, and connection/support/empowerment for a group facing tremendous odds in the face of large and powerful forces. Thankfully, the Civil Rights movement in the US and the Anti-Apartheid movement, among others, have offered alternative strategies for creating change. Nonviolent Communication, inspired by Gandhian principles, offers a way of interacting with others that I believe can support progressive organizations to create change in a way that is highly effective and also consistent and in integrity with their values. 
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While I still work with and support nonprofits and NGOS—from small collectives of three or four activists to large organizations such as the UN Development Program, I have increasingly become passionate about bringing Nonviolent Communication–or Collaborative Communication, as I like to call it, into companies and corporations. For me, this has become one of the most compelling and meaningful forms of social change that I can imagine. At least in the US, corporate culture and practices have become the norm by which all other kinds of organizations are expected to emulate and follow.  In my lifetime, for example, I saw as an academic how increasingly colleges and universities were expected to follow corporate models, and I see this in health care (at least in the US) as well.

So if we can introduce new ways of interacting with people at the corporate level, these new ways of thinking and acting–and structuring organizations–will eventually ripple out to other parts of society. And learning NVC in this environment can be highly effective: while individuals may not have the resources (time or money) to see committing to an extended study of NVC, some organizations can, especially if they are committed to making significant changes in how their company operates. I have worked with numerous companies that made a six month commitment for their staff learning and applying NVC. This included immersion training, follow up training, and individual and group coaching. The changes that I saw as a result over this time were dramatic and inspiring. I would often hear participants comment on how what they were learning at work impacted a conversation they had with their wife or husband, their kids, and with volunteer organizations they were involved with.

By learning NVC with their team, they also benefitted from being part of a community of learners. When you have twenty or thirty people practicing NVC together, and sometimes multiple teams of this size, and where this becomes in effect the expected norm and where there is sufficient support for people learning and practicing together, the speed and depth of learning is inspiring and dramatic. Merck, Inc. was so impressed with an initial training program in Collaborative Communication, they conducted a study on the impact. The results were beyond anyone’s expectations.

I once met a doctor at an NVC training who was angry that I was sharing NVC at “big pharma.” He didn’t like how pharmaseutical companies were profiting from people’s illness, and how they, in his opinion, would place profits over people’s health. As an NVC trainer and activist, I have had an opportunity to look at my own enemy images of companies and corporations. Yet each company I have worked with is made up of people. Many of those people I find also do not like what their company is doing or how they are operating or how they are structured. The manager thinks they are bringing me in just to collaborate and communicate more effectively. What they discover is that learning NVC challenges a whole range of assumptions and the “status quo”—including the very way their departments are structured and the way feedback/reviews are given, advancement is decided, and decisions made.

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Given the size and power of corporate America, making these changes can seem like a tear drop in an ocean. (This is another area I often have given myself empathy around!). Yet, ultimately, if I want to see changes in society and for human beings as a species to continue and other life on the planet, I have a huge urgency to share NVC as much as I can in the corporate world. And I do see change happening.  In the last twenty years, “emotional intelligence” has become something of a buzz word, empathy and other “soft skills” (that I actually think are crucial!)  are increasingly valued at work, and now there is a larger movement and awareness of how companies are structured, led in part by entrepreneurial start ups and also expanding into larger companies and structures. Reinventing Organizations
offers numerous examples. I look forward to the day when a large company or organization —maybe Google! Or Microsoft?—decides to fully adopt NVC principles and practices company-wide. This for me would be one of the most exciting social change experiments imaginable, and would be huge step in creating a world based on collaboration, power-sharing, and all needs mattering.

On December 7th-8th, I will be leading a two day program in Frankfurt, Germany (presented in English) with Francois Beausoleis on NVC at Work: Transforming Organizations with Nonviolent Communication. Please come join me!

Meanwhile, take a moment and reflect: How would your company or organization be different if NVC were practiced by your colleagues and management? How would greater collaboration, trust, and more connected communication boost creativity, efficiency and effectiveness? How can you start bringing NVC into your work place?

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