Conversations About Power, Privilege, and Social Change

In 2017, the NVC Academy organized an online symposium, Removing Our Blinders: Seeing the Impact of Power and Privilege. The event offered opportunities for those of European background and people of color to share their experiences as well as men and women, and for others to empathically listen in a virtual fishbowl.

This approach, of structured group speaking and listening, seemed to me to be a uniquely Nonviolent Communication (NVC) approach to social change and powerful use of empathy. I wonder what the world would be like if we could have more symposiums of this kind, and group mourning circles, for all that is happening in the world today including around the Me Too movement, the environment, and species extinction.

In the context of co-leading one of the fishbowls and symposiums, I received an email from someone who had emailed all the symposium trainers challenging our involvement. This person wrote, “There’s no correlation when talking about subjective differences such as privilege and NVC…” and saw this focus a deviation from NVC principles and out of integrity with what Marshall Rosenberg (the creator of NVC) taught.

I found this take on NVC both confusing and surprising. I took care and effort in responding to the person; below is a modified version of my response. For me, Nonviolent Communication is a form of social change, and addressing power is intrinsic to creating that change.

For me, every conversation we engage involves power of some kind be it structural (based on laws, institutions, or social status) or relational (based on prior experience or interactions in the relationship). Structural power takes the form of institutions and practices (what the French philosopher, Michel Foucault called “Power”) and the ideas, beliefs, assumptions, prejudices, and ideology that supports or justifies the structural Power (what Foucault called “Knowledge”). One cannot operate without the other. The thinking justifies and enables the system and structures.

A couple of quick examples:

  • Could slavery or Jim Crow laws have happened without racism?
  • Could women have been denied the right to vote without sexism and misogyny?

Marshall explored this link between language and thought (knowledge) and structure and action (power) in the interview I did with him published in The Sun magazine in 2003. When working with police in Israel, Marshall discovered from talking with them that each time there had been a physical act of violence (a gun was taken out and/or used) it had been preceded by a verbal exchange first. This offers a simple example (thoughts lead to action). And, this micro example is replicated on every level of our society.

If you reflect on this, when we treat someone “badly” it’s because we already have a judgment or evaluation of them. Our thoughts precede our actions. Likewise, on a societal level, beliefs and prejudices inform how our institutions are structured and operate—and most of them, I am sad to say, including education, health care, and our justice system, are based on power-over, which implicitly involves judgments of some people and making them into the “other.”

In contrast, what happens when:

  • Power is shared?
  • We connect with the full humanity of the other person?
  • we make choices and take actions from a place of being fully connected to our needs?

This is what Nonviolent Communication ultimately calls for and elicits. And if our relationships change on an interpersonal level, ultimately they will also impact societal structures, practices, and institutions.

The letter I wrote:

Dear (person),

First of all, I am not surprised to hear that this topic of “privilege” is a trigger for you, since I know it is for some people. In particular, there has been what I would consider to be an extensive discussion recently among Certified Trainers from the Center for Nonviolent Communication.

What stands out for me is how many people are also excited and relieved about this topic, and that NVC Academy (the organizer of the symposium) has brought it forward into a discussion. Each time I have sent the emails out about the fishbowls and the symposium (I was asked to co-facilitate one each), I have received numerous emails of gratitude and appreciation.

I have had more of a response to these emails than to any other email I have ever sent (spanning more than 15 years). I don’t think it’s simply because of how the letters are written—although I like how the NVC Academy wrote them; I think it’s the topic itself and how many people appreciate opening the topic up.

You are the first to contact me directly with concerns and, again, I know that some CNVC Certified Trainers are also concerned. I’m hearing that the core of your concern is anxiety around “privilege” as a label or an evaluation, and that this is what you see as being out of alignment with NVC and its values.

Moreover, that as a “label,” this concept would get in the way of connection and understanding (rather than increase it). And, as related to all this, I hear a concern that Marshall would not have wanted this term to be used. Ultimately, there is a desire to protect the integrity of NVC and its continued growth and impact in the world.

I also think that some people simply want clarity: When people talk about privilege, what are they talking about exactly? (To use NVC terms, what are the observations?) I want to speak to these concerns.

Personally, I heard Marshall repeatedly speak of his desire to see NVC as a form of social change (for examples, see the two interviews I conducted with him for The Cleveland Free Times and The Sun magazine). He also repeatedly referenced books such as Walter Wink’s, The Powers that Be and Riane Eisler’s, The Chalice and the Blade, both of which are about the use of power in human society, how it has shifted over thousands of years, and how (in the case of Wink’s book) civil disobedience is a nonviolent challenge of power to its “habits” and structures.

For Marshall, I believe the compelling question for him was this: How can all people and all beings’ needs matter and be held with care?  As part of this (as illustrated by the book references above), he questioned and even challenged hierarchal structures, power over, and societal norms and expectations where power resided (one example is how he referred to corporations as “gangs,” using his characteristic humor). “Power-over” is a “label” or term that Marshall used repeatedly. This is what I see “privilege” referencing: “power-over” patterns on a societal level in how we relate to each other and to all of life.

The ultimate example of his views and intentions is that he decided to call the practice he developed “Nonviolent Communication” in part because he saw the practice as a direct extension of Gandhi’s principles. I don’t think I need to remind anyone that Gandhi was focused on civil disobedience, a radical way of practicing compassion to challenge power and power-over. Marshall saw NVC as an extension of these principles. In effect, it was Rosenberg’s “experiment” in direct action every day, in each conversation and interaction.

My sense is that there is pain, at least in the United States, about access to power (i.e., resources and opportunities), including physical safety, health, and housing, for example, and how to most effectively address these imbalances. Internationally, I wonder: how has the impact of colonialism in the world been fully named or addressed? And how many nations are still now (decades later) recovering and rebuilding from the impact? How has reconciliation, healing, reparations, and accountability been taken?

We used to speak of “Third World nations” and then it became more respectful to say, “developing nations.” In my opinion, the most accurate term is “formerly colonized nations.”

Colonialism, slavery, and racism–all inter-connected in my opinion–represent a system that carries the continuing legacy of one group holding greater rights, value, or power. The groups can be based on race, gender, class, sexual orientation, or religion, for instance.

When power becomes “codified,” meaning it’s held by certain groups and reinforced and maintained by societal norms, beliefs, laws, and institutions, this is what I consider “privilege.” Increasingly, I see this privilege not only in how we treat each other; it’s also reflected in on our relationship as humans to the environment and to other species.

What is power? From an NVC perspective, I would say it is the capacity to see your needs met. Privilege is a tag word for the societal practices, beliefs, and norms that both express and continue power continuing to be held—institutionally, culturally, and socially– by some groups. As surfaced in the NVCA symposium, these layers of power can be nuanced and complex.

As Roxy Manning pointed out in her session, she’s aware that she has some (class) privilege by the nature of her having a higher degree (a Ph.D.) and also faces discrimination (harder access to being seen and seeing her needs met) as a woman and a person of color. Power, of course, is not only structural or institutional. We also have power in terms of internal resources. And this is a “power” that I also see NVC focused on developing.

I believe that discussing privilege could be a transformative experience in our community, assuming it’s offered in the spirit of dialogue with a clear focus on empathy (rather than debate). It could be very powerful to hear different members of our community share what they are seeing and hearing in their worlds (observations) along with how they are being impacted.

I am inspired, for example, thinking about the post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation process that, in effect, created a nationwide structure for restorative justice in South Africa.

I also am inspired by the growing call for reparations in the U.S., with students, as they did with fighting Apartheid in the U.S., taking the lead. As someone who has spent years researching and writing about Cultural Studies (my Ph.D. is in this area) it is very clear to me that the processes Marshall described as effective between people for healing and reconciliation (including from profound trauma) also has broader application between groups of people and trauma and imbalances on a larger, societal scale. NVC offers a frame for understanding power and privilege and how to shift it and transform it in radical ways—through empathy, love, and compassion.

I believe that specific acts are an extension of our beliefs, and patterns of beliefs, both conscious or unconscious. Maybe a more “NVC way” of referring to this is to ask

  • How does power and power-over function in the world today and what is the impact for us human beings?
  • How do our beliefs–including our judgments and biases–support that power and its structures continuing?
  • How do our own fears get in the way of addressing these issues?

Again, I see “power” as the capacity we have to see our needs met. How might some people be choosing strategies (and I include speech as a strategy) that may be tragic attempts to meet their needs? (I would consider actions and words of the current president of the U.S. in relation to women to be “tragic” in the way Marshall spoke about “violence being a tragic expression of unmet needs.”)

Trainers have also expressed concern about Marshall’s desire and legacy for social change. Can NVC have a real impact regarding social change? Can empathy and people hearing each other create social change?  I continue to believe that it can. My research in cultural studies (that examines trauma on societal and cultural levels) reinforces this belief for me that empathy can be transformative.

From this perspective, discussion of power, power over, and structural and codified power (i.e. privilege) offers a way to hear, understand, and address each other’s pain around our needs being met and how we choose to use our resources moving forward in a way that is more life-serving for everyone. I have often pointed out that racism profoundly impacts people of color; we are all impacted by white-supremacy. Likewise, I believe that sexism and misogyny also impacts men and their capacity and freedom for full expression as human beings in life.

This is different than using “privilege” as a moral judgment or condemnation. I also don’t think Marshall used the term “power-over’ in this way either. He used “power-over” as a way to raise consciousness and awareness about particular ways that we as a species had come to behave, in ways that he did not find “life-serving” (another label he liked to use!). Overall, he asked, “How can we make life more wonderful?” (and “wonderful” is also an evaluation!). The most compelling and implicit question in all this (to my hearing) is: How am I using my power—and taking responsibility for it? How can I use my power–whatever power I have (internally, structurally, relationally) to a better life?

I share these thoughts with you out of a desire to see us further evolve as a species and for all life to continue to thrive on our planet. For me, this evolution of consciousness is intrinsically connected to our capacity to address the kinds of questions I raise here, even when painful and scary, uncomfortable and triggering. After all, it is when we are fully standing in the light that we see our shadows. And how we face our shadows will determine our future. I believe that looking at power and institutional power is one way of casting light.


How do you feel about the points that I brought up in my letter to this person? Would you have expressed it differently? (please comment below!)

~ Dian

9 thoughts on “Conversations About Power, Privilege, and Social Change

  1. Dian,

    I thank you for taking the time to express your thoughts on this topic of privilege. (I participated in one of the fishbowl discussions that you co-moderated with Mary Mackenzie on this very topic). As a Black man who works with people that I consider wealthy or financially resource “full”, while the word privilege is not one I would lead with in discussions with them, as it might promote more of a corrective energy from me than a connective one, I believe it’s an important topic nonetheless and does, in fact, exist.

    I really enjoyed how you spoke about privilege as an off-shoot of power, / power over, making the distinction that naming privilege invites us to, as a community, “…look at, address and hear each other’s pain around our needs being met and how we choose to use our resources. This is different than using “Privilege” as a moral judgment or condemnation.” You articulated this difference in such a sweet way that I’ve yet to experience before reading your post.

    I’m interested to hear feedback from those who may take issue with NVCA or the NVC community, as a whole, having discussions about and around privilege. For me, privilege is a label but one we can either unpack or sweep under the rug. I’m for the former.

    Your Homeboy from Hollywood,

    Cory Tyler

    • Thank you so much Cory for reading my blog and letting me know that you found this one on privilege helpful, and your thoughts on this topic. Reading your comments, that “As a Black man who works with people that I consider wealthy or financially resource “full”, while the word privilege is not one I would lead with in discussions with them, as it might promote more of a corrective energy from me than a connective one, I believe it’s an important topic nonetheless and does, in fact, exist,” I think we are on the same page: that “privilege” is an important and helpful concept to understand dynamics and power relations in our society, and to help wake us up to power over and how it functions. This is different than saying to someone, “YOU are privileged” or “YOU are acting in a privileged way!” This is where NVC skills come in—and where I’d want to name what exactly I’ve seen or heard the person say, and what needs it brings up for me (such as respect, dignity, mutuality, all needs mattering, what serves life, etc). Privilege I think gets to a radical core—because if we start really looking at privilege, it raises questions that challenges our whole economic system. Why is it that some in the world have enough to eat and others don’t? for example–or any other resource, such as health care or education. These are challenging questions. And if we don’t ask, I don’t think we’re going to survive as a species–or evolve to our full potential. And this is the point that I think many white people and others in privilege miss: these power differences affect and diminish all of us. Of course, if you’re a person of color you are most directly impacted by racism and you are paying a high price in this system. But white supremacy–and and sexism, and homophobia, ableism, ageism, etc diminishes ALL of us. We are so used to that energy being expended that we don’t see it and how it’s impacting us.

      • Thanks so much Martina for reading the blog and replying. And I laughed out loud re: long posts and avoiding them generally — I usually do the same! I thought about dividing this one in two, and I could not see an easy way to do it- so thank you for your patience for a long post. 🙂 To answer your question re: colonialism, there are many many books on this topic (this was the subject of my PhD research!). While not specifically about colonialism, if you have not read Walter Wink’s book on The Powers that Be, I’d start there. Edward Said’s book Orientalism is also a good place to start, IMO. I just googled this and found too: Shaking the Rattle; Healing the Trauma of Colonization. And I am glad this blog has inspired you to speak up! 🙂

  2. Dear Dian,  Thank you lots for sharing this letter in detail.To be open,  I usually don’t read long postings,  as time seems tight and I try to reduce online time vs “real” connection time offline🤗 In this case, my feeling was that an exception would be worth it….and it was😀 Interesting to hear about NVC issues/subjects from “over the pond”. I have founded a regional NVC trainer group of “non-certifieds” here in Bavaria after checking into regulations/history of the existing certified group and so I am always happy about new NVC impulses!  I really like your academic writing style.  It so much reminds me of the style of my tutors at Open University in Milton Keynes that have broadened my horizon immensely in many fruitful ways. And, as I have written many months ago (not sure, you remember?), I am keen and anxious about scientific issues of different coaching methods (having clear personal preference for NVC with little scientific-based evidence for its advantage over other ways) with some regret as to medothological limitations in scientific examinations, when attempting to show its efficacy.  So far, I “only” have personal feedbacks: “our team was so inspired by your workshop on NVC-tools, as it was like spending time abroad with natives and really learning a new language vs all the other methods we tried before that stayed theoretical…. like trying to learn vocabularies by heart without real practical success…”. This confirmation by participants has inspired me Mose to keep an eye on further scientific developments … What releived me most in your posting, was the impact of colonialism in today’s refugee/racism debate and development. So far, I felt somewhat alone with my opinion on this subject and your thoughts confirmed and strengthened my attitude on the (causal) relationship.  I am on the search for “hard facts” as of now, so if you have input on that, I am grateful for a hint! I feel ambivalent towards the motivation/need for “social change” coming from Marshal/anyone, as acceptance of the current situation seems the most important step for “real” change and at the same time, taking on personal responsiblity for one’s “privilege” to put them at best? use for oneself AND others seems an obligation in times of intense and growing public societal injustice (being clearly judgemental there…) ….an issue that keeps my thoughts circling around… I was inspired by the “care and respect” that you responded to the letter with, as I often do not manage to do so with contradictory views, am impatient and non-empathic in my reactions, thank you for that !  I am always “intrigued” by the issue of power and its labels applied (not sure, I got the grips on the “power-over” issue, will keep on reflecting on that) and was impressed with the mental line that you drew from current Trump issues to answers by Marshall and Gandhi. I much appreciate this kind of inspiration and am keen on sharing this over here within my personal social context…. For my personal change, I have decided to speak up more in the future, when racial harrasssments are being made by friends and family (hopefully in an empathic manner to keep the connection )and to be less quite and “polite” as I have been. Thanks for speaking up and out in such an empathic manner😀Martina Ps I have eben so inspired by you in the past and found it so bizarre when Andreas, out of my coaching education class, talked about this inspirational NVC trainer in the States that he was ging to meet to talk over some issues to then later find out, it was you🤗 Martina Empathie-Coach (Marshall B. Rosenberg)B.Sc. (Open) Psych., Open University Werbe-Fachwirtin (BAW) Von Samsung-Tablet gesendet

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  4. Hi Dian,
    Personally when I have heard “privilege” used in conversations I have felt fearful and “triggered” based on its overall use as a manipulative, pejorative, and as a judgement that divides people. Because I felt this way I was compelled to read your post to understand how the discussion of “privilege” in the context of race could work with NVC Values. Overall I am relieved that you made the distinction between how it is used politically (judgement etc) and how to use it in the context of greater empathy. A divided culture seems to need the ability to empathize with the “enemy” now more than ever, and because of the way that term is used widely, I would say that even in this context, it most likely will create more tension and division. Because of NVC I have personally been able to empathize with anyone, though these times of social upheaval, certainly make things more challenging.

    • Thanks for posting Brad, and for reading my blog. Yes, I understand these concerns. And many people in white bodies have their own pain and trauma around how they have experienced their own access to “privilege “– if a woman, working class, differently abled etc. This goes back to the NVC concept of empathy before education. I am glad you have found your NVC skills helpful in navigating these challenging times.

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