If you’re attempting to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak or sign the same language as you, and you don’t have an interpreter, no matter how clear or connected your communication, you may not be heard or understood. There are external or structural issues at play. Your empathic intention—communicated via your facial expressions and body language, might help with connection, and you can find creative solutions–such as drawing pictures or using pantomime. But until the structural issues are addressed, easeful communication will be difficult, if not impossible.
In the case of speaking different languages, it’s clear cut. But I find working with individuals, organizations, and even when addressing social change, the structural elements can often be overlooked. I think this is common because often we’re in the midst of a situation, we are so close to it, we can’t see the forest for the trees. We also want to believe we are empowered, and agents of change. If only we were skilled enough at NVC, the beliefs (conscious or unconscious), the words, and the dynamics would be different (or so we want to believe).
But following on the topic of my last blog posting (on power and privilege), I want to examine in more detail today what I consider structural dynamics in resolving conflict and avoiding harm or violence. I consider this topic important because I want to be effective in my work supporting others, to be effective in finding solutions, and to create change. No matter how skilled you are in NVC and conflict resolution, until the structural issues are resolved, there will continue to be challenges and conflict. The root structural issues need to be solved first or, at least, concurrently.
Writing about this reminds me of a story that Marshall Rosenberg often told. He asked: “What would you do if you were standing downstream along a river, and you saw a baby floating by? Well, most people would wade or jump into the river and do their best to pull that baby out and save it. But what if, after pulling that first baby out, and a second and third baby, you saw more babies floating downstream?” Marshall suggested that it would behoove you go up the river and find out who or how all these babies were getting thrown into the river. In other words, Marshall was addressing this same concept: that if a situation or problem is endemic, look to find structural solutions.
Let’s look at this concept in more detail, as it pertains to communication, collaboration, and nonviolence (ahisma) on intra-personal, organizational and societal levels:
STRUCTURAL ISSUES IN ORGANIZATIONS
I’m often contacted by a manager or organization to help improve communication, management, leadership or collaboration in their team or organization. I am delighted to receive requests of this kind—it’s compelling work for me to use my skills in this way: supporting groups of people and helping them to work more collaboratively and creatively together. Plus, the skills they learn at work often get brought home, benefiting their families and personal relationships. It’s a win-win for everyone: the team, the company, and the employees. Plus, I love that there is a community of learners. Where else (other than at work, where most people spend the bulk of their time each day) can you learn and practice NVC with other people for this many hours? So these opportunities are exciting for me!
Yet sometimes, when I hear what’s going on in an organization, I can tell (based on what I’m hearing and my experience) that all or some of their staff and managers learning Collaborative Communication (NVC), whether it be through training or coaching, will not create the changes they’re looking for. Why? No matter how much I can support managers and team members building their skills, and applying/living these skills, if structural issues go unresolved, it’s like those babies being thrown repeatedly into the river.
For example, the team and/or company wants less silos, more collaboration, more teamwork. And yet the team members are assessed in their annual reviews on individual performance. There may be one or two items ticked off each year on collaboration and teamwork as part of that individual review. But, in my view, as long as staff are being reviewed (and rewarded) on an individual basis, we will be missing an opportunity (on a structural level) to have alignment with the values that the manager and/or company want to move towards.
Restructuring the annual review process could seem daunting—especially if it’s company-wide. But making this structural change goes way beyond this one specific moment and strategy. The process of changing the reviews can be used as an opportunity to foster dialogue and awareness about what collaboration means and looks like, and can engage the team/members in re-envisioning the review process, creating teamwork and buy-in. When structures reflect values, when they are consistent and in alignment with each other, this is when organizations move into the “sweet spot” and start seeing the greatest return on investment in creating the changes they’re wanting to make.
Similarly, when a company is concerned about people being siloed, with staff saying things like, “that’s not my job,” or staff passing a task on, or, inversely, holding tasks too tightly and not working with others, I often find that there have been major changes in the organization (layoffs, restructuring, buy outs) and these changes have not been sufficiently addressed. There is actual confusion about roles and insecurity and lack of trust, since the changes (and motivation behind them) have not been clearly explained to staff, or haven’t been explained in a way that staff know what’s happening or when. This affects morale and trust, and people’s clarity about what their roles and responsibilities are. In these situations, I strongly recommend change management work, based on NVC principles and practices that can be integrated with training. Just offering training or coaching without addressing what’s happened on a structural level will not be effective. We’re back to fishing babies out of that river.
INTRA-COMMUNICATION AND SOCIAL CHANGE
In my last blog, I wrote about power and privilege. This, in effect, is looking at communication and societal dynamics on a structural level. Yes, we can address individual and repeated communication “misses” making use of NVC skills, and avoid looking at power and privilege on structural levels. And, at the risk of over using those babies in the river metaphor, this is like pulling dozens of babies out of the river repeatedly without looking up stream.
I recently saw this at play also in an organization. I was asked to lead a series of trainings for an organization that was concerned about how women were being treated on the job. Women were giving examples of sexual comments being made that they considered inappropriate, explicit, and were uncomfortable hearing, disparaging terms (such as people calling them “honey” or “dear” in a professional setting—also distracting and calling up needs for dignity and respect), and men talking over them in meetings, discrediting their opinions in various ways, and taking other actions that would seem symptomatic of gender bias (and power and privilege), unconsciously or not. Here’s the thing: when one group—for whatever reason, due to gender, race, culture, etc, is accustomed to speaking first, speaking above/over others, having the last word, etc., because that’s the social “norm” and that’s what both parties are accustomed to, it can be hard to see this kind of behavior and address it. It’s the norm. And it’s hard for those in power to see how it’s also negatively impacting (and de-humanizing) for them.
Yes, training the women and entire teams in how to practice NVC is empowering and impactful. Women will be more likely to be empowered to speak up and be able to share their concerns in a way that the men are more likely to be able to hear. Some people I know believe this is enough and that this is the whole concern of NVC. But each time a woman speaks up, even with her new empowering NVC skills, she speaks up in the context (in the face) of further “structural” biases: for example, the story that women are emotional, over reactive, less rational, etc. And given that men (still) have more power structurally, and are (still) more likely to be in positions of power (i.e. in a management role) than a woman who is speaking up, even with her best NVC skills, with both the cultural challenges (perceptions of women) and power differences (the hierarchy), she is facing a heavy weight of structural challenges. And this is just a few examples. The same applies, in my opinion, for example, for people of color responding to incidents of bias and racism, or gays responding to heterosexual bias or homophobia, etc.
And why is it left for the women to speak up (or anyone not in structural power)? If we are looking at dynamics on a structural level, what can be done to increase the number of women in management roles? What can the men do to educate themselves? How can they proactively help create a comfortable space for women to speak up? How can they support other men in learning to be open to hearing feedback about their behavior? This is what will really, in my view, create a culture of shared responsibility, awareness, effort, teamwork and collaboration—and lead to real change.
SOCIAL CHANGE ON A PERSONAL (AND NOT-SO-PERSONAL) LEVEL
On a large-scale societal level, and an intra-personal level, recent events in Las Vegas unfortunately offer a further poignant example of these principles and dynamics.
Without knowing for sure what motivated the shooter Stephen Paddock to fire into the concert crowd, I will posit that he was unhappy, troubled, and perhaps even internally tormented. His behavior follows a pattern with other mass shooters as someone who was reserved, quiet and solitary. He experienced trauma early in his life (his father being arrested and removed from his life). He seemed to have few friends. Would it have made a difference if he had been able to share his inner thoughts and judgments and be heard, and heard empathically?
I am sure this could have helped him—and perhaps there could have been a different outcome. But structural issues also are at play here: How is American culture constructed, in terms of acceptable behavior for men (who are still taught not to show their feelings or weakness), to take a gun and use it in this way? And how is it that for men with privilege and status, this route is open to them and may, in effect, seem the only way to express themselves and be heard, even in a distorted way? How is it acceptable (on some level) to express (unconscious) hurt, rage and frustration in this way? How does privilege (in relation to internal pain and loss) play into these dynamics?
Statistically, every mass shooter in the U.S. has been a man. This is important data, on a structural and observational level. It brings what happened past one person and one incident. Rather than demonizing a particular person or group, or trying to find out why he made the choices that he made, I think it behooves us as a culture to look at these issues on a structural level—which would include, of course, that guns are so readily available in the U.S.
Creating Powerful Change—with your NVC skills
What will contribute to structural change? In organizations, individual relationships, and on a cultural level?
Here we come back to NVC. While I believe that some change needs to happen on a structural level (so again, we’re not perpetually having the same conversations or fishing the same babies out of the river), NVC offers powerful resources to talk about power, privilege, and other structures. If you want to change the annual review practices in your organization, for example, it will support you to express your concerns if you share clear observations, your feelings, and your needs about it, and to make clear requests. When men in a group or organization want to commit themselves to changing dynamics to have greater inclusion and respect for women co-workers, knowing how to structure clear positive doable action steps is key. Just wanting to be “more respectful” is not enough. What does this mean on a practical, lived level? How will men speak up when they see something happening or being said that they consider inappropriate? How will they choose to respond when a woman raises a concern? And how will they hold space for women to speak, especially if not in a position of authority (management) and in the face of (unconscious) cultural bias? Are they willing to wait, at least 50% of the time, for a women in the group (especially if the only woman) to speak first?
And if people in the US want greater peace of mind about safety in public spaces and desire to change gun control laws, then observations (the statistics, the facts) will be key, as well as focusing on core values—what we do want (such as safety, respect, shared reality, public space)–will be powerful in inspiring awareness, motivation, and enacting new laws.
In the end, to create change, we need to raise awareness about structures so as to challenge and transform them and to do so (most effectively, in my opinion) by using NVC skills and consciousness. But practicing NVC is not enough. Otherwise, we will be perpetually pulling babies out of the stream—having repeated conversations, in isolation, in a vacuum. That to me is exhausting and discouraging. I want effectiveness, hope, and efficient change—and a sense of collaboration and shared effort in creating changes that will ultimately benefit all of us and most ensure our collective survival, strength and full expression, development and happiness as a species.