Transforming Society through Organizations

When I first became a Nonviolent Communication (NVC) trainer, I was especially motivated to work with nonprofits and social change organizations. I had seen how progressive causes—with admirable goals and intentions—had struggled to be effective and, as a result, to achieve their goals. 

Many of the challenges were related to unresolved conflicts. At best, these conflicts were a distraction and a drain on resources; at worst, they led to infighting and organizations (or at least their projects) breaking down. To me, my form of social change through sharing NVC was to help social change work become “better” (with connection, clarity, and harmony) and so be more effective.

Since then my thinking has further evolved. While I still work with and support nonprofits and NGOs—from small organizations to the U.N. Development Programme and more recently to foundations such as Camphill and labor unions such as the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), I also have become passionate about sharing NVC in for-profit companies and corporations. Sometimes, I am amused that I started out at what may seem such a different place; yet for me, this change is a further expression of my commitment to social change.

In fact, this has become one of the most compelling and meaningful forms of social change that I can imagine. Around the world, corporate culture and practices have become the norm by which all other kinds of organizations are expected to function and emulate. As an academic, for example, I saw how colleges and universities increasingly were expected to follow corporate models; I see this in the healthcare industry in the U.S. as well as in non-profits. While there is much that can be learned and emulated from corporate culture, it also (overall) in my opinion reflects much of the power-over structures that are not serving us very well in the world.

Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

My hope is that if I 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 bringing NVC into this environment can make a real difference, including for people in other areas of their lives, including at home and with their children. While individuals may not have the time or money to commit to an extended study of NVC on their own, many organizations do have those resources (especially if they are committed to making significant changes in how their company operates).

By working with large companies and organizations that often have teams of 30-60 or more that are learning NVC, I see a way to dramatically scale NVC learning and practice. By learning NVC with their work team, they also benefited from being part of a community of learners. When you have 20-30 people learning together (and sometimes multiple teams of this size) and when this becomes the expected norm, the speed and depth of learning can be dramatic! 

For example, I have worked with numerous companies that have made a 6-month commitment to their staff developing and practicing NVC skills and thinking. This included immersion training, follow-up training, and individual and group coaching. The changes that I see as a result over these programs is dramatic and inspiring. I often hear participants comment on how what they learned at work impacted a conversation they had with their wife or husband, their kids, and with volunteer organizations they were involved with.

I see how conflicts are resolved internally, and how people start speaking up more, engaging in authentic conversations, across power differences. My hope is that when people start to see the value in collaborating (rather than using punishment or reward, or power-over) they will share these experiences and skills with others, creating a ripple effect. Seeing how well collaboration works for them at work and at home, they may start to wonder: What would this look applied to education? To our criminal justice systems? To how we engage politically?

Photo: Sergey Pesterev on Unsplash

As one example, Merck was so impressed with an initial training program in Collaborative Communication that I led for them, they conducted a study on the impact. The results were beyond anyone’s expectations. This is multiplied when different teams that regularly work together go through the training as one group or simultaneously.

I once met a doctor at a training who became angry when he learned that I was helping “Big Pharma.” He didn’t like how pharmaceutical companies were profiting from people’s illness, and how they, in his opinion, would place profits over people’s health. His words caused me to remember that I had also had some of those same thoughts about corporations in my life.

As an NVC trainer and activist, however, I have had an opportunity to look at my own enemy images of companies and corporations. Each company is made up of people. Many of those people do not necessarily like what their company does, how they operate, or how they are structured. They often are struggling under these same structures themselves, and don’t see how to change Goliah.

Photo by Retha Ferguson from Pexels

The manager often thinks they are bringing me in merely 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 and annual reviews are given, advancement is decided, and decisions are made. Often they are challenged themselves, to consider how they use power and how their actions impacts dynamics in the team.

Given the size and power of Corporate America, making these changes can seem like a teardrop in an ocean. (This is another area I often have given myself empathy about!). 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. 

Fortunately, I do see some change happening. In the last twenty years. “Emotional intelligence” has become a buzzword; empathy and other so-called “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 startups and also expanding into larger companies and structures. 

Reinventing Organizations, a book by Frederic Laloux, 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. For me, this would be one of the most exciting social change experiments imaginable, and would be a huge step toward creating a world based on collaboration, power-sharing, and everyone’s needs mattering.

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? What structures do you see in corporate America in our culture as a whole? How would changing those structures, practices and beliefs impact our lives and the future of our planet?

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