Last Saturday I was invited to be a guest trainer at the BayNVC Immersion Program to teach about the use of NVC for social change. This piece contains three snippets from that day.
What Is Effective Social Change?
Early on one of the participants was taken aback by the use of the term “social change activist.” Her image of an activist was one of holding banners and shouting slogans, and in her experience she didn’t see that kind of action as particularly effective. She said she had been involved in humanitarian work within a mainstream organization and she thought that contributed to more effective social change than the activists she saw outside the building. When asked where she had worked, she said it was in the World Bank.
Immediately I took the moment as an opportunity to demonstrate the power of dialogue across disagreement. I was grateful for the years of practice that allowed me to hear her despite strong disagreement with her. We never even touched on the question of whether or not the World Bank contributes to reducing poverty. Instead, I focused on reflecting my understanding of what was important to her and keeping my reflection at the level that could stay common to both of us. I have been advocating openness to being changed through dialogue. And I had exactly that experience. What changed was not my opinion about the World Bank. Rather, what changed was my seeing it as possible and even desirable to work with people to create change wherever it would be effective, whether within or outside the mainstream. I felt relief, curiosity, and excitement at recognizing that I had been blinded by an automatic opposition, and that I was now open.
Taking Power by Making Choices
Kris Heydon (her real name), one of the participants in the group I was visiting, teaches in a public school, where many decisions are made by people in administration. She was confused, because she didn’t see how she could apply what I had presented previously given her perception of total lack of power to affect those decisions. She intended to go on from that statement to another part of her question, something about what she can do in her own classroom, within her sphere of influence. I didn’t want to leave the question of power so quickly, so I probed further. I suggested that she could, if she wanted, get support from others, both teachers and parents, and engage with the decision-makers. At first she didn’t see how, and brought up reasons for why this wouldn’t work. After hearing her challenge, I reassured her that I wasn’t suggesting that she was supposed to do that. It was clear that she didn’t want to, and it was important for me to respect that. My point was only that it was a choice she was making, and she could make it either way, if she wanted. Then she thought for a while, and said she wanted to recap what she had learned. Slowly and carefully she expressed her learning: “I can take power by making choices.” In few simple words she summarized a principle I consider deep and central to the entire project of nonviolence.
To George with Love
In another small group activity a woman, let’s call her Claire, wanted to find respectful ways of turning down invitations to participate in a demonstration, rally, or some other political activity she doesn’t want to attend. We set up a role play between her and a co-worker who urged her to come to a campus-wide protest against George Bush (this was an event that happened some years ago). Her struggle, as we came to see, was that she had been so deeply trained to maintain harmony, that even when she tried to express herself she didn’t really articulate what was going on for her that would lead her to this unpopular choice. She expressed only vague statements such as: “I am not really comfortable going to the demonstration.” In coaching her, I invited her to go deeper into her experience, to become vulnerable and assertive, both. Gradually her passion rose closer to the surface, and her reasons became clear. She was troubled by many of the policies that George Bush was putting in place. She did want to have her voice heard and for George to receive the feedback. Her real concern was that she wanted that feedback to come with love, so George Bush would be able to take it in. All of us in the room fell silent for a moment. Protest with love was a new concept, especially for the woman in the character who was inviting Claire to the demonstration. She seemed to change, even though she was only a character. Then she expressed, spontaneously, how she has had discomfort with the demonstrations, too, and was glad to have this new idea. For Claire to tell the full truth and remain open and unattached served to create space for the other person to change.
How can we engage in dialogue that transforms? Three key elements to focus on:
- Stay open, curious, relaxed, and let go of changing the other. Be prepared to be changed.
- Listen and reflect before expressing your point of view. Focus on reflecting what you believe is most important to the other person. Look for commonalities in your reflection, something the other person expresses in their position that you also want for them.
- When expressing your position, link it to you instead of making it what should be. What is in your heart, what do you value, what matters to you that is expressed in your position? Articulate that, as vulnerably as possible, and the other person will have an easier time listening to you.
I would love to hear your stories of transformational dialogues, both about matters of social change, and about your own personal lives.