Thursday, October 31, 2013

Personal Change, Structural Change, and Nonviolent Communication

by Miki Kashtan

One of the questions that keep coming up in discussions within the community of Nonviolent Communication trainers is how to become more effective at bringing Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to a level where it may support significant cultural change. Most recently, someone calculated that in order to train, for example, the UK armed forces, it would take 7,000 training days just for a basic level of training of 12 hours in groups of 50 people. This calculation helped me reach even more clarity about a question I have been wrestling with for a long time. The starkest way of framing the question is this: can the training model be a strategy for social or cultural change?

Workshops and Culture

Although much of what I write about below is about NVC, my fundamental question is far beyond NVC. I see it as being about any attempt to create fundamental change using a model of change that focuses primarily on individuals changing their behavior or ideas. 

Seeing the numerical analysis above immediately suggests to me that the training model is limited, not just that the number of existing NVC trainers is small. There are several reasons for this. The most obvious, given my sense of the urgent need for transformation in the world, is that I simply don’t believe that we can reach enough people fast enough in this way. This is one of the reasons why in my own work I am focusing on understanding how to change structures and systems. That is not a substitute for personal transformation. It just makes it easier.

Even when we expand the training model beyond public workshops to include media, training within organizations, and bridging cultural differences with new approaches, we are still talking about reaching individuals. Even if we become dramatically more effective at reaching more and different people we still have a major question to attend to: what is it that we are asking people to do once they are exposed to our message? This question, which has haunted me for year now, applies to NVC as well as to any other method that attempts to effect cultural change through individuals.

The question is not so much whether we ask them to attend a workshop, read a book, or participate in a restorative circle. Rather, I mean this question more in terms of what we are asking them to do within themselves and in their lives once exposed to our message.

Right now, the way I understand things, choosing to embrace NVC in full puts us up against extraordinary obstacles in terms of the cultures and structures within which we live. It requires a high degree of courage and of willingness to go against the grain of so many norms and habits. It is entirely unsurprising to me that the majority of even those people that are exposed to transformative messages like NVC embrace them only partially. Even those who truly love NVC, who truly see the potential for making life work so much better for everyone on the planet including other forms of life, rarely go all the way.

What I mean by “partially” is quite wide ranging. It can mean only embracing NVC with some people. I know I often hear people say things such as: “I can do this with my partner and children, not at work” or “This is all nice and good, and still there are some people with whom you have to use other methods.” Just recently, when I offered myself to mediate a conflict, the person I was talking with, whom I know to be a major fan of NVC, referred to it as only a tool among others, and that adversarial approaches still have a place.

Embracing NVC partially can also mean embracing only some aspects of it and not others. Some people focus only on changing relationships with people without changing their fundamental orientation to life. Or doing deep inner work on self-acceptance while continuing to have beliefs about people “deserving” certain responses, or things being “worth” something, as in with money. The worldview that NVC, and the shift to nonviolence more broadly, spells is radical and at odds with the culture at large. I have no difficulty understanding why anyone would stop short of taking it on everywhere, with everyone, all the time.

I know that I, too, with all of my commitment to leave no stone unturned, stop short in some places. For me, it’s about not knowing how to do certain things, such as change how I do money, as an island within a system that hasn’t changed. For others, it may be about the extraordinary effort it takes to create such inner changes. Whatever the reason, I see the phenomenon clearly.

Conversely, if and when any system changes, even if only temporarily, the gap between the individual and the culture is not so huge. Then, it doesn't require as much courage, effort, vigilance, and practice to embrace NVC in full. The people who participate in Restorative Circles, for example, have no reason to buy into an entirely different worldview. It is the process and the system that surrounds it that create the outcome, not any particular personal commitment on the part of participants. When people in Porto Alegre are invited to participate in determining their budget, they don’t have to oppose the system in order to make their voice known. When collaborative management norms are established in an organization (assuming that ever truly happens, sigh...), people don’t have to face the risk of losing a job if they have a dissenting perspective.

I am not by far advocating working only on structural change, as the many revolutions that have taken place historically have demonstrated to me sufficiently that the personal dimension is equally irreducible: just because a structure changes it doesn't mean that an individual within it has changed. It only means that it’s easier for that person to change. I want to create a model of change that doesn’t require each individual to work so hard to create change within and around themselves. That is what structural change can achieve.

Can Personal Change Be Radical Enough?

When Marshall Rosenberg was teaching us about social change, one of the aspects of it that he stressed repeatedly is a distinction between radical and peripheral change. He told stories about group after group that was investing major efforts into creating change in a system that was a specific policy change, for example, which could be subsumed within the existing way that the system functioned. That meant, among other things, that if the person in charge of the system in question was replaced, the entire outcome of the campaign could be easily lost. This was what he referred to as peripheral change. He contrasted it with changes that affect how the system functions, especially how decisions are made, and referred to those as radical changes. Ever since integrating the significance of this distinction, I have always been asking myself, in every situation: what is the most radical outcome that could happen in this situation, and what can I do to bring it about?

This brings me to another dimension of the training model dilemma that is specific to NVC. A few years ago, my sister Inbal and I collected what we saw as a bunch of very different approaches to how NVC is shared and what aspects of it are emphasized. For example, NVC can be shared as a path to self-connection, or as a way to hold everyone’s needs with care. Both are true to the underlying spirit of NVC, and they are nonetheless different. In this context, the question for me is whether certain ways of sharing NVC are more or less conducive to creating change that has a chance of affecting the culture.

I confess to being biased in this exploration. I have a belief, which I hold with some humility (though probably not enough), that focusing on NVC as a path of compassion towards self has only limited potential in this way. In other words: it seems to me that individuals can freely grow their self-compassion without needing to challenge the systems that surround them, the norms of the culture in which their live, or even their own belief systems about life. On the other hand, when I look at what it takes to reclaim a full sense of choice and freedom, I see that path as more likely to collide with the norms of pervasive powerlessness that we all live within. Similarly, focusing on caring for everyone’s needs challenges the fundamental isolation and separation that are so endemic in modern capitalist cultures. I imagine that having identified separation, scarcity, and powerlessness as the core elements of a mindset that perpetuates the destruction I see happening all around us, I would naturally be drawn to finding ways of sharing NVC that specifically challenge those deeply held premises. I still don’t know whether this focus is more likely to lead to cultural change through individuals embracing it than other approaches to sharing NVC.

Returning to Not Knowing

Clearly, I haven’t found an answer to my own many questions. Part of my work, especially when writing, has been to continue to engage with the questions, to keep exploring, to find bits and pieces that make sense to me. I hope I will never give up on the search just because I don’t know yet. Moreover, as I have said repeatedly, I aim to cultivate not knowing as a spiritual path, as an active attempt to respond from a place of humility, which is not my most spontaneous trait.

With not knowing, I still try to maximize my effectiveness any way I can think of. I keep searching for opportunities to affect an entire system. I haven’t yet found any that are on a significant scale. Whenever I have an interaction with a system or structure, I aim for the most radical change possible, and often that means looking at how decisions are made. I am not surprised that people with power show little interest in touching their decision making systems, and that people within systems and organizations who have less access to power are excited about the prospect of looking at decision making.

I also have some growing trust that certain individuals have more of a chance of affecting systems than others. Without attempting to be exhaustive, some examples would be formal and informal leaders, facilitators and mediators, and strategic thinkers within social change movements. This is why I am less and less inclined to do general workshops for the public, and am more and more interested in creating offerings that would appeal to those who are positioned to create change if they become interested. I have a little bit more hope for change with that focus.

I am not proposing ending NVC workshops, and I anticipate continuing to offer them alongside my unceasing efforts to find ways of working with whole systems. What I want to get better and better at is learning how to become more strategic in terms of who I train when I choose to do so, and what specific aspects of NVC I would want to emphasize so that each individual who attends any event of mine has the most chance of having the most effect in their world. The rest, I am in full acceptance of the fact that it’s not up to me.


Click here to read the Questions about this post, and to join us to discuss them on a conference call next Tuesday, November 5, 5:30-7 pm Pacific time. This is a way that you can connect with me and others who read this blog. We are asking for $30 to join the call, on a gift economy basis: so pay more or less (or nothing) as you are able and willing. 


  1. Miki, thanks as always for your thought-provoking posts here. I've been reading a bit about attitude change. There are some studies showing that media which directly attempts to persuade people to change their attitude (and behaviors, etc) is actually sometimes not very effective since people are basically wired to resist when they think someone is trying to change them. What is much more effective in media is simply modeling the attitude changes that we want to spread. To present the desired behavior as the community norm. This is the approach that seems proven to result in attitude and behavior change in the individuals and communities exposed. Apparently this is backed up with a lot of data based on Rwanda peace media work and also US TV advertising. Therefore I have started to think that mainstream media products modeling the NVC consciousness (just as a background part of the story line) may be more effective in achieving attitude and behavior change in certain audiences than mandatory NVC trainings in their workplace. And obviously more scalable. Now of course this is still about change at the individual level, and I do get your main point here that structural change is required. It seems that the most successful change projects involve structural solutions as well as getting buy-in from massive numbers of individuals.
    - Lucy Perry

  2. Thanks Miki !

    that time of day is difficult in Europe, but I'll spread the work

  3. Dear Miki

    Yours is the only blog I have ever read and I read each new one you write and have for years.

    I used to believe NVC was the most powerful path to peace until I found which creates a permanent, complete change in an individual so that uncontrived speech without using giraffe is no longer possible in any context or situation.

    I have attempted to share the reason why I am so excited about with you before and wish I could, each time I read your blog.

    The dichotomy you speak of “self-connection, or as a way to hold everyone’s needs with care” doesn’t actually exist. It’s nonsensical. This is the core confusion of the culture we live in. It is also why we are all so miserable as individuals, because of this confusion. We are NOT separate individuals. When we understand this, and not as a philosophical point but as a lived reality, peace prevails.

    A self compassion which includes everyone is 1) the only spontaneous, uncontrived stable compassion and 2) provides complete empowerment to the individual.

    We all know “to change the world, change yourself”, “be the change” etc. A small group of individuals can change the world, but only when these individuals are able to go all the way with their own transformation, which is possible when we have the education in their own nature that makes the change possible.

    thank you for the opportunity to share

    1. Hi Felicity,

      I have looked at the website you named, and I have asked others to look at it, and I haven't found sufficient clarity to know what it is exactly, nor what you would want me to do about it. Is there something you could say about that?

      As to the dichotomy you talk about, I am wholeheartedly in alignment with you. If there is anything I wrote that implies that I am holding such dichotomy, I am regretting that confusion. I was only suggesting that within the culture in which we live, if the focus starts from self-connection, it won't by itself shift to include care for others, a shift that is essential for a more transformative outcome.

      Blessings to you,


    2. I am so happy to share more with you.

      Humans joining together, creating a world that is for the benefit of all is within reach and a fundamental shift is currently taking place. What is the fundamental shift? Balanced View has discovered the solution to world peace. Just like when Newton discovered gravity, it is not a new creation but a clear understanding of the true nature of reality.

      Currently most humans use their minds to sort experience into good and bad (We call all experience: feelings, thoughts, sensations, people, places and things simply “data” in Balanced View). By sorting, arranging, avoiding, basically managing our “data”, we believe we can have more good data and less bad data. But it is actually not how reality works and is an exhausting, stressful, disempowering and a dissatisfying way to use our minds. This is where violence begins. A war with our own data.

      The approach of constantly sorting data causes conflict within ourselves, our families fight and nations war because we extend this belief in managing data into the belief that we can or should manage everyone else as well. With the education in the nature of our mind, we naturally and effortlessly stop managing our own data. It stops entirely in an uncontrived way, not something we “try” to do like many self help plans. We automatically stop managing everyone and everything and peace prevails.

      Balanced View introduces us and educates us in the true nature of our mind. In our native state, we are naturally beneficial to all. The ability to express creative intent, uncontrived wisdom and compassion are spontaneous. Through the education in the nature of mind, an empowered grassroots community is bringing change into cultures, systems, jobs and organizations. Communities globally are demonstrating what is possible.

      We go beyond an intellectual understanding and instinctively recognize this is true in our own experience. It is easy to learn in a short period and the results are huge shifts in stability, life satisfaction and fulfillment and motivation to only be of benefit to all. Why? Because it is only unlearning the disempowering way we use ourselves and we come back to our natural state.

      It is not about “enlightenment” or attaining anything special. Because this is so different than what we are used to, and so very empowering, it may appear ‘special” but it is simply enlivening what is natural to us.

      What I would invite you to do is see in your own experience if any of this is true for you. Please watch some videos on the website.

      Here are two videos in particular that might interest you.

    3. Dear Felicity,

      I looked at the videos you sent me, and did additional reading. I can almost understand what you find of such interest, although it remains vague to me, and I couldn't find what the practice is.

      After my own research and that of others, I am not seeing more reason to pursue this path further. I don't see what it adds to what I am trying to do.

      I wish you all the best in your own quest. I know there are many paths for many people.


    4. Thank you Dear Miki
      for taking the time to look.
      much love

  4. I really resonate with the questions you're raising here, Miki. Writing for me is another strategy for promoting social and cultural change. Obviously, you are using it...and I am glad that you are. :)

  5. hello MIKI

    thanks for triggering my interest and stimulating my own reflection on the subject.
    and thanks for wanting to help NVC mature from one on one relationships to cultural processes( that is what I understand you are leading to even when you speak only of structural changes)
    Questions arise for me. what made one person like Marshall or Martin Luther King or who ever started a powerful movement toward radical change so effective in the long run if not in a short term.
    radical change are effected on a daily basis in the current trend of conquest. what makes it so effective in altering lives in so many different cultures? what made the American Indian for ex dispossessed so fully in no time?
    what is the main cultural tool that allow cultures to reproduce themselves and last for thousands of years (100 000 for the most ancient culture the kung people of the Kalahari desert.) and what makes them breakdown in one or two generation?
    For me it lie in two words nature and mentoring.
    1 cultures who have been able to reproduce themselves in a stable way, had wild nature as the model of how natural systems perpetuate themselves . Not by cognitively reflecting on natural systems but by connecting deeply in an interactive manner with it ( survival).
    it was and is enough for conquest to break the bond with nature by stopping people from feeding on it( destruction of buffalo or salmon being the symbol of that here ) to collapse the culture in no time....
    2 mentoring is the way by which ancient cultures could pass on from generation to generation the cultural processes facilitating connection to self each other and nature .(the romans destroyed that for our ancestry line) as any other civilised societies have done respectively to other indigenous cultures through the world. Industrial revolution has finish the job wherever some mentoring manage to subsist by creating schools and teachers for all.
    today schools is still the main apparatus throughout the "developing" to change cultures or trained people away from their inborn instincts.( ask the residential schools survivors).
    if we really change that we got to reinstate deep nature connection and so mentoring ( one can't happen without the other.
    Now i have a challenge that is as old as my connection to NVC: how do i explain to a humanistic movement like NVC that nature is fundamental to that change we want to see? (remember marshal is from Detroit and NVC primarily urban)
    there is thing that we can call : "maturation process" the development in consciousness that occur along the life stages from babyhood to adulthood ,there is an important step in it that is not experienced in conquest societies very much or at least not culturally facilitated, the transformation from i to we, from human concerns to web of life concerns, etc. ancient cultures world wide had initiatory experience for that regard that require free play in nature mentoring by older people in childhood and a rite of passage requiring to be alone in nature with no distraction...
    and more... till you reach elderhood ( there the ancestors are still doing the mentoring)

    I would love if you could connect with Jon Young your neighbour in Bonny Doon how he track those cultural processes worldwide ( he integrated NVC in the 8 shields model) and how effectively is changing things around in his community and beyond. go to the art of mentoring workshop in august in CA or in October with me in Idaho to experience first hand those cultural processes in action. there is so much you could share with each other.
    And I am available for more
    Jean-Claude Saltspring island

    1. Jean-Claude,
      Thank you so much for bringing this out. Nature provides us with the true model for interdependence, sustainability, evolution, and resiliency. And of course we are nature.

      Mentoring is so important! This is how we can retain what we have learned in our cultures and continue to develop culture as an art form.

      One piece that I learned from the Art of Mentoring is that every child is born with gifts and it is the role of the elders to call out and help to cultivate those gifts for the benefit of the society that will be on the receiving end of those gifts. This is an example of thinking holistically and not just about putting things into practice individually. Also it is the role of the elders to watch the community and to ensure that all the different pieces are in place--the mentoring of children, the ongoing connection with nature, the rite of passage ceremonies, and a bunch of other things. When they see holes in the fabric, they know where to do the healing work. Unfortunately for us, our fabric looks like swiss cheese. There is so much work to do its hard to know where to begin.

      I do really really appreciate the Art of Mentoring model and the vision it provides. Thank you for bringing it up.

  6. Hi Miki,
    I love reading your blog, too. It is one of the most inspiring activities of my life these days. I find that personal transformation and structural change must go together. The isolation we experience in this capitalistic society is a product of our disconnection from our needs and the needs of others. We are all stuck in a belief system that tells us it is wrong to feel our needs--and to me that is the fundamental disconnect. This explains why NVC is the perfect tool for simultaneously bringing about personal and social/cultural change as it teaches us to feel our way back into our own basic human nature of being in communion and community with our shared universal needs. The challenge for me is to understand that neither personal nor systemic change will happen overnight--or through exhaustive trainings. It is an on-going practice that we may never fully achieve. So I think we need to let go of ideas of "partial," which sounds a lot to me like imperfect.

    1. Hi Again Miki,
      I just read your reply to Felicity. I'd like to add to my comment that it is impossible, I think to hold care for the needs of another, without first cultivating my capacity to connect to my own. If I am truly connected to my own needs--not just paying lip service to some NVC exercise--I will be in communion with the needs of others and will not see them separately from my own. My need then is to care for US. My need is to CARE FOR US. When one truly lives in the energy of needs there is no my need and your needs--there is only the universal living needs. It is the web of life.

  7. Miki
    Also to suggest this video with my Isreali friend Asaf
    thanks so much for your amazing work

  8. Hi Miki, what I'm connecting to having just finished reading your post, is a longing I resonate with to contribute to global awakening of power-with consciousness, of holding all people as mattering, of being willing to be courageous in full self- revealing of the value of connection above all else (hence less "partial" or partitioning of feelings and needs in some circumstances)
    I'm guessing it DEEPLY matters to you that your contribution of NVC reaches and transforms the possibilities and choice of people whose thinking is imprisoning their engagement with life (nature) and each other. Perhaps a longing for reassurance that "awakening" is really happening - that compassion might emerge as a cultural "norm" one day. I dream of this field of love for humanity also :-)

    I am grateful for your huge commitment and love for NVC and your willingness to explore strategically how collectively we might express our longings for peace. I look forward to connecting soon. I'm disappointed to have missed the live discussion, but have hope of the collaboration of hearts continuing.

    I'm in Australia and am currently collaborating on the Regional Gatherings project (amongst other things NVC) to connect as global community next March - this subject seems a wonderful contribution to the possibilities of online group conversations. It occurs to me that it would be wonderful to connect when we can xox

    With warmth and gratitude

  9. * Structures influence our behavior, and impact the outcome of our debate. The American political system of the-winner-takes-all invites an antagonistic debate of two parties (even though there is plural debate within each party), where consensus can be a risk for the survival of the party itself. The Netherlands -as many other European countries- have a multi party system, with a very low threshold for (new) parties to enter. This encourages a pluralism that I perceive is better able to include different needs and different groups. A system that is designed to include as many needs as possible is not sufficient for inclusion, yet it is a good start.
    * Very often the structures are designed by those who benefit most from it, usually those with amble resources. That's one of the reasons why it is hard to change them: those outside the system gain from changing, those within lose. Systems also have a reinforcing power: they tend to confirm the distribution of power. I see the American educational system as an example of this. The best high schools, colleges and universities offer education against a high tuition (even though they do offer scholarships, these are limited). The wealthy have more access to this education: they can afford the tuition, they have enough time (don't need to work 18 hours a day to get by) to prepare their applications, and they often come from a culture that supports education. Please let me know what I miss, if I say the American educational system tends to reinforce the power imbalance between the rich and the poor?
    * Teaching Nonviolent Communication to those with less resources, can be detrimental to their needs. Now that they understand that we can nurture all needs, they may be inclined to include the needs of those, who have no inclination to do the same. So the needs of the latter count double: in their own expression and in the holding of their needs by the first (see: Jon Elster, Sour Grapes). Two boys find a cake. John wants to share 50/50. Burt wants the whole cake. If John includes Burt's preference he end ups with ¼ and Burt with ¾, which is a less fair outcome than if John had expressed his egoistic needs. Sometimes individual morality creates collective immorality (being nonviolent in a violent environment can create more violence as an outcome).
    * That being said: I contemplate the Buddhist insight of interbeing and oneness, and understand that where one suffers, we suffer all. Those who lack compassion for their fellow human being lack this sense of inclusion, and that is painful enough as it is.
    * We can never design a system that fully includes the needs of those not part of the system, yet suffer the consequences of our choices. We can unanimously, by consensus come to a decision that harms those who are not represented, either by our ignorance or by our lack of understanding of our oneness. Think of animal welfare, trade barriers for African producers of import goods, future generations. The Netherlands has a political party for the animals, which is the only attempt I know off that tries to balance this misrepresentation.
    * Please share your feedback, as this is an important topic for me! I would love to engage in a dialogue to sharpen my thinking around this topic.

    Elly van Laar
    (512) 589-0482
    compassionate communication and conflict resolution

    next workshops:
    Saturday December 7: "Bringing Peace Home" with David Nayer, J Johnson and me

    1. Dear Elly,

      I am amazed to see how long it's taken me to respond, and I hope you didn't despair of hearing back and that you will still see the comment.

      I am aligned with you that systems tend to perpetuate themselves. That is a big part of the dilemma of creating social transformation as I see it.

      I am not aligned with you about the problem you see with those without resources having access to NVC. I think that the difference between us stems from two sources. One is that the example of the cake confuses needs and strategies. I am never under the belief that we can find a way to attend to everyone's strategies and preferences; I do believe that we can find creative solutions that attend to more and more people's needs. If and when John and Burt can engage in dialogue and find what the true needs are underneath the preferences, I am confident they can find a solution. The example doesn't provide sufficient information to get to the needs.

      The other issue is, I believe, about faith in people's care. I operate under the assumption that once Burt experiences John's care he will be transformed slightly in the process, and that is the ingredient that will create magic, that particular form of shift. Something about knowing that we matter, truly matter, opens our hearts to see others.

      It's not so simple, much more nuanced and complex, and still this is at the heart of it for me.

      I hope this helps. Let me know, please.