Saturday, 24 October 2015

Dian Killan, Connecting across Differences

Dian Killan, Connecting across Differences
NVC (Nonviolent Communication) trainer and author Dian Killan explains in the interview below how we can use NVC in daily life and to engage with diversity and social change.

How can we get our children to do what we want?  

How can we use NVC with neighbours, family and friends - and ourselves?  How can we apply it to larger social issues?   Dian gives practical examples.  Read below. 

This blog is part of the Blogging Carnival for Nonviolence 2015. Dian is the co-author of Connecting across Differences

Please share this blog post with your networks, and please leave your comments below.  Thanks. 

How, when and why did you first come across NVC and start to practice it?

I was a contributing writer for a local alternative paper and heard about this guy leading workings for adults with puppets. I thought that was pretty funny! I decided to go and write some kind of humorous article.

When I actually saw what Marshall Rosenberg (the creator of the NVC model) was doing, I immediately got how profound and challenging it is - NVC is game-changing, for people individually and for society as a whole. At the time, I was also working on a PhD so was reading a lot of work (on dialogic theory, which is all about power relations in society). Foucault talks about how insidious domination culture is, working on both a structural level ("power") and on the level of ideology or ideas (what he calls "knowledge").

I saw that what Marshall was teaching is a radical way to address this. When I say "radical", I'm using this word in two ways - true to its etymology (of getting to the root of things) and also in that this inherently challenges the status quo and current beliefs and systems.

As a scholar, journalist and social activist, I'd seen repeatedly how people wanted to change things and would fall back into old patterns (of power over, using force); in the last century, we had some powerful examples of what can happen when people break out of that paradigm - the independence movement in India, the Civil Rights movement in the US, and the breaking of Apartheid in South Africa and also, in some ways, the anti-war and gay rights movements in the US (thought not as consistently as I'd like). Yet overall, including everyday - when working with people, interacting with family and friends, and attempting social change, I think we most often fall back into what's familiar and, ironically, not especially effective in the long run.

We can get people do something via force, sometimes. We can get our way. And at what price? I see a direct relation between how we treat others and how treat ourselves.

There's a fascinating book I read years ago about British colonialism and how British practices and treatment of those colonized had a direct parallel to how people were treated in Britain, especially women and children. I also see the connection in the US, looking at US foreign policy and violence in the US. I am making broad strokes here and I do think there is a connection.

The NVC models offers an profound level of integrity in how we speak to ourselves (including our thoughts), how we speak to others, and our actions. Marshall was very influenced by Gandhi, which is why he called the model Nonviolent Communication - he saw it as a communication model based on Gandhi's practices of Nonviolence. Most people would think of language as an alternative to violence. Yet we all also know that words can be very hurtful. And it's our words and our thoughts--our judgements and enemy images of others - that ultimately lead to violence or, at least, that makes it acceptable somehow.

We as human beings are social creatures and naturally empathic. All the research is showing this now. So you actually need strong ideology and enemy images to make it okay to want to bomb or kill someone. NVC addresses violence - and peace-making, and compassion, on all these levels. I've been a CNVC trainer for nearly 10 years now and have studied extensively different models. I still am in awe of how profound this model is and what can happen for us as human beings when we are heard and hear others. All kinds of creativity and openness and good will and possibility emerges. It's so transformative, it can almost seem magical. In the end, it's the most need of all: to be heard. That's what Marshall ultimately taught people how to do.

BTW what's really funny about this story is that after thinking it funny that this guy was leading workshops with puppets, now I do too! It's very helpful sometimes when teaching and you're doing a role play, and to get concepts across. It's also very satisfying for me too that before Marshall retired, I was asked to lead a nine-day International Intensive Trainer (IIT) with him; being part of his training team really brought things full circle for me, after writing two different articles/interviews about him about a decade before. 

How did you come to write Connecting across Differences

Jane Connor, my friend and co-author, were both part of a year-long leadership training program in NVC, in the process of our becoming trainers. She was teaching NVC at SUNY in the psychology department and wanted materials that would speak to college students and really engage them, including around diversity issues. 

Having a background in writing and editing and also teaching third level at that time, and also having an interest in social change and diversity, I offered to help her with the project. Because it was originally intended in effect as a textbook, we included from the beginning both text and many exercises in the book, so in effect it's a combined book and work book. The book is now in its official second edition (there were actually two earlier editions before Puddle Dancer picked it up) and is available in German as well as English. It's also evolved over the years and now is focused on readers of all ages and stages of life, though I still think it's highly accessible  - in the way it's written - for young people too in the late teens and early 20s. We also hear consistently that it's the most comprehensive NVC book available - we cover different applications and aspects of the NVC practice. 
What types of differences can we connect across? Please give examples.

Wow - so many differences, every day! From who's going to take out the garbage and who will do the dishes and when, to do we want to have sex tonight or go out to see a movie, to stay in, to how do I get my kids to do their homework? Or that co-worker at work to pull his weight or reply to my emails? Or get my boss to give me a raise or the budget I need for a project? That's on the inter level and local level between people every day at work and at home.

Then there's the intra level - how do I talk to myself: what do I do if I haven't gotten my taxes done or paid my bills on time? Or not exercising as much as I want or not eating foods that support my well being? Or hundreds of other tasks/behaviors we want ourselves to pay attention to and attend to.

How do we talk to ourselves about that? I find the greatest level of violence occurs every day in how we talk to ourselves. It's heartbreaking - when you actually hear what people are saying to themselves, and how. I want to protect them - from themselves! And of course I can do that too - I think we all can. It's so part of our culture. It's endemic.

So how do we mediate internally, and resolve that part of us wants to lay in the hammock, and part of us thinks we should be cutting the lawn (or something else)? How do we do that with self-kindness and compassion? And on a larger/broader level, how do our political parties resolve differences? And states and nations? It's all connected. NVC offers practical transformative tools to address these differences, on multiple levels. 
Please give a couple of examples of how you have used NVC to connect with others.

My book, Urban Empathy: True Life Adventures of Compassion on the Streets of New York, gives numerous, actual examples of practicing NVC both with people I know and complete strangers, including in some tense situations.  There also are stories mixed as an examples in Connecting across Differences.

The most recent, dramatic example that inspired me was resolving an issue with my neighbours. We live in wood frame row houses in Brooklyn and share a wall. They'd gotten upset because my plumber had run a 1/4 copper pipe though a stud, which their contractor said was a load bearing (structural) wall.

I wanted them to have accurate information to I asked an engineer to come and look at the work. He explained to them that contractor had, in effect, given them misinformation - the stud is not load-bearing, it is used to attach sheet rock to the walls, and the pipe did not impact that use or the integrity of the wall, and running pipes this way through shared wall space is very common in NYC, given the space availability. My neighbours got triggered hearing this - and started saying, in an agitated way, "We're not stupid." I think, in effect, when they heard the engineer explain it, what he said made sense to them and they probably felt embarrassed... but the way it came out was in this agitated way.

As a side note, for context, I am of European/white background and they're of African-American/Black background, and based on other things I've heard them say, such as, "It's not right, just because you have lighter skin," that this larger social-economic dynamic was also impacting how things were being seen. Anyway, when they became irritated in this way, the engineer started disagreeing with them, saying, "No, I didn't say that you're stupid... I just said that this pipe..." and started repeating himself. This of course just escalated things.

So I jumped in and said to the engineer, "Hold on for a second, I just want to see if I'm hearing what they're saying" and then made some “empathy guesses”. In NVC, an “empathy guess” is basically your extending yourself to the other person and checking in about how they are feeling, and what they're needing, on a core level. The pipe going through a stud matters to them, of course, because they care about the safety and integrity of their home. And that issue has been addressed. So clearly there were other needs at play.

The father was there and two of his daughters. After making a few guesses - such as that they're irritated because they want to be seen for their experience, which, didn't, by the way, fit exactly for them, one of them said pretty directly, "Well, your plumber should have talked to us about it first. You should have talked to us."  That made complete sense to me.

So I basically recapped that back to them, and then added what I was hearing as their core needs in this case: "OK you would have liked me to talk with you about it first - just out of consideration and respect."  They responded very strongly in the positive to that.  "Yes, because it's our house - it's our wall too!" Once I made that guess, and empathised a bit more, everything shifted. The daughter who was most agitated visibly relaxed.

And I honestly told them that I agreed with them - that I am wishing that I or the plumber had spoken with them, and that I regretted that. I then also reminded them that I was overwhelmed at that time (after buying the house, I discovered the whole roof, and roof beams, were rotten - and the back of the house as well - and was dealing with all this major renovation), and other issues, like a contractor not finishing work I'd contracted with him to do, etc. That all made sense to them - it matched their experience of what was happening at the time. I then made a clear agreement moving forward: that if ever again I did work on my house that in any way might impact theirs, that I would discuss it with them first. They were happy with that plan. This conversation basically resolved the whole situation.

By the way, the reason I could respond in this way is because I was also practicing self-empathy during the conversation - focused internally on my own feelings and needs, so I could respond in the connected an conscious way that I did. When practicing NVC, we are simultaneously listening to ourselves and to others. It's both that create connection. 

What are your plans for the future? 

I'll be leading a two-day program in Germany - in English - in December.  Click here for info and to book.   

An event that I am VERY excited about and not yet up on the site is an international NVC women's retreat that I'm planning in Ireland for March 2017. 

For more details of Dian's upcoming events, see

Please share this blog post with your networks, and please leave your comments below.  Thanks. 


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