Archive for the ‘NVC’ category

Empathic Listening, Symbolic Modeling and Non Violent Communication – Compared

August 22, 2017

img_2220On August 19th and 20th, 2017 I had the good luck and privilege to participate in a weekend of Empathic Listening training and practice, led by by Allan Rohlfs (NVC Trainer), a student of Eugene Gendlin.  Gendlin was a philosopher, who was heavily influenced by Carl Rogers – a pioneer in client-centered psychotherapy. Rogers noticed that Empathic Listening contributed greatly to the creation of a safe space and connection between the client and the therapist. Gendlin went on to create ‘Focussing’, a method Rohlfs uses to help teach his version of Empathic Listening.

Focussing uses the term ‘felt sense’ to describe a pre-verbal or unconscious but emerging awareness about something.  In Empathetic Listening, there is both a listener and a speaker.  The listener is to discern the emergent ‘felt sense’ of the speaker and to use those moments to reflect back to the speaker by repeating or slightly paraphrasing what they said.   The idea is that the listener might, by focussing on the listener, also ‘get’ this same ‘felt sense’, that it is shared.  Unlike what we might think of being empathetic in normal every day discourse, there is a LOT more focus in a one way direction here. In other words, it takes timeand deliberateness – while in normal course of the day, being empathetic comes and goes in between other interactions.

In Symbolic Modeling, there is a client and a coach or facilitator.  The client expresses subconscious thought via metaphors that the coach intentionally elicits. Those metaphors come from what I imagine is the same place of ‘knowing’ as the ‘felt sense’ – expressing something that might never have been verbalized, that is emerging.  It seems to me, that Symbolic Modeling might be faster in helping the client understand themselves than Empathic Listening.  Symbolic Modeling makes no attempt and has no goal for the facilitator to ‘understand’ or ‘get’ anything about the client.  Hence, rapport and connection is not the purpose.  The Symbolic Modeller is a facilitator for the client – helping them to create their own ‘metaphorical’ or internal landscape.  However, the Symbolic Modeller is observing the coachee, reflecting their words back and looking for shifts or changes (i.e. aha moments, sighs, body movements) to support the new awareness emerging.  This is similar to Empathic Listening.

While the  purpose of Symbolic Modeling (coaching with a desired outcome) and Empathic Listening (rapport/connection) differs, the effect on the coachee/speaker could be similar.  

During the workshop, Allan caught me (when I was listener in a pair) trying to use a question, and he interrupted and asked me not to do that because any question would be ‘leading’.  While this gave me a LOT of anguish at first because I am so comfortable with clean questions and I do not consider them leading at all, I came to accept it for empathic listening.  I think this new awareness will help me to pause much more while coaching using Clean questions in a Symbolic Modeling session, rather than coming up with a question right away after the speaker stops.

During the training, we each got to sit in both the speaker chair and the listener chair in a pair, with Allan coaching the listener and everyone else observing.  Each speaker (in the speaker/listener pair) seems to have felt ‘gotten’/understood.  We seemed also to all agree that sitting in the Speaker’s chair was absolutely necessary to understanding Empathic Listening.  In other words, you have to be listened to well by someone experienced in Empathic Listening, to feel really understand the effect. In that way, you may become a more effective empathic listener.  This is true for Symbolic Modeling and Clean Language – best to experience it first.

On the relationship between Non Violent Communication (NVC) and Empathic Listening

The event participants were all familiar, if not expert, in the use of Non Violent Communication techniques for creating rapport and understanding. While NVC has the certain purpose of creating safety and connection between two people, within its construct, it includes places where one person asks questions of the other, in particular with relation to understanding the other person’s feelings and needs.  If you are not familiar, NVC uses OFNR (Observation, Feelings, Needs, Request) framework where the empathic bits are mostly centered in the exchange of feelings and needs.  The most significant difference between Non-Violent Communication and Empathic Listening as learned in the workshop is that in Empathic Listening, the Listener does not try to guess the feelings or needs of the person speaking. That element falls away in Empathic Listening in favor of a more natural verbal validation and very slight rewording of what was said. Observations and Requests are also not present in Empathic Listening.  Both are strongly geared toward creating safety, empathic listening being much more a one way flow, it seems.    As Listeners, participants in the Empathic Listening workshop fairly universally felt much relief NOT to have to guess at the other person’s feelings and needs. 

As I move forward in the coming year in my goal of becoming certified in both Symbolic Modeling (individual coaching) and Systemic Modeling (group coaching) both of which use Clean Language, I know that the philosophy and practice of Empathic Listening will stay with me as a useful alternative in other situations. I really appreciated that Jane McMahon (certified NVC facilitator) organized this event. It gave me the opportunity to connect meaningfully to a variety of interesting people. 

If you are in the DC area and interested in learning more or wanting to practice, please get in touch with me at I am considering starting a practice groups if I can find enough people interested in joining. Location will be Reston.


Power And Love – my first NVC workshop

October 28, 2013
2013-10-27 09.36.17

Thurgood Marshall Center

On Sunday, October 27th, I attended my first Non Violent Communication (NVC) workshop. It took place in the Thurgood Marshall Center in the Shaw neighborhood of DC, which is known for the riots that took place there in the 1960s. I remember those riots – they formed very profound memories in my early childhood.  I’m glad the neighborhood which is located just miles north of DC’s convention center area looks alive and well now.  I particularly liked the retro basketball court open space that the event was held in.

The goal of this workshop was to expose and discuss the power and privilege structures that are all around us to see how we can, despite these, still show up empowered to ‘hold the whole’ – to consider the needs of those in power when we are not, and conversely to consider the needs of those we serve should we be in a position of power.

Miki Kashtan from the BayNVC and Wes Taylor, a seasoned NVC practitioner from Baltimore were the co-facilitators. Both were superb, holding the whole completely throughout the day – even when, on one occasion, there was definitely some tension in the room.  To see them both absolutely comfortable when things are not comfortable is like eye-candy to an aspiring coach like me.

The workshop began with an invitation to us all to become ‘co-creators’, to be involved when things aren’t going right.  This reminded me of my earlier post about confrontation – the collaborative kind that allows us to show up with all of our needs, feelings and requests – not being afraid to voice what is on our mind. But here in this workshop, this was framed around the needs of the whole. It isn’t either ‘me’ or ‘the whole’, it is both. It is hard for most to grasp the notion that we can all have our needs met with some give or take training and practice. I came to this session to get ideas on this topic.

Miki asked us to think about why we decided to come. Since we had 30 people and limited time, we posted the responses to this until all reasons were covered and no new ideas came up.  Here is the list:

  • When is listening just waiting – when to take action
  • (Re)define power
  • Learn how to lead from Below
  • Cultivating, not showing up in a ‘knowing’ stance
  • Learn to transform inner model (i.e. Power/Domination model)
  • How does one skillfully respond to power
  • How do we meet needs for the whole – without compromising self
  • What is our ‘Intention to Act’
  • How do we enlarge our circle of action (what is the ‘whole’ that we think of)
  • How can we use power to inspire others

After acknowledging we might not cover all of this in one day, Miki and Wes proceeded to each tell a story in which people in positions of (structural) power used that power  in a way that would fit the ‘needs of the whole’. I summarize just one here: The owner of a small pre dotcom bust IT training firm was losing money. The owner wrote a holiday letter warning everyone that cuts would need to be made. He then invited everyone to participate in a multi-day discussion to see how everyone’s needs could be met while preserving the company.  Amazingly, the sacrifices people were willing to make were more than enough to continue operating for some time.

You can see the transformative power of an inclusiveness mindset. The challenge is to keep this mindset switch ‘turned on’. In my interpretation, it isn’t enough to ooh and aah at such stories and retell them and similar ones. If you are committed to changing the existing paradigms of structural ‘power over’ mindset, you must find ways, even when not in power, to bring the ‘whole’ into focus. One of the most powerful questions to have handy at all times is: ‘What would change in how I show up if I choose to ‘hold the whole?’  In this example, both the employees and the owner chose to show up in consideration of the whole.

But we need to build trust that we can take into account the whole: Do people know what they need and want? Do they know how express it, to ask for it?  In the old model of change, from a position of power, you could just guess at what’s needed and offer it. For example, I will offer to have the offices remodeled. I’m in a position of power (I have resources) to do that. I decide how and do it. That may not work well.

In a slightly more inclusive model, you can ask people what they want. This tends to be too open ended, and may not engage people the way you expect. Why is this?  We have all internalized domination so much, that we do not engage in possibilities of change automatically and tend to remain silent, even when given the opportunity to participate.  Instead, to get the maximum engagement, you may try with offering three options for a change and invite everyone to engage in a discussion of which one.

Miki closed this session by quoting this:  ‘The alienated world is what we create every day’. If we start to recognize that by our non-action with ‘things as they are’, we are helping to sustain this alienated world, perhaps we will start down a new path.

What is generally needed for change

For change to happen, we need to

  • Recognize a need for change.
  • Acknowledge there is a possibility for change. This is indeed radical for many people, because dominations systems typically withhold information. In this manner, they self-perpetuate.
  • We need to have resources for change. This can either be structural resources and/or sheer will – mobilization of people first, with or without resources.
  • Be willing to change.

Change towards a Needs based Economy, Miki’s passion.

Miki expressed her personal passion to transform folks’ view from:

‘Structural power equates to dominance’


‘We can use structural power to increase our capacity to mobilize resources to attend to people’s needs’

What structures, processes, systems do we need to support people’s needs?  In a needs based economy, we need to attend to the whole, but we also need resources: time to practice, community support and feedback. Later in the day, those in the workshop who live and breathe NVC expressed how important it is to have your own personal coach, resonant partner, or NVC support person to help you through. The work is exhausting, draining, and difficult.

Structural Power, defined traditionally means that a power over relationship involves:

1.) Consequences if you aren’t doing as expected
2.) Control of resources by those in power, including access to information
3.) Limits and constraints on your options, imposed by those in power

‘The mere fact that these characteristics exist drain one’s energy from even engaging in the thought of making a choice’

We then discussed that waking up in a position of structural power is more morally difficult than waking up in a position where you have no structural power. Yet still, learning how to say ‘No’, or to confront is something you can do to start to create that shift in ‘structure’. Not all structure is based on physical resources, such as money and position. If you think of mindset and your individual actions as part of the shared structure or collective mindset, then your small actions to ‘shift’ the ground will make a difference.

‘Violent means cannot create non-violent results’

After lunch we started with the notion that it is not always obvious how to create the whole that works to meet everyone’s needs. Miki mentioned that reading the book ‘Creating a World that Works for All‘ helped her to change her views on this.  A story from that book about the Exxon Valdez oil spill highlights the paradoxes we sometimes face. The people protesting the spill relied on that same oil for their everyday lives.  They didn’t fully appreciate how much part of the system they already were.   What we need to ask ourselves is: ‘If you were in a position of power, what would you do to make it ‘work’ for everyone?’

Movement in Groups Activity

We played a game with short thin sticks. This reminded me a lot of some of the agile games we use to teach team and group work. Wes instructed us to hold the stick between our two index fingers and walk around the room moving the stick in space as much as we could. Then we formed pairs, holding two sticks, but the far end of each stick was held by our partner’s index finger.  We did the same in triads, and then in groups of six. Holding the ‘whole’ in this case meant holding the sticks. It sure was hard when we didn’t really have a chance to ‘know’ the others in our group. Did they prefer holding high up, low down, moving fast, moving slowly, holding horizontally or vertically. Who was leading, who was following?  We did a debrief of this and there were lots of learnings.

‘It is easier to see privilege you don’t have’

How do we lovingly invite ourselves and others to see the privileges we/they have?  I hadn’t mentioned that we had only 2 black people, and 4 Asians in the room. The rest were all white.  This was the most intense part of the day because, when Miki decided to open the discussion about privilege, she ONLY invited people of color to participate. Right away, a white man who was gay protested saying he thought he was in an underprivileged class by virtue of being gay. Another white woman gave feedback that she thought not well-off whites might also be included as an underprivileged class.
Miki explained: you do not experience what it is to be black, to be judged by your exterior if you are not black. Let’s hear first from anyone who wishes to speak who is black.  The black lady in the room said: In all of her life, she has never once been given the floor in this manner, deliberately. She welcomed the acknowledgement and asked us to see her as a black person. She said it was very transforming for her.  Everyone fell silent. It was an emotional moment.

For more on privilege and power, please google: ‘Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’. You will come to understand there are many ways that being white contributes to having more power than most realize. Miki then recommended A Swedish movie entitled ‘As it is in Heaven‘.

When we don’t have awareness of an issue, how can we create dialogue on it?  How can we create the possibility of collaboration within a diverse group?  When someone else holds the power? When we hold the power w privilege? When we hold power without privilege?

What would change in how I show up if I choose to hold the whole?

Here are some possibilities:

  • Link all actions to ‘why’, naming and acknowledging that which I value.
  • Acknowledge that you don’t know the answer – that we have to co-create the answer.
  • Show up with more confidence that I can be influence
  • Acknowledge to myself and others when you have a need for additional support, countering a pervasive cultural norm of ‘self-sufficiency’.
  • Never ‘force’ yourself to do anything if you sense a ‘no’ or resistance inside you.
  • Keep a journal
  • Invite people on the team to say ‘no’ too. Then log your reaction when you frown on the ‘no’ that does surface.
  • Show gratitude.

An embodiment practice

Miki asked us to consider the following in preparation for the game

What strengths and blocks do we have to be leaders of the whole at our best?
What qualities would you like to have that your current responses do not reflect?

We then practiced an ’embodiment’ game in groups of three. In this game, I might imagine 4 gestures which I and the two others will use to symbolize each of these: the situation, the block, empathy, and eventually the success.
We created these symbols and then practiced simulating the situation, the feeling of our block, the access to empathy – over and over and over, until we could suddenly feel that we might overcome that block and be successful.  If you can embody the feeling in gesture, then you might remind yourself in the real situation to reach to those positive symbols of empathy and feeling of success.

Wrap up and debrief

We spent some time at the end in silence thinking of the actions that we could take to

  • improve our ability for self-care
  • connect with people
  • practice holding the whole in situations of unequal power

One young lady at the very end was lamenting how darned hard this work is. She was literally in tears recounting to us her work with children in a ministry – how at the same time that her work has been very rewarding with the children who adore her – the other teachers there are in pain and hurting because of her successes. She said she felt completely burnt out with the incongruence between these two reactions and she wanted to just tell these teachers to read the NVC books.  Miki helped her by suggesting to her other ways to meet the needs of those other teachers.  Second, Miki reminded her and everyone else, that no matter what happens, if you do not have a support person, or a group of people you can count on to share your change-stories, blocks, failures, and successes, you will burn out.  How important it is to remember, coaches and change agents need lots of support!

Lead by supporting those in power out of a place of love – this leads to collaboration.  In turn, express what is important with small strategic requests.

There isn’t much I would do to improve my day spent with this community of people. I would have liked to have had more comfortable chairs. I would also prefer that everyone to introduce themselves at the beginning (rather than only doing this in small groups). I’m glad there will be post workshop outreach to create exactly the support groups we discussed at the end, whether it be an online chat group, or monthly in person meetings.

Here are some of the additional links to articles Miki has written on power and privilege.

Dilemmas of Leadership
Invisible Power and Privilege
Stepping Into Power While Maintaining Connection

I would also like to acknowledge here and cross-reference the recent posts by Bob Marshall (@flowchainsensei) on what he has dubbed the Antimatter Principle. At its heart is a call for people in IT and other knowledge work to begin to see the world through the lens of attending to personal needs.

What are Needs?

One Principle, One Agendum

I am grateful to my software development friends across the world who have exposed me to so many ideas and new ways of thinking about how to work with purpose and joy.