How do pervasive paradigms of patriarchy, dominance, competition, and scarcity influence the way we relate to one another? How might we engage in a way that stems from paradigms of interconnection, cooperation, and abundance?
This conversation connects systemic change and big paradigm shifts to our everyday behaviors. The dominant way that we think about and speak to one another reflects a story of separation and has us regularly in a state of fight or flight. It lends itself to right/wrong thinking, extracting from one another and keeping score.
The principles and practices of nonviolent communication (NVC) offer an alternative model for human relationality, one that fosters safety, compassion, and connection. Understanding the tenets of NVC helps us embody the future we want to move towards, one rooted in abundance, cooperation, and interconnection.
Our guest for this episode, Danny Cohen, teaches nonviolent communication. His work integrates contemplative spiritual practice and wisdom traditions with trauma-informed therapeutics and practical tools for cultivating authentic human connection.
In this conversation Jenny and Danny discuss:
“Danny Cohen (DC): When we make a request, for instance, we're giving the opportunity to someone to meet one of their deepest needs, which is to contribute to life. I think that that need or that understanding of human nature is missing from Homo Economicus who was defined as having his rational self-interest, which doesn't include that.”
[00:00:27] Jenny Stefanotti (JS): That's Danny Cohen, expert in nonviolent communication. This is the Becoming Denizen Podcast. I'm your host and curator, Jenny Stefanotti.
In this episode, we're talking about nonviolent communication also known as NVC. Specifically linking it to the systems conversation that we have on this podcast. We talk about big paradigm shifts that are needed, such as from the individual to the collective, from scarcity to abundance, from zero sum to win-win, and that can sound so abstract. But this conversation will actually land those shifts in our everyday behaviors.
Denizen's tagline is changed from within. We acknowledge that reform needs to happen deep within each of us for systemic transformation to occur, lest we inadvertently replicate the very things that we're seeking to change. As we'll see in this episode, NVC illuminates the ways in which our default patterns of thought and communication reflect and reinforce paradigms of dominance, competitiveness, and scarcity.
We also discussed the mindsets and practices of NVC and how they point us to a way of relating that's rooted in our interconnectedness, surfaces our innate desire to care for one another, and embodies these very paradigms that we talked about shifting towards.
Our guest for this episode is Danny Cohen. Several dozen members of the Denizen community just completed a course in nonviolent communication with him. In addition to being an expert in NVC, Danny has a deep meditation and spiritual practice. He studied the ancient wisdom of many traditions around the world. A wide range of modalities, including mindfulness based somatic psychotherapy, organic intelligence, and integral eye movement. Interestingly, Danny's path to this work started when he graduated from Wharton Business School where he witnessed the disconnect between the choices that his peers were making in their inner guidance.
We close the conversation talking about Danny's choice to offer his work as a gift, how that reflects the teachings of NVC and critically, how it models a relational versus transactional economy. You can find show notes and a transcript for this episode on our website, www.becomingdenizen.com. There, you can sign up for our newsletter. In addition to sending our latest content to your inbox, subscribers are invited to join us in learning experiences like the NVC course we just completed.
I love this conversation so much because it really lands this deep and complex systemic conversation in our everyday behaviors. Learning NVC has been transformational for me, and for many others in the Denizen community. I hope this conversation inspires you to relate in new ways that reflect the future that we are working towards.
[00:03:07] JS: So, let's start with just these different stories and paradigms. Many of our listeners will be familiar with Charles Eisenstein's work, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, where he talks about the story of separation versus the story of interbeing. So, let's talk about those two different stories. And then in the conversation, we'll get into how each story then translates into how we relate, or how we might relate.
[00:03:38] DC: The dominant paradigm, I think one of the tricky things with it is that it's so dominant and so ubiquitous, that we don't recognize it as a paradigm, we just recognize it as, “Oh, that's life.” And yet, it's not surprising, because that dominant paradigm is so dominant. It's dominant in the way that we're raised as children being told – even the idea of right and wrong, which is something that we really put a magnifying glass to in nonviolent communication, that's just assumed to be like, “Yes, you teach your children right and wrong.”
What we're suggesting is that there's a whole other paradigm, because right and wrong, lead to ideas of good and bad, and they lead to ideas of deserving of reward and punishment. And the research even shows that when you reward kids for being good, they do less of that, which is striking. But it makes sense when you see it as instead of being intrinsically motivated, which they are, you're giving them a reward, which is saying, “Oh no, you need extrinsic motivation for that.” And our paradigm in NVC is saying that actually, one potentiality of human nature is to care for other human beings and that we cannot adulterate kids out of that, out of the natural sensitivity, the natural care, the natural desire to contribute.
[00:05:00] JS: I want to talk first about the dominant paradigm and how that shows up in our behavior of relating, and maybe a good place to do that is to talk about the Jackal.
[00:05:10] DC: Yes, the Jackal was Marshall Rosenberg who developed NVC, nonviolent communication was the symbol for life alienating relating, thinking, and communicating, and you can see it in the intrapersonal and interpersonal. So, in the intrapersonal, how do you relate to yourself when you've done something that you, done or said something that you regret? And this phenomenon of the inner critic, which it almost brings me to tears, how common it is, and how much suffering is, is an example of this paradigm, that there's the sense of like, “Okay, I did something that had an impact, which doesn't match what I would wish for.” And then I need to be hard on myself, in order to what? Either as punishment, or that's the only way to learn.
In order to get myself to change, I have to convince myself enough of my wrongness, that there's enough pain there to do something different. And then we do the same thing with other people. Just think about someone who did or said something that you didn't like. And then what kinds of thoughts start to come up. Oftentimes, it's thoughts about what they are. That person's selfish. That person's egocentric. They're an idiot. They're stupid. Whatever it is. There are oftentimes thoughts about what they are and that whole way of thinking about what people are, is part of this patriarchal paradigm. Because once we can categorize people as good or bad, then we can start to use the mechanisms of shame, and guilt, and wrongness or of reward to direct them. And that's all based in scarcity. It's based in a scarcity, I think around willingness or around care. It's like actually lost, lost touch, with that I would just tell the person my experience. If I'm not triggering them into defensiveness, just putting them in touch with my experience, and then making really clear what I'm asking them to do would be enough.
[00:07:15] JS: Two things stand out with what you just said. I think it's also just fascinating if you just think about popular culture, and what are the narratives that we constantly encounter in the media. It's good versus evil.
[00:07:30] DC: Yes, exactly.
[00:07:32] JS: Right? It's the good guys versus the bad guys. And the good guys will be triumphant and the bad guys will be defeated. This notion that there is a right and wrong. I think what's so potent about nonviolent communication is it says, every behavior is reflecting a need, a very human need. We'll get into this later in the conversation. But since taking the course, I actually watched two movies, where the character behaved in some really mean way. Really heinous, like an unforgivable way. One kid was bullying another kid with a deformity in one movie, and the other movie, someone just abandoned their child. And I saw that totally differently having taken the course. It's like, what is going on in that person that led them to do something so painful for me to be aware of? There's a curiosity that I brought to that, as opposed to a judgment.
But I really appreciate how you talked about how that is based in a scarcity mindset around care. So, I really appreciate that piece of it. What else shows up with the Jackal? What else shows up in the behaviors that are default in the dominant paradigm?
[00:08:55] DC: The overarching paradigm is these ideas of right and wrong, and then the ensuing reward and punishment. It's also part of what enables us to do violence. When I have convinced myself that somebody is bad, and then that they deserve punishment, then I'm willing to do things to them, which I wouldn't normally be okay with doing to a human being or to support that happen. So, that's really key. Another one that also plays into that is the denial of choice. So, anytime we say things like, “Oh, I have to”, or “I can't.” And that's just like such everyday language, where we're actually denying our responsibility. That's exactly what Iseman said enabled the Nazis to do what they did. They had this particular way of speaking, which was I'm just following orders.
[00:09:44] JS: But that's so key. I'm doing things because I feel guilty, right? Or I should or I have to, which then leads us to, in some cases over extend, deny our own needs to ourselves, but then do things for people for the wrong reasons, in a way that it actually breeds resentment.
[00:10:07] DC: Exactly. Yeah. And we're keeping score when we're doing that.
[00:10:11] JS: Yeah.
[00:10:12] DC: So that's one thing, that denial of choice, the whole use of deserve thinking and language, the talking about what people are, rather than naming particular actions and their impacts of static languages post their process language. In NVC, we try to be really clear about how things are naming observations that people will say, “Yes, that is what's happening.” And then we talk about the impact in terms of feelings and needs. And then we make requests, trusting that people want to contribute to that, when they're free from demand. Demand is another one of the tragic habits of the Jackal way.
Demand doesn't necessarily mean I'm speaking in a certain tone of voice. It basically means I'm not willing to hear no. The tragedy of that is, if we were to Jackal the Jackal, we'd say, “Yeah, that's being obstinate and stubborn and demanding.” But really it is protection around a great vulnerability. Like, I'm scared of what will happen if you say no to me. And that itself is related to scarcity, which comes from conflating needs and strategies, where we call it in NVC.
[00:11:21] JS: Exactly. I want to bookmark that, because this is a really eye-opening thing that I want to get to when we really double click on what NVC opens up. And I just want to underscore because it's so important, this notion of a denial of choice. And reframing, I have to do this too, I'm choosing to do this, and taking responsibility, not having this victim mentality. Taking responsibility for the choices that we make in our lives.
But there's a really important piece that we haven't talked about, which is the effect on our nervous system, and the dominant ways that relate the way that the Jackal shows up with judgment on who you are, not speaking about particular behaviors. So, let's talk about that.
[00:12:07] DC: Yeah, great. And part of that is also trying to be good, trying to fill in the blank, trying to be a good mother, father, partner, boss, employee, manager, student, citizen, whatever. That doesn't tend to come from a place of inspiration and giving. It tends to come from a place of fear. Like, am I going to be good enough? And what are the consequences going to be if I'm not? So, that's bridging the Jackal.
And then the nervous system, which for me is so at the base of what the kind of healing and possibility and transformation that NVC potentiates and also illuminates how much of the time we're walking around and relating in fight, flight, freeze, even though we might not recognize it as that. People might think like, freeze, oh, that's like really being like a deer in the headlights. It's also just feeling indifferent, or like, you don't have energy left anymore, or you're hopeless or helpless, to some degree or other checked out.
The way I like to put this is just to think about somebody who you engage with, on a day to day basis and imagine that person walking towards you. Somehow without words, or touch, you just get this answer coming to convince you that they're right, and you're wrong. When you feel them coming to convince you in that way, then just notice what happens in the body, in the heart, and what kind of energy is in the mind. There's some clenching in the body. There's some contraction, there's some either movement to get out of here, or I'm going to put up a fight. Yeah, so that's fight, flight.
I just want to point out, I didn't say the person's coming to attack you. I just said, they're coming to convince you that they're right and you’re wrong, and how common is that? How often are we trying to convince people of anything, including ourselves?
[00:13:57] JS: Well, I think it's the subtle –
[00:13:57] DC: I really should go to the gym.
[00:14:00] JS: But the subtlety of this pervasive judgment in our language and the way that we speak to each other, which then immediately puts us in a defensive posture of I'm not that. I want to prove that wrong.
[00:14:17] DC: You're not being fair, Jenny. That’s not nice.
[00:14:21] JS: Let me tell you, you're not seeing – and it's interesting looking at this in the context of how we perceive reality, and the fact that these stories accumulate in our minds about each other. And then we perceive reality through that confirmation bias. Well, or, “Jenny, you're not supportive as a friend. That's not true. Here are the five times where I did this thing and dah, dah, and you can't see. Can’t you see me this way?” This is so important that we're just constantly in this very, sometimes subtle, that we're not even aware of state of fight or flight, of retraction, of defending ourselves. And even in our own –
[00:15:03] DC: Let's say people they hear you should talk about your feelings. And so, I say, “Jenny, I feel upset because you said that” – however, I finished that sentence, as soon as I link my unpleasant feeling to you, most likely that's going to stimulate either defensiveness or guilt. And that's exactly fight or flight behavior.
[00:15:27] JS: Well, this is classic. “I feel x because you.”
[00:15:30] DC: “Exactly, exactly. Blame, basically. That's the name for that.
[00:15:35] JS: Right.
[00:15:35] DC: Yeah. And the tragedy is, again, it comes from a scarcity around willingness and care, or just a lack of skillfulness and modeling, and knowing that our feelings actually come from our needs, not from other people directly. And then if I say, “Hey, Jenny, I feel upset, because I'm really wanting more reliability. Could you help me understand what was going on for you? Or could we find a way to plan so that things will be different going forward?” Then what I'm doing is I'm really opening the door for you to be in touch with my experience, in a way where like, I guess you might be like, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense to me.” It might not be pleasant if you've had that impact, but it's helpful to know. That's the kind of feedback which I value, even if I don't enjoy it.
[00:16:18] JS: I think the practice also allows you to hear that you did this thing, right? Because there's still an observation. This is the thing that happened. This is the thing that you did. This is how I felt, right? That you're able to not feel like I should have done something different or I did something wrong because I created some unpleasant sensation in this person's body. I'm going to read a quote and then I'm going to bridge us to NVC in a deeper way, in a different story of being.
So, this is a quote from the nonviolent communication book. “Life alienating communication will stem from and supports hierarchical or domination societies, where large populations are controlled by a small number of individuals, to those individuals own benefit. It would be in the interest of kings, czars, nobles, and so forth, that the masses be educated in a way that renders them slave like in mentality. The language of wrongness should have to is perfectly suited for this purpose. The more people are trained to think in terms of moralistic judgments that imply wrongness and badness, the more they're being trained to look outside themselves, to outside authorities, for the definition of what constitutes right, wrong, good and bad. When we are in contact with our feelings and needs, we humans no longer make good slaves and underlings.” It's also tied to this story, this alternate story that my feelings and needs matter, right?
[00:17:42] DC: Yes.
[00:17:44] JS: There's an important point that I want to make. In the dominant way of interacting and being, we actually are not in touch with all of the intelligence in the body. So, maybe you can speak more to the intelligence in the body and how NVC helps to connect to that. It's just bridges to diving deeper into NVC and an alternate story.
[00:18:04] DC: Yeah, happily. Just for the scientific minded amongst us, there's really interesting neuroscience that people actually need their emotional centers of the brain and connection to the body in order to make rational and good decisions. So, that tends to be a dichotomy or a separation. It actually doesn't hold up, even from the perspective of neuroscience.
The body. There's a lovely story about the indigenous people of Hawaii, how they would sail thousands of miles across the ocean, just in a carved-out canoe. The way they would navigate is just by lying down with their back on the canoe and just feeling the ocean currents. And with that sensitivity of feeling and knowing the currents, they could literally across thousands of miles, find their way. I think it's a beautiful metaphor for how we can navigate life, how we need to, actually, that the signals come through the body for what life is needing, what life is reaching for.
And it's like that hot, cold game that we played growing up. When we're further away from an estranged from what our lives really need, we feel the coldness, we feel the strange, we feel perhaps depressed, upset. Or if just something in a situation is not working for us, we get the feedback right away through the body. I feel sad. I feel lonely. I feel irritated. I feel angry. I feel disheartened. I feel scared. Or when we're really close to or in line with life, with what life really needs in order to flourish, then we feel all kinds of flavors of good. We feel satisfied. We feel joyful. We feel inspired. We feel delighted.
So, our feelings are that hot, cold mechanism, which is guiding us really towards life. And that compass, if you will, is magnetized by the energy of our needs, which is, I take from Robert Gonzales, the language of how life is reaching for life through you. Or what life needs in order to be really well and living. So, coming back in touch with the body is really the way into that.
[00:20:31] JS: What are your thoughts around the ways in which stories inform that, right? I always used to have this belief that my feelings are my feelings. I can't control my feelings. Very recently I came to the realization that the stories that I hold inform that, right? I'm curious about that layer, that nuance of it.
[00:20:56] DC: Yeah, I think it's a big insight that ultimately, and this is where also my experience in meditation informs me that ultimately, all of our experience is fabricated. There is not just a way things are and it's fabricated, really by stories and experience, which fuels the stories on multiple levels. Like, what are the largest, mythic framings, or stories that we're living inside of what we're here for or what life is about? And that's very much reflected not only by the stories that were told, but what are people doing? What people are spending their energy on? What are the structures that I have modeled for me when I'm growing up? How has people's mattering shown or not shown? And in such mundane ways, as how are decisions made. What kind of models of relationships do I see? How do I see people sharing or not sharing their needs, when those needs are not met, and people being responsive to that or not, or in harsh ways?
So, that really shapes our both our kind of explicit frames, but also our implicit memory and expectation of just what life is, what's possible in relationship. Which is why I think part of my theory of change is that having actually different experiences in relationship that really land in the body, they give us like a cornerstone of a knowing that when it's so experiential, embodied and relational, being given to in that way, or cared for, seen and welcomed in your vulnerability. That is a step out of paradigms, which don't include that. And it's so compelling because of how experiential it is that it can become the cornerstone for a new paradigm.
[00:22:49] JS: I really appreciate that for two reasons. One, just tying the need for these myths to be interrogated, and for there to be new myths. I mean, that's the core of Eisenstein's thesis, the myth that we are in separateness versus interconnection. But also, this point, I think, is really important about embodied experience versus just being in your head and conceptualizing something. My partner tells me that they care. But until they relate to me in a way that I feel that in my body, that is like “actions speak louder than words” for that very reason, right?
[00:23:24] DC: Exactly. Just saying I care, or I understand often doesn't actually convey that experience.
[00:23:31] JS: So, the story, we've touched on it, I just want to say it explicitly. What's the story of humanity that NVC ties to? You talked about a little bit, like, my needs matter to you. Can you elaborate on that just a little bit more?
[00:23:46] DC: Yeah, I'm happy to. I'm very happy to, because I find it so moving and so inspiring about what is actually possible on this earth as a way of being alive together. And the way that Marshall says it in the beginning of his book is that it's our nature to enjoy giving and receiving from the heart. And then NVC, we might say, is an explanation or an exploration around what enables that and what estranges us from it.
I'll give you a couple sweet examples. One just happened, I think a week ago. I was talking to my three-year-old niece on video chat who lives on the other side of the world. We love her. We love each other quite dearly. And it was time to say goodbye, and I blew her some kisses. I said something like, “Please put these in your heart.” And then she says, “But I want to share some of them with my family.” I was just like, “Yes, of course. Please share some of them with your family.” It's just the most natural thing that something beautiful comes to her, and then she wants to share it with her family which is basically her world. She hasn't been adulterated out of that and into some notion of hoarding or just me. It's just the most natural thing to want to share. Part of the thing that I really want to emphasize is that that kind of sharing isn't from trying to be good. Isn't from trying to do the right thing. It's just the organic arising of unconstrained life of being in relation.
[00:25:28] JS: Yeah, it's meeting one's own need to care.
[00:25:31] DC: Yes, exactly. Exactly. I love the way that Marshall pointed out is that, like, when we make a request, for instance, we're giving the opportunity to someone to meet one of their deepest needs, which is to contribute to life. I think that that need or that understanding of human nature is missing from Homo Economicus who’s defined as having his rational self-interest, which doesn't include that.
[00:26:00] JS: Love that.
[00:26:00] DC: Can I just tell you one other example?
[00:26:03] JS: Of course.
[00:26:04] DC: Very inspiring. This comes from lnbal Kashtan, who's also just to name her – her sister, Miki Kashtan, is a great inspiration, and teacher and I really – she’s just laid out so much of also the links between NVC and systemic change. This is the story that her sister in Inbal told. “When my son was three and a half years old, one set of his grandparents visited us and slept in a downstairs room. At about 8 AM, my son started banging a pole on the floor upstairs.”
Now, just before I go on, let's just think for a moment about how a child is usually related to in that situation. And just let people's imagination go wherever it goes. “I told him that I was worried the banging would wake them up, and that I would like them to be able to rest as long as they want it.” So, really connecting him to the impact and to the possibility of caring by making the needs known. “And asked if he was willing to stop banging or to bang on the couch.” Checking for willingness rather than making a demand. He replied, three and a half, ready? “I don't want to but I'm willing.” I asked, “How come you don't want to?” He replied, “Because it's not waking me up.” Then I asked, “So how come you're willing?” He said, “Because I want to consider you.” He then put down the pole without any of the sense of resentment and anger that people often exude when they're doing something against their will. I express my gratitude to him for meeting my need for cooperation and we moved on with our morning.”
[00:27:36] JS: This also points to the dominant way of parenting, which is if you don't stop doing that, I'm going to take this away from you.
[00:27:44] DC: Yeah, exactly, exactly.
[00:27:45] JS: “What's wrong with you?” That's something parents say, “What's wrong with you?”
[00:27:51] DC: Yes, that's using shame, which from what I've learned, once upon a time used to be a very, very rare mechanism of maintaining social order, and it's become an everyday part of keeping people in line. Because it doesn't trust the possibility that this story illuminates, of willing responsiveness.
[00:28:13] JS: I mean, I think fundamentally, it's rooted in this story about we trust that helping us is something that is meeting someone's need, rather than a burden to them. And that we can ask for help. It's very interesting, the vulnerability of revealing one's needs. Adrienne Maree Brown has this great quote. She says, “Generosity is giving without expectations of anything in return. Vulnerability is revealing your needs.”
[00:28:39] DC: Yes. Yeah. And I think, the word vulnerable, is striking and I think appropriate, but I feel like it doesn't have to be that way. It's vulnerable because we've had so much experience where revealing our feelings and needs was not met with welcome and the way it is, with my three-year-old niece. When she's scared, she just says, “I'm scared”, and then being scared becomes a pathway for connection. Or frustrated becomes a pathway for connection and being affirmed in the connection to the need that's not being met for her.
But most of us, we didn't get brought up that way and socialized that way. So, revealing our feelings and needs makes us quite vulnerable. And at the same time, and this is the kind of tricky thing with vulnerability is that it's also what makes our humaneness accessible.
[00:29:30] JS: Well, that's a great bridge to something you told me the other day. Human connection is made on the level of humaneness.
[00:29:37] DC: Exactly.
[00:29:38] JS: Because one of the first things that we practiced was just having a moment of sensing into what was happening with us in that instant, and having that be seen and heard and witnessed. Can you speak a little bit more to that?
[00:29:54] DC: Yes, I'm happy to. I'll put it also, for me is a really powerful mythological framing which is with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They're described as being naked and unashamed. I hear that as just being able to be themselves the way they were and totally welcome in that. And that that was actually the way that they could have the intimacy that's described as being one flesh.
It's been very much my own journey out of holding a constant kind of veneer of trying to be impressive all the time. And then, not really enjoying the taste of intimacy or the connection that I longed for. And more and more, this bearing or just revealing what is alive, it's like a kind of frequency, or music, or vibration, or however you call it that really showing myself and being met with welcome. There's nothing – I don't think there's anything that's better than that.
Some years ago, I was at my cousin's wedding, and there was a discussion talking about some guy who had been very successful. And without anyone saying it, it was so clear that what they meant was he had made a lot of money. It hit me recently that, “Oh, that is predicated on scarcity and on fear of not having enough.” So then, you need to have way too much in order to have some kind of safety thing. But Stephen Porges says that success, from the perspective of biology, is being able to relax in another's arms. Being able to feel safe in closeness to rest and trust, and togetherness. That's a lot of what I find NVC potentiates, is how we can actually create the quality of connection, where bodies and hearts can relax together.
[00:31:49] JS: This points to the other side of the spectrum from the judgment and the criticism and the wrongness and going into fight or flight. Creating the space to be witnessed and met. It's fascinating when we would do this and you would see, you would see someone's body relaxed, and then they would exhale.
[00:32:10] DC: Exactly.
[00:32:11] JS: I think this is such an important point that this enables people to feel safe in their nervous system.
[00:32:19] DC: Yes, yes. And without needing to be different than you are in order to feel safe. You don't need to get better, you don't need to be happy. You don't need to have it all put together in order to be accepted and for us to be together just the way you are. And part of what makes that possible is when we understand that feelings come from needs. It gives us a way to welcome our feelings or to relate to our feelings in a way that where they make sense. And then we stop trying to fix people or get them to be better, and we can just be touched by them, by their vulnerability, by their humaneness.
[00:32:55] JS: I thought that was so interesting, too, when we were working on empathizing. How we have a tendency to, one, just be really uncomfortable with what we consider negative emotions, hard emotions, right? Oh, my God, you're sad, let me cheer you up. Or let me help you think about it in a different way so that you don't feel so sad. Versus just honoring that you feel sad and you have to pass through sadness from this particular human experience that you're in. I think it's worth just saying a little bit more about that, how we relate to negative emotions, and how it inhibits empathizing, which is what we often really need in those moments.
[00:33:34] DC: Yeah, yeah, exactly. There's a practice, maybe remember, that we did that I like to do with people where we just like to ask them, like, “Raise your hand if you've had a negative emotion in the past couple of days.” And then most people raise their hands. And then I do a little empathy dive with one person just inquiring a little bit. And reliably, that so-called negative emotion is calling attention to some important need, which is not being met. I think the problem is, when we relate to it as negative, it implies, like, “I need to fix this. I need to get rid of this. This shouldn't be here. I shouldn't be feeling this.”
Instead of it being like, “Oh, yeah, this is unpleasant indeed. And there's some intelligence here, let me listen for what it's calling attention to.” Then, what we really need to do is to give it attention, and then the feeling will take care of itself. I think it's so tragic, because you just hear so often, people trying, like you said, trying to cheer each other up, or make you feel better or look on the bright side, as opposed to meeting you in the tenderness of your experience, and the make senseness of it as well, and the beauty then, of the underlying need. Then, it's like, because if somebody meets you trying to cheer you up and say, “Hey, Jenny, think about it this way”, or like, “Oh, let me tell you about when it happened to me”, then you're stuck with this uncomfortable situation of either staying close to your own authenticity or being in connection with other person. Those two don't really go together in that case.
Whereas an empathic listening, which is an art and so transformative in my life, and one of the things I'm most love sharing, we're not trying to do something to the person. We’re first of all, just meeting them, and allowing ourselves to be touched or allowing our heart to be touched. And then like, swimming together, or just midwifing the unfolding aliveness, accompanying in a very attuned way, and making contact with what's there layer by layer, getting in touch with the heart of it, without needing it to be a happy ending. Sometimes it just leads us to really staying together in the place of mourning, or in the place of grief. But the difference between being able to hold with someone you're mourning, and feel felt in it, versus being alone in it, that is actually quite transformative, without making it better.
[00:36:04] JS: So, we talk about being in touch with our bodies, and being authentic, and how we really are to enable that human connection in that sense of safety, right? We’ve talked about it a lot, just this notion of identifying our feelings, acknowledging that those feelings are tied to a need, and then making requests. I think the request is very – it ties to what we were talking about earlier about the denial of choice and denial of responsibility. If we take responsibility for our actions, and the ways in which we relate, request is a really important place that we do that, instead of blaming someone because we're not happy in a relationship. We're going to say, “Okay, well, what request did I maybe not make?” So, let's talk about –
[00:36:48] DC: Yeah, exactly.
[00:36:50] JS: Yeah, I want to talk about requests, and the importance of the willingness to hear requests versus demands. And how to think about that in the NVC realm.
[00:37:00] DC: So, like you said, first of all, this important thing of like, are we actually taking responsibility? Meaning, if there's something that's not happening that I want, did I actually ask for it? And then sometimes people are like, “Yes.” But then we can get really clear like, in NVC, we're very precise with the way that we make requests, like asking, “Hey, Jenny, could you be more considerate? Or could you try harder?” Maybe that sounds like a request, but to actually know what it is that I want from you, or how would you contribute to me. If those elements are missing, it's going to be really hard for you to do something that's actually satisfying for me, even if I think I said what I want, which is tragic.
But then there's this really key distinction between requests and demands, which has a lot to do with, what dynamic am I creating in the relational field, which either makes it much easier and more likely that your impulse to give and care will be online? Or leaves you with only the options of giving in or giving up or resisting? Which has a very different flavor. And that has a lot to do with what we call demand energy, which is exactly that. When I asked for something, am I willing to hear no? If I'm not willing to hear no, that means your needs for choice for autonomy, for freedom are not included here. Because those are really important needs, it's very likely that you'll then have some kind of defensiveness or protection around your choice, freedom, autonomy.
Now, it's a little bit tricky, because it's like, “Okay, now, I get that. I don't want to stimulate that. But how do I find my way to being willing to hear no because I want what I want?” This is where the key distinction between needs and strategies comes in. What people tend to focus on and get caught up in and caught in scarcity around is I want this, you want that. I want this strategy, you want that strategy. I want to go out or go away, you want to stay home. And the best-case scenario in that frame, people compromise. Compromise basically means agreeing to something that you don't want to do and then maybe you're keeping score. Maybe that's better than having a fight.
But in NVC we say, first, let's connect and let's actually connect around what's really important to you and what's really important to me. For one thing that can open whole realms of creativity. It's like, “Oh, you want to go out and you really want company.” That sense of being wherever it is that you want to go, like with companionship and togetherness. And what I really want is to rest.” Then, once we know that we might find a creative solution like, “Oh, we can go somewhere together that would also be restful.” Or there might be someone else who you can go with that would work for you. I might be your favorite strategy, understandably. But you could have other strategies that would also give you some degree of companionship and togetherness. Or it might just be like, “Oh, yeah, let's go out for a couple hours, and then I can rest”. And then as long as I know, like, rest is upcoming, then I can trust that my needs are going to be met.” That's one direction.
The other direction with being willing to hear no, is growing our capacity to be okay with disappointment. That is also related to empathy. When I say no to you, that can lead to withdrawal, resentment, whatever. Or I can say what my no is a yes to. Because every no is a yes to some other needs. And then, especially when there's some charge, one thing which I like to do is to follow up and say something like, “I imagined that's not what you hope to hear. How was it for you hearing that? Or is there some disappointment there?” And then to just stay with you in empathy around that. I have the total yes to being with you around the impact of my no. I don't have a yes to the original thing. If we do that, the chances of you telling yourself a rejection story are much lower, and the chances of you feeling that you matter to me or that your needs matter, even though I didn't say yes to your strategy is much higher.
[00:41:20] JS: Appreciate that. I love how this piece of the puzzle ties to design thinking. When we teach design thinking and we're moving from doing the empathy work and identifying the needs and moving towards brainstorming, I would always show this image of a girl and she's standing on a chair and there's a wall of books and she's reaching for a book. I ask the students, “What does she need?” And they inevitably say, “She needs a ladder.” “So, what does she get when she gets a ladder?” “She gets a book.” “Alright, what does she get when she gets the book?” “She gets information.” “What does she get when you get information?”
So, we try to move from nouns to verbs when we talk about needs. And what that does is that opens up a solution space that goes from one very concrete way to meet that need. And I think this is what's so potent in NVC, when you talk about this. I'm making a request for a particular way to meet my need, a particular strategy to meet my need. But if we can back up to my need, and we can back up to whatever your need is that's leading you to say no to my request, we open up a much bigger solution space. I think this is where it's really potent to look at this zero sum versus win-win. Because when we're stuck on specific strategies, we're in zero sum space. Whereas if we can back up to needs and problem solve together, we can identify win-win solutions. You told me the story about playing with your friend’s child.
[00:42:50] DC: Yeah. Recently, I was over some friends. And their daughter was, I guess, about seven. She really wanted me to carry her around on my shoulders. It was Friday night, at the end of the week, I was tired. I didn't really have energy for that and she just kept saying, “Yeah, like, I really want you to carry me around on your shoulders.” So, on the strategy plane, it just seems like there's a conflict here. And on the strategy plane there is, and it seems really like either or. Either I give in and do the thing, which I don't really have energy for. Or she was just going to be disappointed. And then I said to her, “I'm really tired. And I want to find a way that would be fun for you to play. Do you have any other ideas that would work, that would take less energy for me?”
So, I’m inviting collaboration and asking what I sometimes call the generative question or the both end question. Okay, how can we find something that includes your needs and my needs? And then she said, “Yeah”, I was sitting on a couch. She said, “Yeah, I can do like backward somersaults onto your lap from the side of the couch.” And I say, “Great.” I got to just sit there, she could tumble over onto me. We could both enjoy ourselves in a way that works for both of us.
That was lovely unto itself. But it also inspires me again, in the context of parenting. What happens when that's not just a lone example, but many, many, many times a child is engaged in that way, where they're engaged with and modeled that kind of both end thinking, into consideration of everyone's needs? And the sense of, “Okay, I want to say yes to you, and I want to do it in a way which works for me”, which is another important modeling which is caring for your own capacity.
[00:44:40] JS: This is a perfect bridge to parenting being such a critical piece of this and this ties to two different episodes. We talked about parenting with Jordan Hall, we also talked about partnerism with Riane Eisler. And I know you see, parenting is a really important piece of this puzzle. So, let's speak to that.
[00:44:53] DC: Yeah, I do. I feel very passionate about it. I would say parenting and child rearing more broadly, which of course, includes education, schooling and the whole. Everything which contributes to the socialization of children. Really, also inspired by Riane Eisler’s work. And also, the more I learn about the kind of neurobiological, psychological social development is just how significant a locus for systems change is, what happens with children? How do they get socialized? What story are they being brought into, in those different places?
I think I told this example in the course. Another friend of mine, who is a divorced mother with five kids, moved into a three-bedroom apartment. So, then there's a conundrum of, okay, who's going to be in which room? It almost sounds like it's set up for – there has to be disappointment in that equation, right? If it's going to go the normal way, where because she's the authority, so she's going to make the decision and this is not a democracy and whatever. But instead, she had recently done a decision-making course taught by my friend in an approach that's based on NVC principles. And she said, “Let's gather together, all of us, all of what's important to us. The considerations, the strategies, like what we want to achieve through whatever our preferred strategies would be.”
So, really going towards the needs. And they made a list of all of them. And then she invited any of her kids to come forward with a proposal, which he also offered to support them in developing that included all of those underlying considerations. And then her daughter really took up the baton and went with it, and came up with a solution. For me, that's just such a beautiful example of inviting kids into their own resourcefulness and creativity and into a kind of inclusive, considerate thinking, that conveys to them that their needs matter and other people's needs matter. And then we're in a collaborative creative orientation around how do we care for that, as opposed to a tug of war, like, how do I get what I want? Because if only one of us can have it, it's going to be me.
[00:47:23] JS: Yeah. And it also points to the importance of really having a full body, yes, when the solution is arrived at. There's not a sense of compromise and I'm doing this for reasons other than I fully want to.
[00:47:34] DC: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Another example is the whole world of discipline, and being shamed and wronged, which as Riane Eisler and Douglas Fry point out, it then wires care and fear very closely together, which is a trauma that I would rather avoid. I want to say there is scope in NVC for protective use of force, when that's the only way to protect harm from happening. But there is a different way of holding children when they've acted in ways that lead to harm or stimulate harm in others.
First of all, giving them empathy. Like you said about the bullying, knowing that they are in a vulnerable place, trying to meet needs, letting them be validated in their own needs, not condoned in their strategies, and holding that distinction.
[00:48:26] JS: Yup. Really important.
[00:48:28] DC: It's fine for you to want a place. It's important. I want you to have a place. I want you to be seen. I want consideration for you. It doesn't work for you to hit your brother, not because you're bad, not because that's what mean kids do, but because look, he's hurting. If we hold enough space, if we make the space bigger by holding space with empathy, then that child's natural care can arise. The remorse that comes from their own care and not wanting to hurt can arise and they can really grow into being led by their own compass of care and consideration and compassion and wanting to actually contribute to people being well.
I want to say one more thing that I think really, from a different angle about the systemic context and parenting, which is, for most parents I know, it's too much for just one or two people to be holding all of the responsibilities that come with parenting in a resourced way. I think that speaks to this structure of separateness, which is that we live in these nuclear pods, rather than the way we evolved, which is living in groups or in tribes and having the resources of each other and sharing the responsibilities in a much more collective and distributed way.
[00:49:49] JS: Okay, so I want to zoom out. We said we've talked about NVC and the way that really just brings out our natural desire to give. And that's this shift from me – in scarcity, “if I don't take care of myself, nobody else will” – to we. And we also talked about just how scarcity shows up in the way that we behave and that there's a trust in abundance that is implicit in the NVC way of relating. We talked about zero sum to win-win by backing out from specific strategies to needs.
I want to talk about how this way of thinking and relating in this story translate into how resources flow through a society or group of people. What is the organizing principle that determines where resources go? What story does that reflect and create, right? This is self-reinforcing, it's bidirectional. The story leads to the behaviors. The behaviors confirm the story. Because you operate in a gift model and I'd love to just hear your reflection around that choice, and the ways in which that choice is reflective of this different story and reflective of the lessons of NVC.
[00:51:01] DC: Yeah, yeah. Thank you for bringing that. There's a few dimensions or aspects to that. One is it pains me so much that people don't have access to what they need. And of course, that bears on the material level of food and shelter and medicine and whatnot. But it's so much else that they don't have access to love. They don't have access to – in my case, what I see so much as there's all of this great wisdom, great repositories of skillfulness, all kinds of training. And so often, that's off limits to people because they don't have the kind of money to pay for that. I don't want, nor is it intended, that NVC become a luxury of the privileged. It's a kind of civilizational operating system update and set of skills, which I want everybody to have access to.
So, I tried to practice that in the courses that I offer. I want them to be available to people of all means. I also want them to be sustainable for me and that's really holding both of those, and because we can never err on either side. So, the way that I do that is for one, the bulk of – the money happens at the end of the course. Once people have received what they've received. And then, like what I did last week, as I shared what my needs are, instead of demanding that this is what you have to pay to get in, or instead of guilting, and saying, “This is what you should pay.” Or even instead of doing what's so mainstream and saying, “This is what it's worth.” Which is not a needs-based principle. This is what I need. I need to pay my rent. I want to have access to therapy and training and a bit of caring for people who are dear to me.
And then, this is what would be a suggested amount to consider to support me and also the team who is holding the course. And for me, Jenny, it was so powerful, working in this model, was experiencing the way that I was received. It was actually quite healing that I can bring my vulnerability, I can bring my needs, and people are touched by that. Then there's really this meeting, this resonance, which also dissolves some of the hard separation and sense of self and others as being really separate. It's so meaningful and affirming to be met that way. So, that's one part of it.
The other part is really bringing in the relational dimension, because in the transactional exchange economy, this is what I've learned from learning just a little bit about gift economy, transactions cancels a gift.
[00:53:52] JS: This is so important. Kate Raworth talks about this in Doughnut Economics, and this is why Denizen embraces a gift model as well. When you price something, you crowd out intrinsic and altruistic motivations. And this distinction between a transactional economic model and a relational economic model is so essential.
[00:54:15] DC: Yes, exactly. And that's why, when people send me money for the course, one person sent me an amount of money and they said, like, “I feel so good about giving this”, then other people sent also with notes of gratitude, or with notes of love and appreciation. Just like knowing that people are moved to contribute to my life, as opposed to paying to get access, that nourishes me on a whole other level than the same amount of money would otherwise. It's also important to me that people know that their needs matter, so that I'm not asking them to actually give more than is within their capacity that would bring them hardship. I don't want that. For me, that's a radical paradigm shift to include those elements. It's certainly more vulnerable on my end, and more uncertain. But that's also more in line with the reality of nature is that there is uncertainty.
[00:55:16] JS: Well, there's trust.
[00:55:17] DC: Exactly. Yes. And that's another beautiful part of it.
[00:55:20] JS: I really appreciate that. I mean, there's this story – well, two quick stories. I love this story about this, just around this point. And I think it's great to just, again, we went so deep into just individual ways of relating and our zooming out. What does it look like if we have an economy that's relational versus transactional?
I love this story about this preschool in Israel. I don't know if you've heard this one, Danny. Everyone was picking up their kids late from preschool and it was a problem, because the teachers needed to get on, to move on to some other thing. So, the preschool decided to impose a fee for picking up your kid late. And you know what happened? More people started picking up their kids late.
[00:55:59] DC: Oh, no. They just paid the fine.
[00:56:00] JS: Because they put a price on it. It was no longer about, “Oh, I should be considerate of the teacher's time and whatever it was.” It's like, “Oh, great, I could use that extra 10 minutes and it only cost me $5.” But what was really interesting was then they rescinded that and people continued to come late, because they had reset the norms. That's an example of taking something that was relational and making it transactional. But you have a story of something that was transactional that was made relational.
[00:56:30] DC: Yes, yeah. Thank you for reminding me. Yeah, a few years ago, a friend and I organized a trauma therapy workshop in Israel for a leading teacher from abroad. And we had arranged for there to be translation. Then, as the workshop was approaching, we realized we didn't actually need translation, but we had already made the commitment to the translators. And so, we contacted them and let them know that actually, we know that they've been banking on having this job and we respect that. We want to care for their sustenance, but we don't actually need them. So, would they please let us know what their cancellation fee would be? And they responded, and told us that they would give us a discount on the cancellation fee, because they really appreciated our consideration. There's something, I think, for them about feeling like we're holding their needs with care, that made a difference to them. And then they were, I guess, naturally moved to reciprocate.
[00:57:30] JS: Yeah. And I love what you said, and we'll close with this. A gift economy does something quite radical, the juice is the flow of care. I want to live in a world where people are embedded in communities of connectedness and care.” It is making me emotional to read it. “Where interbeing, interconnection is structural reality, not aspirations. We have the opportunity all the time to be carried by others and contribute to life.”
So, thank you, for just living this story, so fully, and for all that you've taught us. It's been transformational to me, my marriage, thanks to you. So, many people in the community have said it. And thank you for the opportunity for us to step into the work, not just talk about the systemic change, but actually step into the work on ourselves and see all these blind spots.
[00:58:27] DC: Thank you, Jenny. I feel touched and gifted by the opportunity to have contributed in that way. It's very meaningful that you put me in touch with that contribution. And I want to say also, as you mentioned, that Denizen also is working in that paradigm. For those who are listening and want to support you and Denizen and this change that we're together trying to move in the world, there is an opportunity to support Denizen monetarily. I would love it if people would take that to heart and consider it.
[00:59:04] JS: Thank you for expressing that. I appreciate your support as we navigate it.
[00:59:10] DC: Jenny, it's been so meaningful and I really appreciate the invitation and welcome and dialogue.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
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