Including All Without Excluding Any
(This article was co-written by Ranjana Ariaratnam, David Johnson, Talli Jackson, and Roxy Manning in the lead-up to the West Coast Intensive in Nonviolent Communication retreat (WCI), held in the summer of 2017; it is being republished here.)
For this final article in the WCI 2017 series, we decided to write jointly. This article is our invitation for you to think about inclusion and interdependence, how you have experienced them (or not) in your life. We don’t purport to have definitive answers, and we are enjoying the exploration. Come explore with us!
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We were at an NVC retreat, early on in my immersion into NVC, and I’d been trying to ask the owner of the lodge about options for people with non-mainstream dietary requests. After some heated words (on his part – which he later apologized for), I found myself in the lobby talking with my empathy buddy Sue, tears rolling down my cheeks.
How had asking for something different in a meal led to this? And why was it affecting me so deeply? I was so very puzzled for a long time.
Then it hit me, oh, this is the minutest of instances of minorities not being considered or included… And, in all the countries where I had worked as a humanitarian aid worker, repeated instances of non-inclusion over years and oftentimes generations are what led to wars. No wonder my reaction was so strong.
I have since been on a journey of exploration around the question: what would be full inclusiveness in community – including all without excluding any – and why does it seem so hard to achieve?
In my experience, most people do not know what this feels like or tastes like, so they don’t even know it as a possibility. And, once they have tasted it, they want more of it in their lives!
My first taste of this was through how Inbal Kashtan, my NVC mentor and then friend, held groups. Watching other trainers, I have always been conscious of the delicate tension that is being played out between staying ‘on topic’ and being with whatever is alive in the room at the time. With Inbal, this tension did not seem to materialize with intensity, so dedicated was she to tracking needs and holding that everyone’s experience was important. Decisions made in the groups she led flowed without struggle from her holding, seemingly effortlessly, to the conviction that everyone was to be included, and making that happen.
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While a skilled leader can help to ensure full inclusion, what can we ourselves do when we feel excluded in a group?
I have had the experience many times in my life of being on the outside of groups, of telling myself that I am not included or that others are not making space for me. This began to turn around for me when I received a big lesson in the power of self-responsibility and requests around inclusion.
Early in my exploration of NVC I found myself in what was for me then a familiar position. During a workshop, the facilitator asked if people wanted an overview explanation of what was to come, or if they just wanted to jump in and try it. A number of people said, “Let’s just jump in!” and I saw the group shifting to the exercise before I had even had a chance to consider the question. The fact that this was not my preference was less frustrating than the fact that it seemed to me that I had not even been included in the decision-making process.
So, I resorted to what was then my strategy of choice in moments like this: I mumbled semi-audibly about how unfair the whole thing had been, throwing in a few deep sighs for good measure. I am very grateful to the assistant in the workshop who called me on this. He spoke into the circle, saying that my mumbling was distracting him from the activity and would I please make a clear request to the group.
This shocked me out of my frustration. It had literally never occurred to me that I could make a request in situations like this – I was holding myself as powerless to change what was going on. So, with some coaching from the facilitators, I was able to express my dismay and sense of being outside the group and make a request around how decisions were made. I immediately went from feeling helpless to feeling a sense of agency within the group.
I do not mean to suggest that it is the responsibility solely of those on the outside to ensure their own inclusion. It is the responsibility of everyone to make sure that the group is as inclusive and welcoming as possible – and those on the outside are part of that everyone. When I find myself in the position of struggling for inclusion, I try to remember to step into the power that I have to make requests around my inclusion.
In saying this, I realize that the access to power that I have by virtue of who I am (a white, straight, middle-class male) is greater than that of others. I am definitely not saying, hey, just step up and ask to be included and the doors will open. What I am saying is, recognize the power you do have and step into it.
I have found that NVC has helped me in situations where I have struggled with inclusion by giving me a path to self-connection and by offering tools for me to make requests in ways that others can take in. When I am self-connected and in touch with what I want and am able to express that in a way that others can hear, my sense of helplessness fades away and I can truly become a part of whatever group I am in.
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Ranji & David ~
How do we create spaces of inclusion and what goes into that?
We’ve thought about this quite a bit throughout our study of NVC and then into our sharing of NVC with groups.
One component is a basic of NVC, namely, communicating in ways that hold everyone’s needs with care. As humans, we are ‘wired’ to thrive in connection with others, which is one of the reasons NVC is so effective. This is related to another component of inclusion, which is an understanding of our own physiological responses and how to self-regulate. Sometimes the sense of not being included or not belonging may be more tied to the physiological state in which we find ourselves in certain situations, depending on our life history. If we can recognize the physiological state we are in and take steps to come back into ‘social engagement,’ there is a better chance of inclusion since we are then more able to mobilize resources to make it happen.
Given that, another component is having practices that support the different layers of our being to enable us to have space to consider others, such as being able to go to curiosity when we want more inclusion than is happening. And all of this is included in the component of deep self-care, so that we are resourced to be able to access choice within ourselves, as opposed to reacting out of habit.
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It is relatively easy, even intuitive, to offer inclusion to people we feel fondly towards and who we do not consider a danger to our well-being. It can be considerably more challenging to do with people whose actions stimulate hate and fear, or when doing so asks us to sacrifice comforts and privileges that we’ve taken for granted or become accustomed to. This requires establishing a foundation in ourselves for the love and valuing of other people that can exist independently from their actions and what we might think of as their usefulness to us. It requires that we develop ways to recognize a beautiful and compelling commonality of vulnerability, desire, and aspiration at the core of everyone’s behaviors, no matter how painful we find their expression and consequences. NVC does this in part by offering a paradigm where all humans share the same needs, and suggesting practices that help develop our awareness of these needs, as well as a fluency in hearing, communicating, and caring for them.
NVC spaces typically specialize in offering inclusion through facilitating people’s participation in a sense of mattering, being seen and heard, and group decision making to an extent that is rare in Western culture. NVC’s particular way of valuing inclusion calls us to strive to find a way forward that meets the needs and desires of as many people as possible, and to place a very strong value on doing our best to listen to and understand what is being said and wanted by every person. The commitment to this style of inclusion means that even as we might do things that stimulate pain, hurt, heartbreak, anger, and fear in each other, we strive to see each other’s humanness, seek understanding of what it is like to be the other person and try to find ways to serve everyone’s needs in the choices we make.
The attitude that says that other people need to see things our way before we start listening to them expresses the same demand that has contributed to the alienation and disenfranchisement of people across time; because you cannot, or will not, speak my language and play by my rules you are excluded from my ‘everyone.’
Often times I’ve heard people talk about how NVC spaces feel separate from reality, and how there’s a kind of trust in their mattering and in the safety to be themselves that does not exist in what they call the ‘real world.’ This sense of a gap between spaces created by NVC practice and those defined by mainstream cultural norms informs people’s judgements of NVC as being ineffective and/or ‘cult-ish’; it only seems to ‘work’ when you’re using it with people who share the same agreements around language and the expression of values. This is exacerbated by the tendency to discourage the participation of people who don’t conform to the particular brand of niceness that can be normative in many NVC spaces. Part of this is reactionary; we’re often conditioned to judge and distance ourselves from people whose behavior stimulates discomfort for us. Another part is pragmatic; including and holding space for people who do not fit into the mold, as well as all the folks for whom those people’s behaviors are a trigger, is typically a highly time and energy intensive endeavor.
However, the possibility of using NVC only to nurture connection with those people that we find relatable, or basically palatable, leads us to a practice that falls short of our aspiration of ‘full inclusion.’ This approach tends to privilege certain populations with some very sweet experiences while ignoring others and failing to engage the vibrant, radical, and disruptive possibilities that arise when we stand for our value of inclusion. It is this embrace of the radical, disruptive implications of inclusion that bridges the gap between ‘NVC land’ and the ‘real world,’ and starts to make the experiences of connection, mattering and safety that are so precious in NVC spaces a reality in the wider world.
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My NVC journey has included exactly what David has described – unpacking all the ways I feel powerless, and learning that it’s okay to step up and ask for what I need. But, as David said, just asking doesn’t always open doors. I have had occasions when, after finding the courage to bring my needs to a group, I am left with an even deeper longing for inclusion. Just recently, I had the experience of speaking up and naming a power dynamic that I experienced. After speaking quite vulnerably and passionately into the group, the response of several of the senior members was, “You’re just reading too much into this. You’re making a big deal out of nothing.”
Hearing that, I went quiet. I remember looking around, waiting to see if anyone else in the room would speak up. I wasn’t expecting folks to say they agreed with me or that they even fully understood my position. What I was longing for, what would have contributed so dearly to that sense of inclusion, was if even one person said, “I see this is really big for you, so I want to slow down and make sure we all understand why this is coming up for you and why it matters for you.”
We can contribute to the sense of inclusion, of everyone’s needs mattering that Ranji described experiencing with Inbal. If we don’t understand why someone is speaking into the group, and especially when it’s accompanied by intensity, we can let the speaker know they were heard, and that their experience matters, by slowing down and connecting to their expression. I know as a facilitator, I’m sometimes still afraid that by doing so I will open a Pandora’s box and fall into a never-ending empathy pit that takes me away from the group’s purpose. What I have experienced often is the opposite. When I slow down enough to connect to the person’s emotional expression, when I can show that I care about their experience even if I’m not aligned with their specific strategy, there’s often a shift. And in that shift, there’s the sense of inclusion, of the experience that I matter, you matter, we matter – and in our collective mattering, we can work together to find strategies that include all of our needs.